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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
For all its blood, vomit, and obscenities, <i>The Exorcist</i> was a blockbuster of traditional values

For all its blood, vomit, and obscenities, The Exorcist was a blockbuster of traditional values

Photo: Sunset Boulevard (Getty Images)

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

There’s a scene about halfway through The Exorcist, the highest-grossing film of 1973, where Father Damien Karras pauses mid-prayer. Karras is a Jesuit priest, but he’s also a psychiatrist, employed by Georgetown University to counsel the other priests. An actress named Chris MacNeil has come to him, desperate. Something is wrong with MacNeil’s daughter. MacNeil thinks that maybe she’s possessed, even though she knows that seems impossible. Karras says that, if he were to give anyone an exorcism, he’d “have to get them in a time machine and get them back to the 16th century.” But Karras meets this girl, Regan, and something is definitely wrong.

In church, thinking about all this, Karras gives the liturgy of the Eucharist, and he pauses for just a second. Something crosses his face. In that heartbeat, while talking about the body and blood of Christ, Karras seems to recognize something about Catholicism—about its connection to some ancient druidic barbarism. He seems to decide that only ancient mysterious good can combat ancient mysterious evil. Right away, he goes to his Church superiors and recommends an exorcism.

If you grew up in the Catholic Church, as I did, then you might have spent your childhood thinking of these vaguely mystic rites as mundane, even boring. I was probably a teenager by the time I realized that most American Christians weren’t consuming the transfigured flesh of their savior every Sunday morning. But The Exorcist—a movie made by an agnostic director who’d grown up in a Jewish household in Chicago—dials deep into those centuries-old traditions and finds something romantic in them. Pauline Kael derisively called The Exorcist “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Mary’s.”

The Exorcist is a terrifying, repellant, physically exhausting, expertly made movie, and its massive, overwhelming box office success is frankly baffling. The film, admittedly, had a lot of things going for it. It was based on a runaway bestseller novel; its author, the screenwriter William Peter Blatty, had based his story on a famous tale of an almost-certainly-faked exorcism in St. Louis in the ’40s, and he’d sold the film rights before the book had even been published. Director William Friedkin was coming off of The French Connection, a hit action movie that had won the Best Picture Oscar. Still, it was a grueling, troubled shoot that led to a grueling, troubling movie—not exactly a feel-good romp. And yet The Exorcist became a cultural phenomenon.

There’s some alternate reality where The Exorcist starred both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, the studio’s first choices for the roles that ultimately went to Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller. Friedkin shot those ideas down. He offered the Chris MacNeil role to Audrey Hepburn, but she’d only take it if she could shoot the movie in Rome. Instead, Friedkin ended up making the movie largely without stars. None of the leads were especially glamorous. Ellen Burstyn had been nominated for an Oscar for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, and Von Sydow had cut a stark, heavy figure in Ingmar Bergman films, but Miller was a total unknown, a playwright who’d never acted on screen before. And Friedkin supposedly auditioned hundreds of girls before he found Linda Blair, the 12-year-old who he would transform into a murdering demon.

Friedkin was, by pretty much every account, a horrible asshole on set. He injured both Burstyn and Blair during the possession scenes, jerking them around with stunt wires. He pulled tricks like telling Miller that the stream of projectile pea-soup vomit would hit him in the chest, not the face, so that he could get Miller’s authentically disgusted reaction. He also pissed off Catholic crew members by slapping Father William O’Malley in the face before filming one particularly dramatic scene. (O’Malley was one of several real priests playing fictional priests in the cast.) He built the bedroom set in a freezer so that he could see the actors’ breath.

Friedkin also blew through his budget, spending it twice over. And when execs at Warner Bros. saw the seething, spitting, genuinely disgusting final product, they didn’t think they could sell it, releasing it in only 30 theaters nationwide at the end of 1973. They were as surprised as anyone when the movie took off, eventually outgrossing My Fair Lady and becoming the biggest hit in studio history.

There are a lot of reasons for that. The Watergate scandal was dominating headlines when The Exorcist hit theaters; President Nixon would resign in disgrace eight months later. Maybe, between that and Vietnam, people were newly awake to a certain kind of pervading societal rot, something that the spectacle of The Exorcist might’ve mirrored. If you really wanted to reach, you might even play with the idea that audiences wanted to see something evil cast out of something pure, like they wanted Nixon out of the government.

But there’s also a compelling argument that The Exorcist works as some kind of reaction against feminism. The girl in the movie hits the age of puberty, and she immediately becomes a bodily-fluid-spewing heretic. She screams obscenities and degrades religion. Her single mother, a woman who comes from Hollywood and who isn’t rooted in any sort of faith or tradition, eventually needs the help of clergy to fix her kid. So maybe reactionary audiences saw The Exorcist, on some primal gut level, as a reactionary movie.

There’s also, of course, the simple truth that The Exorcist is a great movie. There are logical problems with it. The film’s opening implies that the older priest, Father Merrin, has somehow loosed the unnamed demon that takes over the girl. But it never explains how; the choice seems entirely random. We never quite come to understand what the demon wants either. That demon mostly seems like a teenage edgelord, just saying fucked up shit to make people uncomfortable. But even when you know all this—and even when you’ve seen all the decades of quotations and parodies and ripoffs—the spectacle of the little kid who needs to be saved is visceral, gripping stuff.

Friedkin treated his actors terribly—none so badly as the radio veteran Mercedes McCambridge, who played the voice of the demon. McCambridge had quit drinking and smoking before playing that role, but to get the right haggard intensity in her voice, she drank whiskey, chain-smoked, and ate raw eggs. She recorded her parts while tied to a chair. And then Friedkin didn’t credit her, at least not at first. (After lawsuits, McCambridge got the credit she was due.) But maybe in part because he put those actors through the ringer, Friedkin got raw, intense, believable performances. And there are little touches—the shot of Merrin arriving while shrouded in fog, the use of Mike Oldfield’s eerie prog instrumental “Tubular Bells” instead of the Lalo Schifrin score that Friedkin had commissioned—that will stick with you forever.

But the thing that most strikes me about The Exorcist, upon rewatching it, is that it’s a weirdly traditionalist movie—not in its implicit rejection of feminism but in its simple story mechanics. In The French Connection, Friedkin’s previous film, the protagonist cop is an obsessive fascist who endangers civilians, shoots an unarmed man in the back, and isn’t even that good at his job. By the end of the movie, the suave drug dealer gets away, and Popeye Doyle accidentally kills an FBI agent. In The Exorcist, by contrast, two Catholic priests sacrifice themselves to save a little girl. The Church bureaucracy hears what’s happening with this demon, and they immediately volunteer help. Two priests and a drunk movie director die, but the forces of good win. A happy ending! The system works!

The Exorcist might have blood and vomit and shock value, but the film doesn’t represent the counterculture. After a couple of artier early movies had flopped, Friedkin, a former documentary filmmaker and TV director, had decided that he wanted to entertain people, the way movies had once done. That’s what led Friedkin to The French Connection, and it’s also what led him to The Exorcist. It’s a mainstream entertainment.

The Exorcist almost sneers at the politics of the ’60s and at the way Hollywood embraced them. Chris MacNeil, we learn, is in Washington to shoot a movie about student demonstrations. She’s clearly the star, but the one time we see her filming a scene, she’s telling students not to shut down their college. As she’s acting out that melodrama, the actual Georgetown students and staff walk past, half-interested. Later on, MacNeil dismisses her own film: “The Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story.”

The Exorcist also seems to deeply distrust all signs of modernity. When possession first starts to grip Regan, MacNeil tries to get her the best medical help she can find. But Friedkin depicts the hospital system as a series of nightmares almost as bad as the possession—an arterial spray of little girl’s blood, an unfeeling robotic scanner buzzing over a sleeping body. And psychiatrists are no help either. Even when they finally recommend exorcism, they dismiss it, explaining that the practice “has been pretty much discarded, except by the Catholics, who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment.” The doctors are willing to admit that exorcism sometimes works, but “not for the reasons they think.”

So the Catholics have to come to the rescue. Father Karras is himself a serious and traumatized man, one who lives in poverty and who’s just seen his mother die a terrible death. Father Merrin, the older priest who’s had some experience with demons, is old and weathered, and he knows he doesn’t have much time left. But the two of them go face-to-face with primitive, uncanny evil, and they defeat it, though they both die in the process. Later on, Regan, who remembers nothing, sees a priest’s collar and goes to hug and kiss him—an image that we will never see again in popular culture.

It’s funny. The Exorcist seems like a transgressive work of art, but it’s built on reverence of tradition. It has trust in institutions. The blockbusters of this century have faith in institutions, too, but those institutions—the Avengers Initiative, the Rebel Alliance, Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft & Wizardry—are all fake. They’re offspring of our shared fantastical dream life. We know better than to put collective trust in something like the Catholic Church, or the armed forces, or the police. We’ve seen where that leads.

Historically, we tend to regard the early-’70s auteur era as this giant quantum leap, this moment where all these young directors challenged received wisdom. And that moment did lead to some truly great movies, including The Exorcist. But there’s nothing jaded about The Exorcist. Instead, cynicism would arrive later. Just over a decade after the film, for instance, another blockbuster would do very different things with demonic possession. When an ancient evil takes over the body of Sigourney Weaver in 1984’s Ghostbusters, it’s mostly an excuse for Bill Murray to be funny. That’s all the time it took for a terrifying cinematic spectacle, a sincere confrontation with old and unnamed things, to become a joke.

The contender: A lot of important films, like American Graffiti and Serpico, came out in 1973 and made a whole lot of money. Other hits from that year might not be important, exactly, but I’ve still got a lot of affection for them—for the James Bond blaxploitation goof Live And Let Die, and for the Disney Robin Hood. But my favorite of the year’s hits is the one that made nearly as much money as The Exorcist, taking it to a photo finish.

The Sting, that year’s winner for Best Picture, is a sort of spiritual sequel to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, reuniting director George Roy Hill with stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It’s got the same tone; it’s a banter-heavy caper about charismatic outlaws that relies on movie-star chemistry and sets the action only a few years further back, into the ’20s. And it has a blast with its tricks and devices, setting the movie-stars-getting-away-with-shit blueprint that something like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven would later follow. It’s fun as hell.

Next time: Mel Brooks’ raunchy, anarchic bash Blazing Saddles gleefully eviscerates two American traditions, the Western and racism.