Forty-five years after its powerful debut, and with all the attendant publicity, analysis and second-hand knowledge, from satire to theological debate that has existed around it since then, does William Friedkin’s The Exorcist retain the same level of shock and awe? As a generally non-horror aficionado (the Alien films don’t count), without the benefit of going in completely cold, I have to approach it as a suspense film first and foremost, a character study of moral fortitude in a Godless (or seemingly Godless) world. The bells and whistles of the head-spinning special effects add a lurid quality to a dramatization of a reportedly real process that, whilst chilling on the page, wouldn’t necessarily make you jump in your seat. Instead, it’s the documentary realism of the performances and other procedures, the forensic grappling with the unknown, that engage and grip me. “I never had any concept of it as a horror film,” Friedkin told this site previously. “We thought of it as a powerful, emotional, disturbing story. But we did not think of it in terms of a horror film, let alone a classic horror film, or a lot of the stuff that passes for horror films. We just both found this story, which was inspired by an actual case, you know, to be very powerful, and I thought would be cinematic. But I never thought in terms of horror films, like the ones that I appreciated, like Psycho and Diabolique, and Onibaba, and a handful of others. They are clearly horror films, and I didn’t think of The Exorcist to be one of them when I made it. Now I understand that the public thinks of it that way, so I don’t dispute it… It’s set in the real world, with characters who are portrayed as humanly possible. So I think that the fact the story is portrayed realistically is what disturbs people about the events in it. It was a very productive and exciting period to work with William Peter Blatty on his great creation.”
The film is based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, ramping up the shocks and profane possession through ingenious practical effects and claustrophobic tension, throwing the curtain back on a spiritual rite the Catholic church in real life and its fictional young agent in crisis and psychiatrist to afflicted priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller) was hitherto reluctant to discuss openly; a True Faith Detective, if you will. Blatty was a Catholic who attended the Jesuitical Georgetown University. His novel was based on a priest’s 1949 journal concerning the exorcism of a 14-year-old boy named Roland Doe in Mount Rainier. The original case featured no projectile vomit, caused no inexplicable drops in temperature, and crucially boasted no crucifix masturbation. Along with the plethora of medical examinations such as X-rays, EEG, lumbar tap, and an arteriogram to get to the bottom of the mystery before resorting to arcane “truth,” Blatty determined to root the case in the everyday normality of a modern, happy (albeit divorced) home. None of the doctors, although baffled, truly believe a demon has possessed Regan, merely that she believes it, and so an exorcism would have a seeming placebo effect in curing the girl.
The novel got snapped up by Warner Bros. who then had to find someone to direct. They approached amongst others Mike Nichols (“I’m not going to stake my career and the picture’s success or failure on a twelve-year-old girl.”), Arthur Penn, John Boorman, and Peter Bogdanovich. Eventually Blatty as producer recalled the cocky William Friedkin, who’d once called a TV script of Blatty’s “the worst piece of shit in my life.” Although the two hit it off, they were to butt heads over the production with regards to who was really in charge, Blatty soon backing down as Friedkin lawyered up, or played sick until he got what he wanted. On the back of his director’s chair to the left of his name was written “an Oscar for The French Connection.” To the right was the outline for another Oscar with a question mark beneath.
What’s interesting, of course, about the film is the gender switch of the afflicted child, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Casting the film, Friedkin asked Blair if she’d read the book, to which she replied yes, describing it as being about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and “does a lot of bad things… She pushes a guy out of a window and masturbates with a crucifix and…” “What does that mean?” Friedkin asked her. “It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?” Assured she knew what it meant, Blair got the part. It could also be said the film is as much about fear of emerging female sexuality. In a scene from the Director’s Cut of the film, during a break in the arduous exorcism, the elderly veteran in the fight against evil, Fr Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Fr Karras wrestle with the task writhing above them, like “rats in the attic” as Regan’s actress mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, the role based on Shirley Maclaine, Friedkin’s then neighbour) first thought of the noises emanating from the demon within:
Karras: “Father, what’s going on in there? What is it? If that’s the devil, why this little girl? It makes no sense.”
Merrin: “I think the point is to make us despair, Damien, to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.”
As this article from MsMagazine points out, Regan is on the cusp of puberty. Also, “consistent with other changes related to young adulthood, when Regan speaks she no longer sounds like herself but, instead, a chorus of sibilant voices issue forth from her (Mercedes McCambridge voiced the demonic presence, chain-smoking and gargling eggs to achieve the proper rattle.) The devil possessing her is not just one being, we learn, but rather a plurality or host of demons. The idea that a multitude of voices now eclipses hers metaphorically evokes yet another distressing aspect of adolescence—that contradictory time when children individuate from their parents but, ironically, seem to surrender all sense of self to peer pressure. As the film unravels, the text begs the question, “Why is there evil in a world God created,” while the subtext asks, “Is there anything more terrifying than a teenage girl?” The demon within Regan, of course, also taunts Fr Karras, a nice Greek boy with a Madonna/Whore complex when it comes to women (“Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras!”) It’s not Regan’s soul Pazazu is after, many have argued, but Karras’. Peter Biskind alluded to this theme of sexual fear as well, describing the green vomit (actually pea soup) as a metaphor for menstruation, pre-empting Carrie: “The Exorcist is drenched in a kind of menstrual panic.”
As for that iconic shot, used in the trailer and poster, Friedkin described to DGA Quarterly how he came about it. “In the novel, William Peter Blatty’s description of Father Merrin (von Sydow) arriving outside the home of the child’s mother says he was standing under a streetlight in a misty glow ‘like a melancholy traveler frozen in time.’ I had to find a way to visualize that, and I allowed a full day to light the scene. We used arc lights and troopers to light the street, in addition to boosting the practical lighting like the streetlamps. After a great deal of trial and error, we filmed on the second night. The painting that inspired me was René Magritte’s The Empire of Light that depicted a small house at night lit by a streetlamp, but the sky in the painting is flat-out daylight. It’s an amazing surrealistic image.” HorrorNewsNet has some thoughts on the symbolism of the light cast upon the priest: “Some consider the scene to reference the demon casting light upon his opponent as if it’s a title fight (upon entering the house, the demon howls Merrin’s name), however I infer it’s more as God’s Light casting through the darkness showing Merrin the room in which an innocent child needs his fatherly duty. Of course, the image of Pazuzu in Regan’s bedroom as she claws upward shows who’s in control and ready for battle.”
The exorcism itself took nearly a month to film and was shot in sequence. The temperature drop with subsequent visible cold breath was a particular problem. “When movies wanted to show actors’ breath in a winter scene, they’d film at a place called the Glendale Ice House, where they manufactured gigantic bricks of ice,” Friedkin recalled. “The Magnificent Ambersons, Lost Horizon and many other films were shot there. But by the time we made The Exorcist that place was long gone. So what we did was place a gigantic restaurant air conditioner across the top of the set. At the end of each day’s shooting, we turned on the A/C all night so by the next morning it was 40 below zero. We also had to set little clip-lights on the floor and on the back of furniture—if you just had the actors talking and didn’t highlight their breath with lighting, it wasn’t going to show up on film.” Cinematographer Owen Roizman used natural lighting as much as possible, in keeping with the cinéma vérité style, much aped now with the likes of The Blair Witch Project and so on. The pea soup spewed over Fr Merrin was actually porridge for texture with pea soup coloring added to it. “We used a very thin plastic tube that ran from the side of Linda’s mouth underneath her nightgown right down to the floor, where a special effects technician was stationed with a jerry-rigged pump and a hand crank. On cue, she would tilt her head the right way and he would pump the stuff up through the tube and, seemingly, out of her mouth.”
For the infamous head spinning stunt, makeup artist Dick Smith “devised a life-size doll and the shot starts with Linda twisting her head as far as she can, then we see Father Karras’ eyes, and then we cut back to the doll’s head swiveling. We also had a plastic tube that ran through the doll’s body to her mouth, and blew smoke through it after the head swiveled completely around. It just added to the illusion.” Clever lighting and shadows helped disguise the monofilament wires that lift Linda Blair, wearing a bodysuit beneath her nightgown to which the wires are attached, off the bed and up towards the ceiling. Even this is not enough to shake Fr Karras, until he hears the little girl speak in his mother’s voice, lambasting him for leaving her to die in the psychiatric hospital. Told by Merrin to leave the room, he soon returns to find the elderly priest dead, the demon giggling. Karras demands the foul presence take him instead, performing a self-sacrificing “demonicide,” restoring his faith by also accepting belief in the evil and killing himself by throwing his body out the window and down the steps, accepting last rites from his fellow priest Fr Dyer passing by, thus casting evil out. Rev William O’Malley played Dyer. Friedkin asked him, just before he performs the last rites, “Do you trust me?” O’Malley said yes, then Friedkin hauled back and slapped him hard across the face, then called for the camera to roll. That’s why his hands and voice shake as he administers the rites to his dying friend.
Recalling the stunt, Friedkin said, “When we were on the set in New York, Jason ran out the bedroom window, and then quickly landed on a mat that was about three feet below. That was followed by this shot of the stuntman on the Georgetown set, flying out the window and performing a tremendous jump as the glass shatters behind him. It was about a 30-foot jump and we did it all in one take. It had to be measured and sussed out perfectly, because you weren’t going to ask somebody to do this more than once. Later you see the same stuntman tumbling down six flights of steps. I was trying to document the reality of a guy going out a window and show it all very closely from head to toe.”
During filming, Friedkin hired an editor with no film experience and refused to let him cut anything during the long shoot. Instead, he hired a veteran, Evan Lottman, upon wrapping, who began from scratch, under his supervision. “It was all about power,” according to Lottman. “He wanted to be in control of the film.”
Out of its ten nominated categories, The Exorcist won in two, for Best Adapted Screenplay for Blatty, and Best Sound Mixing for Robert Knudson and Chris Newman. It was nominated in almost every major category, but that outlined Oscar with a question mark on the back of Friedkin’s chair would remain unchanged.
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, a special feature from the mid 1970s on the cultural impact of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Screenwriter must-read: William Peter Blatty’s screenplay for The Exorcist [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
In this interview from 1980, host Mick Garris talks with author William Peter Blatty about his novel The Exorcist and its film adaptation, and The Ninth Configuration (1980), which he wrote and directed.
Here is a bit of must-see The Exorcist interviews treasure: in this rare and never-aired episode of the Z-Channel series hosted by Mick Garris, director William Friedkin talks about making The Exorcist and shares his candid opinion of its sequel.
THE FEAR OF GOD: 25 YEARS OF ‘THE EXORCIST’
Aired by the BBC in 1998 and produced by Mark Kermode, The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist stands as the best—and really the only official documentary—about the making of The Exorcist. It features one of the last ever interviews with Jason Miller before his death as he speaks about playing Father Karras, and brings together all of the cast and crew to discuss how they came to create one of the greatest horror films of all time all those years ago. The documentary was featured on the 25 Year Anniversary editions of The Exorcist. Courtesy of Everything Exorcist.
THE GODFATHER OF MAKEUP
The legendary makeup effects genius Dick Smith. Here’s behind the scenes home movies featuring makeup and effects work created by ‘Godfather of Makeup,’ clips courtesy of the director of photography on The Exorcist, Owen Roizman.
Dick Smith’s makeup process with Linda Blair.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of The Exorcist Blu-ray release last year was the famed Owen Roizman footage from behind the scenes finally being shown for the first time. Never-before-seen footage of cast and crew working diligently in silence (the footage has no sound) to make one of the most famous horror films of all time makes for eerie viewing. Especially exciting for The Exorcist fans who had desired such rare snippets for decades.” —Owen Roizman’s rare footage from the set of The Exorcist
Academy-award winning director William Friedkin discusses his early career—including making documentaries for David L. Wolper, working for Alfred Hitchcock and what he learned from studying his films, and directing his first movie Good Times (1967), starring Sonny and Cher; how his career path led to making The Exorcist, his initial reaction to reading the source material, the story’s theme of Good versus Evil, and the role his own faith played in his approach to making the movie; the techniques he used to generate suspense and fear in the audience, his use of subliminal imagery, and his reasons for recently restoring deleted footage to the film. In the conclusion of his interview with fellow director Mick Garris, Friedkin discusses his collaboration with make-up artist Dick Smith on The Exorcist, and the sensation that film caused on its release; he also discuss recent movies and moviemakers he admires, his own work on television, and his passion to create.
These Cinefantastique issues came out around the time that the film came out, so it is interesting to get such a fresh perspective on some of the historical context surrounding the film’s release. A grateful thanks to Tyler Knudsen for scanning the articles for us.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Photographed by Josh Weiner © Warner Bros., Hoya Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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