The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror – Day 31

Combining documentary realism, sexual radicalism, old style horror and religion made for the perfect recipe in this revered classic

The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror - Day 31

Based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist was released in 1973 starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran (in his final film role) and of course Linda Blair. To date 20th century fox has released 4 sequels to The Exorcist franchise, raking in over 661 million dollars – And dozens of terrible parodies have followed, but never held up to what I consider the scariest movie of all time. Here’s some history and facts behind the production – As well my reasoning as to why this is still the scariest and best horror film of all time.

Although the book had been a bestseller, Blatty, who produced, and William Friedkin, his choice for director, had difficulty casting the “The Exorcist”. After turning down, or being turned down, by major stars of the era, they cast in the lead roles the relatively little-known Burstyn, the unknown Blair, and Jason Miller, the author of a hit play who had never acted in movies before… casting choices that were vigorously opposed by studio executives at Warner Bros. Pictures. Principal photgraphy was also difficult. Most of the set burned down, and Blair and Burstyn suffered long-term injuries in accidents. Ultimately the film took twice as long to shoot as scheduled and cost more than twice its initial budget.

The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror - Day 31

On December 26, 1973, “The Exorcist” was released in 24 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Audiences flocked to it, waiting in long lines during winter weather, many doing so more than once, despite mixed critical reviews. There were ‘reports’ of heart attacks and miscarriages; a psychiatric journal carried a paper on “cinematic neurosis” triggered by the film. Many children were taken to see the film, leading to charges that the MPAA had accommodated Warner Bros. by giving the film an R rating instead of the X they thought it deserved in order to ensure its commercial success; a few cities tried to ban it outright or prevent children from seeing it, and obscenity concerns kept the film from a home video release in the United Kingdom until 1999.

The cultural conversation around the film, which also encompassed its treatment of Roman Catholicism, helped it become the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, one of 10 Academy Awards it was nominated for, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. “The Exorcist” has remained high in critical esteem and commercial success ever since, for many years after its release remaining the top grosser in the supernatural horror and R-rated horror subcategories. The film has had a significant influence on popular culture, and several publications have regarded it as one of the greatest horror movies ever. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror - Day 31

Loosely based and inspired by the 1949 exorcism performed on an anonymous young boy known as “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Manheim” by the Jesuit priest William S. Bowdern, who formerly taught at St. Louis University and St, Louis University High School. Doe’s family became convinced the boys aggressive behaviour was connected to demonic possession, and called upon the services of several Catholic priests, including Bowdern, to perform the rite of exorcism. It was one of three exorcisms to have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the United States at that time. Later analysis by paranormal skeptics have concluded that Doe was likely a mentally ill teenager acting out, as the actual events likely to have occurred (such as words being carved on his skin) we such that they could have been faked.

Although Freidkin has admitted he is very reluctant to speak about the factual aspects of the film, he made “The Exorcist” with the intention of immortalizing the events involving Doe that took place in St, Louis in 1949. Friedkin has said that he does not believe that the “head-spinning” actually occurred, but this has been disputed.

For directors, Warner Bros. had approached Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and others who all turned down the project. Originally Mark Rydell was hired to direct, but William Peter Blatty insisted on Friedkin instead, because he wanted his film to have the same energy as “The French Connection”. After a standoff with the studio, which initially refused to budge over Rydell, Blatty eventually got his way. Principal photography for “The Exorcist” began on August 21, 1972.

William Friedkin & Linda Blair 1972
Director William Freidkin & Linda Blair On Set, The Exorcist (approx. 1972)

Casting for the film especially for lead roles, was not easy. Although many name stars of the era were considered for the role, including Marlon Brandon for the role of Lankester Merrin. Jack Nicholson for the part of Karras and Audrey Hepburn for the role of Chris MacNeil. Hepburn insisted the “The Exorcist” be shot in Rome, since she had just moved to Italy with her husband. This was not to be, as filming abroad would have raised the budget significantly, as well as creating language barriers with crew. Famously the lead role was offered to Jane Fonda who turned down the film as a “piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit” …who’d danced around in a sci-fi bikini having interstellar orgasms as Barbarella not even 5 years prior.

The question of whether or not a young actress, even a talented one, could carry the film was an issue from the jump. Film directors considered for the project were skeptical. Mike Nichols had turned down the project specifically because he did not believe a 12-year old girl was capable of playing the par, and would likely not be able to handle the psychological stress it could cause. The first actresses considered were names known to the public. Pamelyn Ferdin, a sci fi veteran and Denise Nickerson, who had played Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, was considered but the material bothered her parents too much.

Friedkin started to interview young women as old as 16 who looked young enough to play Regan, but was not finding anyone who worked. Then Elinore Blair came in unannounced to the director’s New York office with her daughter Linda. The agency representing Linda had not sent her for the part, but she had previously met with Warner Bros. Pictures casting department and then with Friedkin. Both mother & daughter impressed the director. Elinore was not a typical stage mother, and Linda’s credits were primarily in modeling: she was mainly interested in showing and riding horses around her Connecticut home. “Smart but not precocious, Cute but not beautiful. A normal, happy twelve-year old girl” Friedkin recalled.

The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror - Day 31

Blair let Friedkin know she had read “The Exorcist” by stating “it’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things – she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she hits her mother across the face and she masturbates with a crucifix.” Friedkin asked Linda if she knew what masturbation meant. “It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?” and she giggled. “Have you ever done that?” he asked. “Sure: haven’t you?” Linda responded. She was quickly cast as Regan after tests with Burstyn, and Friedkin realized he needed to keep that level of spontaneity on the set. Friedkin went to extraordinary lengths manipulating the actors, reminiscent of the old Hollywood directing style, to get the genuine reactions he wanted. Yanked violently around in harnesses, both Blair and Burstyn suffered back injuries and their painful screams were included in the film. Burstyn injured her back after landing on her coccyx when a stuntman jerked her around using a special effects cable during the scene when Regan slaps her mother. According to the documentary “Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist”, the injury did not cause permanent damage, although Burstyn was upset the shot of her screaming in pain was used in the film.

After O’Malley confirmed to Friedkin that he trusted the director, Friedkin slapped him hard across the face to generate a deeply solemn reaction for the last rites scene; this offended the many Catholic crew members on the set. He also fired blanks without warning on the set to elicit shock from Jason Miller for a take and told Miller that the pea soup would hit him in the chest rather than the face in the projectile vomiting scene, resulting in his disgusted reaction. Lastly, he had Regan’s bedroom set built inside a freezer so that the actors’ breath could be visible on camera, which required the crew to wear cold-weather gear. This could also be simply that Friedkin is a fucking crazy person and director. For the crucifix scene, Linda Blair’s own voice was recorded as she yelled her demon dialog. The recording was then slowed-down to achieve a very low bass. The very-low bass result was then recorded at such a speed to achieve a raging alto male voice.

“The Exorcist” is a product of a time drenched with horror, both real and on the screen: Vietnam War, Watergate, street riots, racial divide, crime and movies that starkly reflected it all – including those considered depraved, such as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Night of the Living Dead”. What is so horrific about The Exorcist to me isn’t even the demonic possession, it’s the incredible performance from Ellen Burystn. We watch a mother, completely skeptical of religion and any type of paranormal entity slowly unravel as she tries to rationalize the slow decline of her daughters health and…existence. As Regans health and behavior remains mysteriously unresolvable Chris turns, in desperation to the church. The head exorcist is the globe-trotting Father Merrin with Father Karras, a troubled psychiatric-counselor priest who also boxes, assisting. Inhabited poor Regan’s body it seems is none other than Pazuzu, an ancient demon god. The one plot-hole being there is absolutely zero explination as to why Regan is selected as it’s vessel – regardless it doesn’t really matter. Evil is evil regardless of the laws of nature.

The Exorcist (1973): 31 Days Of Horror - Day 31

Although the ‘shocks and scares’ may not hold up in 2019, they completely serve the stories purpose and make you feel even more for all those trying to help this child, and of course her exhausted mother. The tone of “The Exorcist” is often clinical and, except for the infrequent sounds of the prickly score there is virtually no music on this soundtrack. Unlike so many horror movies that followed, “The Exorcist” is actually about something. It’s about facing and trying to let go of traumas. Getting sick and growing old and all the bullshit that comes along with that. Accepting things outside of your own beliefs. And most of all – That pea soup will forever be tainted by this movie.

Combining new-style realism and sexual radicalism, old style horror and religion made for the perfect recipe in this revered classic. I watched this movie alone when I was around 12-13 years old and it is a movie that has affected me the most to this day. And for that and MANY other reasons – “The Exorcist” is the last choice on 31 Days Of Horror Countdown on Screamish!

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