The Exorcist

USA 1973, 132 mins
Director: William Friedkin

Introduced by Mark Kermode

When 12-year-old Regan displays unusual and disturbing behaviour, and after all medical options have been exhausted, her mother becomes convinced the girl is possessed by an evil spirit. An exorcism is sanctioned, and ageing priest Father Merrin is dispatched to carry it out. But at what cost for all? William Friedkin’s horror classic shocked audiences on first release. 50 years on, it remains just as compelling, memorable and disturbing.

‘Strange as it may sound, I tried not to make a film about Satan. The Exorcist is more about expectancy, the mystery of faith, the mystery of goodness. What it is to me is a realistic film about unexplainable things. I personally have no strong conviction about Satan or a personified devil. I have no strong conviction about either, but I didn’t want to make a film that pushed that. There is a very solid underpinning in the film for any other explanation that one may wish to gather, but I take it that not too many people want other explanations.’
(William Friedkin, 1974)

At the beginning of the 70s, America was an anxious country. Social, racial and generational divisions were rife. Where only recently the Air Force had dropped food parcels for the crowds of beatific Woodstock revellers, now the Army was shooting American college kids protesting about the Vietnam War. Hippies, once tolerated, found themselves tarred with the same brush as Charles Manson, the cult-murderer who made shaggy hair, sex and drugs synonymous with brutal killing and pagan sacrifice. The death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Festival in 1969 had left a generation of flower children wondering what had happened to all the peace, love and understanding with which they were going to save the world. Even the government was unravelling inexorably, as President Richard Nixon became increasingly implicated in a string of suspicious, even criminal, subterfuges. By late 1973, the presidency was on the brink of collapse, the walking wounded from Vietnam were everywhere in evidence, and the only thing America was exporting with any success was paranoia.

At around the same time, a minor storm was brewing in Europe: Pope Paul VI had issued a statement expressing his concern about demonic influences in the modern world. On 15 November 1972, he proclaimed:

‘Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality … So we know that this dark and disturbing spirit really exists and that he still acts with treacherous cunning; he is the secret enemy that sows errors and misfortunes in human history. The question of the Devil, and the influence he can exert on individual persons as well as communities is a very important chapter of Catholic doctrine which is given little attention today, though it should be studied again.’

It was in the midst of such social and religious unease that The Exorcist opened in the US on Boxing Day 1973 – a year after the Pope’s controversial address, and just seven months before the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, making him the first American president ever to resign from office. Produced by a major studio, adapted from a best-selling novel and directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, The Exorcist bore as little resemblance to the gothic horror chillers of the 60s as Nixon did to JFK. Eschewing the costumed high-campery of the traditional Hammer romps, The Exorcist presented a credible portrait of the modem urban world ripped apart by an obscene, ancient evil. For the first time in a mainstream movie, audiences witnessed the graphic desecration of everything considered wholesome and good about the fading American Dream – home, family, church and, most shockingly, the child. But below the gaudy surface, something far more complex and contradictory was at work in The Exorcist. For all the outrage that it provoked among the ‘moral majority’ and the religious right, the tensions that it portrayed were recognisable and credible, even to those who despised the movie. Rebellious children, the breakdown of the family, the lack of respect for religious traditions, the destruction of the home – these were all issues that deeply troubled the conservative elements of America. More importantly, the solutions The Exorcist appeared to offer were oddly reassuring for those who longed for a return to an absolute moral order. For here was a clear-cut struggle between good and evil in which priests, policemen, good mothers and devoted sons fought a righteous battle to release rebellious, parent-hating children from the grip of a lustful, all-consuming devil. For all its terrifying reputation, wasn’t The Exorcist more a fantasy of wish fulfilment than a nightmare of horror?

It is in this tension between the progressive and the regressive, the divine and the depraved, the hidden and the apparent, that the power of The Exorcist lies. Written by a Catholic, directed by a Jew and produced by the vast multinational Warner Bros., this was a movie that was championed by sometime political radicals such as Jerry Rubin, picketed by concerned pressure groups, paid for by millions of eager punters, praised by the Catholic News for its profound spirituality, and branded satanic by evangelist Billy Graham. Never before or since has a mainstream movie provoked such wildly diverging reactions. In the UK its power led to it being banned on video. Nearly a quarter of a century after its creation, it remains an unresolved mystery, with equal power to elate and disturb, thrill and appal, engage or enrage. It is also a movie at war with itself, a divided entity which, even after its blockbusting opening, was declared incomplete and unfinished by its writer, and which continues to provoke its creators to oscillate between agreement and dissent.
Mark Kermode, The Exorcist (BFI Film Classics 1997; revised editions 2003/2020)

Directed by: William Friedkin
Production Companies: Warner Bros., Hoya Productions
Executive Producer: Noel Marshall
Produced by: William Peter Blatty
Associate Producer: David Salven
Production Office Co-ordinator: Anne Mooney
Iraq Sequence Production Manager: William Kaplan
Administrative Assistant: Albert Shapiro
1st Assistant Director: Terence A. Donnelly
2nd Assistant Director: Alan Green
Script Supervisor: Nick Sgarro
Casting: Nessa Hyams, Juliet Taylor, Louis DiGiamo
Written for the Screen by: William Peter Blatty
Based on the novel by: William Peter Blatty
Director of Photography: Owen Roizman
Iraq Sequence Director of Photography: Billy Williams
Colour Consultant: Robert M. McMillian
Assistant Camera: Tom Priestley *
Key Grip: Eddie Quinn
Gaffer: Dick Quinlan
Still Photographer: Josh Weiner
Optical Effects: Marv Ystrom
Optical Effects Supervisor: Linwood G. Dunn *
Special Effects: Marcel Vercoutere
Supervising Film Editor: Jordan Leondopoulos
Editors: Evan Lottman, Norman Gay
Iraq Sequence Film Editor: Bud Smith
Assistant Film Editors: Michal Goldman, Craig McKay, Jonathan Pontell
Iraq Sequence Assistant Film Editor: Ross Levy
Production Design: Bill Malley
Assistant Art Director: Charles Bailey
Set Decorator: Jerry Wunderlich
Master Scenic Artist: Eddie Garzero
Property Master: Joe Caracciolo
Costume Designer: Joe Fretwell
Jewellery Design for Cartier: Aldo Cipullo
Furs: Revillon
Ladies’ Wardrobe: Florence Foy
Men’s Wardrobe: Bill Beattie
Make-up Artist: Dick Smith
Hairstylist: Bill Farley
Title Design: Dan Perri
Music: Krzysztof Penderecki, Hans Werner Henze, George Crumb, Anton Webern, Mike Oldfield, David Borden
Additional Music Composed by: Jack Nitzsche
Music Editor: Gene Marks
Sound Designer [2000 re-release]: Steve Boeddeker
Sound: Chris Newman
Iraq Sequence Sound: Jean-Louis Ducarmé
Sound Consultant: Hal Landaker
Dubbing Mixer: Buzz Knudson
Re-recording Mixers [2000 re-release]: Michael Minkler, Gary A. Rizzo
Special Sound Effects: Ron Nagle, Doc Siegel, Gonzalo Gavira, Bob Fine
Sound Effects Editors: Fred Brown, Ross Taylor
Technical Advisers: Reverend John Nicola S.J., Reverend Thomas Bermingh, Reverend William O’Malley S.J., Norman E. Chase Md, Herbert E. Walker Md, Arthur I. Snyder Md
Photographic Equipment: Panavision
Double for Linda Blair: Eileen Dietz Elber *

Ellen Burstyn (Mrs Chris MacNeil)
Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin, S.J.)
Lee J. Cobb (Lt William Kinderman)
Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer)
Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings)
Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras, S.J.)
Linda Blair (Regan Theresa MacNeil)
Reverend William O’Malley S.J. (Father Dyer, S.J.)
Barton Heyman (Dr Klein)
Pete Masterson (clinic director)
Rudolf Schündler (Karl)
Gina Petrushka (Willie)
Robert Symonds (Dr Tanney)
Arthur Storch (psychiatrist)
Reverend Thomas Bermingham S.J. (president of university)
Vasiliki Maliaros (Karras’s mother)
Titos Vandis (Karras’s uncle)
Wallace Rooney (Bishop Michael)
Ron Faber (assistant director)
Donna Mitchell (Mary Jo Perrin)
Roy Cooper (Jesuit deacon)
Robert Gerringer (senator at party)
Mercedes McCambridge (voice of the demon)
Yvonne Jones (Bellevue nurse) *
Vincent Russell (subway vagrant) *
William Peter Blatty (movie producer) *
Victor Argo (voice of language expert) *

USA 1973©
132 mins


The Exorcist (revised 2020 edition) by Mark Kermode is available to buy from the BFI Shop: https://shop.bfi.org.uk/pre-order-the-exorcist-bfi-film-classics.html

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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