This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Even if The Exorcist had somehow been all alone for 1973, it still would have been a big year for horror, but considering everything else that is also released this year, you have to call it one of the most prominent, important years in genre history. After a start to the decade that was dominated by European output—monster movies, giallo, sexploitation, etc.—this is the year that American horror comes screaming back, although it’s a prolific year for the U.K. horror industry as well. The quality is through the roof, as the year’s three top films—The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now—would be very strong contenders to win any year in which they were released. It certainly feels like a breakthrough moment for psychological horror in particular, suggesting that the newly minted classics of the genre would achieve their status not necessarily via gore and exposed flesh, but by probing the human mind.
Of the other films released this year, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man looms the largest in the public eye, contributing what is considered by many to be the quintessential British horror movie. Christopher Lee shines as the regal Lord Summerisle, making the most of a rare opportunity to appear in a prominent horror film as something other than Dracula or a reimagined Universal monster. A key film for the idea of “pastoral” folk horror, the likes of Midsommar could hardly exist without The Wicker Man, a keen examination of the ideological and cultural divide between the old world and the modern one. With a notably dire ending that dares its audience to consider the real possibility of their own powerlessness, the film’s greatness managed to remain untarnished by the abysmal 2006 remake, now infamous for its many moments of unhinged Nicolas Cage bizarrity.
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, meanwhile, somehow remains less familiar to casual horror fans than The Wicker Man, but it’s likely the more persistently disturbing of the two films. A dreamy, surrealistic examination of a marriage fracturing under the stress of grief, the film stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a couple who travel to Italy in an attempt to heal following the accidental death of their daughter. But as the two begin to experience nightmarish blurs of the past and the future as timelines collide, it becomes difficult to trust (or act on) any of their perceptions in a way that doesn’t make things that much worse. Like The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now stands out for its shocking ending, ranking among the most chillingly memorable reveals in the history of the genre.
And that’s just this year’s acknowledged masterpieces. We also have films such as the gleefully weird haunted house yarn The Legend of Hell House, the thespian revenge story Theater of Blood with Vincent Price, more Amicus anthologies like Vault of Horror, influential black vampire movie Ganja & Hess, dystopian people-eating nightmare Soylent Green and prime giallo such as Torso. Which is all to say: 1973 was one hell of a year for horror.
1973 Honorable Mentions:
Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Legend of Hell House, Theater of Blood, The Night Strangler, The Vault of Horror, Sisters, Torso, The Crazies, Ganja & Hess, Soylent Green
Director: William Friedkin
The most incredible thing about The Exorcist is the way this film has managed to retain its potency; its ability to truly shock and horrify an audience, almost 50 years after its initial release. So often proclaimed as the greatest horror film of all time—including in Paste’s own list of the 100 best horror films —it stands as a graven exception to the rule generally stating that horror films tend to lose some of their mystique and transgressive notoriety over the decades. There’s something innately wicked, something metaphorically canted about the images that Friedkin captured here. Even today, when you watch The Exorcist, it still occasionally feels like you’re inviting cosmic calamity upon yourself, like it’s a sin to even remove that Blu-ray from its case.
The Exorcist is of course the story of a mother, Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her daughter Regan, played by a disturbingly mature Linda Blair, who undergoes demonic possession and then the titular exorcism. It kicked off an incredibly prolific wave of imitators, from blaxploitation films like Abby to European rip-offs like Italy’s Beyond the Door, launching a full-fledged Satanic panic in the process, as evangelical audiences recoiled from the fact that the devil himself had not only come to cinemas—he earned a Best Picture nomination as well! But although the attempts to copy The Exorcist were numerous, none of the imitators came close to rivaling its primal power—they were uniformly lacking the creativity it demonstrated in displaying behaviors the audience would find deeply disturbing, and simultaneously lacked the spine-chilling performance of the afflicted Blair, the steadfast Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and wounded Father Karras (Jason Miller). This was not a formula that could simply be replicated for the grindhouse crowd.
With the benefit of repeat viewings, the other thing one notices while viewing The Exorcist is that it’s often scenes other than the famous possession and exorcism sequences that are the most deeply disturbing. In particular, Regan’s battery of hospital tests, including a freakishly accurate depiction of a cerebral angiography, hammer at the audience with dull blows of painful reality from an uncaring universe. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch young Regan, strapped to a platform and stuck full of tubes, her eyes pleading for some kind of help or comfort, as her mother waits in another room, slowly unraveling—Burstyn gives an extremely vulnerable performance here as a woman pushed beyond all possible lengths of endurance. Furthermore, the hospital scenes are made only more skin-crawling to watch today when one is armed with the knowledge that the bearded technician appearing in them was none other than Paul Bateson, a confessed serial killer who was arrested in 1979. As if we needed something else to make us uncomfortable.
Tales of the public reaction to The Exorcist have understandably become the stuff of cinematic apocrypha. As hysteria about the film hit the mainstream, there were stories of people being driven insane by viewing the exorcism, or vomiting in the aisles, or simply keeling over with heart attacks from sheer fright. Some of those tales were no doubt their own form of covert marketing from the executives at Warner Bros., not too far removed from the stunts pulled by the likes of William Castle, but contemporary interviews with shaken audience members as they exited the film show you just how deeply it affected many Americans. In fact, watching those reactions, one starts to empathize with the poor souls who seem genuinely afraid their souls will be stolen next—and distrustful of the glassy eyed horror fanatics saying they loved the show and can’t wait to see it again. It makes it a bit easier to understand the vitriolic obscenity charges that kept the film from receiving a home video release in the U.K. until 1999.
In the end, The Exorcist was a monumental moment for the history of the American horror genre. It was the first mainstream horror film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and went a long way in establishing the idea of horror as a genre that was not mutually exclusive from critical acclaim and universal cultural relevance. Much as many would have liked to dismiss it out of hand as a sick aberration, The Exorcist was a clear sign of things to come.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.