Forty-five years later, it is perhaps hard to realise just what an effect this film had on cinema-goers in 1973. Quite honestly, there had never really been anything like it. Newspapers carried articles about the film, people were taken ill in cinemas as they watched it, and some ran terrified from their seats. I was 21 years old, and convinced nothing would scare me, so off I went to see it.
William Blatty adapted his own book for the screen, and solid director William Friedkin was in charge. The cast appeared to be first rate too, with Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb, as well as a young actress I had never heard of, Linda Blair. It seemed to me that all concerned were taking this story of the demonic possession of a young girl very seriously indeed.
We don’t have to wait long for the action to start. Young Regan (Blair) is living with her mother (Burstyn) in Georgetown, USA. One evening, she plays with a Ouija board, and contacts a spirit, who she calls Captain Howdy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Iraq, Catholic Priest and exorcist, Father Merrin, (Von Sydow) has discovered a demonic amulet. Back in America, Regan starts to behave very strangely; swearing, cursing, and urinating on the floor. Her bed shakes violently when she is in it, and strange sounds and voices come from her mouth. Her mother tries to find out what is wrong, and enlists the help of doctors, priests, and psychiatrists, including a Father Karras.
One night, Regan is being looked after by a family friend, Burke. When her mother returns, she finds Burke dead, apparently after falling from a window. The police become involved, with a detective (Cobb) investigating the death. The psychiatrists suggest that an exorcism is tried, and father Karras enlists the help of an expert, who just happens to be Father Merrin. With Regan now having to be confined to her bedroom, the two priests begin their work.
What happens next has become the stuff of legend, as well as parody. Regan speaks with the voice of a demon, projectile vomits green bile, and masturbates with a crucifix. She is able to levitate, and to make objects fly around the room. Her head can turn 360 degrees, and her physical appearance begins to resemble a rotting corpse. The priests discover that the demon is Pazuzu, the same one shown on the amulet discovered by Father Merrin in Iraq. After long struggles with the demon inside Regan, the only solution seems to be to allow Pazuzu to leave her body, and possess someone else. So Father Karras makes this happen, taking the demon from the girl before leaping to his death from the window.
But the viewer is cleverly left wondering if that is the end of the matter.
Make no mistake, this is an incredibly powerful film, seen in the context of its time. I felt a real sense of dread every time anyone mounted the stairs to walk up to Regan’s room, thinking to myself “What now?” each time they entered. For their time, the special effects were startling, and often repulsive too. It was a hard watch, in every way imaginable. The cast took it all very seriously indeed, and young Linda Blair was incredible as the girl possessed by a demon. She was 14 years old at the time she played the 12 year old Regan, and looked younger.
I left the cinema feeling drained by the experience. My girlfriend at the time had been with me in the cinema, but had hardly watched anything apart from the introductory scenes. She was so scared, she had spent the bulk of the film hiding her face under the huge lapels of the jacket I was wearing. (It was 1973!) As we walked to the car, she asked me “Was it as bad as it sounded?” I answered “Worse”.