On this day in 1973, The Exorcist, a horror film starring the actress Linda Blair as a girl possessed by an evil spirit, makes its debut in theaters; it will go on to earn a reputation as one of the scariest movies in history. The Exorcist was based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, about the last sanctioned Catholic exorcism to take place in the United States, in the late 1940s. In the film, Blair played Regan, a sweet 12-year-old girl who begins suffering bouts of bizarre behavior. When her concerned mother (Ellen Burstyn), contacts a priest, he recommends performing an exorcism. Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller played the two priests who eventually conduct the exorcism at the home where Regan is living in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist was a huge box-office success. The film terrified audiences to the point of fainting, in some cases, with scenes in which Regan’s head spins, her body levitates and she vomits green bile. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, both of which it lost to The Sting. The Exorcist spawned the sequels Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), The Exorcist III (1990), which was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for the original movie in the series; Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), directed by Renny Harlin, and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), helmed by Paul Schrader.
The Exorcist catapulted Linda Blair, who got her start in show business by acting in commercials as a child, to fame in Hollywood and earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination (she lost to Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon). Though she went on to star in a string of made-for-TV films and to reprise her role as Regan in Exorcist II: The Heretic, none of Blair’s later projects achieved the same commercial success as The Exorcist.
Before The Exorcist made its debut in 1973, Friedkin had already earned accolades in Hollywood for helming 1971’s The French Connection. That film, which starred Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as New York City police detectives who go after an international heroin-smuggling ring, won five Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actor (Hackman). Friedkin, who was born on August 29, 1935, went on to make such movies as 1980’s Cruising, with Al Pacino, 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A., with Willem Dafoe and William Petersen, and 2000’s Rules of Engagement, with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. None of these films, however, were as well received as The French Connection or The Exorcist.