Arts Remembrance: William Friedkin — “The Exorcist,” Influential Beyond All Reckoning
By Peg Aloi
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist stands, 50 years on, as a primer on how to lure viewers in with striking, haunting imagery as a prelude to a previously unimaginable cinematic journey.
Cinemaphiles this week grappled with the death, at the age of 87, of iconic filmmaker William Friedkin, whose Oscar-winning film The French Connection and blockbuster hit The Exorcist did so much to define the movie landscape of the ’70s. Friedkin made nearly 30 films, many of them well loved (To Live and Die in L.A. is one of my favorites, as is Cruising, despite its being dated and hard to watch these days). But because I am a scholar of how the occult has been crafted for the cinema, I found myself thinking deeply, and not for the first time, about Friedkin’s hugely influential 1973 film.
I first saw The Exorcist when it debuted on Home Box Office, a new cable service being offered to home viewers in the ’70s. There’s no question my parents would never have permitted me to see it. (I was around 12, the same age as Regan when she was possessed.) So I watched the movie at my aunt and uncle’s house. I recall seeing other grown-up films there, also on HBO, such as Breezy (1973) and Rosebud (1975). But The Exorcist was a big deal. My aunt and uncle had seen it before in the theater, so they were determined to shield me from seeing anything that was too disturbing. Thus, when a particularly scary or violent scene was shown, they’d tell me to cover up my eyes. Oddly enough, I did just that; it wasn’t until almost 20 years later, when I saw the film at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, that I finally took in all its big screen horror, finally comprehending its enormous cultural weight and scope. Before I viewed The Exorcist, I recall watching a French filmmaker interviewed on a TV talk show about what films he liked that year. He dismissed The Exorcist. “How much pea soup can a guy throw up?” he asked. When he praised The Way We Were, the studio audience applauded.
I understood, even as a child, what a major phenomenon The Exorcist was. I overheard many conversations about it. I understood that the public’s attitude toward the Catholic church contributed to the film’s controversy. After the the movie’s release, but before I saw it, one of the teachers of my catechism classes (required before being confirmed as a Catholic) devoted more than one class to the dangers posed by the occult. She told stories about teenage girls dabbling with Ouija Boards (just like the one Regan used to contact Mr. Howdy) at slumber parties. Of course, I found that prospect riveting. Students were asked to bring their Ouija Boards to class so they could be burned in a nighttime bonfire. I skipped that conflagration: I wanting to keep my Ouija Board. But I often regret not being there to witness the outrageous spectacle. This fearful reaction (and others) was part of a response to the widespread interest in witchcraft and the occult that boomed during the ’60s. The 1968 release of Rosemary’s Baby, another film based on a popular novel about a woman who is targeted by a Satanic cult, contributed to the appeal as well as the hysterical reaction. But Rosemary’s Baby was restrained in its depiction of horror ( it was much more of a psychological thrill ride): the violence and graphic brutality of The Exorcist had audiences literally vomiting and fainting in the aisles.
In 1974, the film’s composer, Jack Nietzsche, was quoted as saying “William Friedkin doesn’t give a shit about the occult — it’s just a hot commodity as far as he’s concerned.” This suggests that Friedkin chose the project for its commercial viability. Yet that doesn’t entirely make sense: contemporary horror fans often decry the film’s slow burn quality, the relative tameness of its first hour, and the special effects which, to the viewer inured to sophisticated innovations and CGI, might look somewhat crude and clumsy. The film’s notoriety included accusations of “child abuse” because of the (on-screen) brutalization of young actress Linda Blair. (Of course, these stunts were performed by adult stunt and body doubles.) When I had the honor of interviewing Linda Blair for the Boston Phoenix at the time of the release of the director’s cut in 2000, I studiously avoided asking a single question about the film, thinking she’d grown weary of the topic. She thanked me for focusing on the wonderful made-for-TV horror films she made later in the ’70s (including Born Innocent, Sweet Hostage, and Stranger in Our House). Other hot-button issues were raised as well: the film-within-a-film that actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is making features a student protest that parallels the widespread occurrence of protests on college campuses. The Black Mass-style desecration discovered in the church is based on similar phenomena of the time. The strategy is obvious: if these topical details were real and easily recognizable, why was it not plausible that a Middle Eastern demon could possess the body of a 12-year-old girl in Georgetown? And what were the threads connecting these many issues during a time of such dramatic social upheaval? Despite the shocking content in the film’s dramatic buildup and climactic scenes, Friedkin had crafted an unusually moving and incisive portrait of contemporary cynicism, a reflection on a national crisis in faith, viewed from the promontory of a jaded priest who is also a respected psychologist.
William Peter Blatty’s novel had been an overnight sensation. It’s pointless to speculate on what this material, with its Blatty-penned screenplay, might have looked like in the hands of a different director. Friedkin’s artful melding of imagery and deft layering of plot strands during the film’s opening scenes — paired with the indelible soundtrack of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” — stand as essential lessons in ’70s film style (a decade that many critics agree was America’s finest cinematic hour). Seeing it as a child, I was haunted by the narrative’s powerful images and startling moments: the scenes in the Iraq desert with Max von Sydow, the peaceful yet subtly menacing autumnal vibe as Burstyn walks home among children in Halloween costumes, her chance encounter with a troubled priest (Jason Miller), the sudden changes (physical and psychological) in her preteen daughter that led her on a frustrating and ultimately terrifying search for answers. Friedkin’s The Exorcist stands, 50 years on, as a primer on how to lure viewers in with striking, haunting imagery as a prelude to a previously unimaginable cinematic journey. It remains a landmark, a testament to the variability and power of the horror genre.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.