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Why The Exorcist Is The Best Horror Movie Of All Time

When The Exorcist was unleashed on audiences in December 26, 1973, it scared the living hell out of people, and for good reason. It didn't just have incredibly shocking scenes that traumatized moviegoers, but it was also a very deep story that confronted people's religious and spiritual beliefs. It didn't just make you scream, but it also made you think.

Based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, the book was scary enough, but in the hands of William Friedkin, who was hot from the success of The French Connection, Blatty's story was brought to terrifying life on the big screen, and it left a lasting impression that still stands strong today. Seriously, whenever you talk about the all-time horror films, The Exorcist usually comes up first. But why exactly does it stand out among its terrifying peers? Well, from its strong performances to its incredible effects, here's the case for why The Exorcist is the best horror movie of all time.

The Exorcist has great source material

One of the oddest facts about The Exorcist is that novelist William Peter Blatty was primarily a comedy writer, and it was directed by someone who wasn't a fan of horror films. But Blatty was a devout Catholic, and he wrote The Exorcist when he was having what The Guardian categorized as a "crisis of faith" after his mother died. Ultimately, writing The Exorcist brought Blatty back in touch with his faith, but the book wasn't an immediate bestseller.

As recalled in the horror history Reel Terror, it was by chance that there was an opening for Blatty to appear on The Dick Cavett Show. With one of Cavett's guests unable to attend, Blatty was able to talk at length about his novel, and The Exorcist suddenly became a major literary hit. It reportedly sold 13 million copies in the States.

When Warner Brothers secured the film rights, most Hollywood A-list directors turned it down, but William Friedkin (pictured) jumped at it immediately. Where a lot of books are usually adapted into scripts by other writers, Blatty adapted his own work with Friedkin's guidance, insuring a strong transition from the page to the screen.

In so many horror films, the story is often sacrificed for terrifying visuals, but The Exorcist was a great adaptation of Blatty's novel that delivered a strong aesthetic punch, as well. In fact, one of the only Oscars The Exorcist would win would be for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Exorcist works on a much deeper level than many horror films

Where The Exorcist helped make Blatty's faith stronger, the film made many people question and confront their own religious beliefs. The Exorcist presented evil in a very convincing way that even made non-believers scared. This could be one of the big reasons why the film struck a nerve with audiences like no horror film before ... or arguably since.

As The Atlantic points out, "The Exorcist got audiences thinking about good, evil, and God while they were both entertained and frightened." And as Catholic World Report states, "The audience of [The Exorcist] is forced to undergo horror in order to clarify the issue of good and evil ... it asks that we admit, through our fears, that we ourselves could experience evil in a way that would shake our very being."

Whether you believe in God or not, The Exorcist certainly gives you a lot of food for thought, whereas a lot of other horror films, even the best of Alfred Hitchcock, primarily just want to scare you silly.

It doesn't have a typical horror approach

Where the major studios and critics are usually pretty dismissive about horror movies in general, The Exorcist was one of those films that took the genre up a notch from the usual fare.

The fact that neither Blatty or Friedkin had tackled a horror story before gave The Exorcist a fresh approach. A lot of horror film directors get easily caught up in the cliches of the genre. But Friedkin was never a big fan of horror films, and Blatty was eager to have him aboard because Friedkin had previously made documentaries, and he wanted the film to have a realistic approach. (To this day, Friedkin doesn't consider The Exorcist a horror film but a "theological thriller.")

As Blatty recalled in the documentary Fear of God, "This needs an honest director that is agnostic on the subject and can give this incredible story such a sense of documentary reality that it will work." Friedkin added, "It's not a film about Dracula, it's a film about people who live up the street." And as The Exorcist proves, this is one of the keys to crafting a great horror film — putting your story in a convincing environment where people can believe it could actually happen.

It doesn't have movie star baggage

A lot of times when you see a big movie star in a film, you often don't see the character they're playing. Instead, you just see the celebrity on the screen. The Exorcist wisely didn't pick major celebrities to star in the film but good, solid, believable actors that weren't household names.

For example, take the actress who plays Chris MacNeil, the heroic mom. Ellen Burstyn had just broken through for an acclaimed role in The Last Picture Show, but she wasn't as well known as the actresses who were originally considered for the film, namely Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda. (In fact, the character of Chris MacNeil was inspired by MacLaine, who Blatty knew well.)

The roles of the two priests went to Max Von Sydow, largely known for starring in Ingmar Bergman films, and Jason Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (That Championship Season). Plus, there was the discovery of Linda Blair, who played Regan. Again, a largely unknown cast brought more realism to the movie, giving the audience the impression that these seemed like real people going through a harrowing supernatural experience.

The Exorcist had state-of-the-art effects that still hold up

These days, it's almost too easy to create special effects with CGI. But back in the 1970s, you had to get your hands dirty and do it for real, and perhaps no movie did it better than The Exorcist.

The 1973 horror classic broke a lot of ground with special effects, and everything was done live on the set, in camera. As Friedkin recalled in the documentary Fear of God, he didn't use optical effects in the film because he didn't believe they would look convincing enough. And on his team were Dick Smith, one of the greatest make-up artists in Hollywood, and special effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere. 

To bring Blatty's novel to life, Smith and Vercoutere practically had to reinvent the wheel, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to make it happen. After all, they had to fling people around, make beds rattle, and disguise a 43-year-old Max von Sydow as an 80-year-old man. Needless to say, their hard work and innovation really paid off.

Special effects technology has come a long way since The Exorcist, but all these decades after it was released, the effects are still very convincing, especially considering the film was done without any rubbery CGI.

It has some of the most horrific and unsettling set pieces ever

Many horror film set pieces can leave indelible impressions on viewers, and even if you've only seen The Exorcist once, you'll always remember such infamous elements as the split pea soup projectile vomit, the horrific crucifix scene, the levitation scene, the shockingly foul language, and the spinning head.

Yet the set pieces in The Exorcist aren't just shocking for the sake of it. For example, in the case of the crucifix scene, it's necessary to the story because the mother has to be pushed to the limit where she's willing to try an exorcism as a last resort. Sure, it's disturbing, but there's a deeper point to it all. And the pacing of these shocking scenes is absolutely key to The Exorcist's longevity.

A lot of '70s films move way slower than more recent films, and that can befuddle a lot of modern audiences when something doesn't blow up within the first five minutes. However, the story beats, shock moments, climax, and resolution of The Exorcist are all plotted out well, and the set pieces of the film feel organic in the story, not tacked-on or placed in the movie just for the sake of it.

William Friedkin gave the film unsettling camera tricks and sound effects

A lot of the scariest elements of The Exorcist are brutal and in your face, but there are also good scares you register unconsciously. For example, William Friedkin used split-second flash cuts of demonic faces in the film, as well as a lot of faintly heard tricks in the soundtrack that creep up on you.

As Friedkin told DGA Quarterly Magazine, there were several scary make-up test shots he decided not to use. However, as he explained, "I thought if we could just show it in one or two frames that it would be pretty frightening. I wound up using them as subliminal cuts, no more than two or three frames, an eighth of a second or so. They worked very effectively because the young girl was supposedly possessed by several demons; it looked as though it was the manifestation of these other personalities."

And as for the sounds, in The Exorcist documentary Fear of God, Friedkin recalled it took four months to put the film's audio track together, including a lot of experimental noises, like recordings of insects that creep up on you from deep in the background.

The Exorcist has no humor to break it up

Some horror fans don't like their horror mixed with humor, even though it was done to great effect in the Evil Dead films and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Well, if you don't want any humor in your horror, you came to the right place with The Exorcist.

Humor is often an essential element in horror films because it gives the audience a break and a chance to catch their breath. A good laugh in a horror film can get a lot of nervous energy out of your system after you get scared. But The Exorcist isn't kidding around, and without any chuckles to give the audience a break, it gives moviegoers a relentless pummeling, instead.

For those who don't like humor mixed with horror, they'll often say they don't go to a horror film to laugh. If you haven't seen The Exorcist, trust us, once you check it out, you won't be yuckin' it up.

The Exorcist is still insanely scary and effective after all these years

When you see reaction videos to The Exorcist on YouTube, the people who've never seen it before are still freaking out, which is a testament to the film's lasting power. The Exorcist still hits people in the gut, and considering it's nearly 50 years old, it's passed the most important test — the test of time.

Yet if The Exorcist had nothing deeper than its shocking set pieces, it wouldn't be as well remembered today. The Exorcist has lasted because it's a well-paced story that's well-written and masterfully directed. Plus, it has believable actors in the key roles, it has practical effects that hold up better than today's CGI, and it's still incredibly thought-provoking.

There are certainly many terrifying horror movies out there, and many scary films that have tried to outdo The Exorcist in terms of gore, special effects, and shock value. But it's doubtful there will ever be a horror film that will have the same incredible impact that The Exorcist had — and continues to have — on people. You just can't repeat the incredible elements of the film that all came together and created a perfect storm of terror.