The Exorcist

THE EXORCIST ran 121 minutes when it was unleashed in 1973 to become a runaway “did you go yet?” phenomenon, not only the year’s biggest hit, but ultimately, selling 110,600,000 tickets, one of the top moneymakers of all time. The 2000 Director’s Cut runs 132 minutes, restoring a few discarded scenes and adding some select effects. While not a raving fan of this “legendary” “classic” we meekly offer that the directors cut is an improvement. The movie is such a part of “the culture” (someone in this house is clearly possessed with quotation marks) that a synopsis is needless. Where have you been? Biding your fiend’s time under a Mesopotamian rock, waiting to wreak barf war on a few random strangers?  “Your father wears socks that smell!” *

Entranced by the idea of seemingly eternal evil (regular human depravity not bad enough?), everyone and their Rottweiler grabbed William Peter Blatty’s 1971 spook-summoning novel and whipped through the 340 pages of its 13,000,000 copies like Lucifer was going to quiz you personally. Hot from The French Connection, William Friedkin took reins for directing the film adaptation, with Blatty tooling the script off his book. Through delays, mishaps, fastidiousness and indulgence the production went past a scheduled 105 days to reach 200, nearly doubling its budget to $13,000,000. Though the painstaking—and pains-making, with long-term injuries suffered by Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair—had Warner’s worried they had a dead demon on their hands, fret evaporated when fear-fever reached the streets. With the publicity machine cranked to high heaven (or something closer), spreading titillating stories that the movie had been “cursed”, naturally even more Dick & Dorothy Gullible’s braved the elements to line up. The green spew hit $232,700,000 domestically; after reissues, the worldwide casting-out may have been $441,306,000, proof there is afterlife after make-believe. Friedkin was quoted: “Yes, I believe in exorcism. That’s why the film’s good. It’s not made with cynicism.”  Right. Insert a huge guffaw.

Well acted? Yes, by Burstyn, Blair, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller. At 38, Burstyn (‘Chris MacNeil’) had been acting since she was 16, yet was still a new face to moviegoers, with only The Last Picture Show having recently given her a break. Twelve-year-old Blair had done bit parts before being picked from over 600 applicants to play the physically demanding showcase role of cruelly victimized ‘Regan’.  Masterly veteran Von Sydow, 43, was convincingly made up to look three decades older as frail but undeterred ‘Father Merrin’. Thirty-three year-old playwright Miller made his acting debut as the guilt-wracked ‘Father Damien Karras’.

The real star is offscreen: the voice of Mercedes McCambridge. The unique 66-year-old actress does bravura heavy lifting, providing vital unease as the awful entity inside Regan. Her subterranean growls and tortured moans are further amplified by the sound mix, and her full-throttle delivery of profane dialogue was blue enough to set a new low for anything outside of a penitentiary.

Well crafted? Yes, with Dick Smith’s superlative makeup, and cinematographer Owen Reizman providing many memorable images, making it look like an intimate documentary/nightmare. The opening scenes were shot in Iraq around Mosul and the ancient site of Hatra, the rest in Washington D.C. and Georgetown, in New York City and at Warner Studios in Burbank, California. Used sparingly, Mike Oldfield’s eerie piano piece “Tubular Bells” became a popular hit. That great stair crawl in the directors cut was performed by stuntwoman Ann Miles. The sound crew did a superlative job, both by layering assorted sonic elements in with McCambridge’s agonized/aggressive vocals and in devising those unsettling noises coming from up in the attic. That looming Pazuzu deity is pretty cool, in his case carbon-dating our universal elemental fear factor back to the Early Iron Age, a Fertile Crescent frontman for 3,000 years of keep’em-in-line mumbo jumbo.

Scary? Meh. It depends on what shivers your timber. A whole lot of people practically whisper when they talk about the “experience” of The Exorcist. And yet, we live…

I hate to be the altar boy who complains (uh, aren’t there countless thousands of them: talking about real terror tales), but this much-admired trip to Hell & back didn’t faze me, let alone make me faint, rush up the aisle to ralph or provoke a rush to “seek faith”. That’s probably because I’m one of those Hades-bound blasphemers who don’t subscribe to guy-in-sky concepts, no matter where they come from: follow either the money, the illogic or the threats. That goes for imagining there is something worse waiting for us than what happens to someone, somewhere, every minute of every day. Taking this movie seriously—seriously? The fright stuff here isn’t shocking, just crass and repellent. For raising hackles we’ll take the equally unlikely The Omen (I say unlikely, because, holy f—!, what if I’m wrong?), since getting ambushed by a pack of dogs isn’t farfetched.  Actual real-world horrors—hornets, scorpions, jellyfish, bacteria, the creep who may get on the bus at the next stop, death squads, child molesters, politicians, war mongers and Those Who Have Found The ONLY way: they scare the living gospel out of me. Not well-aimed split pea soup.

Amazingly this conned an Oscar for the brutal Screenplay (no mean feat, winning a cursing contest against The Last Detail and Serpico), and another, unsurprisingly, for the superb Sound. Nominations were conjured for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Miller), Supporting Actress (Blair), Art Direction, Cinematography and Film Editing.

With Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Peter Masterson, Father William O’Malley, Father Thomas Bermingham, Jack MacGowran (“Oh, of course. And you never went bowling with Goebbels before either, I suppose? Nazi bastard.”) and Titos Vandis.

* “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

One curse that did take root was visited upon the hapless Blair, who had to be guarded for months afterwards to protect her from—who’d have guessed?—religious zealots and fanatics. She reflected: “It was always very strange for me when I was young and would meet someone who genuinely seemed to be afraid of me. They couldn’t separate me from the monster I became in a movie. You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me to make my head spin around.”  Sadly, we can believe it.

Speaking of loose screws, the sequels are, uh…hellish.

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