By the ’70s, horror had divided into two camps: on one hand, there were the ‘real life’ terrors of Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, films that brought horror into the realm of the everyday, making it all the more shocking. On the other, there were the more outrageous dream-horrors popular in Europe, the work of Hammer Studios in the UK and Mario Bava and Dario Argento in Italy, films that prized artistry, oddity and explicit gore over narrative logic. The first film to attempt to bring the two together was Rosemary’s Baby, but Polanski’s heart clearly belonged to the surreal. The first to achieve that blend with absolute certainty was The Exorcist – which perhaps explains its position as the unassailable winner of this poll.
In cutting from the clanging bazaars of Iraq to the quiet streets of Georgetown, in blending dizzying dream sequences with starkly believable human drama, Friedkin created a horror movie like no other – both brutal and beautiful, artful and exploitative, exploring wacked-out religious concepts with the clinical precision of an agnostic scientist. And make no mistake: whatever its creator may say, The Exorcist is most definitely a horror film: though it may be filled with rigorously examined ideas and wonderfully observed character moments, its primary concern is with shocking, scaring and, yes, horrifying its audience out of their wits – does mainstream cinema contain a more upsetting image than the crucifix scene? That it still succeeds, almost four decades later, is testament to Friedkin’s remarkable vision. TH
Dir William Friedkin (Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow)