Tuesday, December 26, 2023

This Day in Film History (‘Exorcist’ Scares the Devil Out of Audiences)

Dec. 26, 1973— The Exorcist, released on this day in the United States, capped Hollywood’s five-year search since the premiere of Rosemary’s Baby for another box-office success that would tap into audiences’ fears about the existence of evil.

The Mephisto Waltz and Season of the Witch, among other, more low-budget ripoffs, had come and gone in the supernatural horror genre, leaving little in their wake.

But The Exorcist—with hot, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin in charge, featuring Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Burstyn, and based on a bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty—capitalized on more visible assets than those earlier cheap imitations, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time ($223 million in domestic box office, or $1.5 billion adjusted for inflation in 2023), and the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

These cold facts, though, don’t begin to convey how audiences experienced The Exorcist, though. So, let me try this analogy:

In one of my college American literature classes, my professor described the effect of Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: Even as the minister enumerated the torments of Hell in the quietest of tones, listeners wept, screamed, fainted. “In other words," my professor concluded ironically, “it was a roaring success.”

So it proved with The Exorcist, in which, in the supposedly science-based late 20th century, thousands took fright over the struggle with a demon for the soul of a young girl waged by her mother and two Roman Catholic priests

In the months after its release, the media featured all kinds of stories about viewers’ reactions, including:

* Paramedics called to treat people who fainted and others who went into hysterics;

* Burstyn herself went to the aid of a woman who fainted in one theater—then, realizing the lady might have an even worse reaction when she saw who was helping her, called on someone else in the theater to assist;

* In a case eventually settled out of court, one filmgoer who fainted and broke her jaw on the seat in front of her sued Warner Bros. and the filmmakers, claiming that the film’s subliminal imagery caused the incident;

*A plumber was kept on constant call in a Canadian cinema, because, as one theater manager informed The Toronto Star, "The smell in the bathroom is awful. People are rushing in and they're missing the toilet seat by inches."

*The film did not play in Iran, Burstyn related in her memoir Lessons in Becoming Myself, because “each of the three times they [Tehran Film Festival officials] tried to dub it, the dubbing cast got too frightened and couldn't complete;

* None other than the Rev. Billy Graham claimed, “The Devil is in every frame of this film.”

In the past 50 years, multiple cultural commentators have sought to explain The Exorcist’s impact, or even what it meant to them specifically (see, for instance, these New York Times analyses in late October, with one calling it “Essentially a Women’s Picture” and the other “A Subversively Queer Movie”).

I prefer wider perspectives, the better to demonstrate the film’s broad-based appeal. As far as I’m concerned, the best summary of this kind comes from Dublin-based pop culture critic Darren Mooney’s October article in The Escapist Magazine, which identified aspects of the plot directly relevant to its time, including:

*The generation gap. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the postwar concern with issues such as juvenile delinquency now encompassed drugs, political dissent, and questioning of religion and the economic system. Many parents were finding their kids unrecognizable as they matured—mirroring Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil trying to make sense of Linda Blair’s Regan. For many parents of the time, even the best scientific professionals (psychiatrists and doctors) seemed powerless to cure what ailed their children.

*The sexual revolution. One of the movie’s most notorious scenes involves what the possessed Regan does with a crucifix. Yet she also assaults a psychiatrist and spews sexual obscenities at her mother and the two priests called on to save her, Fr. Lankester Merrin and Fr. Damien Karras. She is not yet interested in boys, but by raising Regan's age by a year, to twelve, the film places her on the cusp of adolescence, with all the sexual problems that may come with that. At the same time, some viewers have speculated whether Fr. Karras and his confidante Fr. Dyer were gay, and whether Burke Dennings—the film director that Chris used to babysit Regan—might have violated the child before his murder, or, alternatively, if the girl suspected that her mother might marry him.

*The breakdown of the family. It has been frequently remarked upon that Regan is the child of a broken home, with Chris an actress called on to leave the girl alone for considerable time when shooting a film. The separation anxiety that many children experience in such situations leads Chris and the male authority figures she consults to initially believe that only psychiatric treatment (rather than spiritual intervention) is called for to deal with the girl's problems. At the same time, failed obligations towards family members in the last stage of life provide a perhaps even more potent avenue for the demon to exploit, as Fr. Karras can’t stop blaming himself for his aged mother dying alone.

*The Mideast as a breeding ground for unrest. The film’s prologue occurs on an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Fr. Merrin comes across an amulet of a demon (left unnamed in the film, but called Pazuzu in Blatty’s novel)—setting up the confrontation between the cleric and the demon in the last half-hour. Many viewers at the time of the film's release would have seen the disorders emanating from the Mideast in the last several years (two wars aimed at Israel, Palestinian terrorism, and—only two months before the movie's premiere—the Arab oil embargo) as natural sources for disturbances and strife.

*Washington, DC as a symbolic nest of deceit and corruption—and as the site of a real-life exorcism. Much of the film was shot on location in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC. While a student at the school in 1949, Blatty read about this ancient Catholic ritual performed on a teenaged boy in the area. Years later, the writer changed the sex and lowered the age of the victim, and, while updating the period to the present, kept the setting and other details of the exorcism intact. In Friedkin’s vision, the Washington of this time is a symbol of urban decay, rife with homelessness and crime—and many Americans ardently believed that the White House was a focus of government-sponsored crime in the Vietnam and Watergate eras.

Two other aspects of the characters’ environment, I would argue, play a part in what is about to unfold:

*Hollywood. Blatty, a longtime screenwriter and producer, based Chris and Regan MacNeil on Shirley MacLaine (another globe-trotting redhead actress) and her only daughter, Sachi Parker, and Dennings on the English director J. Lee Thompson. While Chris is a caring mother, her active lifestyle and the secular outlook of her friends make it inevitable that she will have no strong set of religious beliefs that might help her cope with this crisis.

*The contrast between traditional Roman Catholicism and a more modern, rational mode. This is represented by, respectively, Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras (played by the omnipresent character actor Max von Sydow and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller). Karras, a psychiatrist, now doubts the beliefs that drew him towards the priesthood. It is Merrin who spearheads the charge against the demon, even telling the younger priest to leave the room when he senses him wavering in their struggle against radical evil.

The film’s visceral impact derived primarily from two men: Blatty, a practicing, even conservative, Catholic, and Friedkin, an agnostic Jew. The pair quarreled over the film’s ending but reconciled a quarter century later (and Friedkin even agreed to include the ending Blatty wanted on the anniversary DVD).

It is to Blatty’s novel and the Oscar-winning screenplay that we have the characters, setting and themes. But it is to Friedkin that we owe the firm hand on the acting and atmosphere that elevated this from B-movie schlock to a tense drama of faith pushed to the breaking point.

Friedkin—brilliant and exacting, but also arrogant and imperious—drove cast, crew, and himself to dangerous lengths to secure his desired hyper-realism, pushing the film’s production schedule from 85 days to 224.

Today, Friedkin—who died four months ago— might be seriously embarrassed by, maybe even “canceled”for, his bullying tactics and unsafe work environments.

But at this point in the early 1970s, European-style “auteurs” of the New Hollywood such as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Friedkin were at their commercial and critical zeniths, enjoying perhaps even more deference than past giants like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock had been accorded in the past.

At the time of his death, Burstyn issued this graceful and, so far as it went, truthful, tribute to the director: “My friend Bill Friedkin was an original; smart, cultured, fearless and wildly talented. On the set, he knew what he wanted, would go to any length to get it and was able to let it go if he saw something better happening. He was undoubtedly a genius.”

Nevertheless, in that drive to get “what he wanted,” Friedkin abused personnel and endangered the health of Burstyn and others:

*He slapped a real-life priest, cast for reasons of verisimilitude, when he didn’t get the reaction he wanted. Technical consultant Fr. William O’Malley, also acting, in the subsidiary role of Fr. Dyer, wasn’t conveying the sense of shock that Friedkin wanted in the movie's conclusion. Suddenly the director struck the face of the cleric, then immediately ordered the cameras to roll.

*Burstyn hurt her back badly, even after telling Friedkin that he was risking injuring her. In the scene where Regan pushes Chris to the floor, the harness jerked Burstyn back too hard, resulting in a fractured coccyx and pain that continues to this day for the actress. Friedkin's reaction at the time? Instructing the cameraman to continue shooting Burstyn in pain, footage that ended up in the film.

*Linda Blair also suffered an injury resulting in lifelong pain. For a scene in which Regan convulses, a harness (again) led to Blair fracturing her lower back, leading to long-term scoliosis.

*In separate scenes, Friedkin fired guns near Miller and Rudolf Schündler (who played Karl) to startle them. Schundler blew his lines and almost fell down the stairs; Miller got into a heated argument with the director, telling him that, as an actor, he didn’t require such inducements to a better performance.

*Friedkin delayed filming by firing the first production designer. What led to the decision: Friedkin's desire to change the wallpaper in Regan's room and to widen all the door frames to allow for more camera accessibility.

*Friedkin fired famed film composer Bernard Herrmann. This may have been the most justifiable decision the driven director made in running roughshod over someone who didn't meet his creative standard. For all his brilliant work on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Hitchcock's Psycho, Herrmann was also famously crusty. This time, the composer loudly derided the footage he would set to music, and said that the Iraq prologue especially had to go. Friedkin sacked him, and instead used Mike Oldfield's eerie and evocative "Tubular Bells," which became an instrumental hit. 

Friedkin's despotic attitude, often heedless about safety, was of a piece with his behavior the year before in filming the classic chase scene in The French Connection. "I was like Captain Ahab pursuing the whale," he told The New York Post two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of that film's release. "I had a supreme confidence, a sleepwalker's assurance. As successful as the film was, I wouldn't do that now. I had put people's lives in danger." 

With filming methods like these and those used in The Exorcist, Friedkin could easily have become embroiled in the kind of legal mess besetting director John Landis after the accident that killed actor Vic Morrow during production of The Twilight Zone: The Movie

Instead, he was lucky to have helmed one of the great, gritty police procedurals ever put on screen, as well as The Exorcist, which, 50 years later, is still on the short list of the scariest movies of all time.

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