'The Exorcist' - The Film
Created | Updated Apr 17, 2018
While writer William Peter Blatty was still a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, USA, he happened across the news report in The Washington Post of a 14-year-old boy from Mount Rainier, USA who, it was claimed, had been freed by a Catholic priest from possession by the devil. The article detailed how the priest had stayed with the boy for a period of two months, during which time he heard the boy speak Latin, a language he had never studied, and witnessed the boy's bed move across his bedroom while the boy was sleeping.
Blatty was a man of some faith - indeed he had at one time considered entering the priesthood - and the news article, which was reported so coolly, without hysterical over-reaction, struck him as evidence of the existence of God. 'If there were demons,' he later wrote, 'there were angels, and probably a God and a life everlasting1.' Though he didn't realise it at the time, this one article would affect his entire future. He would continue to study the idea of possession without specific aim, but it wasn't until 1963 that he first got the notion that the exorcism might itself serve as the basic idea behind a novel. Ironically, at that time he was best known as a comedy writer - he scripted the Peter Sellers/Pink Panther movie A Shot In The Dark, among others - and his agent plus his then-publisher, both remained unconvinced by Blatty's insistence that his idea might sell.
In 1967, at a party, Blatty got talking to Marc Jaffe, the editorial director of Bantham Books. Jaffe asked Blatty what he was working on, and the author found himself telling Jaffe about his vague ideas about possession. To Blatty's surprise, Jaffe seemed interested and invited him to send him an outline. Only one problem - Blatty still didn't have a plot for the book. He began to work on a number of ideas with two basic threads: that a young boy commits murder and his mother fights for his innocence by trying to prove he is insane, and when that fails, that he's possessed; and that the priest she calls upon is suffering a crisis of faith. Over time, the idea of the mother harbouring a killer was lost, the boy became a girl and the priest changed from a white priest called Father Thomas to a black Haitian-descended priest called John Henry Carver to a white Polish-American called Damien Karras. At this point, the book was intended to be an examination of one man's faith, and how it wasn't the successful exorcism but the evidence of human love, between the mother and her child, that convinced him of the existence of God.
Blatty began looking for documentary evidence of possessions, but found that most could be attributed to one or other medical explanations: epilepsy, schizophrenia, Tourette's syndrome or other ailments we can identify today were seen as symptoms of possession in the past. Some stories bore fruit however. One from 1928 told of a 40-year-old woman who would be levitated across a room. Another, told to him by Father Bermingham, his old teacher, concerned a priest whose hair was said to have turned white during an exorcism. After a few false starts, Blatty was able to trace the old man, and soon struck up a correspondence. The priest was a little reticent, largely because he was concerned that the young man he had exorcised might suffer if his story were to be made public. Additionally, he had been made to promise not to reveal to anyone the exact details of the case. However, he confessed to Blatty that he felt some good might come from having the case reported and eventually, he told him the specifics of the case while still protecting the child's identity2.
By 1970, Blatty had finished his manuscript, and prior to submitting it to his publisher, he decided to take a copy to his neighbour, the actress Shirley MacLaine, who'd been a friend of his for some years and from whom he'd drawn inspiration in the creation of the lead character, actress Chris MacNeil. MacLaine was excited by the book and told him that she wanted to play the female lead in a film version.
The Exorcist was finally published in 1971. After a slow start, and thanks to a TV interview with Blatty, the novel soon topped the best-sellers list, where it remained for 55 weeks. A film version seemed inevitable.
While working on her latest film, actress Chris MacNeil rents a large house in Georgetown, Washington for herself, her 12-year-old daughter, Regan, and her housekeepers. When Regan begins to suffer convulsions and violent fits, Chris takes her to a number of medical specialists, but none of them are able to find any satisfactory cause for her behaviour. Returning home late one night, Chris learns that Burke Dennings, the director of her film, has been found dead at the foot of a flight of stone steps that run down the side of her house. At first, it's assumed that Burke, a notorious alcoholic, simply lost his footing and slipped. When Chris checks on Regan in her room, she finds her daughter sleeping soundly, but her bedroom window is wide open - Chris realises that the window looks straight out onto the stone steps and begins to suspect that, somehow, her daughter is responsible for Dennings' death.
Regan's condition worsens and, after she violently attacks her mother and begins to mutilate herself, Chris reaches desperation point. She meets with Father Damien Karras, a psychiatric counsellor for the Catholic Church, and begs him to prove to her that her daughter is not possessed. Karras has his own problems - his mother is gravely ill and he is suffering a crisis of faith. He resentfully agrees to visit Regan, but he is staggered by what he finds: Chris has been forced to bind her young daughter to her bed to stop her from lashing out at her or anyone else; she speaks in a voice not of her own, often in a different language; her face is sick and contorted. After spending time with the girl, Karras becomes convinced that she is indeed possessed and calls for help from an expert, Father Lankester Merrin. Though Merrin has experienced a number of similar situations when he was younger, now he is old and frail.
With Karras' help, Father Merrin begins the lengthy Rite of Exorcism, but the strain is too great for him and he suffers a fatal heart attack. The demon within Regan begins to goad the stunned Karras, accusing him of betraying his recently-deceased mother and of being homosexual. At his wit's end, Karras breaks and grabs Regan, begging the demon to take him instead. The demon leaps into him and, as he struggles to maintain control, Karras throws himself through Regan's window and falls to his death at the foot of the steps below.
Some time later, the MacNeils prepare to leave Washington. Regan appears to have no memory of the past few weeks, which is a relief to everyone. After Regan and her mother have gone, Karras's friend, Father Dyer, meets with detective inspector Kinderman, who met Karras while investigating Burke Dennings' death. Both men are still reeling from the recent events, yet through their grief, they find themselves on the verge of a strong friendship.
In a move that can only be described as shrewd, Bill Blatty had ensured that his contract for the movie rights reserved him a producer's role on any subsequent adaptation of his novel. When film studio Warner Bros3 acquired the rights to the book, the thought of them risking a potential blockbuster film on an unproven producer was not a reassuring one, so they hired their own producer, Paul Monash to work with Blatty and effectively act as a caretaker for the studio's interests. Almost from the start, Blatty found himself at odds with Monash, with the pair frequently disagreeing on the most basic levels. Monash wanted to change the setting of the film, feeling that Washington wasn't right. He disliked the lengthy prologue set in Iraq, requested changes to the character of detective Kinderman and wanted to omit Father Merrin, the titular exorcist, completely. Eventually, Blatty managed to use his weight as creator of the project and persuaded Warner Bros to allow him to buy Monash out, leaving himself in sole control.
Almost from the beginning, Blatty had wanted hothead director William Friedkin to helm the picture. Blatty had been impressed by Friedkin's no-nonsense attitude and bullish personality and felt he'd be perfect for what he felt should be a naturalistic documentary-style production. Warner disagreed and suggested more established filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey). As the names on Warner's preferred list began to back out or express their lack of interest in the project, Friedkin was preparing to release The French Connection. His film's success4, coupled with Warners' lack of viable options, convinced the studio to relent and Friedkin was at last hired to direct The Exorcist.
Working on the script, Friedkin and Blatty began the customarily difficult task of paring down the novel. Blatty's first draft removed a few of the key sub-plots, notably that of the house-keeper's daughter, who in the novel is revealed to be a drug addict. But it retained a number of flashbacks which Friedkin felt slowed down the pace of the picture. He was also less-than happy with the symbolism of the screenplay and began to reshape the script in a more linear, 'truthful' story.
Friedkin had a very clear idea of which actors he wanted for the lead roles. Swedish actor Max Von Sydow was top of his list for Father Merrin. Von Sydow had previously starred as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1963) and had played chess against Death himself in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957). Though Blatty had always hoped Shirley MacLaine would play Chris MacNeil, by the time production was due to begin, MacLaine was unavailable due to a previous commitment, so Blatty and Friedkin were forced to compile an alternative list of potentials, which included Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda. But it was the comparatively unknown Ellen Burstyn who would eventually get the part. Burstyn had just been nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in The Last Picture Show and knew she would be perfect for the role of the distressed actress/mother. After a dedicated and spirited campaign to get the director's attention, Friedkin agreed with her. The detective, Bill Kinderman, was a character Blatty had some affinity with (indeed, the character would be the focal point for a follow-up, Legion some years later). Here, they chose Lee J Cobb, who had impressed audiences with his fiery performance in the film 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957).
Two roles did, however, cause the pair some difficulty. For the role of the disillusioned young priest, Damien Karras, they knew they wanted an unknown, concerned that a familiar face might unbalance the film and prove distracting. To that end, Blatty cast Stacy Keach. But then Friedkin happened to catch playwright Jason Miller star in a stage production of Miller's own play, That Championship Season and he knew that he wanted Miller, and not Keach, for Karras. Keach was paid off and Miller was hired, despite the fact that Miller had never acted in front of a camera before.
Central to the picture was, of course, the girl who would have to undergo hours in make-up to portray the possessed child, Regan MacNeil. Though over 500 12-year-old girls were auditioned, and with the production team entertaining the possibility of hiring an older actress to play someone younger, they finally found their Regan in the form of Linda Blair. One of Blair's first tasks was working with make-up guru Dick Smith, who experimented with a number of different looks for the possession make-up, beginning with a witch-like face with big bushy eyebrows and slowly changing the designs until it looked like a badly-beaten child (Blair's final make-up took up to four hours to apply each day). Actress Eileen Diets was hired as Blair's stunt-woman and stand-in for some of the more disturbing scenes (she also played the demon seen in some of the picture's subliminal flash-frames), while a dummy was constructed for the famous head-swivelling scene. The scene in which Regan projectile vomits over Father Karras was achieved by passing a pipe around Diets's mouth like a horse's bit, with a cut at the front. Make-up disguised the pipe so that the vomit (pea soup) could be pumped through at speed. Though many later commented on Smith's astounding possession make-up, the old-age make-up used for Von Sydow generally went unnoticed, which Smith took as a major compliment.
Throughout the production, Friedkin's obsessive personality drove the cast and crew to distraction. Initial filming in Iraq for the film's prologue had already set Friedkin back a number of weeks, due mainly to the short amount of time they were able to film in the immense heat. On his return to the States, Friedkin found that the sets the crew had been working on were not suitable. For one thing, the doorframes were too small for the cameras to move through. For another, Friedkin hated the décor. Set designer John Robert Lloyd was fired and Bill Malley brought in and instructed to begin again from scratch, setting back studio filming by a further six weeks. Just as things seemed to be back on track, however, the MacNeil house set burned down in a freak accident that later helped fuel the many rumours of a curse surrounding the production. A new set was constructed hurriedly, and, more to calm the crew than anything else, Friedkin asked Blatty's old teacher, the Reverend Thomas Bermingham (who was also acting as a consultant on the picture) to exorcise the set. He refused, saying an exorcism might increase anxiety, but he did agree to give the crew a blessing.
To create the look of intense cold in Regan's bedroom and capture the breath of the actors on film, Friedkin had the entire set refrigerated. The room was initially refrigerated to zero degrees using industrial air coolers, but when the set was lit, the temperature would rise and the effect would be lost on camera. The temperature was then plunged to around 30 to 40 below zero. The room was also placed on hydraulics so it could be shook and the actors thrown about. Special effects expert Marcel Vercoutere built three different beds for different requirements, including levitation and shuddering, and hidden rigging was used to thrash Linda Blair in her bed. During one take, the harness holding Blair came loose and bruised her back, causing her to scream out in real agony (though, Blair boasts, she never actually came out of character for the take). Another rig, used to 'throw' Ellen Burstyn across the room, left the actress with a permanent spinal injury after Friedkin instructed a stage hand to pull the cables attached to her harness extra hard. But then, by this time, the cast were used to Friedkin's seemingly sadistic streak. Supposedly to keep them all on edge, he continually fired off guns behind the actors to get the required startled effect, resulting in Jason Miller threatening to punch the director.
One of the most famous images from the film remains the stone steps where Damien Karras falls to his death. Each of the 97 steps was padded with half-inch-thick rubber to protect stuntman Charlie Walters's back. Marcel Vercoutere also taped a plastic bag filled with fake blood to Walters's back so that each collision with the steps produced a squirt of blood. When he finally came to rest at the bottom of the stairs, the bag continued to leak, creating a bloody pool around his body. For this scene, Father Thomas O'Malley (a real-life priest cast as Father Dyer) would be seen administering the last rites to Karras. O'Malley was not a trained actor and, after 15 takes in the early hours of the morning, Friedkin's patience was exhausted. He called O'Malley aside and asked him if he trusted him. O'Malley naturally assured him that he did, at which point Friedkin slapped him hard across the face, turned and shouted 'action'. O'Malley would later comment that in the finished take, his hands were shaking for real.
In post-production, celebrated foley artist Gonzalo Gavira was called on to create many of the special sound effects. For the 360-degree turning of Regan's head, the sound was actually made by twisting an old leather wallet in front of a microphone, and the sound of bees buzzing in a jar provided the atmospheric sounds for the Iraq prologue. The voice of the demon itself was initially supposed to be that of Linda Blair, treated and slowed down. After 150 hours of work however, Friedkin rejected it. He called on the voice of Mercedes McCambridge, an actress he remembered from Joseph L Mankiewicz's Suddenly Last Summer, who he fed raw eggs, alcohol and cigarettes, and then strapped her to a chair, causing her to form the unusual double and triple vocal sounds. Wanting to keep the nature of the voice a secret, Friedkin left McCambridge's name off the credits. Having suffered so much to create the voice of the demon, McCambridge successfully sued Warner Brothers and her name appeared on subsequent releases.
The final touch was the atmospheric music soundtrack created by composer Jack Nitzsche, who built an intense collection of non-traditional incidentals that often sounded more like sound effects than recognisable music. It is perhaps for this reason that, when discussing the music from the film, people will automatically recall the short sample of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells that appears near the beginning of the film rather than Jack Nitzsche's actual theme.
A final cut of the picture was assembled by the end of 1973, but by now relations between Blatty and Friedkin had soured. Friedkin had removed a number of scenes that Blatty had fought for, including one where Regan is seen to crawl backwards down a flight of stairs (what became known as the 'spider-walk' sequence) and the end of the film, which showed Father Dyer and Detective Kinderman strike up a friendship. These cuts remained a bone of contention between the two for almost 25 years.
The $10 million Warner Brothers production of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist was finally released in December 1973, grossing over $100 million at the box office, and earning ten nominations from the Academy Awards the following year, including Best Screenplay. More importantly, it became a phenomenon as people across the world blamed it for a number of sinister events. Suicides, murders, heart attacks and attacks of epilepsy were all seen as supposed evidence of the film's satanic power. American Christian evangelist Billy Graham claimed an actual demon was living in the celluloid reels of this movie.
There are tales about ominous events surrounding the year-long shoot, including the deaths of nine people associated with the production, and stories about a mysterious fire that destroyed the set one weekend. The most widely reported 'event' was the death of Jack MacGowran, who passed away two weeks after completing his scenes as Burke Dennings. Other fatalities attributed to the movie included those of Max Von Sydow's brother (who died in Sweden during production), Linda Blair's grandfather and a night watchman assigned to the production. Additionally, Jason Miller's son Jordan was struck by a speeding motorbike during a beach visit, putting him in intensive care; a gaffer cut off his own fingers in an accident; Blatty's secretary, Noni, was rumoured to have been taken ill overnight, while her room-mate went insane and was committed. Added to the back injury Burstyn suffered and the unexplained set that burned down and the theory of a 'curse of The Exorcist' would seem to be a conclusive one. Max Von Sydow, however, remains unconvinced: 'You shoot a film for that long, there are bound to be a number of coincidences'. Friedkin didn't help matters by spreading rumours himself just to generate a buzz about the picture.
The Exorcist in the Home
In anticipation of the inevitable edits required for American network TV broadcast, Friedkin prepared a cut-down version for TV. A shot of a desecrated statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced with a shot of a similar statue painted like a whore. Much of the profanity in Regan's possession scenes was replaced with softer language. The infamous taunt 'Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras' was re-dubbed by Friedkin himself (unwilling to work with Mercedes McCambride again) as 'Your mother still rots in hell'. Though it might be entertaining from a novelty perspective, this network TV version is thankfully not used any more.
Though American audiences were free to watch the film in the comfort of their own homes, The Exorcist enjoyed only the briefest of outings on rental VHS before being withdrawn. Despite rumours to the contrary, however, it was never officially 'banned'. After concerns were raised by the influx of 'video nasties' in the early 1980s, the British Board of Film Classification decided to select a number of film titles for reclassification. The Exorcist was one of the many films brought under scrutiny. The Board felt that after incidences of hysteria in cinema screenings, the film was too powerful for them to risk it being viewed by children in the home and suggested that Warner Home Video should resubmit the film for BBFC approval. Instead, Warner Bros took the decision to withdraw their video version until such time as the BBFC might take a more lenient view. For this, they had to wait until 1999, by which time the Board had reassessed the film and felt that while it was still undoubtedly a powerful work, it had perhaps lost some of its impact with the arrival of new special effects techniques and more visceral horror movies. The Exorcist was finally passed for home video, uncut and with an '18' certificate in the February of 1999.
The Director's Cut
During the making of a BBC documentary by film expert Mark Kermode about The Exorcist's legacy, Blatty and Friedkin discussed the changes Friedkin had made that had so upset the writer/producer years earlier. At last the two men found their middle-ground, and Blatty was able to persuade the director to reinstate a number of scenes that had been cut from the final edit. The result was the creation of a new edition, labelled 'The Version You've Never Seen'. This edit received a limited cinema release in September 2000 and included both Blatty's preferred original ending and the now legendary 'spider-walk' scene as well as new subliminal images created using modern special effects. Of the new edition, Blatty enthused: 'It's the version that I've wanted for 25 years. It's the version that I first saw on the moviola in the editing room all those years ago, and it's the way it ought to be seen.' Subsequently, the new version has been released on DVD.
Inevitably, the success of The Exorcist led to a fast turn-around sequel. With an original script that had nothing to do with William Peter Blatty, and directed by John Boorman (one of the many directors who declined the offer to direct the first film), The Exorcist II: The Heretic was released in 1977 and followed on from the first film by looking at Regan as a teenager (played once again by Linda Blair), still troubled by the horrific events of her childhood. Despite such impressive support from Richard Burton (as another exorcist) and Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, the film failed to ignite the imagination of audiences to the degree of the original and is often regarded as an embarrassment by all concerned.
In 1980, William Peter Blatty directed a film adaptation of his novel The Ninth Configuration (aka Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane). Though the story had nothing in common with The Exorcist, thematically it shared a number of its central issues, namely how can a person believe in God in a world where there is so much evil? Not officially part of the cinematic Exorcist canon, fans often include this as part of a looser 'faith' trilogy of Blatty's work.
A second, superior sequel to The Exorcist was released in 1990. The Exorcist III was based on Blatty's own novel, Legion, and directed by Blatty himself. It focused on Detective Kinderman (this time played by George C Scott) and his attempt to solve the apparent resurrection of 'The Gemini Killer', a murderer who was executed 15 years earlier. With the same fine balance between philosophy, suspense and out-and-out horror, The Exorcist III suffered the burden of being a sequel, yet remains a remarkably worthy follow-up to Blatty's original work.
A 'prequel' to The Exorcist, entitled The Exorcist 4.1, is currently in production (at time of writing), directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Liam Neeson as a young Father Merrin. William Peter Blatty has been quite vocal in the lack of input he has had on this picture, indicating his disapproval with the further exploitation of his work.
Incidentally, though there have been many spoofs of The Exorcist over the years, special mention should be reserved for Repossessed, which was released the same year as Exorcist III. Though it's a comedy-by-numbers spoof relying too much on jokes about vomiting, it is notable for the casting of Linda Blair as a married woman who finds herself 'repossessed' by a demon. Leslie Nielson (star of the Naked Gun and Airplane movies) co-stars as the exorcist, Father Mayii.