Fifty Years Since It Released Horror Has Adapted Its Fundamentals Over Time
Last Updated: 09.02 AM, Mar 14, 2023
Horror has evolved as a genre to sophisticated levels of storytelling in the past 15 years. But the film that uplifted this genre’s potential from a shortcut entertainment, penny dreadful approach was The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin’s horror classic indirectly validated a faith in God. As the Sixties had wrapped up in the USA, Time Magazine had done a cover saying Is God Dead (1966) focusing on the mass desertion of the Church by its congregants. The Exorcist subtly underlines the power of God to triumph over the devil, and it also sets up room to explore the awe-inspiring ritual of Catholic exorcism in films.
Prequels and sequels of The Exorcist never succeeded. The original screenplay writer William Peter Blatty’s attempt to direct The Exorcist III (1990) is the only one worth re-watching for its taut story. But films like Mikael Hafstrom’s The Rite (2011), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Stigmata (1999) by Rupert Wainwright have adapted the Catholic exorcism conversation successfully. Besides directly influencing filmmakers and innovating with film technology, The Exorcist humanised the horror film with its storytelling. Films like The Conjuring (2013), The Conjuring 2 (2016) and The Possession (2012) made use of the template of a family suffering due to demonic hauntings in different points of time. Influences of The Exorcist are also visible in the outstanding South Korean films The Medium (2021) and the acclaimed The Wailing (2016) by Na Hong-jin, showing its cross cultural value.
Upon its release a day after Christmas 1973, The American Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham had condemned “The Exorcist''. “The Devil is present in every shot of the movie,” the Reverend had claimed. This horror drama effectively broke filmmaking taboos laid down by Hollywood. For instance, Friedkin created difficult scenes of demonic possession- like Ragen’s bed shaking uncontrollably- on set and did not depend on special effects alone. Consequently the responses to Ragen’s condition on her mother’s face and on the faces of the priests trying to help her come across as excruciatingly real.
William Friedkin had just become hot property after having made The French Connection (1971). He was promoting the film when a published book titled “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty was neatly wrapped within. He was so shocked by the book's cover and prologue that he was forced to forgo supper, change into his hotel robe, and spend the rest of the evening reading the book. The maverick filmmaker endured a difficult process to adapt the book into a movie that upturned box office records and garnered 8 Academy Award nominations. Made on a closed set in Hell’s Kitchen New York, rumours would fly about the supernatural hanging close to this film. These rumours caught up further when the set caught fire. But as Friedkin explained in interviews, the location of their set was amidst a busy space with many small businesses operating around; so the fire was just accidental. With authentic research and complete commitment to the process of filming, a sense of tackling the devil through a faith-driven story permeated the shoot.
The most visible impact of The Exorcist is in its cinematic influence over other filmmakers. For instance, Scott Derrickson made a legal drama heightened with supernaturalism in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Starring Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson, a successful female lawyer takes on a homicide case against a veteran priest. He is accused of killing a 21 year old German girl with an exorcism. The presence of an unholy and malicious entity that touches every person involved with this case brings a sense of dread and creepiness to this story. Derrickson also directed Deliver Us from Evil (2014), starring Eric Bana and Edgar Ramirez, in an exploration of demonic activity and its paths crossing with the law. This film focuses on the fact that demons predate Christian literature while using an exorcism as an effective tool in its climax.
The overarching influence of conversations around demonic possession, miracles and the role of the Catholic church takes centre stage in Stigmata (1999). Rupert Wainwright has a distinct filmmaking style that uses flashes of light and sound to heighten his character’s experiences. Patricia Arquette is a young girl that becomes Stigmata, someone so pure and faithful that the devil will attack her over and over again. Gabriel Byrne is a Vatican specialist that studies the validity of miracles. Through Arquette’s character, an ancient and important message is sent to the Church, custodians of Christianity. It comes in the form of scribbles in Aramaic, an ancient language. This film is an introspective and dramatic look at a person’s faith. That it made 100 million USD worldwide validates the global appeal of the possession trope. Then there’s The Rite by Mikael Hafstrom. Starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and a tad bit boring, the film looks at a sceptical young priest’s training into exorcism. Through the revelations of difficult exorcisms, he battles his skepticism and finds answers to unresolved past questions. The film’s premise is heavily inspired from The Exorcist but is expanded into a more complex story.
With films like The Wailing and The Medium utilising the trope of exorcism, it becomes clear that The Exorcist set up a framework for faith based horror films. It is also a heart wrenching story of a mother’s fight against medical and psychological experts to save her child. It is also about a young man’s battle to find his faith and his silent courage to save a young girl, fulfilling his destiny as a shepherd to the needy. Built on an emotional core, The Exorcist will always hold appeal because of its genuine focus on telling a good story over simply scaring people.
(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)
(Written by Archita Kashyap, she has tracked cinema, music, and entertainment for a long time. She loves stories in any format and believes that OTT is the next change-maker that will bring the best stories for everyone.)