#521) The Exorcist (1973)

#521) The Exorcist (1973)

OR “The Regan Doctrine”

Directed by William Friedkin

Written by William Peter Blatty. Based on his novel.

Class of 2010

This post is based on my viewing of the Theatrical Cut. To this day I have never seen “The Version You’ve Never Seen”.

The Plot: While filming a movie in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) notices that her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) has started acting strangely. Regan’s behavior becomes more violent and verbally abusive, but medical evaluations show nothing wrong with her. When one of the doctors casually mentions exorcism as an option, Chris consults Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a psychiatrist dealing with his own crisis of faith. Convinced that Regan has been possessed by an unholy spirit, Karras calls on the expertise of Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who performed the last church sanctioned exorcism 25 years earlier. These two have a devil of a time in a movie that will scare the hell out of you and make your head spin. There, I got all the bad puns out of the way early.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the most successful and influential horror films of all time” and singles out the film’s Oscar wins and cultural impact.

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “The Exorcist” until this viewing, and I’m happy to report it lives up to its notoriety. There’s plenty of terrifying moments and disturbing imagery, but Friedkin never forgets to keep the characters and their development front and center. Devoid of your standard horror movie tropes and clichés, “The Exorcist” still feels fresh almost 50 years later, and continues to make a massive impact on horror films and pop culture. How “The Exorcist” took 20 years to make the NFR is anyone’s guess.

Everybody Gets One: William Peter Blatty started writing while still working his day job in USC’s PR department, but was able to quit after winning $10,000 (about $87,000 today) on “You Bet Your Life“. After a series of successful novels (as well as a few screenplays), Blatty wrote “The Exorcist”, based on a real-life exorcism he had heard about while still a student at Georgetown. The novel was a hit, and Blatty successfully lobbied to write and produce the inevitable film version. This is also the only NFR appearance for actors Linda Blair, Jason Miller and, most surprisingly, Max von Sydow.

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Exorcist” was the biggest hit of 1973, and received the most Oscar nominations of the year (10), tied with its box office rival “The Sting”. “The Sting” took home Best Picture, but “Exorcist” prevailed with wins for Adapted Screenplay and Sound.

Other notes 

  • After the likes of Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols turned down the chance to direct, Warner Bros. hired Mark Rydell to helm “The Exorcist”. William Peter Blatty, however, preferred William Friedkin, wanting the film to have the same frenetic energy as “The French Connection“. Blatty eventually won out.
  • This whole post could be about the film’s troubled production. Long story short: it was not pleasant for anyone. An on-set fire caused film delays, two actors died during production, and Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair were permanently injured during the shoot (Burstyn’s accident and reaction are in the final film!).
  • I am a self-professed scaredy-cat, and put off viewing “The Exorcist” for as long as I could. Turns out that because “The Exorcist” was made in the ’70s, it takes its sweet time getting started. Nothing remotely scary happens for the first 45 minutes, just a whole lot of character establishment and atmosphere. If nothing else, this helped ease me into the really scary stuff.
  • Fresh off her turn in “The Last Picture Show“, Ellen Burstyn got cast as Chris when Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda all turned it down. Burstyn lobbied hard for the part, and she does not disappoint. Like the rest of the cast, Burstyn plays it very real. You are always aware of the pain this woman feels watching her own child turn evil.
  • Stacy Keach was all set to play Father Karras, but a chance meeting with playwright Jason Miller led to Friedkin buying out Keach’s contract and casting Miller. It’s a remarkably good performance from a first time actor.
  • Shoutout to editors Norman Gay and Evan Lottman. There’s an inherent rhythm to their cutting. As soon as something unexpected happens in a scene, we cut to the next one with no time to breathe. It helps keep the audience off-balance and alert during the proceedings.
  • As always, Dick Smith’s makeup job on this film hits it out of the park. The gradual change to Regan’s possessed appearance is always singled out, but don’t forget that he turned 44 year old Max von Sydow into the 70 year old Father Merrin. How did the Oscars not have a makeup category in 1973?
  • I was prepared for the quote-unquote scary parts of this movie, but no one warned me about the realistic angiography scene. I can do makeup and practical effects all day, but watching a full-on medical procedure with lots of blood being drawn is too much. Side note: the x-ray technician is future convicted murderer Paul Bateson, who was released on parole in 2003, and whose current whereabouts remain unknown. Good night.
  • Those bed shaking scenes are intense; I sure hope child labor laws were a thing back then.
  • The film’s only lightness comes with Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman in one of his final film appearances. Cobb lends a nice air of old school charm to the proceedings. I also like that Kinderman is a movie buff. Nice touch.
  • The further and darker this movie gets, the more I understand its reputation. Some of Regan’s more graphic scenes are still intense by today’s standards. I completely understand reports at the time of moviegoers fainting and vomiting during screenings.
  • Shout out to Mercedes McCambridge, the voice of the demon Pazuzu as it takes over Regan’s body. A versatile radio actor, McCambridge spent hours in a recording session drinking whisky and eating raw eggs to get the right demonic sound to her voice. Initially uncredited, McCambridge sued to receive an on-screen credit, which may have cost Linda Blair an Oscar. As a bonus, it’s fun to hear Oscar winner McCambridge say things like “Your mother sucks c**** in hell!”
  • After disappearing for the bulk of the movie, Max von Sydow makes a good closer as “the old priest”. Side note: Kerrin’s arrival (which doubles as the film’s poster) was inspired by René Magritte’s “Empire of Light” paintings.
  • Perhaps the most iconic moment in the movie was a misinterpretation. In the novel, Regan’s head is described as turning “almost” all the way around. According to Blatty, Friedkin misread this and had the dummy of Regan’s head rigged to rotate a full 360 degrees.
  • “The Exorcist” is essentially the Upside Down version of “Miracle on 34th Street“: both are about a family’s faith (or lack thereof) being tested under extraordinary circumstances. In a similar vein, how come “The Exorcist” is never mentioned among great Catholic movies like “Going My Way” or “Rudy”? It is ultimately a positive (albeit unorthodox) portrayal of the church.

Legacy 

  • “The Exorcist” was the runaway hit of the year, and talks of a sequel began immediately. Friedkin, Blatty, and Burstyn all immediately declined to participate, while Blair and von Sydow had to be coaxed into appearing. The result – 1977’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic” – started the real “Exorcist curse” of bad sequels.
  • In 1983, Blatty wrote his official sequel “Legion”, which would eventually be adapted to film as “The Exorcist III”, with George C. Scott filling in for the late Lee J. Cobb, and Jason Miller reprising his role of Father Karras (who I guess didn’t die at the end?).
  • Stay with me on this one: “The Exorcist” has two prequels from the early 2000s that are technically the same movie about Father Merrin’s first exorcism in the 1940s. Paul Schrader directed “Exorcist: The Beginning”, but the studio shelved the film for fear it wouldn’t be successful. Schrader was replaced with Renny Harlin, and a majority of the film was re-written and re-shot. After “Beginning” flopped, Warner Bros. gave Schrader a small budget to finish and release his version. Now retitled “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist”, Schrader’s film was released nine months after “Beginning”, and was an even bigger flop.
  • The most recent mainstream continuation of the “Exorcist” story was a television series that lasted two seasons on Fox, with Geena Davis as a grown-up Regan dealing with the possession of her daughter.
  • As for the original film, practically every moment of “The Exorcist” has been referenced or parodied in pop culture; head-spinning, pea-soup vomiting, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”. Special mention to Linda Blair’s self-parody in 1990’s “Repossessed” with Leslie Nielsen.
  • “The Exorcist” is also responsible for pretty much every supernatural horror movie of the ’70s, “The Omen” and “The Amityville Horror” immediately come to mind.
  • And finally, the “Exorcist steps” in Georgetown are a popular tourist spot, and were named an official D.C. landmark in 2015. But it’s nowhere near the scariest thing in Washington at any given time.

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