Though the word “horror” was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from fictional sources, began to be made as early as the 1890s. Between 1910-1920, quite a few European films featuring the supernatural, witchcraft, or superstitious beliefs were released. The German film Nosferatu, though an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was the earliest vampire-themed production. Many of the earliest American horror films, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — both based on novels — were considered dark melodrama rather than horror, if only because of their stock characters or romance elements.
In the 1930s, horror films began to do more than just startle or frighten audiences. Filmmakers inserted elements of Gothic fiction into their stories, giving audiences dangerous mysteries, ancestral curses, remote and crumbling castles, doomed Byronic heroes, and oft-fainting heroines. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau contributed elements that belonged more to science fiction than to Gothic horror, such as the “mad” scientist or doctor who, playing God, wants to re-animate corpses or manipulate human genetics to create some superior being but instead develops monsters. In 1933, the mad scientist appeared alongside Gothic elements in James Whale’s film The Invisible Man, known for its “clever and ground-breaking special effects,” and a new film genre was successfully underway.
In the 1950s-1960s, the subject matter of horror films began to include contemporaneous concerns along with the science fiction, supernatural, or Gothic elements. Alien invasions, deadly (atomic) mutations, demonic possession, post-apocalyptic worlds, and social alienation were prevalent in horror films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Godzilla (1954), The Innocents (1961), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The terror of demonic possession reached its apotheosis in 1973, when The Exorcist — the first horror film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture — demonstrated that a horror film could be as artistic as it was frightening.
Based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Exorcist tells the story of a young, innocent child possessed by demons. The novel was inspired by the 1949 story of a mentally ill boy, Roland Doe (psyeudonym), who was the last person to be subjected to a Catholic Church-santioned exorcism. According to the film’s director, William Friedkin, Blatty originally wanted to write a non-fiction account of the thirteen-year-old boy’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital but couldn’t get enough details: Blatty dramatized the story instead.
Extremely faithful to the book, the film version of The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair),
who lives with her actress-mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
When Regan’s personality begins to change, and when she complains of strange events, such as her bed’s shaking, her mother initially seeks helps from the medical community. Examined by doctors and psychiatrists, Regan is initially misdiagnosed with personality disorders, rebellious attention-seeking behavior, and brain lesions. Subjected to tests that are as frightening as any demonic possession could be, Regan suffers but does not improve. In fact, her condition worsens.
When one of Chris MacNeil’s colleagues and friends is murdered after having been alone with the severely ill Regan, Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to investigate Regan, terrifying Chris that her young daughter will be accused of a crime she may have committed but of which she is not morally guilty.
In desperation, Regan’s mother seeks help from a local Jesuit psychiatrist, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is experiencing his own crisis of faith after the death of his mother and his inability to successfully counsel his fellow priests.
Although skeptical of demonic possession, Father Karras soon concludes that something supernatural and demonic is, in fact, happening to Regan. Karras does not have the experience to help her, however, and he decides that he needs the help of an expert exorcist: Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, known most recently for his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones).
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and winner of two — Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing — The Exorcist is still the highest-grossing horror film ever made (the earnings for the new version of Stephen King’s It have not yet been adjusted for inflation).
The film’s weaknesses are the same as those in its source material: its inability early in the story to decide if it is a murder mystery or a horror story, for example, and its extended scenes setting up the “innocence” of the major protagonists.
The film’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses, however, and its exploration of faith, maternal devotion, and possible psychological illness are still powerful more than 40 years after its release. The complex special effects are outstanding, as is the demon’s terrifying voice, which was supplied by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge.
The Exorcist is available for rent ($2.99 SD / $3.99 HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial subscription to Cinemax), Cinemax (free for subscribers), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.