Month: October 2013

‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948) – Doing the Universal Monster Mash

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Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)
Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizes Wilbur (Lou Costello) (rue-morgue.com)

Back in 1948, when horror films had just about reached their peak of popularity after so many low-budget vehicles starring the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy, Universal Pictures decided on a revival strategy of reuniting their patented movie monsters with their most successful comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Thus, the engaging romp known as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came into being, and how thankful we are, too. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price, this hilarious “creature feature” became Bud and Lou’s most financially lucrative venture.

The plot involves two scatter-brained railway porters, Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Costello), finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is intent on reviving the weakened Monster for his own fiendish purposes. Toward that end, he enlists the aid of sexy scientist Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s pliable brain into the Monster’s body (yikes!).

Before this nightmare can take place, however, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-fidgety Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that inopportune moment to transform into (you guessed it) the hirsute Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end.

Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolfman (ebay.com)
Lou & Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man (ebay.com)

Riotous farce with great special effects for the period (thanks to makeup artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan) amid the studio-bound sets, the film’s zany script underwent multiple changes to story line and plot, until finally arriving at a fairly pleasing balance between slapstick comedy and out-and-out horror. It may have sounded funny to their fans, but Costello himself remained dubious of its worth — until an added enticement of a $50,000 studio bonus made Louie see the “light,” so to speak.

As a matter of fact, the opening animated sequence, where skeletal versions of Bud and Lou appear alongside cartoon silhouettes of the movie’s monsters and Dr. Mornay, as well as the scenes of Dracula’s amazing transformations into a bat (and vice versa), were all done by Walter Lantz, who was best known as the animator of Woody Woodpecker.

The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black caped career. It’s hard to tell if his pasty-faced countenance was due to makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy “biopic,” Ed Wood).

The so-called rapport, unfortunately, was plainly one-sided. According to Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays and was, by all accounts, Lou’s preferred director of mayhem, Lugosi was not at all amused by their on-set antics, which included all-night poker games, pie throwing, exploding cigars, practical jokes, improvised line readings, and general misbehavior and mischief.

Bud & Lou in Dracula's cellar
Bud & Lou exploring Dracula’s cellar (“Broom closet?”

The appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, a hands-down favorite of movie fans, was reused innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk (who was Costello’s brother-in-law, by the way) also appear in small bits. Film buffs should keep their ears cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you, Abbott,” instead of “Chick”) as they search for Dracula in the cellar.

Be sure to catch this one on Turner Classic Movies when it’s shown during Halloween. Our favorite scene from among so many comedic delights: a worried Chaney confesses to the boys that, when the full moon rises, he turns into a wolf. To which Costello innocently remarks, “You and twenty million other guys.” Chuckle, chuckle. (Laugh it up, fuzzball!)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ – ‘Ecco il Mondo’ (‘Behold the World’) : The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera

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"Ecco il mondo!" Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele (royalmonaco.net)
“Ecco il mondo!” Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele (royalmonaco.net)

“Do You Know Faust?”

No subject is better suited to the spirit of Halloween than Faust. The legend of the philosopher who sold his soul to Satan for youth, sex, riches, and eternal damnation was based on real events — real, that is, from the medieval era’s point of view, where the dark arts were considered as suitable a discipline for study as history and mathematics are today.

The existence of a genuine Doctor of Divinity named Johannes Georg Faust (1480?-1540, or thereabouts), who lived and died in-and-around old Württemberg in Lutheran-era Germany and was known throughout the realm as a magus, an alchemist, a practical joker, and “conjurer of cheap tricks” (as well as a molester of young boys), gave credence to the notion that he had made a blasphemous deal with the Devil in exchange for his “magical” abilities.

Indeed, the personage of Faust and his devilish pact have been a recurring theme in literature and folklore long before it dawned on playwrights to devote a full-length stage treatment to the matter. The opera world was no exception, for Faust was the protagonist in any number of lyric ventures almost as frequent as that of Orpheus and his myth.

There was a time, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, when French composer Charles Gounod’s five-act Faust (1859) dominated both the European and American operatic landscape. Gounod based his once-popular adaptation on Part I of German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic tragedy Faust, first published in 1808 (he only completed Part II near the end of his life). Goethe’s poem took place in medieval Germany, with several of its scenes in Heaven (Prologue to Part I, Epilogue to Part II), and the second half set primarily in Ancient Greece with the fabled Helen of Troy.

Hector Berlioz (en.wikipedia.org)
Hector Berlioz (en.wikipedia.org)

With both feet planted firmly in Classicism as well as in the Enlightenment, another French-born artist, Hector Berlioz, a precocious child of the Romantic period, had previously designed his take on the tale, which he dubbed La Damnation de Faust (1846), as a “dramatic legend” for four solo voices, full orchestra, and expanded chorus. Berlioz never considered it an “opera” as such, or even a “cantata” in the generally accepted use of the term, but rather as a choral-symphonic piece that exploited every aspect of music and theater, including sonic, dramatic, and scenic elements. In this instance, he was far ahead of Wagner and other musicians of the time in his far-sighted approach to these properties.

The finished product, then, is a work unique to the canon of opera, a psychologically probing, before-its-time pièce de résistance that defies normal description. Based in theory on Goethe’s poem, La Damnation de Faust takes a markedly different route in recounting its version of the Faust story. The Metropolitan Opera presented the work, for only the second time in its history, in the 2008-2009 season, in an elaborate multimedia production conceived and directed by Robert Lepage, the brain behind the company’s recent Ring of the Nibelung.

The Met also unveiled a new production of Gounod’s woe-begotten Faust in 2011, a positively dreadful presentation that made the old warhorse look like Dexter’s Laboratory, a Fritz Lang rip-off of Doctor Atomic, John Adams’ contemporary riff on the atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos, New Mexico (and Faust bombed, all right).

Leaving the past behind us for the moment, one can see that a strange thing has happened in the world of grand opera. Mind you, I do not know the precise moment it occurred, but the once positive image most individuals had of Gounod’s Faust, in addition to the negative one in re Berlioz’s Damnation, has been evolving for a number of years now.

Edouard de Reszke in Gounod's Faust (voice.talk.net)
Edouard de Reszke in Gounod’s Faust (voice.talk.net)

My own opinion about Gounod’s delicate, aromatic flower has shifted with the tide. I used to think of his Faust as the be-all and end-all of French Romanticism. At the time (and I’m talking the mid- to late 1970s and 80s), I was enamored of the opera’s fragrant melodies, its filigreed air of Victorian quaintness and charm, along with its rudimentary expression of the eternal conflict between good and evil — or rather, the contrast between the carnal and spiritual natures of man. In a staging worthy of its ambitions (Frank Corsaro’s revolutionary one for New York City Opera in the mid-60s and 70s is a good example), Faust can move an audience to tears and cheers, and those melodies can stir one’s soul like nothing else we know.

Still, this may have been too heady a subject even for Gounod to tackle. At the behest of impresario Léon Carvalho, whose spouse, Marie Miolan-Carvalho, starred in the pivotal role of Marguérite during the opera’s premiere run in Paris, Gounod and his librettists expunged the hitherto philosophical aspects from his work. What remained of the original concept was a long, ungainly spectacle with an intrusive Act IV Walpurgis Night ballet sequence — fabulous music, no doubt, but suspected of having come from the hand of composer Léo Delibes.

With respect to Berlioz’s once maligned creation, it is presently considered a masterpiece of orchestral and choral writing, with the vocal demands placed upon its three protagonists (in particular, that of the tenor) among the most daunting in the active repertoire. This reversal of fortune, however, has not made it any easier to produce La Damnation de Faust, which leaves an ever-widening gap in the legacy of Faust subjects for the operatic stage.

“Hail, Lord of Heaven”

Arrigo Boito (en.wikipedia.org)
Arrigo Boito (en.wikipedia.org)

Taking up the slack, we still have Italian composer and lyricist Arrigo Boito’s fabulous Mefistofele to admire and grab onto, for which we can all be grateful. This problematic work premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1868 and became, in short order, one of opera’s most ignominious failures. It was withdrawn after two further performances, and presented anew in 1875-76 with whole scenes excised and new material (from an earlier failed opera, Ero e Leandro, for which Boito provided the text) added to it — i.e., the lovely “Lontano, lontano, lontano” duet for Margherita and Faust in Act III.

In this writer’s estimation, Mefistofele is the most faithful representation yet of Goethe’s epic vision, with Boito’s grandiose music and lyrical dexterity bringing a much-needed majesty to the story. More strongly influenced by Berlioz than by either Wagner or Gounod (note the marvelous brass fanfares and harmonic choral effects of both the Prologue and Epilogue — a clear homage to Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens), Boito, in the guise of a musical magus, conjures up a justly depraved “hero” in Mephisto: red of claw, sly of humor, vicious in vocal expression, and rancorous in temperament, the title character (when sung by a high-profile bass-baritone) emerges as the demonic lead of sorts, appearing in every scene and engaging the audience’s sympathy, in the most extraordinary tidal wave of non-amplified sound to be heard in present-day opera houses.

The Prologue to Mefistofele (grimaldiforum.com)
The Prologue in Heaven to Mefistofele (grimaldiforum.com)

In comparison, Gounod’s gentlemanly approach to Méphistophélès (where the Devil makes quite a show of his being a cavalier) and Berlioz’s edgier conception of the part are satanic babes in the woods. Boito allows his Lucifer to thunder and roar, spouting defiance in the face of defeat at the hands of the heavenly hosts. Where God allowed Satan to test the faith of Job in the Old Testament Book of Job, so Goethe re-imagined his poem as a reflection on man’s acceptance of his lot in life, by forcing him to wander through the circles of purgatory and redemption (a reference to Dante’s Inferno), until finally arriving at the starting point: “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” Goethe proclaimed, with “Faust himself, the hero… the representative man, the type of humanity in its contest with the obstacles and temptations within and without, which beset his path.”

Although musicologists find Boito’s treatment to be episodic (due to its composer having trimmed the work down to a more “manageable” length after its disastrous debut), there is near universal praise for Mefistofele’s various sections. For example, the Prologue has been an established concert favorite with the world’s symphony orchestras and choral societies almost from the start. Several of the work’s airs, beginning with “Ave Signor” (“Hail, Lord of Heaven”) from the Prologue, to the first act’s “Son lo spirito che nega” (“I am the spirit that denies”), and the Act II solo “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”), have expanded and enriched the bass repertoire for generations.

The two vocally pleasing numbers for tenor, “Dai campi, dai prati” (“From the fields, from the meadows”) and “Giunto sul passo estremo” (“Having arrived at the end of my life”), have attracted star singers from the dawn of recording. And the soprano’s impressive Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” (“The other night, into the depths of the sea”), with its plaintive, introductory flute obbligato and melancholy sense of foreboding and impending doom (similar in conception to Desdemona’s Willow Song from Verdi’s Otello), echoed the ravings of Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet to delightful effect.

The Shakespearean analogy is no mere coincidence. Boito was, after all, a man of letters. In his later years, the intellectually curious poet forged a well-documented alliance with Italy’s greatest living opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, which led to Boito’s writing of the librettos for Otello and Falstaff, both based on Shakespeare plays, along with a revamped Council Chamber scene for his earlier Simon Boccanegra. We can add to this a reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for composer-conductor Franco Faccio, who presided over the premiere of Otello.

Boito also wrote the text for his own Mefistofele and the unfinished Nerone, as well as for Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, which shares similar musical material and structure with Mefistofele. He was also close friends with Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes, fellow librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, and maestro Arturo Toscanini, who completed and conducted Nerone in Milan upon Boito’s death in 1918.

So much for the man behind the curtain — now, for the opera itself!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Once I Loved’ – In Memory and Celebration of Vinicius de Moraes on His 100th Birthday

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Born nearly a century ago, the man known as “The Little Poet” lived la vie de Bohème and wrote the play Orfeu da Conceição, while bringing the sumptuous sounds of bossa nova to the musical forefront

Poet and playwright Vinicius de Moraes (bhfazcultura.pbh.gov.br)
Poet and playwright Vinicius de Moraes (bhfazcultura.pbh.gov.br)

Saturday, October 19, 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of one of Brazil’s most recognizable and controversial personalities. A talented man of letters, as well as a poet, a composer, musician, performer, and lyricist, Marcus Vinitius [sic] Cruz de Moraes — more widely known as Vinicius de Moraes — was born in Gávea, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He earned a law degree in his native city without having to give up his all-consuming interests in music, philosophy, dance, theater, and cinema (in particular, the silent cinema), along with his love for English literature and language, which he studied at Oxford University (1938-41).

Upon his return to Brazil, Vinicius began writing film criticism for a Rio daily, in addition to answering letters in an “advice to the lovelorn” column. In line with the above, he also worked as a civil servant, had close encounters with maverick filmmaker Orson Welles and social critic Waldo Frank (1942), both of whom made extended visits to Brazil and were instrumental in increasing his awareness of social causes; published several books of verse; spent quality time in Hollywood (1946-50); and participated in film festivals throughout Europe — all while serving in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.

Vinicius had a weakness for the opposite sex, and was rumored to have married a total of nine times. While in Hollywood, he, along with his first wife Beatriz (nicknamed Tati) and their young daughter Susana, practically resided in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills household. They were close friends until Carmen’s unforeseen demise.

Tom Jobim & Vinicius (imovelvip.com.br)
Tom Jobim & Vinicius (imovelvip.com.br)

 

In 1954, on the advice of another poet, Vinicius entered a draft of his play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição, in a writing contest. It won one of the top prizes. On leave from his post with the Foreign Service, Vinicius united with a fledgling composer named Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. Together, the Little Poet and the publicity shy Tom brought Orfeu to the stage of the Teatro Municipal, in Rio, on September 25, 1956. It was the beginning of a beautiful songwriting relationship that resulted in a flurry of classic tunes, among them “Chega de saudade” (“No More Blues”), “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Once I Loved,” “How Insensitive,” “One Note Samba,” “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”), and many more.

In 1962, Vinicius, with the presence of Jobim and the young João Gilberto, made his singing debut at the Au Bon Gourmet nightclub in Rio. From there on, the Little Poet followed the performing path, later teaming up with a new partner, Toquinho, from the 1970s up until his death in July 1980.

The release and popularization of the film Black Orpheus (1959), produced by Sacha Gordine and directed by Marcel Camus, and the subsequent worldwide acclaim it garnered (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar™ for Best Foreign Film) brought renewed focus on Brazil — especially on Vinicius’ subsequent work, which numbered some 400 songs, many of them with the top talents of the day: Jobim, Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Carlos Lyra, Ary Barroso, Chico Buarque, and Toquinho.

Vinicius and Toquinho
Vinicius and Toquinho

Orpheus, the Myth and the Man

Notwithstanding these myriad activities, Vinicius’ serious side was reflected in Orfeu da Conceição, in which he expressed outright concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But why did he choose this particular subject to dramatize?

To put it simply, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves rather easily to other media — most opportunely to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.

For starters, such foreign-born dramatists as Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Cocteau, along with their American counterpart, playwright Tennessee Williams, all drew inspiration from his mythological fable, with varying degrees of success. Until Black Orpheus made its initial worldwide impact in 1959-60, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau‘s pairing of Orphée (1949) with his later The Testament of Orpheus (1960) had previously blazed the cinematic trail, while Sidney Lumet‘s The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, in turn took up the slack from the American side; it was supposed to have been the film adaptation of Williams‘ talkie stage play Orpheus Descending (and a not very good one, at that). Next to Cocteau’s classics, it bombed badly.

As one might have guessed, there were scores of lyric versions lying about the opera house, too, beginning with those of early Baroque masters Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In the mid-19th century, the wildly popular Jacques Offenbach, a German-Jewish émigré to Gay Paree, composed the comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the early 1920s, Kokoschka‘s Expressionistic play Orpheus und Eurydice was transformed into a modern opera by the Austrian Ernst Krenek, creator of the Jazz-Age hit Jonny spielf auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”); while in our own time, an offbeat addition to the standard repertoire (by American minimalist Philip Glass) caught moviegoers by surprise with an ingenious musical rewrite of Cocteau‘s art film as an operatic tour de force.

There was even a modern dance version, titled simply Orpheus (1948), commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York, with music by the always-acerbic Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Russian ballet master George Balanchine. These tantalizing tidbits of the Orpheus legend were but the tips of the musical iceberg.

This was all well and good, but what attributes did the Little Poet find in the myth that would eventually lead him to produce such an influential hit? Vinicius expressed interest in the tale as far back as the early forties. His own words will suffice as to where and how his inspiration might have been derived:

“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of my uncle, the architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country — but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”

Tom Jobim (left) and Vinicius (in dark glasses) in rehearsal for Orfeu
Tom Jobim (left) and Vinicius (in dark glasses) in rehearsal for Orfeu

The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia (who played Serafina in the French film version) as Mira, singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.

Orfeu da Conceição packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30; after which it moved to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long stay. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to São Paulo, however, collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.

Truth be told, Vinicius saw himself as Orfeu. He certainly put much of his own tastes, passion, and outlook into this noble creation. Notwithstanding the fact that Orfeu was black (or what we might describe as Afro-Brazilian) and the playwright was white (of Portuguese descent, with traces of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Argentine blood in his veins), Vinicius commonly referred to himself as “O branco mais preto do Brasil” (“The blackest white man in Brazil”).

Always a heavy drinker, he rarely performed on stage without his trusty bottle of whiskey close at hand. A forerunner and follower of the liberated lifestyle of the swinging 1960s, as the decade began Vinicius had given himself over to the life of a sensualist. Consequently, some things had to go by the wayside. For neglecting his diplomatic duties, he was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1969. After a series of health crises (stroke, heart problems), brought on by his continuing alcoholism, Vinicius finally expired in his bath on July 9, 1980. It is said that he died in the arms of his last song partner, Toquinho.

Orfeu da Conceicao album cover
Orfeu da Conceicao album cover

Despite the controversies that surrounded him in life, Vinicius de Moraes was officially reinstated into the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2006, in recognition of his many contributions to the cultural and literary life of his beloved Brazil. Finally, in February 2011, with President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva present and the surviving members of the Moraes family in attendance, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies elevated him to the posthumous post of Ambassador, with all the requisite honors intact.

Vinicius lived, Vinicius loved — wildly, passionately, without restraints. He went through Hell, much like his forlorn Orfeu. And like Orfeu, he came back from purgatory — cleansed, triumphant, renewed, and absolved of his sins… while searching for his drink.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Exorcist’ (1973) – Our Fright Flick Pick of the Week

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The Exorcist (www.imamusuem.org)
Iconic image from The Exorcist (www.imamusuem.org)

Confession is Good for the Soul

Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. The temperature in the room has gone down to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. As the priests repeat ad nauseam the ancient phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!”, they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. But instead of healing her, the water makes deep gashes in the girl’s skin, as she continues to bellow and roar in anguish.

The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling and suggestive examples of horror ever committed to celluloid. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the film begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site somewhere in Northern Iraq.

The elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wrinkled up Max von Sydow in old-man makeup) suspects an old “enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic — a powerful demon, to be exact. To his horror, Father Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene described above.

Back in Georgetown, a troubled younger priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose twelve-year-old daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love).

Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist
Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist

Distressed and at the end of her rope — and far from being religiously inclined — Chris literally begs Father Karras to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras is not so easily convinced. To start with, the priest has doubts about his own faith, and worries if exorcism is the right path to take. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” sort to speak, Karras decides to seek the Church’s advice and aid in combating the vile menace that’s taken over Chris’ little girl. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the experienced exorcist of the title.

Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game — and the devil, or something claiming to be the devil, plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell” is one of the film’s classic lines) serves as the special FX centerpiece to the drama, one of the scariest features we know.

Filmed on location at Georgetown University near Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx (where yours truly went to school!), the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this much heralded masterpiece of the shock genre. The book, while richer in detail and background information (it was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over a year), was appalling enough for readers; but the film version transcended the normal boundaries of the printed page to deliver a gut-wrenching punch to the solar plexus at every opportunity.

Yet its main strength remains the ironclad script, Blatty’s first serious success for the screen after early attempts with director Blake Edwards. He went on to direct The Exorcist III (1990) based on his book Legacy, but none of the subsequent sequels approached the original’s visual flair or dark, satanic tone. The story follows an inevitable arc that leads to the ultimate discovery of who the devil’s true victim is in the end. Kudos as well to director Billy Friedkin (The French Connection) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts.

The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects — by makeup man Dick Smith (Amadeus), and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere — the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman (both Oscar Winners), and especially Mexican sound technician Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame.

Max von Sydow & Jason Miller (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)
Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) & Father Damien (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist  (andsoitbeginsfilms.com)

Jason Miller, who was also a fine playwright (That Championship Season) as well as comedian Jackie Gleason’s son-in-law, proved a wise choice for the role of Damien Karras, a man burdened by guilt over the neglect of his elderly mother; while Max von Sydow, who was then in his early 40s, made an excellent elder exorcist. Their faith in the power of good is put to the supreme test in the all-important exorcism sequence.

Along with Burstyn and Blair, this quartet of key players brings a convincing presence to everyday individuals thrust into a maelstrom of horrific events few of us can cope with or ever imagine experiencing. Because of their utter believability, taking whatever was thrown at them in stride (they were locked up for days in an ice-cold room cooled by industrial-strength air conditioners), that exorcism episode retains its devastating power 40 years after the fact. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made — and good eventually triumphs over evil, but not in the way one would come to expect.

The fine supporting cast includes veteran Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman (the subject of Exorcist III), Jack MacGowran (who died shortly after completing his part) as Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge (albeit by ex post facto credit).

And, yes, that really was thick green-pea soup that Linda Blair sprayed all over Jason Miller’s face. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on documented fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on … do it …

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes