The story of how a movie that almost never came to be, became one of the most iconic Horror movies of the 70s is a fascinating one in itself. The answer can be found in the fact that it was done at a time in which the Hollywood industry was changing drastically with a new focus on low-budgeted, small independent movies, with predominantly gritty plots and characters. A new wave of young filmmakers was coming up, re-shapping the industry in the process. It was a creative renaissance in Hollywood that brought new, daring and outrageous ideas to the table. It was in this new state of affairs that a young unemployed screenwriter named William Peter Blatty, mostly known for writing comedy for the likes of filmmakers like Blake Edwards, started working on a non-fiction account of a real life event that had taken place near the Washington area where Blatty used to live as a teenager, that wound up turning into a novel. But how he got there was a long, winding road.
The real life event on which Blatty based his text was an exorcism that had taken place in Maryland in 1949. Blatty got wind of it while studying at Georgetown University. The local press had published an article about a family living in Maryland, whose young son had undergone inexplicable behavioural changes that could not be medically explained. After months trying every possible solution, they sought out the help of the Catholic Church, who after visiting the boy, authorized an exorcism. Gruesome details about the case came filtering to the students at Georgetown University, and immediately peaked Blatty’s interest, not the least of them that, apparently, the two priests who had performed the exorcism were lodging at the University at the time. Blatty stored this information away to be used in the future.
Years later, and having worked in Hollywood for a while, Blatty found himself currently unemployed. Out of boredom, and in an attempt to try his hand at published writing, he went back to his teenage years, and started research on the Maryland exorcism. He read every book available on the subject, and even sought out the Jesuit priest who had performed the ritual. Bound by a vow a secrecy though, the priest could not reveal the names of those involved, but agreed to talk Blatty through the ritual. Being unable to verify any of his findings, Blatty decided to change the names of the characters, and transformed his non-fiction account into a work of fiction, found a publisher, and published his book to great acclaim. But he didn’t want to just stop there. Confident that Hollywood might show an interest on his work being adapted to the big screen, he started working on the first draft of a screenplay. It was this first draft that he shopped around to the big studios, in the hope that it would get picked up by a daring one. Unfortunately, the idea was rejected by almost all the studios he visited, who found the material too gruesome and shocking to be seen on the big screen. The story of young and innocent Regan McNeill who gets possessed by an evil spirit, and the uphill battle that her soon-to-be-divorced mother, and actress Chris McNeill, with the help of two Jesuit priests must face to expell the demon out of her daughter, after all medical explanations for her shocking mental and physical transformation have been ruled out, wasn’t anyone’s idea of a feel-good movie that would clean up at the box office. Enter William Friedkin and Warner Bros.
A documentarian’s look
From the outset Blatty was determined to get a filmmaker who could give his work the feel of a real life documentary. He’d set his sights on one filmmaker in particular who fit the bill; William Friedkin. Friedkin was a filmmaker who’d started his career as a documentary filmmaker, and his grounded and gritty looking approach was just what Blatty needed for the movie. Friedkin was at the time in the middle of his promotional tour for The French Connection (1971), which would end up winning 5 Academy Awards that year, chief among them, one for Best Picture and another for Best Director. It was actually the clout that Friedkin got after this success, that allowed him to take on The Exorcist, and convince Warner Bros to finance it. Blatty sent Friedkin a copy of his novel, and of his screenplay. When Friedkin finally got a chance to sit down to read it, he loved it. He wanted to get involved with it right away, but wasn’t so enamoured with Blatty’s approach of it on screenplay form. In an attempt to try and cram in as much of the narrative of the novel as possible, without being untrue to the source material, Blatty tried to condense the first third of the book using every conceivable camera and editing trick in the book, resulting in a technical script that was in Friedkin’s words, and I quote; “too flashy”, which was the opposite of what this kind of story called for. Friedkin re-read the novel, highlighting passages of it he thought could be adapted for the screen. It was on these terms that Blatty started re-writing the script.
Having convinced Warner Bros to finance the film, it was hard for Friedkin to convince them that he didn’t really want any big stars for the movie. The Studio came up with a few names, and Friedkin was obliged to follow up on their suggestions. Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft were the three leading ladies that the Studio wanted to have screen tested for the role. Fonda flat out rejected the role, and Hepburn, who was living in Italy at the time, accepted on the condition that the movie be shot in Rome. Seeing the impracticality in that, Friedkin discarded the idea. Another actress however came to Friedkin, who’d read the script, and was very interested in the role; Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn heavily lobbied to get the role, as she explained to Friedkin that she loved the script and the role of the mother in it. Friedkin screen tested her with Linda Blair, the fourteen-year old young actress who landed the role of Regan, and was convinced.
Linda Blair was a curious case in that she was part of an agency that, when the casting process had started, hadn’t been considered for the role. It was in fact her mother who took her to the casting session without really knowing what the movie was going to be about. It was quite shocking for the very young and innocent Blair when she was given a very blasphemous line of dialogue to read, and was at a loss afterwards as to how she was going to explain to her mother what it was that the role implied. Not too concerned, as it turned out, as she was given the role shortly afterwards after having tested a few scenes with Ellen Burstyn. The two actresses seemed to hit it off right away, and it was on this very emotional mother-daughter-like connection that Friedkin successfully built the movie around. As for the two actors who were to portray the roles of the two Jesuit priests who’d end up performing the exorcism, it was clear for Friedkin from the beginning that he wanted Swedish actor Max von Sydow for the role of Father Lankaster Merrin. His election was based on the fact that the actor had regularly played roles for Ingmar Bergman which were, in Friedkin’s words, “mature beyond his young age”. Sydow would also have to be aged accordingly by the makeup artists to fit the age of his character in the book. The role of the second priest, Father Damien Karras, was something more of a head-scratcher. Friedkin was adamant about having an unknown actor play the role, so that the stardom quality of the actor who was to portray him would not ultimately eclipse the emotional depth of such a conflicted character. It was this unique quality to Father Karras’s character that had Friedkin think outside the box, and look for a suitable actor in the most unlikely of places. This is how he came to Jason Miller, a stage actor and playwright, who’d recently achieved great success with his play That Championship season. Friedkin went to see the play, and was impressed by the aura of failed human faith the play had to it, and very much wanted to meet the author. After a first meeting that didn’t go too well, Friedkin went back to the Studio’s idea of hiring a known actor for the role, with Paul Newman seriously being considered at one time. It was only after Miller had read the novel that he started to understand Friedkin’s choice. Having expressed his doubts to Friedkin at first, Miller was now utterly convinced that he was the absolute best choice for the role and got in contact with the director again. Friedkin agreed to test him for the role, and saw that in spite of the actor’s limited on-screen experience, the camera, in Friedkin’s own words; “loved him”. Another important piece of casting was that of actor Lee J. Cobb, who would interpret one of the most significant characters in the movie; Lt. Kinderman. The character was so successful that even actor Peter Falk would take inspiration from him to model his Lt. Colombo from the famous TV show, after him.
Friedkin and Blatty also sought out the advise of real Jesuit priests to ground the movie even more in reality such as Reverend Thomas Bermingham, and Father William O’Malley, who plays Father Karras’s best friend, Father Dyer.
All the tricks in the bag
Although most of the movie was shot on location in Georgetown in Washington DC, most of the interiors were shot on a sound stage in New York in which the interior of the McNeill’s residence was recreated, as the filmmakers found the rooms of the house they had rented in Georgetown to double up for the house, were too small. They would also have to build a completely fake third floor facade with a window, which was supposed to be Regan’s bedroom window, facing the now famous steep flight of steps opposite the street as described in the book. These steps would later be known as the ”Hitchcock steps”. Over the years, and after the massive success of the movie, these steps and the house next to it, have become a very popular tourist attraction.
To recreate the gruesome and heart-stopping special effects seen in the movie, the filmmakers used every trick in the book. With the help of makeup artist Dick Smith, in charge of Regan’s striking transformation and of aging Max von Sydow, and practical effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere, with un-credited help by Rick Baker, the filmmakers pulled all the stops, from rigging the bed to shake and move up and down, furniture to slide and crash against the walls, and occasionally actors, to build another bedroom set on hydraulic levers to be tilted sideways, and even go as far as using huge air conditioner units to refrigerate the set overnight, with the actors shooting scenes for only short intervals before having to leave the freezing set. Smith did lots of makeup tests to find the right balance between supernatural and physical depravity. Early makeup tests were deemed too over-the-top by Friedkin, who still wanted the movie to retain a somehow grounded sense of reality without going too far into the supernatural realm. He argued that the facial scars that Regan would gradually exhibit throughout the movie should be seen as self inflicted more than due to supernatural causes. There was also the matter of how much Friedkin could get away with by having a young actress perform extremely demanding physical scenes for hours on end. Union regulations wouldn’t allow for it, so it was decided that a double would step in for scenes that Blair couldn’t shoot on account of her age, or the time necessary to perform them. The filmmakers also tried all kinds of tricks to alter Blair’s voice electronically, which ultimately convinced Friedkin that the right way to go about it was to find someone who had a distinct voice to dubb her. This is how they found Mercedes McCambridge, a talented stage, radio and screen performer, who lent her unique voice-over talents as a possesed Regan.
The shoot wasn’t without its fair share of weird occurrences on set, and deaths among the crew members, that only added to the dark legend behind the movie. Several members of the crew or people related to them, died in strange circumstances, and one weekend when the cast and crew were away, the set burned down for no apparent reason. The fire department who investigated the incident couldn’t find any electrical problem, or outside element which could’ve started the fire.
After the main unit had finished filming in Georgetown, they had to move to Northern Irak to film the movie’s prologue, which presented one major problem.
Diplomatic relations between the US and the Middle East weren’t great even back then, so the producers had to come up with a solution that would allow Friedkin to travel to Irak to finish filming. It was decided that since the UK had good relations with the Iraqui government at the time, the producers would hire a British crew to go there with Friedkin. Once there they found the perfect spot to shoot in an archeological dig on the outskirts of Mosul. Shooting conditions weren’t comfortable though, due to extremely high temperatures that would allow them to only shoot for a short period of time in the first hours of the morning before the sun came up, the crew would then retire to their tents to seek shelter from the blazing sun, and come back out in late afternoon to shoot the rest. Being unable to shoot for long periods of time meant that the shooting schedule extended for three weeks, exacerbated by the fact that the figure of the Pazuzu demon that had been built by the Art department on the US weeks back and shipped to Irak, had somehow got lost in transit, which meant a longer stay in the country.
At first Warner had hired the famous film composer Lalo Schiffrin to compose the music for the film, but after just one recording session, Friedkin threw the recorded tapes out the window in a fit of rage, considering Schiffrin’s score over-dramatic, and started looking out for incidental pieces of music that could better represent the mood and tone of the movie. It was then when someone recommended to him Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. After listening to it, he fell in love with the music and started working on getting the rights. With additional classical compositions and incidental music by Jack Nitszche, Friedkin had stumbled upon the perfect soundtrack for his film.
Critical and financial reception
Against all odds, the movie was a massive box office and critical success, with queues of spectators outside theaters going around the corner for hours on end, to get tickets to the next show, which forced theater owners to extend the number of screenings per day to accommodate the massive amount of people who wanted to see the movie. It was an event the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until the arrival of Star Wars a few years later. The shock factor also played an important role in how the movie performed with people leaving showings mid-screening in disgust and utter horror. The producers played on this shock factor for all its worth as part of the movie’s marketing campaign, by even placing ambulances outside the cinemas. The movie was warmly received by most critics, with film critics like Roger Ebert giving it top marks.
In 2000 the movie was subject to a worlwide re-release in theaters tauting a “Director’s cut” with never-before-seen footage and digitally remastered image and sound. So, how does this “Director’s cut” fare?
Theatrical cut vs Director’s cut
First of all, the so-called “Director’s cut” is not actually Friedkin’s preferred version of the movie, but rather a compromise he made for William Peter Blatty, who was never entirely satisfied with Friedkin’s Theatrical cut.
The first cut of the movie run at 140 min, and was the version of the movie that Blatty liked best, as he thought it most faithfully represented his ideas from the book, and what he wanted the audience to take away from it. In spite of that, it was very clear to Friedkin from the very beginning that the movie needed further trimming to make it flow better, streamline some of the side plots, and eliminate all scenes and lines of dialogue which were in his opinion redundant, as Friedkin entirely trusted his audience to understand the meaning of the movie without unnecessary exposition, or added scenes that only served to pad out the running time. Since Warner wanted to re-release the movie in theaters, Friedkin saw this as the perfect opportunity to make peace with Blatty, and try and re-insert as much of the discarded scenes as possible. Unfortunately, due to the poor conditions in which some of the footage had been kept, the editors could only recoup about ten minutes worth of lost footage that was actually usable. The new cut of the movie run up now to about 132 min against the 122 min of the Theatrical cut. So this was a somewhat-in-the-middle compromise in the part of Friedkin towards Blatty, and the perfect excuse to present the classic to a whole new generation. So, what do I think of this new cut?
I think the Theatrical cut is the better cut, hands down. The movie opens up with two new shots of both the outside of the McNeill’s house, where most of the action in the movie is gonna take place, and fades on to an image of the Virgin Mary statue in the local Church that, according to Friedkin on his Audio Commentary for the film, signifies the two places in the story which are gonna be assaulted by the demon. That sort of makes sense with what’s coming later. So does the scene in which Chris takes Regan to the doctor for the first time to undergo physical tests, in which we witness the first signs of Regan developing a strange behaviour. This missing scene from the original cut better explains the scene in which, after the incident with Regan in the party, after giving her a bath and putting her back to bed, Regan asks her mother what’s wrong with her, to which Chris answers her to just do what the doctor said, and take her pills. It made sense to put that scene back in, as it correlates with what happens on this latter scene. As for the rest, which would be the now famous scene of Regan crawling backwards down the stairs on all fours, crab-like, the small exchange between Father Karras and Father Merrin on the stairs after their first showdown with the possessed Regan, about the meaning and sense of it all, and especially the cheesy exchange between Father Dyer and Lt. Kinderman at the very end of the movie, don’t really move the story along in any way, shape or form, and I can see why Friedkin wanted to cut them out of the movie in the first place. The first scene plays on the shock factor, the second one only expresses out-loud something that was already implicit in the story, and the third one is a useless coda that’s supposed to leave the audience in good spirits after all the horror and carnage they’ve been subjected to for over two hours. Funnily enough, this last scene was the one that Blatty was more sorry to see cut out of the original version of the movie. A scene that’s played out exactly like in the book, but confirms the theory that, what works on paper, doesn’t necessarily translate well into images.
So, while the added scenes don’t detract too much from the sheer intensity of an already powerful movie to begin with, they don’t bring anything really new to the table; except perhaps for the aforementioned scene of the first medical tests.
Book vs Movie
The story is equally satisfying in both mediums, with the book, as usuallly is the case, having a slight edge on the film. That being said, Blatty does a magnificent job of condensing the main themes and plot points found in the novel, disregarding those side plots that, interesting though they may be in the book, get in the way of telling an organically fluid story and don’t really do anything to advance the plot. Subplots like the one involving the sacrileges at the local church, Karl’s personal story, or a more leisurely approach to the way Lt Kinderman investigates Dennings’s murder, are streamlined, or altogether eliminated to improve the pacing. Both the movie and the book can be enjoyed as perfect companion pieces to one another, with the book delving more deeply into some side characters, and paying more attention to some subplots.
The Exorcist is an emotionally exhausting, disturbing, and highly powerful example of the horror genre being given the care and nuance movies of this genre are rarely afforded. It delves into such profound themes as the loss of faith, guilt, regret, evil, but with an underlying theme of the power of faith and the human spirit against the forces of evil in both body and spirit. It’s magnificently written, directed and acted, with a very gritty and realistic look only movies from the 70s were capable of. The characters are fallible, riddled by guilt, and on the brink of giving up. Everything from the choice of locations, the music, and the way is shot, with no fancy camera flourishes, right in your face, and straightforward, makes this movie, along with The Omen (1976) Richard Donner, one of the best examples of a horror movie being taken seriously. It is a slow burner, it’s true, but that makes it more effective in that when we come to the final act of the movie, the tension and suspense has been ramped up to such a level, it makes the ending, and thus the end of the journey, all the more impactful. It’s not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get over the blasphemy and the graphic and emotional violence of it all, it is a journey worth taking.
Thanks for reading.