Every few years I watch The Exorcist, and I still feel terror. The film is a marvel of construction. Slowly, very slowly, director William Friedkin lures us upstairs into that third-floor bedroom where evil itself lives inside a 12-year-old girl.
Warner Brothers is re-releasing the film Friday; this is the version Exorcist novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty wanted audiences to see.
Single theatre When the film premiered in a single New York City theatre on Boxing Day 1973, crowds lined up around the block for four hours in a blizzard to get tickets. It generated huge buzz at a time when there were no TV shows or magazines dedicated to creating anticipation. Credit its stellar trailer and a few news items about how the film was cursed: the set inexplicably burned down in the middle of the night and there were a string of deaths of people associated with the movie.
After the first few screenings, reports started to appear in newspapers -- shocked audience members were running up the aisle and out of the cinema, some were fainting and others vomiting. Why? Because it wasn't just a cheesy horror flick, but a psychologically devastating film that boasted great writing, wonderful acting and shocking effects and makeup that had never been seen before.
The film opens in Iraq, where an elderly Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) uncovers an ancient artifact, an image of the devil. Friedkin sets up the tension early. This sun-drenched place is brimming with bad vibes -- Father Merrin, local workers, dogs all feel it. We feel it.
Then Friedkin moves us to Georgetown, the affluent Washington, DC, neighbourhood, in the autumn. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) are renting a house while Chris makes a movie. All's well until Regan begins acting strangely -- sleepwalking, moving furniture and lashing out at her mother.
In an almost documentary fashion, Friedkin follows Regan's medical travails. She's CAT-scanned, spinal-tapped and then spinal-tapped again. It's a brilliant second act, because we're watching a healthy girl tortured for no good reason. We know the doctors won't find anything, and our nerves are frayed by Regan's screams and Chris's increasing panic.
Ultimate solution Enter Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest to whom Chris turns as a desperate last resort. By this time Regan is ensconced in her bedroom, tied to her bed so she can't harm herself. But Karras is suffering a crisis of faith, not sure if he believes in God. Although stars like Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson wanted to play Karras, Friedkin went with an unknown face, New York actor and playwright Miller, whose drama That Championship Season was playing on Broadway at the time.
It's a sublime bit of casting because Miller never looks comfortable in his own skin. His Karras is physically and spiritually exhausted and must struggle to find the courage to face the devil. The Exorcist would certainly have faltered with a familiar star face.
The last act of the film is heralded by the arrival of Merrin, who climbs out of a cab and stands under a streetlight in front of the house. Friedkin was inspired by the artist René Magritte for the famous shot. In Magritte's paintings, the ordinary -- a man in a coat and hat -- is made strange. He's standing in mid-air, for example, or he lacks a face.
Besides wanting the shot to be foreboding, Friedkin uses it to show the absurdity of calling in a Catholic witch doctor in the late 20th century.
So when Merrin and Karras walk up the stairs for the first time, my chest feels tight and my mouth goes dry. Friedkin has set us up: that room is freezing cold and icky; Father Merrin, who looked exhausted years ago in Iraq now looks downright creaky; Father Karras doesn't even believe in frickin' God; and Regan is the devil, who can do lots of very bad things. Whoa.
Spider walk Blatty's version includes the famous spider-walk scene that fans of the film have heard about but never seen. It's extremely creepy. It occurs right after Chris hears the news that her friend and film director has died. Out of nowhere, Regan comes scampering down the stairs on her back, like a demented crab, with her tongue flicking about. It was cut, and rightly so, because at that moment there's too much going on -- Chris is in shock and Regan is doing some out-of-this-world shit that scares us too early in the film.
Also added are scenes of Chris and Regan sightseeing in Washington, a longer discussion between Merrin and Karras on the stairs during a break in the exorcism, and a tacked-on ending in which the cop Kinderman and Father Dyer talk about going to movies together. Blatty has always said he wanted this ending, to give the audience hope that life goes on and there is good in the world.
Friedkin thought it was pandering to viewers and lessened the film's impact.
Now you can decide for yourself.
THE EXORCIST, directed by William Friedkin, written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel, produced by Blatty, with Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb. A Warner Brothers release. 130 minutes. Opens Friday (September 22). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating:NNNNN