THE EXORCIST (1973)
Time isn’t always kind to scary movies. What once sent an audience screaming from theatres often struggles to elicit a shrug from twenty-first century film fans, numbed by years of more explicit horrors. For some UK viewers the passing of the years had a negative impact on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), building a reputation it could never hope to live up to. At the time of its release in 1973 it quickly gained notoriety as the most terrifying film ever made, but from 1984 when the Video Recordings Act was passed the film was banned in the UK.
Fortunately The Exorcist had a short UK run on pre-certificate video from 1981 to 1984, allowing black market copies to circulate, often poor quality tenth generation copies of copies. My first encounter with the film thus came courtesy of a grainy video that a school friend lent me. I was beyond excited, eager to subject myself to what would be, I was told, the ultimate cinematic scare-fest. Sadly, it was a relatively fright free watch.
I was underwhelmed and I thought I knew why; the element of threat seemed to be missing. If the audience were the ones up on the screen, what would they be running from? Where was the Count Dracula, the Michael Myers, the Ghostface? A foul mouthed girl tied to a bed seemed like poor substitute. She didn’t even have the strength to undo her restraints, let alone do any damage if she got her hands on you. With the exception of her mother, would anyone have been worried if the possessed Regan was left to spit and swear in her bedroom forever more?
Fortunately, after realising the error of their ways the BBFC lifted the restrictions on the film and it arrived back in UK cinemas in 1998. I got myself down to my local multiplex and gave the movie another viewing. Thankfully, my revisiting was not in vein. With some of the weight of expectation lifted I finally saw the film for the masterpiece it clearly is. I realised that not every scary movie needs a Dracula. If The Exorcist fails to place a direct threat in front of the audience, what it does have is one of the most realistic presentations of a horrific event ever filmed. I also realised the importance of context when viewing a scary movie.
If there is one thing that even a film as good as The Exorcist can’t overcome it’s the march of progress. In 1973 religious conviction was much stronger than it is now. Coupled with a horror genre in which the most shocking film to date was arguable Night of the Living Dead (1968), witnessing a twelve year old Regan MacNeil projectile puke on a priest, bloodily masturbate with a crucifix, attempt to force cunnilingus on her mother, and fully rotate her own head was too much for some audience members to take. The devil was a real entity to some early seventies movie goers and that he was forcing such outrageous behaviour on an innocent girl was horrifying. Thankfully, belief in gods and devils has waned in Western audiences, but sadly for The Exorcist the religious hit it delivered on its first release has all but disappeared.
However, the cinema verite presentation remains, as effective now as it was forty-seven years ago. Wrong-footed from the off, the prelude lands the viewer in the deserts of Iraq as Father Merrin uncovers an amulet at an archaeological dig that resembles the demon Pazuzu. The sun radiates, the wind blows, dogs howl; it’s jarring and confusing, the reason for us being there left unexplained. From there we shift to the gothic Washington suburb of Georgetown and the MacNeil family, mother and actress Chris and daughter Regan. After dabbling with a ouija board strange occurrences befall the house and Regan. Seemingly innocuous at first, things grow steadily more serious until it becomes apparent that Regan is possessed by something or someone.
Rats in the attic, candles blowing out, Regan inexplicably wetting herself; these small happenings are interspersed in the MacNeil’s rather privileged life almost as an aside. The balance switches though and Chris’s film work becomes secondary to Regan’s growing affliction. It becomes horror in the everyday lives of these everyday people, and it was the reality of it all that made it so frightening. By contrast, up until 1973 the majority of horror films were the sort of fare that pulled impressionable teens into the drive-in on a Saturday night, guilty pleasures for those who liked their movie thrills on the pulp side. They were not the sort of movies that caught the eyes of film critics. The Exorcist played a major role in changing these attitudes, and became the first horror film nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award as result. The horrors were domesticated, and to solve their unexplained nature experts in the field were questioned. A logical answer is desperately sought after by Chris but she doesn’t find one.
William Peter Blatty’s original 1971 novel, which only sold in modest numbers, took a realistic approach also. Loosely based on the alleged real life 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe / Robbie Mannheim, before writing the novel Blatty spent a year with Father Tom Bermingham (who appears in the movie as the President of the University) consulting on the most realistic way to present his story. Infamously, director Friedkin took a similar approach to Blatty, crafting his film not as a fantastical piece of fiction but as a realistic drama. This included going to extraordinary lengths to extract true performances from his cast.
The moment when Father Karras is startled by the phone ringing in his apartment was achieved by Friedkin firing a shotgun just behind actor Jason Miller’s head; even though Miller vehemently protested, the shot remained in the film. The part of Father Dyer went to real life priest Reverend William O’Malley, but his lack of acting skills did not limit his performance, at least until the penultimate scene in which he administers the last rites to Father Karras. Friedkin took thirteen takes but was still unhappy with what he saw. He then turned to O’Malley; ‘Do you he trust me?’ Friedkin asked. Before a confused O’Malley could respond he received a sharp slap across the face. Friedkin then asked for the cameras to roll and the shot that we see at the end of the film is the one that followed directly on, complete with Father Dyer’s hand shaking uncontrollably with shock.
Actresses Linda Blair (Regan) and Ellen Burstyn (Chris) did not escape lightly either. Both allegedly received injuries from the harnesses they were placed into to achieve certain effects. Blair was strapped into a hidden cast to achieve the sudden sitting up/laying down motion on her bed early on in the film; her screams were not entirely acted. Burstyn was placed in similar device to pull her back from the force of Regan’s slap across the face. Landing heavily on her back, the fall caused an injury to her coccyx, and the scream of pain was kept in the final movie. Friedkin also wanted the medical test scenes to be as authentic as possible, recruiting actual medical staff from New York University Medical Centre to carry them out on camera. It led to one of the most infamous scenes in the film when Regan undergoes an angiography; the spurt of blood from then fourteen year old Linda Blair’s neck was allegedly not faked.
Friedkin’s impetuous determination to make his film as realistic as possible was matched by the wonderful effects work of Dick Smith and Rick Baker. It’s a testament to their work, that despite the movie offering realism from start to finish, there were actually many complicated shots throughout, from furniture moving across a bedroom of its own accord, to the infamous head-turning scene, tested by driving the dummy built for it around in a taxi and frightening passers-by with a quick head spin when sat at red lights. In particular, the climatic confrontation scenes are a minor movie miracle. The bedroom set was cooled by four large air conditioners, sending temperatures plummeting to thirty degrees below zero. Moisture on the faces of the actors froze during shooting such were the bitter conditions. The set was also placed on eight pneumatic wheels to achieve the necessary ‘earthquake’ movement. The overall effect is stunning, and the psychological battle between Father Karras, Father Merrin, and Regan is undoubtedly the highlight of the film.
Elsewhere, Friedkin requested semi-subliminal inserts be added, offering a blink and miss it cameo of the demon Pazuzu himself (the face under the make-up was Eileen Dietz, Blair’s stunt double). Coupled with some unorthodox sound design choices that were equally unsettling, its easy to see why some people were leaving theatres in 1973 in shock. The make-up work for Regan was also astonishing. Friedkin wanted Regan’s face to look as if it had been dug at with the pointy end of her crucifix. The fact that Smith and Baker had such a difficult canvas to work on could not have helped; it is hard to picture a more angelic face than that of young Linda Blair’s. Smith managed it however, and the difference between Regan at the start of the film and the demon-inhabited Regan in the final scenes is terrifying.
Equally stunning is Linda Blair herself. With just two small roles prior to The Exorcist, The Way We Live Now (1970) and The Sporting Club (1971), Blair had to handle material well beyond her fourteen years (though Friedkin was credited with handling the material and Blair in a very sensitive way and ensuring her sets were very controlled). The young actress also had to handle being the focus for the entire film, no small responsibility for a $12million movie in 1973. Blair is a revelation though; see the mischievous evil on Regan’s face in the climactic scene, curled up in the corner of her bed after disposing of Father Merrin. Blair was duly nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at the following years Oscars.
The remaining cast, chosen for acting pedigree over star power, work hard to keep the material grounded in reality. Ellen Burstyn chews the surrounding scenery with aplomb as the distressed parent. Playing off of Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb lingers well in the background as the investigative policeman, while the warm Max von Sydow offers heart under some of the best aging make-up seen on film. But, with the possible exception of Blair, the star of this show is Jason Miller as Father Karras. A star of the stage, The Exorcist was his first onscreen performance. As Chris becomes more comatose with shock, and Regan turns evermore green, Father Karras reluctantly becomes our hero. While the McNeils revel in their wealthy surroundings Karras is left to dwell in his meagre room, with the pain of losing his mother for company. In what is a beautifully subtle performance Miller effortlessly instils Karras with a deep melancholy and an empathic spirit. With little on screen to really threaten the viewer directly, our fears are placed in Karras, and Miller carries them with grace and skill. Miller was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
The film’s distended back story is Hollywood folklore, and even at the time of release Warner Bros. were keen to reveal the issues that plagued production as a way of flaming he furore around their new picture. Of those involved with making the film, opinion seems divided. Max Von Sydow stated that over the eighteen month shoot there were bound to be some occurrences that could be seen as supernatural by those willing to believe.
Others were sure there was something evil within the makings of the movie. During filming such was the tension Friedkin actually asked Father Bermingham to exorcise the set. He refused, stating that performing the exorcism would only increase anxiety. Some years later Christian evangelist Billy Graham claimed that an actual demon inhabited the celluloid reels of the film. The speculation surrounding the movie remains just that, speculation. However, there were nine deaths around the cast and crew during and just after the release of the movie, including actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, Max Von Sydow’s brother, and a night-watchman for the set. There was also an unexplained fire that destroyed most of the set one weekend during filming. The film’s reputation even extended beyond its original run, most notoriously with Paul Bateson, who played the radiologist assistant during Regan’s medical procedures, convicted of a series of murders, which became known as ‘The Bag Murders’.
The Exorcist became a worldwide sensation and ending up earning over $400million. Studios were keen to replicate the success and a new era of “serious” horror thrillers followed, Abby (1974), The Antichrist (1974), The Omen (1976), The Possessed (1977), Burnt Offerings (1977), The Amityville Horror (1977). Despite Blatty or Friedkin wanting nothing to do with a sequel, Warner Bros. pushed for a follow-up. It took five years before a passable script was compiled and handed to director John Boorman. But despite taking half a decade to come up with a decent sequel idea Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was a dud of such monumental proportions it only remains memorable now as one of the worst sequels ever made.
Set four years after the original, Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is investigating the death of Father Merrin, who is posthumously up on charges of heresy by the Church. Lamont’s digging unearths more history behind the demon Pazuzu. Regan meanwhile is discovered to have psychic healing powers. It all results in a return to the Regan’s Georgetown house and another showdown with Pazuzu. Despite another impressive cast, The Heretic was turgid and made little, if any, sense. Boorman later recounted how he wanted to move away from the scary movie and create a film that offered a genuine exploration of good and evil. What Boorman forgot though was that the Exorcist name was now synonymous with frights of the highest order, and to make a sequel that was scare free was tantamount to box office suicide. Boorman’s idea of a ‘metaphysical thriller’ was dulled during filming, as Warner Bros. were desperate to steer their sequel towards more expected Exorcist Part Two terriroty. Consequently, neither party were satisfied and the resulting film limped in to theatres in June 1977.
The reviews were damning from the off, Gene Siskel famously stating that it was “the worst major motion picture I've seen in almost eight years on the job”. Audiences listened and $14million movie crawled to a measly $30million box office take, just a slither of what Warner Bros. had expected to earn.
The Exorcist story was not revisited until thirteen years later with the release of The Exorcist III (1990). This time the movie had Blatty behind it, as the writer turned director for what was a fairly straight adaptation of his own 1983 follow-up novel Legion. The plot ignores all the nonsense of The Heretic and sets its story fifteen years after the events of the original film. We follow returning police detective William Kinderman (George C Scott) who this time is investigating a number of murders in the Georgetown area. The killings all seem to have a satanic motive and also bear the trademarks of a deceased serial killer called The Gemini.
Despite some good scares, including one of he all-time-great frights featuring a pair of garden shears, and the return of Jason Miller as Father Karras, the resulting film was a fairly by the numbers thriller. Studio executives at Morgan Creek Productions ordered Blatty to reshoot, cut and add a number of scenes to his finished film in order to make the film more ‘commercially viable’. Another middling box office take ($39million off of an $11million budget) and a lukewarm reception from critics were their rewards.
Just when it looked like all things Exorcist couldn't get any worse, along came Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). Morgan Creek had already been handed a completed Exorcist prequel by director Paul Schrader, entitled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) but the studio was so dissatisfied with the final product that they hired action director Renny Harlin to completely reshoot the film. Essentially making the same film twice, detailing Father Merrin’s original battle in Africa with the demon Pazuzu, the Harlin directed feature flopped at the box office. A perturbed Schrader got some payback when his Dominion movie was released on DVD a year later in 2005. He was not smiling for long though as his version received an equally harsh reception from fans and critics.
A two television series, simply titled The Exorcist, arrived in 2016, with Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels starring as a pair of exorcists investigating cases of demon possession. Despite sounding like the worst idea for a television series ever conceived, the show was better than most expected. It tied in with Exorcist canon by bringing back Pazuzu as one of the demons battled, and even featured Geena Davis taking on the Regan role in season one. Despite season two receiving stronger reviews than season one, the show was cancelled in 2017.
Fortunately for fans of Friedkin’s brilliant original there remains much to enjoy whether it’s the original theatrical version, the extended version, the tweaked television version, the 25th anniversary dvd version with original unused alternate ending, the 2000 DVD release featuring “The Version You’ve Never Seen” (later renamed the Extended Director’s Cut), or the fantastic BBC documentary from mega-fan Mark Kermode Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist.
See Also Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Exorcist III (1990), Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)