On the 26th of December 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist hit theaters and horror hasn’t been the same since. The absolutely terrifying movie contains several indelible cinematic images, was controversial at the time, went on to be banned in many countries and spawned four sequels and two television series (and a stage adaptation featuring Ian McKellan as Pazuzu!). But let’s get back to that 1973 premiere and find out how unwitting audiences reacted to what they found.
One critic, Stanley Kauffmann writing in The New Republic, said:
“This is the most scary 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.”
Variety, meanwhile, praised it as “pure cinematic terror” and director Joe Dante said:
“An amazing film, and one destined to become at the very least a horror classic. Director William Friedkin’s film will be profoundly disturbing to all audiences, especially the more sensitive and those who tend to ‘live’ the movies they see…Suffice it to say, there has never been anything like this on the screen before.”
Of course, it went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards and has now cemented its place in horror history as one of the scariest movies of all time.
If you haven’t seen the film or had much experience with the franchise, your best bet is the Blu-ray box set The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology. This contains both the original theatrical cut and extended version of The Exorcist, along with Exorcist II: The Heretic; The Exorcist III and two prequels: Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Maybe skip Exorcist II, but The Exorcist III is well worth checking out. It comes with a bunch of special features, too, but I’d specifically recommend author William Blatty’s commentary about his inspiration for the book the movie is based on.
And remember, if you think you’re familiar with The Exorcist due to it being parodied so often, believe me, the film has lost none of its intensity over the last 43 years.