The Exorcist: ‘Pure evil’ or the greatest horror film ever made? | Films | Entertainment

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Iconic ‘levitation’ scene from the 1973 movie (Image: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

“On December 26, a movie called The Exorcist opened in theatres across the country…and since then all Hell has broken loose.”

That opening sentence from a Newsweek article 50 years ago was written barely two weeks after the film’s opening night in America on Boxing Day 1973. It captured the mass hysteria sweeping audiences across the country.

Many viewers fainted, several were carried out on stretchers and a woman in New York reportedly miscarried a baby during a showing.

So many people fled auditoriums to be sick the manager of Toronto’s University Theatre said: “We have a plumber practically living here now” to unblock bathroom sinks.

Some fans were in such a frenzy fights broke out in cinema queues.

The genre-shattering horror film was directed by William Friedkin – who had won an Oscar two years earlier for his crime thriller masterpiece The French Connection.

In Britain, the hysteria surrounding The Exorcist – about the demonic possession of a schoolgirl – arrived weeks before the film itself.

Both local councils and priests called for it to be banned.

Conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse joined the chorus of condemnation, claiming there was a “real danger” the movie could cause lasting psychological damage – and even “open the door” to genuine cases of possession.

I was one of the first to see a special preview screening as a cub reporter on a local paper.

I took with me a white witch, an Irish Catholic priest and a member of the Bahai Faith.

For 122 relentless white-knuckle minutes we watched as 14-year-old actress Linda Blair was transformed into an ever-more hideous creature.

With yellow eyes and open facial sores, she spewed foul-mouthed obscenities at the two priests trying to save her soul.

Blair’s tormented character Regan MacNeil spewed projectile green vomit, rotated her head 360 degrees in a display of demonic power and contorted her body to “spider walk” backwards downstairs.

Long before computer-generated imagery had arrived in Hollywood, we also watched a chilling levitation scene and a sickening sex act involving Regan and a crucifix.

Horrified public watch the film

Horrified public watch the film (Image: Retro Movie – Original Audience Reactions – The Exorcist (1973)

Even today, US film critic Nicholas Joel Ilano says: “The movie’s special effects and captivating performances still make it a horror classic.”

He explains: “The image of a demonic presence taking control of an innocent child’s body leaves an indelible mark on viewers.

“The gradual deterioration of her innocence is profoundly disturbing.

“It’s an unnerving portrayal of the depths of evil.”

Outside the cinema after our special screening, the Irish priest, looking visibly shaken, blurted out: “This is pure evil and pure ******* **** – and you can quote me on that.”

His reaction may have been echoed by numerous critics worldwide.

But the controversy that raged over The Exorcist merely served to swell the queues outside cinemas.

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Remarkably, given its age, the film has a lifetime box office gross of £350million.

It has spawned scores of other horror films and franchises, including Nightmare On Elm Street, The Conjuring, Resident Evil and The Ring and The Nun, as well as a plethora of low-budget “slasher” flicks. The Exorcist’s major influence on pop culture was marked by Universal Pictures this year.

Long-awaited sequel The Exorcist: Believer was the first in a new trilogy that features smaller roles for Blair, now 64, and Ellen Burstyn, who, at 91, reprises her role as Regan’s mother Chris MacNeil.

Original director Friedkin died in August this year aged 87 – two months before the release of Believer. Blair was also hired as a consultant, to guide the film’s two starring youngsters – Lidya Jewett, 16, and Olivia O’Neill, 15 – through the rigours of playing teenagers possessed by evil incarnate.

On set herself five decades ago, Blair suffered a serious spinal injury during one scene of violently thrashing and jerking her body around. This developed into scoliosis that left her in chronic pain for years. She says now: “It really affected my health negatively for a long time.”

Several cast and crew members died unexpectedly during shooting of The Exorcist, and production had to be halted after a mysterious electrical fire burned down the entire set.

At one stage, a priest was called in to conduct a real-life exorcism and Friedkin later admitted: “It was only by the grace of God that nobody was killed or injured.”

Late Oscar-winning screenwriter William Peter Blatty based the movie on his own book of the same name. In 2010, it was placed on America’s National Film Registry by Congress.

Though it is one of only a handful of horror classics to make it into the august archive, director Friedkin insisted he did not set out to make a horror movie at all, but saw it as “a film about the mysteries of faith”.

But he added: “It’s easier for people to call it a horror film. Or a great horror film. Or the greatest horror film ever made.”

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