The scariest movie ever made.
“The Exorcist” is based on a novel 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. He later adapted his novel into the screenplay for the film. Per Blatty, he based the novel on a case of possession from 1949 that he heard about while attending Jesuit school.
The Exorcism of Roland Doe is an incident the Catholic Church documented as a case of demonic possession. According to witnesses, the young boy (Roland Doe was a pseudonym assigned by the Church), who had taken to playing with a ouija board, experienced deteriorating health and increasingly abnormal behavior… even though doctors and psychiatrists could not find a reason for it. When the church was called in to assist, they documented paranormal instances of telekinetic activity, abnormal strength, speaking in tongues, stigmatic writing on the boy’s body, and violent reactions to religious items. After thirty exorcism sessions, the boy’s behavior returned to normal and he grew up to be a healthy family man.
The ecclesiastical papers documenting the case were signed by nine priests and thirty-nine other witnesses.
In 1973, a mere two years after the release of the novel (a #1 Bestseller, selling over 13 million copies), “The Exorcist” was released to enormous box office success and critical acclaim.
Director William Friedkin was coming of off an Oscar win for Best Director for “The French Connection” in 1971 when he signed on to do this picture. Reportedly, Blatty influenced the studio to hire him during the negotiation of the film rights to the novel. Blatty claims Warner Brothers reluctantly agreed.
Friedkin rejected the studio’s request to cast Marlon Brando as Father Merrin, (he didn’t want it to be a “Brando Movie”) and had the previously casted Stacy Keach replaced by Jason Miller (who had never before been in a movie) for the role of Father Karras after seeing Miller in a Broadway play. Reportedly Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman both wanted the role, but Friedkin didn’t want a known actor. For the role of Chris MacNeil, the mother, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft were all considered (Fonda and MacLaine both turned the role down). Ellen Burstyn was cast. She would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (she wouldn’t win, but did win the following year for Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”).
And of course, there was Linda Blair.
Linda Blair was 13 years old when she donned the makeup and contact lenses for her role as Regan MacNeil. Already an experienced actress and model, Blair had starred in two movies, seventy-five commercials and hundreds of catalogues by the time she took on this role. She beat out 600 other applicants for the role. She won a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
While I wouldn’t consider her work here amongst the best child performances of all time, such as Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” (a role Blair was considered for) or Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”, it’s undeniably a great performance, and a remarkably challenging one. Obviously it’s full of very mature content for someone that age, but she also had to endure hours of makeup work, do harness and wire work, and perform a number of her scenes on a refrigerated set so cold that the actors breath could be easily seen, wearing only her nightgown.
So even though her “possessed voice” was performed by radio veteran Mercedes McCambridge, it’s undeniable that Blair’s incredible performance, ranging from sweet and innocent to sick and frightened and eventually to the embodiment of evil itself, is at the heart of this film.
The horror of this film works on multiple, multiple levels.
Even without the supernatural element, there’s something terribly frightening about a child losing their health. Regan is presented to us initially as a cherubic young girl, painting and playing with toys. But she begins to lose control. Sleepwalking, losing control of her bladder and urinating, sick, swearing and cursing. That’s a terrifying thing in and of itself. Atop of which, doctors – teams of doctors – can’t find a cure, or even the cause. There’s something inherently unsettling in that, as well. We trust science, we trust doctors. If they can’t tell you what’s wrong, where can you turn?
Then there is the visual, visceral terror of what this young girl goes through. Physically, she undergoes a horrifying metamorphosis into a scarred, retched, horrid looking thing that curses and vomits and growls. If this were a straight up creature feature with Regan MacNeil as a monster, it would be scary enough without any religious implications. Her head spins, she levitates, objects move, she speaks in a layered, resonant voice, often in foreign languages… No matter what you believe is happening to her, it’s frightening.
But of course, many people ARE believers.
The belief in the devil is the most powerful weapon in the film’s arsenal. For people of the Catholic faith, the Devil is a powerful concept. Wielder of untold power, tempter, purely evil, fallen angel. Should a sinner die unrepentant, they would lose their souls to him for all eternity. What’s more frightening than that? And of course, your soul wouldn’t exactly be at peace… He would torment you. Roast your soul in fire forever.
That the devil, or some other variety of demon would be able to possess you, to take you or someone you love over… while you’re still alive… that’s an incredibly horrifying concept. Losing control of your body, having some other entity in control of you, being a puppet of an evil spirit… that’s terrifying.
And when she’s possessed, while she’s in the devil’s grasp, Regan does the most vile, crass things imaginable. Violently masturbating with a crucifix, cursing at the priests, blaspheming their dead mothers. Attacking her own mother, and the priests who are trying to help her. She truly seems vile, evil, satanic.
The weary priests who battle her (or the demons within her) are well crafted heroes.
Father Merrin is experienced, but old. It’s questionable if he has it within him, physically, to perform the exorcism successfully. The younger priest he’s paired with, Father Karras, is wavering in his faith after watching his mother die after a lengthy illness. Together, they’re alternately formidable and vulnerable. Their battle with the demon takes every ounce of strength they have.
It also takes their lives.
In the end, it’s Karras’ sacrifice that saves Regan. He offers himself up to the demon, and retains his willpower long enough to fling himself out the window and down the infamous mountain of stairs below, sacrificing himself in order to destroy the demon within.
Regan is returned to normal, but at a tremendous cost.
The cast and crew believe the film was cursed. The set caught on fire with no one present, destroying the MacNeil home interior set, and shutting filming down for six weeks. Jason Miller claims to have been given a medal of the virgin Mary by a Jesuit Priest he had never met, in order to protect him from the devil. Miller says that three days later, he was walking around the Jesuit campus and came across that same priest, dead, in a casket. Jack MacGowran died shortly after filming his role (as Chris MacNeil’s director) in the film. According to Burstyn, nine people in total died during production, some directly involved, some family members of the cast or crew. Both she and Blair both suffered serious back injuries during filming. Linda Blair’s career was derailed shortly afterwards due to personal struggles, something the superstitious are all too quick to attribute to this role, even though it’s happened to hundreds of child stars. The son of Mercedes McCambridge (the demon’s voice) murdered his family and committed suicide. It was years after the film was released, but again, after being involved in a movie such as this, people are going to draw connections.
All of this in spite of the fact that catholic priests were frequently brought in to bless the sets.
This is the most pedigreed horror film of all time. No other horror film has been produced by such an extraordinary creative team. A bestselling author, an Academy Award winning director, Academy Award winners and nominees across the board in the cast, an enormous budget. Although I love “The Sting”, I wonder if the right movie won for Best Picture that year. I feel it’s a crime that this movie hasn’t been included on either version of AFI’s greatest movies list, but at least it’s been preserved in the National Film Registry.
Regan MacNeil’s battle with the Devil has been preserved for all time.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”