A-Ron’s Halloween Essentials Presents: “The Exorcist” (1973)

It’s a usual tradition for cinephiles to have a 31 day horror movie marathon every October in celebration of Halloween. So what better way to celebrate Halloween then by watching my favorite and the greatest horror film ever made. I’m of course referring to William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece “The Exorcist”. Here I dive into reasons why it’s cinemas finest horror film, why it stands as a cultural phenomenon and an unbeatable cinematic masterpiece. I also shed light on the controversy of it’s subject matter and passing the MPAA with an R rating instead of it’s deserved X rating. I share insider details on the films production, it’s weird mishaps on set that caused a real priest to bless the set and why it’s one of the heaviest motion pictures you’ll ever experience. “The Exorcist” is the movie that likely sent millions to church the day after they saw it. It has done for the horror genre what “2001: A Space Odyssey” did for science fiction. It was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards in 1974. Without a doubt, “The Exorcist” is a touchstone in horror, seemingly incapable of taking a wrong step. It is a movie experience that is impossible to erase. This is the story of “The Exorcist”, a powerful movie that continues to stand up today and for good reason too because it’s a masterpiece plain and simple.

In a month where we should be dressing up as our favorite characters and taking our kids trick or treating to collect more candy then they should be consuming. Here we are still stuck at home (well most of us), social distancing and preventing as little contact as possible. So what better way is there to celebrate Halloween then by having ourselves an at home horror movie marathon? Let’s use this binge watching opportunity to watch my favorite and the greatest horror film ever made. I’m of course referring to William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece “The Exorcist”. 

Here I dive into reasons why it’s cinemas finest horror film, why it stands as a cultural phenomenon and an unbeatable cinematic masterpiece. I also shed light on the controversy of it’s subject matter and passing the MPAA with an R rating instead of it’s deserved X rating. I share insider details on the films production, it’s weird mishaps on set that caused a real priest to bless the set and why it’s one of the heaviest motion pictures you’ll ever experience. But despite its notorious reputation, “The Exorcist” is actually one of the most religious mainstream films ever made, encompassing itself in the Roman Catholicism. You simply cannot deal with the dark without embracing the light and the film brilliantly makes you question and re-evaluate your own faith (just as Damien Karras does throughout the story). “The Exorcist” is the movie that likely sent millions to church the day after they saw it.

To describe just how big an impact “The Exorcist” has had on movie world is simple. It has done for the horror genre what “2001: A Space Odyssey” did for science fiction. It was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards in 1974, which included Best Director, Best Actress Ellen Butstyn and Best Supporting Actress Linda Blair. It took home two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. It is the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing R-rated horror film, until the release of the “IT” remake in 2017 (unadjusted for inflation). 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”. 

Released in just 24 theaters in the United States and Canada in late December of 1973. Audiences flocked to it, waiting in long lines during winter weather, many doing so more than once, despite mixed critical reviews. Some viewers had adverse physical reactions, often fainting or vomiting. There were even reports of heart attacks and miscarriages. To ensure that it would have commercial success in theaters, the MPAA ratings board had accommodated Warner Bros. by giving the film an R-rating instead of the X that it deserved. A few cities tried to ban it outright and causing obscenity concerns it kept the film from a home video release in the United Kingdom until 1999.

•Part 1: William Peter Blatty 

Born and raised in New York City, William Peter Blatty received his bachelor’s degree in English from Georgetown University in 1950 and his master’s degree in English literature from the George Washington University. Following completion of his master’s degree in 1954, he joined the United States Air Force. After service in the air force, he worked for the United States Information Agency in Beirut. Eventually, his writing talent ms emerged and he began submitting humorous articles to different magazines.

Blatty published his first book, “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” in 1960, a humorous look at both his early life and his work at the United States Information Agency in Lebanon. In 1961, while still working in public relations, Blatty appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show “You Bet Your Life”, winning $10,000 and making enough money to quit his job to write full-time.

He published three comic novels, where It was at this point that Blatty began a collaboration with legendary comedy director Blake Edwards. Writing scripts for comedies such as: “The Pink Panther – A Shot in the Dark” (1964), “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” (1966), “Gunn” (1967) and “Darling Lili” (1970). He continued to write screenplays until 1969 when he turned to writing fiction novels that led to his most famous work in 1971’s, “The Exorcist”. It topped The New York Times Best Seller list for 17 weeks and remained on the list for 57 consecutive weeks. The book sold more than 13 million copies in the United States alone and was translated into over a dozen languages.

In 1983, Blatty wrote “Legion”, a sequel to “The Exorcist” which later became the basis for “The Exorcist III”. At first he was unable to set up the production because he wanted to direct the film himself. Blatty’s agent, Steve Jaffe, helped package the project with producer Carter DeHaven at Morgan Creek Productions. Blatty got his wish to direct it. He originally wanted the movie version to be titled “Legion”, but the film’s producers wanted it to be more closely linked to the original. The first sequel, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977), was disappointing both critically and commercially. Blatty had no involvement with the second film and his own follow-up (“The Exorcist III”) ignored it entirely. 

In 2011, “The Exorcist” was re-released in a 40th Anniversary Edition in paperback, hardcover and audiobook formats with new cover artwork. As described by Blatty “The new, updated edition features new and revised material. The 40th Anniversary Edition of “The Exorcist” will have a touch of new material in it as part of an all-around polish of the dialogue and prose. First time around I never had the time nor the funds to do a second draft and this, finally is it. With forty years to think about it, a few little changes were inevitable, plus the addition of one new character in a totally new very spooky scene. This is the version I would like to be remembered for”.

Blatty died of multiple myeloma on January 12th 2017, at a hospital in Bethesda, five days after his 89th birthday.

•Part 2: Inspired By True Events

In the late 1940s, here in the United States, priests of the Roman Catholic Church performed a series of exorcisms on an anonymous boy, documented under the pseudonym “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim”. The 14-year-old boy (born circa 1935), was the alleged victim of demonic possession, and the events were recorded by the attending priest, Raymond J. Bishop and Jesuit priest Father William S. Bowdern. Doe’s family became convinced the boy’s aggressive behavior was attributable to demonic possession and called upon the services of the Catholic priests 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 has 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) were such that they could have been faked by Doe himself. These supernatural claims surrounding the events were used as elements in William Peter Blatty’s novel.

Although the novel changed several details of the case, such as changing the gender of the possessed victim from a boy to a girl and changing the victim’s age. Although director William Friedkin has admitted he is very reluctant to speak about the factual aspects of the film, he made the film with the intention of immortalizing the events involving Doe that took place in 1949 and despite the relatively minor changes that were made, the film depicts everything that could be verified by those involved. 

In order to make the film, Friedkin was allowed access to the diaries of the priests involved, as well as the doctors and nurses; he also discussed the events with Doe’s aunt in great detail. Friedkin has said that he does not believe that the “head-spinning” actually occurred, but this has been disputed.

•Part 3: Director William Friedkin

William Friedkin was born in Chicago in 1935. He began going to movies as a teenager and has cited “Citizen Kane” as one of his key influences. Within two years (at the age of 18), he started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries. In 1965, Friedkin moved to Hollywood and two years later released his first feature film, “Good Times” starring Sonny and Cher. He has referred to the film as “unwatchable”. He followed it up with several other “art” films.

His first studio film and my second favorite film, “The French Connection” was released to wide critical acclaim in 1971. Shot in a gritty style more suited for documentaries than Hollywood features, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Gene Hackman and Best Director for Friedkin. Friedkin followed up the huge success of “The French Connection” with another game changer in 1973’s “The Exorcist”. It revolutionized the horror genre and is considered by critics to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. 

Following his two successful pictures, Friedkin, along with directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, was deemed as the premier directors of New Hollywood. Friedkin’s later films did not achieve the same success as “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist”. His film “Sorcerer” from 1977, a $22 million American remake of the French classic “The Wages of Fear”. Friedkin considers it his finest film, and was personally devastated by its financial and critical failure 

In April 2013, Friedkin published a memoir, “The Friedkin Connection”. He was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in September 2013.

•Part 4: Casting

Director William Friedkin has been open about the films casting as he recalled his experiences in his memoir “The Friedkin Connection”. He went on to say: “Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda were up to play Chris MacNeil (mother to Regan). And with Blatty’s and my blessing, the studio offered the role first to Audrey Hepburn, who responded favorably, but said she would only do the film if it were in Rome, as she was living there at the time, while she was married to an Italian doctor. No way did I want to film in Rome; it was impractical from every standpoint. All other actors would have to be imported from the United States, and I didn’t want a language barrier with the crew. In fact, I wanted my crew from ‘The French Connection’. We had asked Audrey to reconsider, but she declined”.

“Anne Bancroft was the next choice. She said she’d love to play Chris, but she was pregnant at the time and the production would have to wait a year for her. Which couldn’t happen. Then came Jane Fonda who sent us a telegram after receiving the script: “Why would anyone want to make this piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit?” was her response. At one point during these maneuverings, I had a phone call from Ellen Burstyn: “Do you know who I am?” she asked. “Yes, of course”, which I lied. 

“I’d like to talk to you about Chris MacNeil,” she said. Friedkin replied “Ms. Burstyn, I have to tell you the studio is out to Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda”. Burstyn replied “I’m just asking if you’ll meet with me. I’m destined to play that part,” she said. “I know in my heart that role is mine”. That’s when Friedkin and Burstyn arranged to meet at her house on Beechwood Drive. In the meantime as a back-up, Blatty also suggested his friend and actress Shirley MacLaine, who had recently made a film called “The Possession of Joel Delaney”. But Friedkin thought that two films with her, in a film about demonic possession, were one too many.

For the role of Father Karras, William Friedkin took a chance in giving the role to playwright Jason Miller. But he wasn’t always the studios first choice, as Jack Nicholson was originally the first, as was Marlon Brando. Friedkin immediately vetoed Brando by stating it would become a “Brando movie”. Another acting icon Paul Newman was also interested in the role. Friedkin says one of the actors who wanted to be considered was Roy Scheider, who was very much in demand after his Oscar nomination for “The French Connection”. Friedkin says: “I thought he’d be good as Father Karras, but Blatty felt he was not sympathetic. Casting director Nessa Hyams suggested actor Stacy Keach, who had appeared in some seminal films of the late 1960s. At just thirty years old, he was one of the most distinguished stage actors in the country. Blatty and I met with him and liked him, and Warner agreed. So they signed him”.

Friedkin then talked about Jason Miller who was ultimately cast as Father Karras. “I was in New York scouting locations when I read a review of a new play about basketball called ‘That Championship Season’ that had recently opened at the Public Theater. There was a photo in the New York Times of the young playwright, Jason Miller. This was his first produced play. He had an interesting look and his biography was even more compelling. He had experience working as an actor in off-Broadway plays and road companies”.

New York casting director, Juliet Taylor, set up a meeting for Friedkin and Jason Miller. Friedkin describes “When I told him I was planning a film of ‘The Exorcist’, he seemed only mildly interested and had not read the novel. I continued meeting with Ellen Burstyn. Having started with the certainty that she would never get the role, I soon became convinced that she was our best choice. But alas, the studio had no other choices and eventually Burstyn was approved”.

“I got a call from Jason Miller in New York. Jason told me “I read that book you told me about. That Exorcist. That guy is me”. Friedkin replies “What guy?”. As Miller responds “Father Karras”. Friedkin says that he had to tell Miller: “I appreciate your interest, but we’ve signed an actor”. Miller pretended he hadn’t heard Friedkin and said “I’m telling you, I am that guy. Will you at least shoot a screen test with me?”. Friedkin agreed to the screen test as long as Miller flies to the audition on his own nickel. Miller who refused to fly and travel by train, simply replied “Be there in four days”. 

Friedkin had set up a test for Jason on an empty stage at Warner Bros. and recruited Ellen Burstyn to work with him. Cinematographer Bill Fraker, who’d shot “Bullitt” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, lighted the scene where Chris tells Father Karras she believes her daughter is possessed. After a few takes, Friedkin asked Ellen to interview him about his life and had kept the camera over her shoulder focused on Jason Miller’s face.

Burstyn was not convinced that Miller be casted saying that “He’s too short and he’s not really an actor. When I breakdown in that scene, I need to fall into Karras’s arms. I need a big, strong man”. The next morning, Friedkin ran the test for Blatty and the Warner executives. While the studio already had a contract with Stacy Keach, Friedkin fought for Jason Miller saying “This guy’s the real deal”. The studio paid Keach off and Jason Miller was casted in a role that he dominated. 

“The other major roles were quickly cast. Blatty showed me a photograph of Gerald Lankester Harding, his inspiration for Father Merrin. Harding was lean and gaunt, with close-cropped white hair. The image of Max Von Sydow came immediately to mind. Max had been Ingmar Bergman’s leading actor in classic films like ‘The Virgin Spring’ and ‘The Seventh Seal’. We sent him a script in Sweden, where he lived, and got an immediate response. He said he would be pleased to play Father Merrin”.

Part 5: Linda Blair As Regan

“With Von Sydow cast, we had a solid foundation, but the biggest problem would be to cast Regan. For four months in 1972, half a dozen casting directors around the country put hundreds of young girls, ages eleven through thirteen, on videotape. Over a thousand girls eventually auditioned. I watched the tapes, if only for a minute or two, and personally interviewed at least fifty girls. It seemed hopeless. The question was not only whether a child could portray the character’s innocence as well as her possession without self-consciousness, but how she would react to the experience itself. How would it affect her life? None of the girls I met seemed likely to overcome those obstacles”.

The question of whether or not such a young actress, even a talented one, could carry the film on her shoulders was an issue from the beginning. Film directors considered for the project were skeptical. Director Mike Nichols had turned down the project specifically because he did not believe a 12-year-old girl was capable of playing the part, as well as handling the likely psychological stress it would cause, could be found. 

The first actresses considered for the part were names known to the public. Pamelyn Ferdin, a veteran of science fiction and supernatural drama, was a candidate for the role of Regan, but was ultimately turned down because her career thus far had made her too familiar to the public. April Winchell was considered, until she developed pyelonephritis and could not work. Denise Nickerson, who had played Violet Beauregarde in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”, was considered, but the material troubled her parents too much. Anissa Jones, known for her role as Buffy in “Family Affair”, auditioned for the role, but she too was rejected, for much the same reason as Ferdin.

“We started to audition fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year olds who looked younger, with similar results. One afternoon at my office in New York, my secretary buzzed me: “There’s a woman out here named Elinore Blair. She doesn’t have an appointment, but she brought her daughter and wonders if you’d see her?”. 

“She was smart but not precocious. Cute but not beautiful. A normal, happy twelve year old girl. Her name was Linda Blair. Linda was represented by an agency that suggested ten other girls to us. Not her. She had done some modeling, no acting. Her main interest was training and showing horses, for which she won a lot of blue ribbons. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Connecticut. I found her adorable and irresistible. I asked her if she knew what ‘The Exorcist’ was about? 

“Well . . . ,” she said thoughtfully, “it’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things. . . .” Friedkin went in to say “What sort of bad things?”. To which Blair replies “Well . . . she pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she hits her mother across the face and she masturbates with a crucifix”. Friedkin said: “I looked at her mother. She seemed to realize her daughter was special. Linda was unperturbed. “Do you know what that means?” Friedkin asked her. “What? To masturbate. It’s like jerking off, isn’t it?”. Blair answered without hesitation, giggling a little.

“Have you ever done that?” Friedkin asked Linda. “Sure, haven’t you?” she shot back. Friedkin says: “I knew I found my Regan. I asked her to come back to Los Angeles and shoot a test. Clearly, she was not troubled by the language or the substance of the film, but I had to be sure she could sustain the character and I needed the approval of Blatty and Warner Bros. I asked Linda to prepare a few of the early scenes and Ellen and I worked with her, but you could see her acting. I kept the camera rolling and had Ellen interview her, as she had Jason. Talking about herself and relating to Ellen, Linda was spontaneous and I realized I had to create an atmosphere on the set where she could be spontaneous, not worry about doing scenes word-for-word”.

Friedkin originally intended to use Blair’s voice, electronically deepened and roughened, for the demon’s dialogue. Although Friedkin felt this worked fine in some places, he felt scenes with the demon confronting the two priests lacked the dramatic power required and selected legendary, Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, an experienced voice actress, to provide the demon’s voice. After filming, Warner Bros. did not include a credit for McCambridge during early screenings of the film, which led to Screen Actors Guild arbitration before she was credited for her performance. Ken Nordine was also considered for the demon’s voice, but Friedkin thought it would be best not to use a man’s voice.

For the crucifix scene, Linda Blair’s own voice was recorded as she yelled out all the demon dialog in a rage. The result was then rerecorded in a slowed-down mode to achieve a very low bass. The very-low-bass result was then rerecorded at such a speed as to achieve a raging alto male voice.

•Part 6: Directing

Warners had approached Arthur Penn (“Bonnie & Clyde”), Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) to direct, all of whom turned the project down. Originally actor and director Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond” & “The River”) was hired to direct, but William Peter Blatty insisted on William Friedkin instead, because he wanted his film to have the same energy as Friedkin’s previous film, “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. The shooting schedule was estimated to run 105 days, but ultimately ran well over 200 days of shooting. 

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 left 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. 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. 

•Part 7: Filming

The film’s opening sequences were filmed in and near the city of Mosul, Iraq. The archaeological dig site seen at the film’s beginning is the actual site of ancient Hatra, just south of Mosul. Temperatures during the filming, reached 54 °C (130 °F), limiting shooting to the early mornings and late evening.

Known as the “Exorcist steps”, which are concrete stairs located in Georgetown. The stairs were padded with half inch thick (13 mm) rubber to film the death of Father Karras. Because the house from which Karras falls is set back slightly from the stairs, the film crew constructed an extension with a false front to the house in order to film the scene. The stuntman tumbled down the stairs twice to get the scene. Georgetown University students charged people $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops.

Although the film is set in Washington, D.C., many interior scenes were shot in various parts of New York City. The MacNeil residence interiors were filmed at CECO Studios in Manhattan. As previously mentioned, the bedroom set was refrigerated to capture the authentic icy breath of the actors in the exorcism scenes. It was chilled so much that a thin layer of snow fell onto the set one humid morning. Since the set lighting warmed the air, it could only remain cold enough for three minutes of filming at a time. Nevertheless, Linda Blair who was only in a thin nightgown while the crew wore cold weather clothing, says to this day she cannot stand being cold. Exteriors of the MacNeil house were filmed at 36th and Prospect in Washington, using a family home and a false wall to convey the home’s thrust toward the steps.

The scenes involving Regan’s medical tests were filmed at New York University Medical Center and were performed by actual medical staff that normally carried out the actual procedures. Paul Bateson, who was convicted of murdering a journalist several years after the film, is the radiographer talking to Regan through the cerebral angiography. 

The scene in which Father Karras listens to the tapes of Regan’s dialogue was filmed in the basement of Keating Hall at Fordham University in the Bronx. The interior of Karras’ room at Georgetown was a meticulous reconstruction of Theology professor Father Thomas M. King. His room was photographed by production staff so that every element of King’s room, including posters and books, could be recreated for the set, including a poster of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a theologian on whom the character of Father Merrin was loosely based. 

Georgetown was paid $1,000 per day of filming, which included both exteriors such as Burstyn’s first scene, shot on the steps of the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall and interiors such as the defilement of the statue of the Virgin Mary in Dahlgren Chapel, or the Archbishop’s office, which is actually the office of the president of the university. One scene was filmed in The Tombs, a student hangout across from the steps that was founded by a Blatty classmate.

•Part 8: The Poster

Father Merrin’s arrival scene was filmed on Max Von Sydow’s first day of work. The scene where he steps out of a cab and stands in front of the MacNeil residence, silhouetted in a misty streetlamp’s glow and staring up at a beam of light from a bedroom window, is one of the most famous scenes in the movie. The shot was used for film posters and early home DVD and VHS release covers. The scene and photo were inspired by the 1954 painting Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières) by René Magritte.

•Part 9: A Series Of Unfortunate Events

A series of tragic incidents befell the cast, crew, and people connected with them, leading many to believe the film itself was cursed.

Production on The Exorcist was riddled with problems from the start. As shooting began in 1972, the set used as the home of Regan MacNiel burned down when a bird flew into a circuit box. Eerily, the only part to remain untouched by flames was the room used for filming the actual exorcism scenes. This set production back significantly, and led to a draining shooting period of over a year. The shoot was hit by further tragedy when a series of deaths rocked the cast and crew.

Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, whose characters also die in the movie, both passed away shortly after shooting wrapped. Elsewhere, stars Linda Blair and Max von Sydow lost members of their family during the shoot.

Even though at the start of production Linda Blair has no problem with the films content and subject matter. It was rumored that it got to her so much that she started having nervous breakdowns while filming. But that wasn’t all. Even writer Blatty was experiencing supernatural effects while writing the book. The presence of the darkness was so strong that Blatty experienced strange and supernatural activities such as things randomly levitating in the air. The son of Jason Miller, who plays Father Damien Karras, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. Meanwhile, Blair and on-screen mother Ellen Burstyn both suffered serious injuries during production due to falls on set. 

The so-called curse was also said to have followed the movie on its release into cinemas, on Boxing Day 1973. As the film began, lightning crashed out of the sky and struck the church opposite the cinema. One of the 400-year-old crosses was also struck by the lightning and it fell right in the middle of the piazza. Warner Brothers press office even capitalized on the curse prior to release. At the time the curse was an extremely hot topic in global media when it hit cinemas.

Warner Bros was drawing on the curses surrounding the film’s production to pique audience interest. Reactions to the disturbing film only served to bolster “The Exorcist’s” burgeoning reputation as shock cinema. Reports of strong audience reactions were widespread; many including accounts of nausea and fainting. A woman in New York was said to have miscarried during a showing. Some theaters have been said to have provided “Exorcist barf bags”. A reviewer for Cinefantastique magazine said that there was so much vomit in the bathroom at the showing he attended that it was impossible to reach the sinks.

In one of the theater incidents a woman passed out and broke her jaw, for which she sued the studio. Other reports said that audience members were fainting, vomiting and walking out in large numbers at early screenings. 

In the UK, St John’s Ambulance staff had to be on standby at screenings. Popular televangelist Billy Graham went so far as to claim that the very celluloid of the film itself was cursed and that it contained subliminal messages. The hype around the movie worked as it fueled record breaking box office figures. It would go on to earn more than $441 million (around $1.862 billion in today’s money). 

•Part 10: Special Effects & Sound Effects

“The Exorcist” contained a number of special effects, engineered by makeup artist Dick Smith. In one scene from the film, Max von Sydow is actually wearing more makeup than Linda Blair. This was because director William Friedkin wanted some very detailed facial close-ups. When the film was made, von Sydow was 44 at the time, although he was made up to look 74. 

Special sound effects for the film were created by Ron Nagle, Doc Siegel, Gonzalo Gavira and Bob Fine. Nagle spent two weeks recording animal sounds, including bees, dogs, hamsters, and pigs; these were incorporated into the multilayered mix of the demon’s voice. Gavira achieved the sound effect of Regan’s head rotating by simply twisting a leather wallet.

The editing of the title sequence was the first major project for title designer Dan Perri. As a result of the success of “The Exorcist”, Perri went on to design opening titles for a number of major films including “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Star Wars” (1977), and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002).

•Part 11: The Music

Legendary film composer Lalo Schifrin’s working score was rejected by William Friedkin. Schifrin had written six minutes of music for the initial film trailer but audiences were reportedly too scared by its combination of sights and sounds. Warner Bros. executives told Friedkin to instruct Schifrin to tone it down with softer music, but Friedkin did not relay the message. It has been claimed Schifrin later used the music written for “The Exorcist” for the James Brolin horror film “The Amityville Horror”, but he has denied this in interviews. According to other reports featured in “The Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist” on the 25th Anniversary DVD release of the film, Friedkin took the tapes that Schifrin had recorded and threw them away in the studio parking lot.

In the soundtrack liner notes for his 1977 film, “Sorcerer”, Friedkin said that if he had heard the music of Tangerine Dream earlier, then he would have had them score “The Exorcist”. Instead, he used modern classical compositions, including portions of the 1972 Cello Concerto No. 1, of Polymorphia, and other pieces by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, Five Pieces for Orchestra by Austrian composer Anton Webern as well as some original music by Jack Nitzsche. The music was heard only during scene transitions. The 2000 of “The Exorcis” labeled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” features new original music by Steve Boeddeker, as well as brief source music by Les Baxter.

In 1998 a restored and remastered soundtrack was released by Warner Bros. that included three pieces from Lalo Schifrin’s rejected score. The pieces are “Music from the unused Trailer”, an 11-minute “Suite from the Unused Score”, and “Rock Ballad (An Unused Theme)”.

Waxwork Records released the score in 2017 on two different variations of 180 gram vinyl. The record was re-mastered from the original tapes; it included liner notes from Friedkin with art by Justin Erickson from Phantom City Creative.

•Part 12: Release & Home Video Releases

Upon its release in 1973, the film received mixed reviews from critics, ranging from being called a classic to a claptrap. Audience reaction was strong, however, with many viewers waiting in long lines in cold temperatures to see it again and again. It opened in 24 theaters grossing $1.9 million in its first week, setting house records in each theater and within its first month the film had grossed $7.4 million nationwide, by which time Warners’ executives expected the film to easily surpass “My Fair Lady” and it’s $34 million take to become the studio’s most financially successful film at the time. 

A limited special edition box set was released in 1998 for the film’s 25th anniversary; it was limited to 50,000 copies, with available copies circulating around the Internet. There are two versions: a special edition VHS released in November 1998 and a special edition DVD released in December 1998. The only difference between the two copies is the recording format. A 25th anniversary edition was released on DVD by Warner Home Video on August 5, 2003.

The extended edition labeled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” (which was released theatrically in 2000) was released on DVD in February 2004. The extended edition was later re-released on DVD and Blu-ray with slight alterations under the new label “Extended Director’s Cut” in October 2010. Both versions labeled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and the “Extended Director’s Cut” featured the now infamous spider-walk scene that was re-incorporated back into the film. 

Stuntwoman Ann Miles performed the spider-walk scene. Friedkin deleted this scene against Blatty’s objection just prior to the premiere, as he judged the scene as appearing too early in the film’s plot. In the book, the spider-walk is more muted, consisting of Regan following Sharon around near the floor and flicking a snakelike tongue at her ankles. A take of this version of the scene was filmed but went unused. However, a different take showing Regan with blood flowing from her mouth was inserted into the Director’s Cut of the film.

A 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray was released in October 2013, containing a new restoration, including both the 1973 theatrical version and the 2000 “Version You’ve Never Seen” (or known as the “Extended Director’s Cut”).

“The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology” was presented in a box set that was released on DVD in October 2006 and on Blu-ray September 2014. This collection includes the original theatrical release version of “The Exorcist”, the extended version (Extended Director’s Cut), the sequels “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, “The Exorcist III” and it’s prequels “Exorcist: The Beginning” and “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist”.

•Part 13: The Angiography Scene

The angiography scene, in which a needle is inserted into Regan’s neck and spurts blood, a procedure Friedkin suggests was actually performed on camera, had come with some criticism. In his 1986 “Guide for the Film Fanatic”, author Danny Peary called it the film’s “most needless scene”. British comedian Graeme Garden, who trained as a physician, agreed the scene was “genuinely disturbing” in his review for the New Scientist magazine; he called it “the really irresponsible feature of this film”. 

Audience members found the angiography scene, to be the film’s most unsettling scene (Blatty says he has only watched it once, while the film was being edited, and avoids it on every other viewing). Friedkin speculates that it is easier to empathize with Regan in that scene, as compared to what she suffers while possessed later in the film.

Medical professionals have described the scene as a realistic depiction of the procedure. It is also of historical interest in the field, as around the time of the film’s release radiologists had begun to stop using the carotid artery for the puncture as they do in the film, in favor of a more distant artery. It has also been described as the most realistic depiction of a medical procedure in a popular film. Friedkin said in his 2012 commentary on the DVD and Blu Ray release of the 2000 cut that the scene was used as a training film for radiologists for years afterwards.

•Part 14: Rating Controversy 

The Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) ratings board had been established several years before to replace the Motion Picture Production Code after it expired in 1968. It had already been criticized for its indirect censorship: as many as a third of the films submitted to it had to be recut after being rated X, meaning no minors could be admitted. Since many theaters would not show such films, and newspapers would not run ads for them, the X rating greatly limited a non-pornographic film’s commercial prospects.

While Friedkin wanted more blood and gore in “The Exorcist” than had been in any Hollywood film previously, he also needed the film to have an R rating (children admitted only with an adult) to reach a large audience. Before release, Aaron Stern, the head of the MPAA ratings board, decided to watch the film himself before the rest of the board. He then called Friedkin and said that since “The Exorcist” was “an important film”, he would allow it to receive an R rating without any cuts.

Some critics, both anticipating and reacting to reports of the film’s effect on children who might be or had been taken to see it, questioned the R rating. While he had praised the film, Roy Meacham, a critic for Metromedia television stations based in Washington, D.C., wrote in The New York Times in 1974 that he had strongly cautioned that children should not be allowed to see it at all, a warning his station repeated for several days. Nevertheless, some had and he had heard of one girl being taken from the theater in an ambulance.

The ratings board had somehow yielded to pressure from Warners not to give the film an X rating, which would have likely limited its economic prospects and was skeptical of MPAA head Jack Valenti’s claims that since the film had no sex or nudity, it could receive an R rating. After a week in Washington’s theaters, authorities cited the crucifix scene to invoke a local ordinance that forbid minors from seeing any scenes with sexual content even if the actors were fully clothed; police warned theaters that staff would be arrested if any minors were admitted to “The Exorcist”.

Two communities, Boston and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, attempted to prevent the film from being shown outright in their jurisdictions. A court in the former city blocked the ban, saying the film did not meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard of obscenity. Nonetheless, in Boston the authorities told theaters they could not admit any minors despite the R rating. In Mississippi, the theater chain showing the movie was convicted at trial, but the state’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1976, finding that the state’s obscenity statute was too vague to be enforceable in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1972 Miller v. California decision which laid down a new standard for obscenity.

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael echoed that the board had yielded to studio pressure in rating the film R: “If The Exorcist had cost under a million or been made abroad, it would almost certainly be an X film. But when a movie is as expensive as this one, the [board] doesn’t dare give it an X”.

There was also concern that theaters were not strictly enforcing, or even enforcing at all, the R rating, allowing unaccompanied minors to view the film. Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder reported that a 16-year-old girl in California said that not only was she sold a ticket to see the film despite no adult being with her, others who seemed even younger were able to do so as well. On the other hand, another Times writer, Judy Lee Klemesrud, said she saw no unaccompanied minors, and indeed very few minors, when she went to see the film in Manhattan. Nevertheless, “I think that if a movie ever deserved an X rating simply because it would keep the kids out of the theater, it is ‘The Exorcist'”.

In 1974, Stern’s tenure as chairman of the MPAA ratings board ended. His eventual replacement, Richard Heffner, asked during the interview process about films with controversial ratings, including “The Exorcist”, said: “How could anything be worse than this? And it got an R?” After he took over as head, he would spearhead efforts to be more aggressive with the X rating, especially over violence in films. 

•Part 15: Reception & Legacy

Warner Bros. did not preview the film for critics and booked its initial release for only 30 screens in 24 theaters, mostly in large cities. The huge crowds on it’s opening weekend forced the studio to expand it into wide release very quickly; at the time that releasing strategy was rarely used for anything but exploitation films. Although two years later, Universal would learn from “The Exorcist” and open “Jaws” on 500 screens across the country. 

None of the theaters were in African American neighborhoods such as South Central Los Angeles since the studio did not expect black people to take much interest in the film. After the theater in predominantly white Westwood showing the film was overwhelmed with moviegoers from South Central it was quickly booked into theaters in that neighborhood. African American enthusiasm for “The Exorcist” has been credited with ending mainstream studio support for blaxploitation movies, since Hollywood realized that black audiences would flock to films that did not have content specifically geared to them. 

For “The Exorcist” to receive an R rating and not the X is stupefying and still mind boggling. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave it a perfect score of 4 out of 4. He closed his review by saying: “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one, because what we get here aren’t the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”. He also praised the acting and believed the special effects to be unusually graphic. 

From the day of its first release in 1973, “The Exorcist” was the greatest horror film ever made and it remains so to this day. “The Exorcist” succeeds on the level of an effectively excruciating entertainment, but on a deeper level it is a thoroughly evil film. It not only tops the horror genre but transcends it, resulting in a profound experience where moviemaking horror, thrillingly dramatic storytelling and deeply felt spirituality of the Catholic kind make it pivotal and essential viewing.

Without a doubt, “The Exorcist” is a touchstone in horror, seemingly incapable of taking a wrong step. It is a movie experience that is impossible to erase. “The Exorcist” is a powerful movie that continues to stand up today and for good reason too because it’s a masterpiece plain and simple. 

Comments

comments

About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

Check Also

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Se7en” (1995) – The 25th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Even the most promising clues usually only lead to others”. A …