Watch Audiences Reacting To William Friedkin’s Horror Masterwork “The Exorcist”

By on May 22, 2015

On December 26, 1973, when The Exorcist had its original theatrical premiere, held in twenty-four selected moviehouses across America, the audiences — who had waited an incredibly long time in lines that often wrapped around the theater buildings and down the block — reacted pretty visibly to what the director, William Friedkin, had put up on the screen.

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January 8, 1974: Waiting for hours in below freezing temperatures, Toronto moviegoers line up in record numbers to see The Exorcist at the University Theatre on Bloor St.(Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

As the A.V. Club writes in this recent posting,

“These clips reveal just what a phenomena the release of The Exorcist was—everyone was going to see this movie: young, old, male, female. The scene resembles a party with people excited to get into the theater, and then that mood changes decidedly when they’re on their way out. The videos features an interview with Westwood theater manager Harry Francis, who recounts Blatty and Friedkin buying coffee for folks waiting in line as well as plenty of moviegoers fainting, crying, and looking quite shaken by the movie, particularly by the head spinning. (There are also some groovy ’70s styles on display in the video.)

Blatty and Friedkin also turn up later in the clip being interviewed by an expert on the subject of the devil—a priest. As one police officer working security states, “It’s something I never saw in my whole entire life. It’s something different, and I went to a lot of movies but I’ve never seen anything like this time myself.”

Lined up in below freezing temperatures; Toronto moviegoers have been turning out in record numbers

According to Peter Biskind, writing in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, published in 1998, when principle photography for The Exorcist began on August 14, 1972, it was widely thought that much of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel was going to be impossible to make into a movie. The special effects — levitation, possession, poltergeists — were way beyond the state of the art at the time, and indeed, the production did end up taking longer than expected.

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In this photo, cinematographer Owen Roizman takes a turn at operating during rehearsals, riding the “floating” platform built by key grip Eddie Quinn, who is maneuvering the rig with the help of dolly grip Jack Volpe. Camera operator Enrique Bravo observes from the railings. Soft-lighting the scene from a muslin-draped ceiling allowed the camera to see for virtually 360 degrees and removed most unwanted shadows. (Behind The Exorcist)

In the middle of 1973, Friedkin was still working on the film, but the studio, Warner Brothers, were determined to open the movie at Christmas time in 1973, and they put a lot of pressure on the director to meet that deadline. Friedkin, however, was so determined to control every aspect of the film that he hired an editor who had no feature film experience and then he refused to cut film during the eight or nine month production (typically editors work during production, assembling rough cut footage while the director is still shooting). It wasn’t until he wrapped production that Friedkin hired a veteran editor, Evan Lottman, to begin from scratch. The sound mixing alone took four months.

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This photo, taken on the New York City set of The Exorcist in 1972, shows Marcel Vercoutere at left, with the beard, director William Friedkin in the center, and several other members of the film’s special effects crew.

The movie was not previewed by Warner for fear that the test audience that didn’t like what they were seeing up on the screen would deter future ticket-buying audiences, and they decided to release the film to a limited amount of theaters across the country, just twenty-four screens. Even though Warners had mucked up the distribution, when the film opened (on the same day as The Sting), The Exorcist ended up grossing about $160 million ($89 million in rentals) in its initial run, and for a time, it was the biggest-grossing film in Warners history. With re-releases, The Exorcist has grossed somewhere northward of $232 million domestic, $441 million worldwide.

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The Exorcist would lose the Academy Award for Best Picture to The Sting, and although it won two awards — Best Screenplay Adapation and Best Sound — it lost in the other seven categories in which it had been nominated for Oscars. Over time, though, the film was seen as a major turning point for Hollywood studios, who were finally beginning to take horror films seriously. It’s inventive special effects and, especially, makeup work, marked the beginning of a new era for big budget horror movies that followed.

Here’s some B-roll footage from 1974 showing the long lines of people who queued up for hours to see The Exorcist at The National Theatre, LA and Paramount Theatre, New York.

(h/t A.V. Club)

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For more great photos, go here: Behind The Exorcist

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.