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The Exorcist

Production Credits:

Director: William Friedkin| Producer: William Peter Blatty and Noel Marshall| Screenplay:  William Peter Blatty | Cinematographer: Owen Roizman | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1973 | Running Time: 122 minutes or 132 minutes (Director’s cut)

Principal Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair

There have been very few films in the horror genre that have received as much attention or aroused such controversy among filmgoers as 1973’s The Exorcist. One of a cycle of ‘demonic child’ movies produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, (including Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen), this film is considered by many to be the best of the genre even though none of the cast or crew making it thought it would be so interesting, or affect audiences so much. Upon its release the film ignited a heated debate among the religious community, film critics, and audiences who were alternately repulsed and fascinated by its disturbing tale of good versus evil but today it is considered by many as one of the best and most effective horror films.

The film was based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, who adapted his work for the big screen . Prior to writing the novel Blatty won $10,000 on the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life and when Groucho asked what he planned to do with the money, he said he planned to take some time off to “work on a novel.”  The Exorcist was the result. Blatty based his original novel on a strange incident which took place in Mt. Rainer, Maryland in 1949 involving a young boy named Ronald Hunkeler whose Catholic family, convinced the child’s aggressive behavior was due to demonic possession, called upon the services of Father Walter Halloran to perform the rite of exorcism.  Blatty based other characters on real people, most notably the character of Chris MacNeil, whom he based on his good friend Shirley MacLaine. Coincidentally, MacLaine attempted to have a movie made of the novel (prior to the 1973 production), but the plans fell through.

Warner Brothers approached several prominent directors for the project including Arthur Penn (who was teaching at Yale), Peter Bogdanovich (who wanted to pursue other projects, but later regretted the decision), and Mike Nichols (who did not want to shoot a film so dependent on a child’s performance). Stanley Kubrick was interested in directing the film, but only if he could produce it himself and since the studio was worried that he would go over budget and over schedule, they finally hired Mark Rydell. Blatty was insistent on having William Friedkin direct instead, because he wanted his film to have the same energy as Friedkin’s previous one, The French Connection. A standoff between the author and the studio, who refused to budge over Rydell, began with Blatty eventually getting his way.

Both MacLaine and Jane Fonda were approached to play the role of Chris MacNeil as was Audrey Hepburn who only agreed to do it if it was filmed in Rome. Anne Bancroft was another choice for the part but since she was in her first month of pregnancy, she had to be dropped and the role went to Ellen Burstyn. The search for a young actress capable of playing Regan was apparently so difficult that Friedkin claims he even considered auditioning adult dwarf actors. Pamelyn Ferdin, a veteran of science fiction and supernatural drama, was a candidate but dismissed because the producers felt she was too well-known. Denise Nickerson (who played Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) was also considered, but her parents pulled her out, troubled by the material. The agency representing Linda Blair overlooked her, recommending at least 30 other clients for the part of Regan and Blair’s mother had to bring her in herself to try out for the role.

For the role of Father Merrin the studio wanted Marlon Brando but Friedkin immediately vetoed this, stating that if Brando was in the film it would become a “Brando movie” instead of the important film he wanted to make. Both Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman were considered for the part of Father Karras but it was given, at least initially, to Stacy Keach who was hired by Blatty. It was Friedkin who spotted Jason Miller in a Broadway play. Despite Miller never having acted in a movie before, Keach’s contract was bought out by Warner Brothers and Miller was cast in the role instead. Father Dyer was played by William O’Malley, an actual priest who still teaches to this day at Fordham University. Each year, O’Malley, who refers to the film as the “pornographic horror film” he once did, talks about his experience with the movie after students watch it on the same floor where it was filmed.

Production of The Exorcist began on August 14, 1972 and though it was only supposed to last 85 days, it lasted for 224. Interestingly, the last scenes of the movie to be filmed were the sequences in Iraq, which are the first you see in the movie. In order get permission to shoot in Iraq, Friedkin not only had to take an all-British crew (due to the fact that the US had no diplomatic relations with Iraq at that time) but also had to spend time teaching Iraqi filmmakers advanced film techniques as well as how to make fake blood.  The MacNeil residence interiors were filmed at CECO Studios in Manhattan and an actual residence in Georgetown was used for the exterior shots. Set decorators were required to add a false wing to the residence in order to make Regan’s bedroom window closer to the infamous “Exorcist steps”. In reality, the window that led to Regan’s room was at least 40 feet from the top of the steps and at that distance it would be impossible for anyone “thrown” from the window to actually land on them. Other Georgetown locations used in the film included the steps of the Flemish Romanasque Healy Hall, Dahlgren Chapel, and the office of the president of the university (which was the Archbishop’s office in the film). The University was paid $1,000 per day of filming.

The bedroom set was refrigerated to capture the authentic icy breath of the actors in the exorcising scenes and Linda Blair, who was only in a flimsy nightgown, says to this day she cannot stand being cold. The refrigerated bedroom set was cooled with four air conditioners and temperatures would plunge to around 30 to 40 below zero. It was so cold that perspiration would freeze on some of the cast and crew and once the air was saturated with moisture that a thin layer of snow fell on the set before the crew arrived for filming.

Friedkin went to some extraordinary lengths, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s manipulation of his actors, to get realistic reactions from the cast. For example, in the scene when Father Dyer is attempting to administer last rites to Father Karris, Friedkin was not satisfied after several takes and took William O’Malley aside and asked, “Do you trust me?” O’Malley said yes just in time to get slapped across the face. Friedkin immediately said, “Action!” and the result is what one sees in the film. He would also fire off guns without warning behind the actors to get the required startled effect and even went so far as to put Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in harnesses and have crew members yank them violently. Both Blair and Burstyn suffered back injuries as a result; Blair was hurt when a piece of the rig broke as she was thrown about on the bed and Burstyn received a permanent spinal damage during the sequence where she is thrown away from her
possessed daughter. One scene that did not require any “help” from Friedkin to get the desired reaction was the scene where Regan projectile vomits on Father Karras. It only required one take. The vomit was supposed to hit him on the chest but the plastic tubing that sprayed the vomit accidentally misfired, hitting him in the face and the look of shock and disgust while wiping away the vomit was genuine. Actor Jason Miller, later admitted in an interview that he was very angered by this mistake.

Gonzalo Gavira was called on to create many of the special sound effects. One of the more memorable sounds, the 360-degree turning of Regan’s head, was created by taking an old, cracked leather wallet and twisting it back and forth against a microphone. Creating the effect of having the words “help me” arise out of Regan’s torso took several stages. First a foam latex replica of Blair’s belly was made, and then the words were written out using a paint brush and cleaning fluid. The words were then filmed as they formed from the chemical reaction. The forming blisters were then heated with a blow dryer by special effects artist Dick Smith, causing them to deflate. When the film was run backwards, the result was the appearance that the words were rising out of young Regan’s skin in an attempt to summon intervention.

In order to make Max von Sydow appear much older than his then age of 44, Smith first had to apply generous amounts of stipple to von Sydow’s forehead, eyes and neck. His facial skin was then manually stretched as liquid latex was applied and when the latex dried, his taut skin was then released causing the film of rubber to corrugate. The daily make-up procedure lasted three hours and was apparently the cause of much anguish for von Sydow. In a later interview Smith later reminisced about doing Blair’s make-up, saying:

The makeup involved approximately two hours or more every morning. We would start around 7 A.M. [Blair] was bored by the whole thing – you can’t blame her – so we had a little TV set sitting on a shelf on the opposite wall which she could see by looking in the mirror. It got to be a bit dodgy at times, because if I would get in the way of the reflection of the TV set, she would move her head in order to continue seeing what The Flying Nun [the TV series starring Sally Field] was up to, and it just made it difficult to do the makeup.

On the first day of filming the infamous exorcism sequence, Blair’s delivery of her foul-mouthed dialogue so disturbed the gentlemanly Max von Sydow that he actually forgot his lines. For any of the demon’s dialogue, Friedkin had originally intended to electronically deepen and roughen Blair’s own voice but although it worked in some places, he felt the scenes when the demon confronts the two priests lacked the dramatic power required. He thus selected legendary radio actress Mercedes McCambridge, (an experienced voice actor) to provide the demon’s voice. To get the desired effect for the demon Pazuzu’s voice, McCambridge went through bouts of chain smoking and vomiting. When the film was released, Warner Brothers attempted to conceal McCambridge’s participation which led to a lawsuit from the actress and a grudge
between her and Friedkin that was never healed.

One of the most recognized scenes from the film was not actually in original release. The infamous spider-walk scene, which was performed by contortionist Linda R. Hager on April 11, 1973, was deleted just prior to the original December 26, 1973 premiere because Friedkin felt it was technically ineffective due to the visible wires suspending Hager in a backward-arched position as she descends the stairs (he also felt that the scene appeared too early in the film’s plot). According to Friedkin, “I cut it when the film was first released because this was one of those effects that did not work as well as others, and I was only able to save it for the re-release with the help of computer graphic imagery.” Years later, to appease the fans of the film, Friedkin worked with CGI artists to digitally remove the wires holding Hager and reinstated the bloody variant of the spider-walk scene for the 2000 theatrically re-released version of The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen.

Many of the film’s participants claimed the film was cursed. Blatty stated on video that there were some strange occurrences during the filming and Burstyn indicated some rumors were true in her 2006 autobiography Lessons in Becoming Myself. A studio fire caused the interior sets of the MacNeil residence (with the exception of Regan’s bedroom) to have to be rebuilt and resulted in a setback in pre-production. Friedkin eventually asked technical advisor Thomas Bermingham to exorcise the set. After his refusal, Rev. Bermingham, during a visit to the set, gave a blessing and talk to reassure the cast and crew. In order to bring some levity to the shoot, Blatty suggested shooting a scene (not for the movie, but to amuse everyone at the screening of the rushes) in which Father Merrin would enter the house, take off his hat, and reveal himself to be Groucho Marx, who was a friend of Blatty’s. Groucho was keen to do it, but Friedkin was sick the day it was planned and so the idea was abandoned.

The original teaser trailer for the film, which consisted of nothing but images of the white-faced demon quickly flashing in and out of darkness, was banned in many theaters, as it was deemed “too frightening”. The reaction continued during the film’s initial theatrical release. Many audiences reacted so strongly that at many theaters, paramedics were called to treat people who fainted and others who went into hysterics. A filmgoer who saw the movie in 1974 fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. He then sued Warner Brothers and the filmmakers, claiming that the use of subliminal imagery in the film had caused him to pass out. The studio settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Blatty later mused that it wasn’t the supernatural/demonic sequences that caused, nausea in the aisles and inspired patrons to flee theater but instead it was the scene in which Regan undergoes carotid angiography, using direct carotid puncture and pneumoencephalography which upset theatergoers.

When originally released in the UK a number of town councils imposed a complete ban on the showing of the film. This led to the bizarre spectacle of “Exorcist Bus Trips” where enterprising travel companies organised buses to take groups to the nearest town where the film was showing. The film was not available on video in the UK until 1999 when the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) approved an uncut version.

The Exorcist went on to earn ten Academy Award nominations and won two: Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would also be the first horror film to ever be nominated for Best Picture Academy Award, losing  it to The Sting. Blair received her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination before it was widely known that previous Supporting Actress winner Mercedes McCambridge had actually provided the voice of the demon. By Academy rules once Blair was given the nomination it could not be withdrawn, but the controversy surrounding Blair being given credit for another actress’ work are thought to have ruined her chances of winning.

The Exorcist earned $66.3 million during its theatrical release in 1974, becoming the second most popular film of that year (after The Sting).After several reissues, the film eventually grossed $232,671,011 in the North America, which if adjusted for inflation, would make it one of the top-grossing R-rated films of all time. The film has had a huge effect on popular culture and has been named the scariest movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly, Maxim and by viewers of AMC in 2006. In 2010 the film was selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress as part of its National Film Registry of culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.

Some Interesting Trivia:
Due to death threats against Linda Blair from religious zealots who believed the film “glorified Satan”, Warner Bros. had bodyguards protecting her for six months after the film’s release.

The entire exorcism scene, from start to end, lasts 9 minutes. Three separate beds were built to do three separate movements.

According to Variety magazine, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds both were contenders for the roles of Regan and Chris MacNeil.

The substance that the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) hurls at Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is thick pea soup. Specifically, it’s Andersen’s brand pea soup. The crew tried Campbell’s but didn’t like the “effect.”

The nurse who comes into Dr. Taney’s office after the arteriogram is actress Linda Blair’s mother, Elinore Blair.

The subliminal shots of the white faced demon are actually rejected makeup tests for Regan’s possessed appearance.

The archaeological dig site seen at the beginning of the movie is the actual site of ancient Nineveh in Hatra, Iraq.

The “Exorcist steps” are 75 (or 74 – one is very small) stone steps at the end of M Street in Georgetown, which were padded with 1/2″-thick rubber to film the death of Father Karras. The stuntman tumbled down the stairs twice and Georgetown University students charged people around $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops.

Author William Peter Blatty was barred from all post-production work by Friedkin after a major dispute.

Christian evangelist Billy Graham claimed an actual demon was living in the celluloid reels of this movie.

For Further Reading:
Travers, Peter and Rieff, Stephanie. The Story Behind ‘The Exorcist’, Signet Books, 1974.

  1. Deb
    October 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Terrific blog! It’s thorough and filled with detail, interesting facts and information. A must read companion piece for anyone’s favourite movies. Well done, I look forward to more!

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