Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Exorcist”

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The Exorcist.

The scariest movie ever made.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sacrilegious.

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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.

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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.”

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29 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Exorcist”

  1. I saw this movie in the theaters and can honestly say it had the longest lasting effect on me than any other movie I’ve seen. As scary movies go, you feel the impact for a day and talk about it for the following week and then your over it. Not this movie! One of the best in that genre.

  2. Exorcist is a great movie, and definitely, a Movie that everyone should see, but as a complete detour, I’d like to note that I think Exorcist III is probably one of the best, scariest sequels ever made. I personally would rather sit down and re-watch Exorcist III than the original. Just as a study of the craft of movie making, it’s superb. The fact that’s made with almost no incidental music elevates it’s fear level far above most horror films. The cast is amazing, with George C Scott turning in a tour de force performance opposite the consistently brilliant Brad Dourif.

    I know a lot of people dismiss sequels in general, and Exorcist sequels specifically because of how bad some of them are (Exorcist II in particular), but I highly recommend E-III, even as a stand alone movie which is well worth watching.

    I have a little bit of a ‘thing’ about Exorcist III, or couldn’t you tell? lol. Sorry for the detour. I know return you to your regularly scheduled discusion of the excellent original Exorcist movie, which Everyone Should See.

    • I don’t necessarily have a problem with sequels. Without sequels, some of the greatest movies of all time wouldnt exist. Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Troll 2… its getting to be a lengthy list. But I’ll save us all from reopening that debate… there’s a lot of factors involved.

      As to this one, E3, I saw it in theatres and yeah, I definitely was suprised by how good it was. But I’ll admit I haven’t seen it again, so that’s what? 20 years ago now?

      I’d take it you’d recommend I revisit it? :D

  3. Great horror movie. I really like everything you talked about in the review. I have to wonder how much of the “curse” on this movie (or any movie really) is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to mild hysteria on the parts of the film-makers. If you go into a movie about the devil and expect bad things to happen, it’s easy to attribute it to the devil, rather than the all more likely, pure chance.

    • Thanks Brik. Yeah, I’m with you… except for the fact that its cool to talk about. LOL.

      “It was cursed!!” is much more fun than “It was a trouble free production, with your typical share of coincidences”

  4. First off, love the Halloween redesign on the blog!

    I won’t be seeing this movie for now as I’m still traumatized by it from seeing some 20 minutes of it as a kid. Maybe, someday I will give it a chance again and laugh at how scary it’s not! :D

  5. I was in 6th grade, and I begged to watch this with my Dad. I found out rather quickly it was out of my league. I made it through the first 15-20 minutes…..I went to bed that night. (I actually had a water bed) so I spent all night tossing and turning, feeling the bed move, consequently thinking I was possessed. I didn’t get brave enough to try to watch it again until I was in college. I barely got through it…if you call, hiding your eyes for half of the movie getting through it. If you’ve ever read my Fb notes, you already know I am afraid of Ouija boards. I have never let my kids see this movie, because it clearly left me scarred for life. Maybe now that they are in college I will reconsider. Good choice….it is indeed the scariest movie ever!

    • Yup, exactly! That was probably about how old I was when I watched it at my friend’s house down the street. I couldn’t get home fast enough!!
      :D

      And it does hold up, I’m not as scared anymore, obviously, but it’s still a great movie!!

  6. Great write-up. This is the kind of movie that just gets in your head, and does terrible, awful things in there. I’ve watched it several times.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again though. I haven’t watched it since my daughter was born, and I don’t think I could handle it anymore. I’m a big blubbering sack of jelly now. Maybe in another 15 years or something…

  7. Hey Fogs, great write up on the Exorcist, very knowledgable indeed :-). I’ve seen it years back and also the spoof version; but like many of the other commenters I don’t think it’s a film I would particularly like to watch again (despite my recent like of horrors). I heard way back in school that a friends mum had nearly a nervous breakdown after watching it in the cinema.
    I think ‘Entity’ (or ‘The Entity’, I can never quite remember) freaked the crap out of me when I watched it at 12 years old and that kind of put an end to my Supernatural Horror film watching to an end; But I had no idea that The Exorcist was based on a true story. It’s very scarey that these things, like Entitty, actually goes on and happens to real people.
    And I too like the new layout, very appropriate and fun :-)

    • Yeah. LOL. I think 12 is a little too young for “The Entity” yeah…

      Hope you’ve caught up with some good ones recently though, from our other discussion I know you were trying to do some catching up.

      And thanks! Been getting some positive feedback, so I’m glad I did it! It’ll be fun for a week, kind of like the blog has a Halloween costume… :D

  8. Great review, interesting stuff about the casting. I think it’s true that big names could’ve diluted it. When i watch a Brad Pitt film for example, i sometimes feel like i’m watching Brad Pitt, not the character, it’s almost distracting. Anyway, your love for the film comes across!

  9. Wow, I didn’t know all that about the movie being cursed. That’s crazy.

    I love the kitted scene at the top. I just bought this on bluray, can’t wait to see how it looks.

    • Looked awesome when I watched it, I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

      Yeah, funny how these movies about the Devil get that rep isnt it? But it seems that this one had it more than others. Well, Except Poltergeist probably.

  10. Wonderful write-up for an iconic film — one I think should have taken Best Picture that year (but the vaunted Academy were too chickensh*t to bestow upon it). Glad I looked for this one, Fogs. It’s perfect for what I have coming next week. Thanks for this.

    • No problem man. I love when I catch people digging through the archives… :D

      This IS a great one. Had to write something about it, for sure!

      I gotta check the Oscar “Class” that year hang on… Mmmmnnneeennnmghhhheee….. (My phoenetic version of a whine) I dunno. I mean I LOVE “The Sting”. I have it rated higher actually in my personal flickchart. But I would have had no beef if it had gone the other way. You’re right, the Exorcist probably is the better movie. I dunno. Two great ones. The Sting is high amongst my faves, too.

      • I certainly understand. I love ‘The Sting’, too. If ‘The Exorcist’ couldn’t take it, I rather have it go to George Roy Hill’s picture. Both have stood the test of time, that’s for sure.

  11. Pingback: Happy Halloween! 31 Spooky Facts | UnderScoopFire!

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