It’s been awhile since it’s been discussed, but “The Exorcist,” the granddaddy of horror films (click here for retrospect review), was plagued by mythical forces. Today’s horror movies, as gross and blood-gushing as they seem, are very run-of-the-mill that don’t believe in much other than the commercial cash-grab. The difference with the 1973 classic is that the people involved believed with meaning behind what they were doing, backing the story of how the devil takes possession of a 12-year old girl and wreaks havoc on her. The effects it had on people at the time who worked on it, or saw it in release, were profound.
William Friedkin, the hot director coming off the heels of the 1971 Oscar-winning smash “The French Connection,” agreed with Warner Bros. to adapt William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” with the promise the script would be re-worked – he found the melodrama too thick and the symbolism over-literal in the early draft. Friedkin would bring something cinematic, something realistic, documentary-like to his approach. Once in production, immediate problems and freak occurrences took place.
Friedkin had such bad luck during the making of his film that he asked the Church to perform a holy blessing on his film set. The first set burned down, and the fire department was unable to detect a cause other than a theory of an electrical short circuit. The Church declined to perform its holy blessing, a mistake perhaps for the misfortunes that were to soon follow.
Nearly every actor faced personal troubles during the next nine months of the shoot. Ellen Burstyn, as the mother to the possessed Regan, sprained her back (during the crucifix stabbing scene) and was laid up in bed for several weeks. Linda Blair, as Regan, suffered a back injury when the metal harness levitating her snapped. Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin) arrived in New York to film his first scenes and immediately learned of his brother’s death. He fell ill and was unable to move from bed for several days. Jack MacGowran finished his final scene where he’s killed by the devil and died suddenly one week after wrap-up. Jason Miller, in his film debut as a priest, faced hard times when his son was struck down by a speeding motorcyclist. The assistant cameraman’s wife died. Count too the number of on-the-set accidents: a carpenter accidentally cut off his thumb, a lighting technician lost a toe.
Ellen Burstyn added to the urban legend, saying, “There were nine deaths which is an enormous amount of deaths connected with the film. Some of them very directly like actor Jack McGowan, who gets killed in the film, completed shooting, and died the following week.” Burstyn continued, “Max von Sydow’s brother died. The assistant cameraman’s wife’s baby died. The man who refrigerated the set died. The young black night watchman…”
“The Exorcist” became a risk to all that viewed the film, too. No other film in history generated such hysteria: there were dozens of cases in Los Angeles and New York alone where patrons vomited and experienced intense nausea, perhaps in their identification of witnessing 12-year old heroine Regan endure emasculation. Hospitals recorded a number of cases of patients experiencing hallucinations after walking out of the film when no prior drug use was precipitous, evidently the persuasive sight of Satan in literal or subliminal form was overwhelming in the way that was a transcendent shock to them and to many others as well.
Father William O’Malley recalls, “It was really volcanic when it first came out. It only opened in New York in one theater,” continuing, “I was getting calls from all over the place. People wanting me to exorcise their daughter, exorcise their cat, exorcise their house.”
All of this was back in the day when audiences actually had physiological responses to movies – quite different from desensitized horror movies today.
The new opening of “The Conjuring” is one of the more effective horror movies, and so was “Insidious” three years ago, also by director James Wan who with his swirly-whirly camerawork is a comparable contemporary to Friedkin. But the effects on audience of these two are more ephemeral and short-lived compared to how “The Exorcist” shattered and haunted the national psyche forty years ago. Because it was the first to deal with the devil in a serious way, in a brutal way, in a theological way, the authenticity of its then innovative subject of exorcisms remain more powerful than all the hundreds of knock-offs that have come over the years.
Friedkin wraps up with hindsight. “Over the years, I think that, most people take out of “The Exorcist” what they bring to it. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place then the film will reinforce that. But if you believe that there is a force for good that combats and, eventually, triumphs over evil, then you’ll be taking out of the film what we tried to put into it.”