For some, it’s a hoary shocker that’s more ludicrous than scary. For others, it’s a terrifying, feasible glimpse of evil that’s so intense it’s a trial to even look at the DVD cover. Film critic Mark Kermode has called it “the best film ever made”. For me, it’s a powerful slice of movie-making; the top dog of religion-themed horror movies; a film that overrides logic and (a lack of) belief better than any other supernatural fright flick I’ve seen.
I first saw The Exorcist in the late 1980s – I don’t recall the exact year, but it was during the film’s absence from video-shop shelves after it was refused a certificate for home-viewing, a legal requirement under the terms of the 1984 Video Recordings Act. The BBFC had deemed the film a potential psychological danger, with particular concern for impressionable teenage girls – a curious stance in light of its happy classification of Grease 2.
The Exorcist’s withdrawal from public life had helped build its legend. All that remained were pictures in books: the face of the possessed girl, Regan, projecting an echo of terror across the decades. Such photos made me feel a bit strange, as if looking at them for too long would invite the Devil into my body. The film had a forbidden aura; it was the Unholy Grail of horror films, and if the chance to slip a fuzzy, pirated cassette into the video ever arose I’d have accepted without hesitation, even with the slight risk of demonic possession.
Fate was in a generous mood the day it decided my time had come to see the film. A female acquaintance called me up to ask whether I fancied a drink before going back to her place and watching it. I’d no idea why. I hadn’t spoken to the lady – who I’ll call May – about my love of horror movies. In fact, I’d barely had a proper conversation with her at all; she was a friend of a friend. And, come to think of it, where did she get my number from?
My thoughts were working overtime as we sat in the pub chatting, and after a few pints I’d pretty much forgotten that The Exorcist was waiting for us. After an uncomfortable walk home – weren’t we supposed to, y’know, huddle close for warmth or something? – I found myself sitting in her living room with her entire family around me: Mum, Dad, siblings, possibly an aunt or two.
My beer goggles were giving me double vision, my bladder was screaming out to be emptied with embarrassing regularity, and I was wondering where my cosy evening had gone. The Exorcist was on, but I was off: body and mind struggling to tune in to the situation. Oh, I saw the film that night, but all I remembered was static. In screenplay terms, this was a solid piece of second-act jeopardy.
A decade later I saw the film properly, though still not in ideal conditions, on its theatrical re-release. It was Saturday morning and the cinema was reasonably busy. As I waited for the movie to start, I thought back to its original release and the reports of people fainting and vomiting.
Whether or not this really happened didn’t matter. I knew that this audience knew these stories; that everyone was broadly aware of the film’s history with the UK censor and had come to see what the fuss was about. I also knew that, 25 years later, playing to a crowd raised on Repossessed and the French & Saunders spoof, the weight of The Exorcist’s legend would sink it.
When the laughter hit, it was pocketed rather than universal, but this irked me more in a way. I could see the division between those who wanted to watch a serious horror film and those who had come to check out the source of one of pop culture’s best-loved parodies, so the film played out to a tiny war – in my head, at least. Oh, I know that laughter is sometimes a nervous response to tension or shock, but when you’re sitting in the dark watching a 12-year-old girl stabbing herself repeatedly in the crotch with a crucifix, the giggling from behind sounds deliberately mocking.
The Exorcist’s earnestness is often targeted by its critics. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, which, given its subject matter, tends to provoke ridicule from anyone unable or unwilling to suspend disbelief. Because the movie goes balls out to frighten its audience, and with religion of all things, it inadvertently dares viewers to stand firm and declare it poppycock. I’ll fight to defend The Exorcist as one of the best, and purest, horror films ever made, but I understand why its detractors often detract with such force. If you want to move a mountain, you’ve got to push hard.
In 1999, the BBFC underwent a change of directorship: out went James Ferman and in came Robin Duval. The Exorcist was granted a certificate for home viewing within months, and was on UK shelves by the end of the year. In the decade since, many more films that were at one time considered impossible to classify have been passed uncut, among them Zombie Flesh Eaters and the original Last House On The Left. In the UK, horror is currently freer than it’s ever been to live up to its title.
As for that romantic movie playing in my head in the late 1980s, the one starring me and May and a pirated VHS of The Exorcist… well, the third act was a bit of a downer. The film finished, I went to the toilet for the ninth time and May’s dad gave me a lift home. I was disappointed that I didn’t get the girl – which is ironic, as I normally love an unhappy ending. Or perhaps that’s just the Devil in me.