THE EXORCIST (1973) was a massive crossover hit in its day, drawing in big bucks from large audiences who would ordinarily have never watched a horror flick, and it became a legend based largely upon their impression of it as one of the most frightening things they'd ever seen. When lists are assembled of "greatest horror movies" or "best horror movies" or whatever variation is preferred by those who go about assembling lists of that nature, the instances in which it is absent are far more noteworthy than those in which it is present.
It's exceedingly rare to see a list like that without a prominent slot for THE EXORCIST.
I don't like THE EXORCIST. I don't even think it's very good.
From a technical standpoint, of course, it's absolutely outstanding in pretty much every respect. The direction is first-rate. The performances are top-notch. The cinematography, the make-up effects, the sound editing--all superb. It's a well-paced film, as well, and not, for a moment, "boring," as is so often charged by some (mostly younger) viewers crippled by lack of attention spans as a consequence of too heavy a diet of today's quick edits, awful CGI, and cheap, corny jump-scares and other shock-effects every three seconds.
That isn't to say it lacks those things, particularly shock effects. We aren't pelted with shocks with the same regularity we get from some of the horror cinema of more recent years, but the film is fairly bursting with them; virtually built around them, in fact. We're assaulted by spinning heads, pea-soup puke, inhuman growls (and other sensory displacement), single-frame jump-scares, bloody cross masturbation--the entire film is a catalog in over-the-top shock tactics.
Therein lies the beginning of my problems with THE EXORCIST. Shock effects are cheap and superficial. To note the obvious, they can only work if they're shocking. When it comes to getting a rise out of an audience, they can sometimes work the first time around, sometimes even the second, but continued exposure to them does kill their effectiveness in all but the dimmest of bulbs. In THE EXORCIST, Friedkin's efforts to assault the audience with outrageousness rise to the level of unintentional self-parody well before the film is over. The first time we see the possessed Regan's head turn around just a little too far, it can be shocking. Later in the movie, when it makes a complete circular rotation, it's just stupid. And it was already pretty stupid the first time around, if we give it a moment's thought. The shock effects in THE EXORCIST are like that--so over the top as to become utterly ludicrous. And as silly as they are on their own merits, they're even more silly in the cold glare of history, as such ludicrous excess has come to be played for laughs in more recent decades. It's common, now, to see people on message boards saying they find THE EXORCIST quite funny, and, in fact, the beating heart of the film--the scenes with the possessed Regan--could probably be turned into an episode of SOUTH PARK with barely any changes.
The secret of the film's success, though, isn't its wall-to-wall shock tactics. There are two elements that made it a hit, and that have made it endure.
The first is the religious element. The film isn't just a basic good-vs.-evil story--it's a very Christian god-vs.-devil story, with a human soul as the prize. It's immensely appealing to a Christian audience, and its downbeat ending, its ruminations on the nature of evil, and its subplot about Father Karras questioning his faith make it appear more sophisticated than the usual fare in this vein. This context also means mainstream audiences will allow the filmmakers much more latitude in the use of shock effects. While the over-the-top shocks are a constant assault on the suspension of disbelief necessary to make any film of this sort work, Christians will cut it a lot more slack when it's being done in this context. The film's Christian character also serves to immunize it from criticism, to an extent. To the more extreme among the devout, trashing the film, particularly by ridiculing its excesses, can come to be seen as something akin to blasphemy.
My problem is that I'm not a Christian. I don't hold to any fundamental faith to which this element can appeal and make me suspend my critical faculties, and in and of itself, it doesn't do anything for me, either.
The second element behind the film's incredible success with the general public is its equation of the onset of adolescence with demonic possession. I confess this is the part of the film I find outright reprehensible. Puberty is hard on everyone. To parents, their doting, dependent, loving babies suddenly become back-talking, opinionated individuals. As hard as that can be for them, though, that's nothing compared to how hard it can be on the adolescent. Unfortunately, a big part of the reason THE EXORCIST was such a runaway success is that everyone who has ever raised children found their own anxieties--and their worst efforts to suppress their childrens' growing individuality--rationalized by the movie. The natural, necessary process of growing up becomes demonic infestation. The message: The kids aren't all right. This plays to the most thoughtless, reactionary impulses in an audience.
It also plays to plain old stupidity. Think of the conceit of the film: you have to accept that a demon--a being of evil incarnate--would have nothing better to do, if unleashed upon the world, than possess the body of an adolescent and make her behave badly. "Evil" isn't, to use a then-contemporary example, the U.S. government overthrowing democracy in Chile, bringing Pinochet to power, and supporting his extermination of thousands of human beings, there. That isn't the sort of thing a demon--evil incarnate--would stage-manage, if unleashed upon the world. No, "evil" is adolescent girls masturbating and cursing and being rebellious and showing contempt for religion and disrespect for authority figures. What on earth could be worse, right? A demon wouldn't try to engineer economic collapses, natural disasters, famines, or wars. It would take over your daughter, and make her lay in bed and curse.
All of this is idiocy, but it directly--and perfectly--reflects the myopic anxieties and viewpoint of the film's target audience. That's why they've been eating it up like popcorn for more than 30 years.
I'm not big on idiocy. I don't think the views that grow from it are worth much respect, and those narrow anxieties it can produce are fundamentally misguided, and, though often understandable, they're an understandable weakness, not something we should embrace. I think the kids are all right. I think THE EXORCIST does them a great disservice. Moreover, I think the way in which the film plays to their parents' suspicion of and hostility toward their growing individuality is appalling.
These two elements are the secret of the film's success. For someone like myself, who finds nothing appealing in them, the movie has absolutely nothing to offer. All that's left is an offensive premise, and increasingly silly efforts to shock. Unintentional humor, wrapped in such an overblown effort at seriousness that the effort itself becomes part of the joke. And one need not subscribe to my own heathenism, when it comes to the religious aspect of the film, to share my view of the film itself--I would, in fact, guess that the film's critics are overwhelmingly Christian.
I dislike the reputation the film has, in some quarters, acquired as some sort of seminal horror film. It isn't one. It is, in fact, a very traditional, very conservative horror story. Regan is clearly an innocent. The mother, the priests, and so on are clearly on the side of the angels, and that is offered literally in the film. The "evil" is an entirely external force. The universe in which the film occurs is the traditional Christian one, and operates entirely by those rules. Regardless of its pretensions of greater sophistication, it breaks no new ground where it counts.
In context, it was released in the midst of a very important cycle of superior horror films that were taking the genre in new and interesting directions. This cycle began in the late 1960s with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and ran throughout the 1970s, items like THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, RABID, and DAWN OF THE DEAD. The Europeans were part of the same explosion, and this was the prime time of Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin, and more Italians than can be easily counted. The movies produced as part of this cycle were wildly experimental in terms of storytelling, and were openly and mercilessly subversive of just about every element of the traditional horror story represented by THE EXORCIST.
They packed it where it counted. That's why there is the present mad scramble to dig them up, dust them off and release them on DVD, then re-release them in a string of increasingly special special editions, why new films are constantly appearing that have them as an inspiration, and why Hollywood seems to be devoted to remaking every one of them.
The cinematic legacy of THE EXORCIST, by contrast, is very sparse. Its influence was three-fold. It spawned a cycle of direct (and mostly awful) rip-offs. These had pretty much played out in a few years, though a stray one does still appear from time to time (the dreadful EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE being a prime recent example). It also helped continue a series of similarly slickly-produced, bigger-budget Hollywood movies that aimed for mainstream approval. The first of this cycle had been ROSEMARY'S BABY, and it continued, after THE EXORCIST, with items like the OMEN series, AUDREY ROSE, THE LEGACY, etc.. Its major influence, though, is probably one that would make its creators least happy: a long series of films that, though often great, were devoted to satirizing the sorts of excesses it introduced. Things like the EVIL DEAD movies, RE-ANIMATOR, or the early work of Peter Jackson. Excess played for laughs. That's pretty much as far as it goes, insofar as a cinematic legacy is concerned--awful, direct replicas, some Hollywood trash, and people making fun of it.
A lot of fans want to elect THE EXORCIST to the pantheon. I think it's more at home in the footnotes of film books.
 More than once, I've encountered, from various admirers of the film, the bizarre notion that this big, noisy exercise in sound and fury, and blood and thunder--and thud and blunder--is some sort of understated psychological thriller. My advice to those who proffer this view is always the same: Try actually watching THE EXORCIST before commenting upon it next time around.
 The film is quite sophisticated for a Christian god-vs.-demon film, but "sophisticated" is, in that context, distinctly relative. Among other things, the over-the-top-of-the-top nature of the film makes Karras' struggle with his faith completely ridiculous. He's sitting in the same room with a girl that is obviously possessed--you don't need to do anything more than look at her to know it--she barely even looks human by the time he's on the scene. And if anyone could possibly manage any doubts after a glance, they melt as soon as she opens her mouth.
 That's a very extreme view, though. I've encountered it, but not often.
 Prior to them, horror films had primarily been focused outward, playing on our anxieties about those who were outside of us and different from us. Look, for example, at the rash of Cold War metaphor horror flicks from the '50s. We were always given rock-solid heroes, whose motives we weren't to question, as they were representations of us, and we didn't question ourselves. The bad guys were always "out there" somewhere--the red menace in the form of alien invaders. This is reactionary horror, which is, in my view, almost inevitably the poorest brand of horror. Things that try to rationalize fears that are often completely irrational. When, on the other hand, the mirror is turned upon us, and the fears and anxieties upon which a film is playing is really something we fear about ourselves, there's nowhere to run. The horror is not external, and there's no heroic military man to smack down the appeaser scientists and put the voltage to the Commie Carrot Man who wants our blood. The horror is in our own hearts. That's when a horror film really works. That's why those '70s horrors packed it where it counts. They turned the mirror on us.