The lonely silhouette of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), dwarfed by a beam of light projecting from the upstairs bedroom of the MacNeil home, is an iconic image that has become an integral part of The Exorcist’s identity as a consumer product. Tirelessly reproduced in the film’s subsequent re-releases on DVD and Blu-Ray, and featuring on merchandise as varied as t-shirts and action-figure packaging, the pervasiveness of this design can be traced back to the 1973 poster by graphic designer Bill Gold (responsible for thousands of one-sheets such as Alien and A Clockwork Orange) that accompanied the film’s theatrical release in US downtown theatres.
The poster is undoubtedly eye-catching with the embellishment of the title and credits in violet tones, and the stark, chiaroscuro interplay of light-and-dark that illustrates Merrin’s stand against the supernatural horrors located in the house. The film is given a more classic treatment reminiscent of Hollywood noirs, making use of the one still from the film that echoes the gumshoe detective, complete with overcoat, hat and briefcase in hand – an interesting choice considering the nature of The Exorcist‘s material.
This is significant of a film that straddles the cusp of the Hollywood ‘renaissance’ of the late 1960s to mid 1970s (typified by films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider) and the era of the corporate blockbusters.
A major studio production by Warner Bros, the film highlights the take-up of exploitation, horror and B-movie material in order to draw in youth audiences from the grindhouses and drive-ins, following a decline in mainstream film attendance. The poster reflects this uncomfortable position as a product intended for the widest possible audience, which also had an R-rating that effectively barred under-18s (and thus, a large section of the audience) due to its subversive themes and excessive gore.
As such, the figure peering into the unknown is a decidedly apt one considering how little the poster reveals of the film, neatly avoiding the lowbrow associations that may have further limited its audience. This is demonstrative of a strategy that aimed to offset the riskier aspects of its production through the one-sheet, its most visible method of promotion.
The Exorcist‘s poster can be considered as one of the most effective one-sheets produced; but it is also one of the most significant and fascinating, revealing comparatively more about the filmmaking context in which it was made than the film it is promoting.