‘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

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One thought on “‘The Exorcist’ (1973) – Our Fright Flick Pick of the Week

    Helen said:
    October 6, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Yes that brought back memories of me reading the book first and my mother walking in my room to tell me supper was ready I jumped out of my skin and then of course the Charles Manson Murders took place at the same time and you think I had insight I went to see the movie after we all.searched for a Bar and of course passed a dark alley hoping we didn’t see a drink that was 50yes ago and the memories year still fresh amazing how some books and movies effect one

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