If movies are, among other things, opportunities for escapism, then “The Exorcist” is one of the most powerful ever made… We feel shock, horror, nausea, fear, and some small measure of dogged hope.
By today’s standards, most people would not see ‘The Exorcist’ as a particularly frightening film. That was not the case when it first hit UK screens in 1974. It was a more innocent time when it came to horror on the Big Screen.
There had been mutant insects, Christopher Lee as Dracula, Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (far from the tragic figure of Mary Shelley’s classic) and alien invasion. But nothing that explored the battle between pure evil and flawed good, as did the Exorcist. A film that proved ground-breaking.
The screenplay, written by William Peter Blatty, is based heavily on his best-selling book of the same name. That book inspired by events relating to an exorcism carried out in the late 1940s.
The screenplay was the firm foundation upon which the direction, acting, cinematography and special effects built, in creating a masterpiece. Stanley Kauffmann, an author and film critic, wrote at the time, “This is the scariest film I’ve seen in years — the only scary film I’ve seen in years. …If you want to be shaken — and I found out, while the picture was going, that that’s what I wanted — then The Exorcist will scare the hell out of you”.
From its first opening, people flocked to see the film. Something much to the surprise of Warner Bros studio. They held no high hopes for the film’s critical and financial success on its release. Especially as it had far exceeded its original production budget. Unexpectedly, the US certification board did not give the film the highest adult rating of X. Instead deciding upon R, allowing people under sixteen to see it with an adult. The logic for the rating being the film contained no nudity or sex. That rating helped attendances. The UK certification board took a quite different view on the rating. The film rated an X, proved so controversial that cinemas refused to show it in some parts of the UK because of its theme.
I saw the film with my three roommates in late July 1974, in a cinema in Hammersmith, some three months after its release in the UK. It had been well-publicised in terms of its horror but not much detail around the plot, ending etc. It was with both excitement and nervous anticipation we entered the cinema. There, met with the sight of uniformed nurses, “Here for the welfare of the audience”. A bit of a publicity stunt, no doubt. Still, it had the effect of heightening the anticipation of the horror we were about to see.
The four of us took our balcony seats. These were still the days when some cinemas had both balcony and stalls. The nurses now took up a position at the top of each aisle. The lights dimmed, and for the next two hours, we watched a film that scared the life out of us. I won’t share any spoilers, but some scenes provoked a physical and verbal reaction throughout the audience, not just a mental one. Commonplace now, we watched scenes not before seen by a cinema audience. It wasn’t just the physical horror; it was the psychological horror that dug deep. You believed in the authenticity of the characters; you empathised with them. That empathy heightened the horror even more.
Usually, after a film the four of us would go for a beer and discussion. Not that night. We travelled back the short distance to our hostel in silence. So disturbed by what we had seen we four young men even slept with the light on in the room we shared. To this day that film always causes me to pause if I hear a sound that seems to come from the loft.
To me, it remains the best horror film that I have seen. It set a standard that some have reached, but none surpass in terms of its storytelling. Others have more gore, jump scares, scary characters etc. But none seem as grounded in the ordinariness of life and human frailty.
So, this week’s music choice is obvious, yet Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is only one short piece of music used within the film. I bought the album just after its release in 1973, as I found the music striking. Not everyone shared that view (until the film came out that is). TB was the first album released by the then fledgeling independent Virgin record company.
The music is now synonymous with the film, yet Bill Friedkin, the film’s director wasn’t convinced. He chose TB at random after rejecting a specially written piece. Afterwards saying he would have used the band ‘Tangerine Dream’ to score the whole film if he’d heard their music earlier.
Here’s the clip from TB as it features in the film (not, as widely held belief would have it, as the Exorcist arrives). And only a clip as the whole piece is lengthy. …