William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist might feel wrapped in the historical glow of “elevated horror” now–serious filmmaking for discerning fans and critics–but that was very much *not* the case back in the year of its birth. Back in the grimy, Watergate years of the early ‘70s, The Exorcist was as much a side-show freakout as anything William Castle produced back in the day. It was an endurance test.
The above film from that time proves it, showing the long, around-the-block lines, the sold-out screenings, the repeat viewers, and the record-breaking opening weekend grosses ($2 million in just 24 theaters in December, before opening wide across the nation in 1974.) This event had more in common with your current comic book movie or Star Wars sequel, and all the while being an R-rated film based on Catholic dogma and featuring some of the most colorful profanity ever hurled at a man of the cloth (on screen at least).
Of course, it is the reactions of the viewers that make this footage worth it. The cinema workers talk about how even the biggest guys can’t hack the film and exit white as a sheet. Two young women say this is their second attempt to watch the film all the way through. Another guy say he wasn’t scared by the film but “I dunno, I just fainted.”
And we do in fact see some people faint in the lobby, just going down like a sack of bricks, and an usher tells the camera he has two kinds of smelling salts to choose from. One woman in line even tells the camera crew, “I wanna see if it’s gonna make me throw up.” In fact, at one point some theaters started handing out “barf bags” for nervous viewers (which probably increased their chances of vomiting). MAD Magazine even got in on the hype with an appropriate cover (“If the Devil Makes You Do It” reads the bag.)
All this was incredibly good for business, and incredibly good for the news media, who sent crews like this one down, along with a reporter to interview people bailing on the film halfway through. The demonic voice is what did it for people, provided by actress Mercedes McCambridge, who reportedly downed raw eggs, smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey to give her voice that raspy edge.
From this year’s vantage point it all looks quaint and fun–all these different people from various walks of life having a shared experience in a theater, everybody whipped up into a delightful and ultimately harmless frenzy.
Most of the documentary was shot at the National Theater in Westwood, Los Angeles. Only three years old at the time, the cinema was the last single-screen theater built in the United States. It was torn down in 2008, replaced by some tony apartments and a street-level sushi bar.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.