THE EXORCIST: Horror from Reality

Ominous tubular bells closed William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973), while audience members, the lucky few that didn’t get sick or leave early, would sit in fearful, shocked silence.  This would be one of the most expensive horror films ever made to date, and the highest- grossing for decades.  It would spurn further changes and contentions over the MPAA’s rating system, and influence the production of horror movies in Hollywood to this day.

The film is based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, and he would go on to also write the screenplay, produce the film, as well as select and work very closely with director William Friedkin throughout production.  The story itself is inspired by actual events; one of the rare instances the Catholic Church had sanctioned the exorcism of a young boy in the United States.  The book and film both center on the inner spiritual battle of Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) and the possession and subsequent exorcism of twelve-year-old girl, Regan (Linda Blair), performed by him and Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow).  As Regan struggles with her possession, her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burnstyn), consults physicians and psychiatrists, subjecting her to many painful tests, including a controversial and graphic angiography scene that medical professionals hailed as being one of the most accurate depictions of a medical procedure shown in film.

THE EXORCIST poster William Friedkin

Friedkin and Blatty did not intend on crafting a horror film, but were instead striving to create as real a depiction of an exorcism as possible.  Friedkin would say of Blatty that “[Blatty] knew [Friedkin] had a background in documentary film as well, and he wanted the story to be filmed as realistically as possible, and so did [Friedkin].  [They] did not want to make a scary horror film or fantasy film… people regarded it as a horror film. But [Friedkin] made the film as a believer.”  With that being said, there were still painstaking efforts put into the film’s production and aesthetic. 

The film’s budget was an unprecedented $12 million; with that much invested, in a horror film no less, Warner Bros Studios felt the need to ensure its success.  With the Production Code newly abolished, the MPAA rating system was instituted in its place, and was amidst many evolutions when THE EXORCIST premiered.  Jason Zinoman, states in his book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, that “in an effort to prevent more government intervention, the major studios created the MPAA ratings board.  To some, this sounded like a curtailment of free expression… In fact, it had the opposite effect. The ratings board helped movies like THE EXORCIST reach a much larger audience.”  The ratings acted as a guide for viewers, and subverted government influence on content by giving viewers informed autonomy, or it was intended to.  While it is widely acknowledged that many films had to be re-cut to achieve their desired ratings, horror films would continually perplex filmmakers and MPAA members alike with the ever- present question, “what qualifies as too violent or too sexual so as to receive an X-rating?”  X-ratings were reserved for films not suitable for children due to excessive sex or violence, but this often prevented films from being shown to wider audiences, as many theatres refused to show them.  Because THE EXORCIST had no nudity, and its level of violence is debated, Friedkin achieved his R-rating, and to much criticism.  The film was originally released to around thirty theatres, yet reports were so controversial that it later opened to many more.  The film opened to both viewers waiting hours in the rain and viewers becoming faint or sick within the theatre.  The film earned over $400 million in the box office, making it the highest grossing horror film ever made for decades to come.  It would also be the first horror film to ever win any Academy Awards, and it won two, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound, along with being nominated for eight others, including all the major categories.  Aside from achieving commercial success, the film is hailed as culturally significant and incredibly influential in terms of technique and production.

Because Blatty and Friedkin were both grasping for a realistic approach to the exorcism process, it would seem that Dick Smith would be the perfect make-up artist for the film.  He had been known for his work in Francis Ford Copolla’s THE GODFATHER (1972), transforming Marlon Brando into Don Vito Corleone.  Guillermo Del Toro, a student of Dick Smith’s, would say of his philosophy on creating effective special effects makeup,

“Dick always said, ‘strive for realism.’ So don’t strive to make a monster a monster. Don’t do an old-age makeup that is an old-age makeup… Don’t go for the effect; go for the reality. And that’s as true for a monster as it is for a piece of delicate prosthetic makeup. He also told me never to sculpt an expression into a piece of prosthetic. Many artists sculpt something that is already angry or screaming, and they exaggerate the facial lines of expression. He said not to do that, but rather to always sculpt the face in repose. That way you could let the actor imbue the prosthetic with his own character.”

LINDA BLAIR in The Exorcist

These are interesting notes, as Smith would utilize both effects for the film.  Not only did he transform a forty-three-year-old Max Von Sydow into an eighty-year-old Father Merrin, but he also created the vomit device fitted to Eileen Dietz, Linda Blair’s stunt double.  However, Friedkin was unhappy with the footage, so he reshot the scene with Blair and superimposed a fuller stream, and utilized both sets of footage together, making it one of the only instances that optical effects were used in the production.  Friedkin strived as much as he could to create in-camera effects, and strived for the most real depiction as possible.  He even went to lengths to have a set created of Regan’s bedroom with moving walls and ceiling, and built a refrigeration system within it for the freezing atmosphere within the room.

Owen Roizman would be Friedkin’s partner in cinematography once again with THE EXORCIST, after having worked with him on THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) two years prior, which would also be the film that prompted Blatty to choose Friedkin as director.  THE EXORCIST required many complicated shots and methods, including an instance where Roizman’s team built a swing rigged into the ceiling for the camera operator to achieve a clever long take of actors running up a winding staircase and past the camera to Regan’s bedroom.  They would also extend the exterior of Chris and Regan’s home in order to film a stuntman propelling through Regan’s window, and down the infamous steps below.  Roizman would later say “my theories on cinematography are rather simple and basic. My style, if I have one at all, is simply to approach a subject and try to record it on film as it should look, rather than as I might want it to look… My approach, really, is to take a situation and recreate it on film as it is and not change it.”  It would seem that the success of THE EXORCIST very much hinged upon the matching ideologies of Blatty, Friedkin, Smith, and Roizman, key figures in its production.

Sound editing and music also played equally important roles within the film, both of which have been re-mastered several times since its release.  The original soundtrack consists mainly of classical music.  Steve Boedekker, who would re-master the sound and music for THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN (2000), including his own original pieces, would say of his task,

“my job was to figure out what Billy Friedkin meant when he said “all-new”, because, although it was all-new, we didn’t want to mess up what was already one of the most experimental soundtracks ever in terms of dynamics and its blurring of the line between sound effects and music. So, during the mix my job was to make sure that, when we were experimenting, we didn’t stray from the original idea. I would try to make the big things bigger and let the small things be smaller, while keeping the documentary-type elements as they were. You know, one of the things that I thought was so terrifying about the original movie was that it did have this documentary-type feel to it, so we wanted to maintain as much of that as we could.

The film’s original soundtrack went through many revisions, including rejected score from Lalo Schifrin, but ultimately largely utilized modern classical compositions, sparingly used, and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which would become known as the film’s theme song.  Interestingly, Friedkin would also include subliminal sounds throughout the film, including the guttural noises of prowling lions and swarms of buzzing bees, in order to elicit primal, subconscious fear within the viewer.  Since its release, the list of sound and music contributors is ever- growing with each new cut or rendition.THE EXORCIST is an incredibly complicated piece, steeped in technique, philosophy, and lore.  It revolutionized the horror-genre, forced changes onto the MPAA ratings systems after its release, and is composed of incredibly creative and complex filmmaking techniques.  Itwill remain in history as one of the most well- done and influential films in history, not only in the genre of horror, although its influence on the genre is probably the greatest ever made.   Perhaps what makes the film most effective is the alignment of the common goals of main creative voices within production, Blatty, Friedkin, Smith, and Roizman.  Because each of their elements striven for reality, and not nightmarish fantasy, they were able to create one of the most horrifying films in history, despite religion or faith.  While their beliefs are diverse among them, their goal was absolute, and so was the effect.

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