Exorcist, The (1973): Friedkin’s Brilliant Oscar-Winning Horror Film

Back in 1973, William Friedkin’s horror film, The Exorcist, delivered a cultural and cinematic impact that is still felt today, shocking and enthralling audiences, who had never seen anything like it.

Directed by Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty (from his best-selling novel), The Exorcist won the Oscar Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film tells the now-famous story of a girls demonic possession, and a gripping fight between good and evil. Linda Blair plays the young girl, Regan, who starts to exhibit strange, arcane behavior. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-winner for Best Actress in Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore) calls upon a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) to investigate.

But Karras, who has self-doubts about faith, is suddenly confronted with unimaginable evil of Regans possession. When Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), a priest with a mysterious past, is called to help, a horrific battle for her soul begins.

Detailed Plot: Narrative Structure
Lankester Merrin, a vet Catholic priest who had performed an exorcism, is on an archaeological dig in the Iraq ancient city of Hatra. There he finds an amulet that resembles a statue of Pazuzu, a demon of ancient origins.

In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil is living with her 12-year-old daughter Regan; she is starring in a film about student activism directed by her friend Burke Dennings.

After playing with Ouija board and contacting an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, Regan begins acting strangely, making mysterious noises, stealing, using obscene language and exhibiting abnormal strength.

Chris hosts a party, during which Regan comes downstairs, tells a guest astronaut that he will die in space and then urinates on the floor. Later, Regan’s bed begins to shake violently, leading to her mother’s horror.

Chris consults physicians, but Dr. Klein and associates find nothing physiologically wrong with her daughter, despite Regan undergoing a battery of diagnostic tests.

One night when Chris is out, Burke Dennings is babysitting a heavily sedated Regan. Chris returns to hear he has died falling out the window.  It’s assumed to have been an accident, but his death is investigated by Lieutenant William Kinderman, who interviews Chris. He also consults psychiatrist Father Damien Karras, recently shaken after his mother’s death.

The doctors, thinking that Regan’s aberrations are psychological, recommend an exorcism, reasoning that believing oneself to be possessed can sometimes be cured by believing that exorcism works. Chris arranges a meeting with Karras.

After Regan speaks backward, in different voices, and exhibits scars in the form of the words “Help Me” on her stomach, Karras is convinced that Regan is possessed. Believing her soul is in danger, he decides to perform an exorcism. Merrin is selected for performing the actual exorcism with Karras as assistant.

Both priests witness Regan perform a series of bizarre and vulgar acts. They attempt to exorcise the demon, but fail. Karras shows weakness and is dismissed by Merrin, who attempts the exorcism alone. Minutes later, Merrin dies of heart attack.

After failing to revive Merrin, the enraged Karras confronts the mocking spirit, and wrestles Regan’s body. At Karras’ order, it leaves Regan’s body and possesses Karras. In a moment of self-sacrifice, the priest throws himself out of the window and is mortally injured. Father Dyer, a friend of Karras, happens upon the scene and administers the last rites.

Regan, now back to her normal self, prepares to leave for Los Angeles with her mother. Although Regan has no apparent recollection of her possession, she is moved by the sight of Dyer’s clerical collar. Kinderman, who narrowly misses their departure, befriends Father Dyer as he investigates Karras’ death.

Blatty adapted the script from his own novel, which he had sold to Warner even before it got published. It was based on newspaper stories of an alleged exorcism of a teenage boy from Maryland.

Before the success of The Exorcist, Blatty was best known as a screenwriter of comedies, such as the Peter Sellers’ vehicle, “A Shot in the Dark” (1964) and “Darling Lili.”

By standards of 1973, the visual effects were impressive. Audiences were scared upon seeing Linda Blair’s head spin 360 degrees, or spew green pea soup (which became a joke). Much of the creepy scares came from the sound system, which won an Oscar.

Not to be underestimated is the voice of the demon, which was provided by the great actress Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar-winner for the 1949 “All the King’s Men”), which was then remixed and enhanced with various animal sounds.

With “The Exorcist,” which came right after his Oscar-wining picture “The French Connection,” William Friedkin became the hottest, most commercial director in Hollywood, though it didn’t last long.

None of the sequels, or prequel for that matter, matched the quality and the success of the original picture, which almost single-handedly revitalized the horror genre.

Running Time: 122 minutes

Oscar Context

Over the years very few horror films were nominated for Best Picture, and even fewer won, such as Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lamb,” in 1991.  No doubt the Academy voters were impressed by the blockbuster status of “The Exorcist,” which in 1973 competed for the top Oscar with George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” the comedy “Touch of Class,” with Glenda Jackson, Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant “Cries and Whispers,” and George Roy Hill’s “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, which won.

Oscar Nominations: 10

Best Picture, produced by William Peter Blatty
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay (Adapted): William Peter Blatty
Actress: Ellen Burstyn
Supporting Actress: Linda Blair
Supporting Actor: Jason Miller
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Bill Malley; Jerry Wunderlich
Editing: Jordan Leondopoulos, Bud Smith, Evan Lothman, Norman Gray
Sound: Robert Knudson, Chris Newman

Oscar Awards: 2