Tuesday, August 6, 2013

THE EXORCIST 1973

I remember first becoming aware of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist in 1971 when I saw an actress talking about it on The Merv Griffin Show. As hard as it is to imagine now, the average person in the 70s didn't know what an exorcist was, so Griffin initially (and perhaps intentionally) misheard the title and thought the actress was talking about a fitness book. Upon hearing what a terrifying read it was, coupled with the inevitable comparisons to that fave of mine, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby – the most high-profile Devil vs. Catholicism novel to date – I went to the library and was put on a long waiting list to get The Exorcist.
Before the shot of Father Merrin standing under the streetlamp became an iconic touchstone, the image of an open bedroom window with the drapes blowing outward was the primary advertising image for The Exorcist
In 1971 I was just a freshman at Saint Mary’s Catholic High School in Berkeley, California. And while at the time devout, I wasn't quite the same religiously impressionable Catholic School kid traumatized by Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. As a novel, I thought The Exorcist reveled a little too much in detailing the grotesqueries of demonic possession for me to take it as a serious discourse on the eternal battle between Christian faith and evil its author purported it to be, but it did grab me as one of the singularly most gripping and harrowing horror novels I'd ever read. What a page-turner! It was scary, emotionally credible, and rooted in a spiritual world I was raised in. I'd never read anything quite like it, and I couldn't put it down. When the film adaptation of The Exorcist came out on the day after Christmas (!) in 1973 - with much advance fanfare, but very little in the way of actual, "How are they going to make a movie of THAT book?" details - I somehow persuaded my entire family to go to San Francisco's Northpoint Theater (where it played for six months...an unheard of run today) and we all had the supreme pleasure of having the holy crap scared out of us in stereophonic sound. Seasons Greetings!
Ellen Bursty as Chris MacNeil
Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil
Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin
Jason Miller as Damian Karras
Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman
By the time I saw The Exorcist, Mike Oldfield’s eerie “Tubular Bells” was in heavy rotation on the radio as The Theme from ‘The Exorcist,’ and advance word had it that people were passing out, vomiting , and being carried out of theaters in hysterics in reaction to the unprecedented horror of what transpired onscreen. Anticipation was so high and lines for the movie were so long that people were even passing out before getting into the theater. 
Where I lucked out is that I saw The Exorcist within days of its release, before the film went into wide release, and before word-of-mouth spread and mass hysteria set in. Few people remember it, but The Exorcist was really the dark horse release of 1973. The really heavily anticipated films that Christmas season were Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the prison escape film, Papillon; Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, the sequel to the hugely popular Dirty Harry (1971); and The Sting: a comedy and thus the most holiday-friendly release, marking the re-teaming of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford. 

Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings
The character actor, familiar to fans of Roman Polanski by his appearances in the films, Cul-De-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers, died not long after completing work on The Exorcist. His death  at age 54 (from flu-related complications) is often cited as part of the so-called The Exorcist Curse. Details about which can be found throughout the Internet.
All the smart money was on these three films. Each movie was a major release boasting the absolute top-ranking stars of their day, promoted with massive publicity campaigns and pre-sold audience interest. In addition, each film had a release date jump on The Exorcist (December 16th for Papillon, Christmas Day for The Sting and Magnum Force). The Sting, in particular, was blessed with the added advantage of having received largely positive reviews from the critics, and was shored up promotionally by the growing popularity of its theme music: Marvin Hamlisch’s jaunty adaptation of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which became an instant MOR favorite on radio.
By way of contrast, The Exorcist was based on a controversial bestseller but featured a cast of actors whose names (if known at all) meant absolutely nothing at the boxoffice. In fact, author William Peter Blatty and Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection) were initially The Exorcist’s most exploitable elements.
Kitty Winn as Sharon Spencer
The Exorcist was such a talked-about book that a deal of interest surrounded its film release, but advance reviews of the film were poor to mixed, and few Hollywood oddsmakers had any confidence that holiday audiences would be in the mood to see a dark-themed horror film the day after Christmas. So, while most of San Francisco was lining up to swoon over Paul Newman’s blue eyes or see Clint Eastwood blowing bad guys away with his .45; my family and I got in to see The Exorcist with comparative ease. Lucky for us that we did. The Exorcist opened on a Wednesday, and by the weekend, it became a film near-impossible to get a seat for. Lines wound around the block and crowd control tactics had to be employed to deal with the overflow numbers. In the course of a few days, The Exorcist had achieved phenomenon status.
Site of Where I Had the Holy Hell Scared Out of Me
The Exorcist opened at San Francisco's Northpoint Theater, located on the corner of Bay and Powell. Click HERE to see great documentary footage of theater patrons from 1973 reacting to seeing The Exorcist for the first time.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Speaking primally, what I’ll always love most about The Exorcist is its having provided me that rarest of rare cinema adventures: a viewing experience that becomes emotional. It’s a phenomenon that goes deeper than being made to feel frightened, shocked, repulsed, or even taken by surprise. It’s being drawn so completely into a fictional reality that you respond on a visceral level, far deeper than intellect usually allows (the intellect that’s always there reminding you “It’s only a movie”). As one grows older, this type of total emotional immersion becomes harder to come by, but at age 16, I was just mature enough and just na├»ve enough for The Exorcist to give me the thrill ride of my life!
Home & Family and the Illusion of Safety
I was just young enough to still feel that one's home and the protection of one's family was sufficient to keep harm at bay. The Exorcist, in detailing the banal normalcy of  the lives Chris and her daughter (juxtaposed with the barely-acknowledged tension of familial discord and divorce), shattered the illusion of home as sanctuary.
Religious Imagery
Even though, at age 16, I was starting to question all  I had been taught in years of Catholic School, the traditions of religion; its mythology and iconography, could still prove unsettling to me in a context as violent and anarchic as The Exorcist
Adult as Protector
In a teenager's world, adults are still the figures one looks to for strength and the reestablishment of order when things went wrong. The Exorcist, in showing a mother helpless to save her child in the face of an unnamed evil, hit a raw nerve in me. This cutaway shot of Chris reacting to the horror of Regan's possession just blew me away as a kid. Even today, this brief shot still sands as one of the  one of the most powerful images in the film for me.
Rev. William O'Malley as Father Joseph Dyer
Most of the teachers at my school were either priests or Catholic Brothers. A great many of them looked exactly like real-life priest, William O'Malley. A fact that only went to further cement the disturbing verisimilitude within the fantasy that was The Exorcist.
Good vs Evil
I daresay that the disheartening state of the world is a challenge to anyone's moral beliefs, but to be raised Catholic is to feel acutely the disparity between what one is taught to believe and what one encounters in the world. The visual excesses of The Exorcist have always felt like such a perfect dramatization of the inexplicable ugliness in the world that exists simultaneously with all that is beautiful. Though I'd hasten to label it poetic, I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to call it powerful (and occasionally moving).
Science vs. Religion
Today, I find the willful disavowal of science in favor of myth and ignorance to be fairly absurd, but in my youth, both Rosemary's Baby and (most explicitly) The Exorcist provocatively held forth on the possibility that science was perhaps no match for that which could not be explained. This point was driven agonizingly home when The Exorcist's scenes of medical science at work proved far more shocking and inhumane than anything the Devil was able to cook up.

PERFORMANCES:
One benefit afforded me back in 1973 that’s denied most viewers of The Exorcist today, was my wholesale unfamiliarity with the film’s cast. Linda Blair and Jason Miller were, of course, making their film debuts, but outside of Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist was the first time I’d ever seen Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow on the screen. The removal of that extra layer of subliminal artificiality -born of watching actors one knows from earlier films portraying entirely different characters - immeasurably enhanced The Exorcist’s verisimilitude and heightened its intensity for me. The actors were the characters they played. It's something you can't always count on or anticipate, but when a film asks an audience to accept fantastic events as realistic, it helps to eliminate as many reminders as possible that one is "watching a movie." In this instance, my ignorance contributed to my bliss.
Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-nominated performance is a good example of why, even when making cheap horror films, it’s worth the expense and trouble to get good actors. Neither Damien Karras' crisis of faith nor Father Merrin's preordained encounter with the forces of evil engaged me as much as the gradual emotional disintegration of Chris MacNeil and her mounting desperation. Burstyn's incredibly committed performance has always been The Exorcist's emotional center for me, and it's precisely the kind of grounded realism she brings to her role that draws me into the film's events and gets me to believe in it. Even as the film's special effects begin to look quaint in this age of CGI, Burstyn's performance never gets old. Everyone in The Exorcist is terrific, but I have total confidence in my belief that the film wouldn't have worked at all without her. 
I've come to look kindlier upon Lee J. Cobb's ramshackle Lt. Kinderman over the years. When The Exorcist first came out, Peter Falk's Columbo was still on the air and Cobb's takes-forever-to-get-to-the-point detective seemed then like an imitation. 
The most elaborate special effects in the world don’t amount to much when there is nothing human at the center of all that carnage. Many a well-made horror film has been ruined by actors incapable of registering even the most rudimentary signs of fear, despair, anguish, or trauma…recognizable human reactions that raise the emotional stakes of the drama and gets the audience invested in the outcome. I think the ability to convincingly convey fear and dread is high on the list of underrated talents.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
No point in going on about The Exorcist's then-unprecedented shocks. Suffice it to say that I spent a great deal of the latter part of the film with my coat at the ready to shield my eyes; my little sister was reduced to tears; and a sizable portion of my popcorn went uneaten. There's been much written about what an emotional roller-coaster ride The Exorcist is, but few mention what a physical toll this movie takes. I remember my body being wound tighter than a mainspring every time a character approached that bedroom door. The sense of apprehension and dread I felt at every reveal of the degree of Linda Blair's possession was almost unbearable. And the sound! Was there ever a film with a more active and jarring soundtrack? Even when your eyes were closed the movie terrified you.
No one fainted or passed out during the screening, but such screaming and yelping you never heard in your life. People leaving the theater had the look of folks who had just been rescued off of a sinking ship or something. Some were giddy and pleased with themselves for having survived, others looked drained and in need of physical support, and many were just stumbling out as if a daze. Me? I recall wobbly knees and teary eyes (It always makes me cry when Linda Blair kisses the clerical collar of Father Dyer). Was I grossed out? Yes! Was I entertained? Oh, but yes...it was wonderful!
The Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty (r.) makes a cameo appearance.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
The enduring legacy of The Exorcist disproves the popular belief held in 1973 among the film’s detractors, who claimed that once the shock value of the gross-out effects were experienced, there was little of substance in the film for audiences to enjoy. On the contrary, my familiarity with the film’s shock effects has allowed me, over the ears, to grow ever more appreciative of what a superior example of filmmaking as storytelling The Exorcist really is. Whether one takes it seriously as the “theological thriller” it was intended to be, or, like me, merely enjoy it as one of the best horror movies ever made, The Exorcist is a bona fide, gold-plated classic of the first order. And I’m thrilled to have been around to experience The Exorcist phenomenon first-hand. I’ll never forget it.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES: 
Linda Blair
Met her in a L.A. supermarket and she was such a sweetie when I asked for an autograph. I commented on how she is one of my favorite screen criers, to which she replied "You've seen those movies,...believe me, it's heartfelt!" 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

19 comments:

  1. Funny, I thought the BOOK was much more horrifying than the movie, which I found pretty boring, actually...the scary bits didn't come close to living up to all the hype, in my opinion. If one wants to see truly chilling, any of the "Dr. Phibes" movies, or "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" i thought were much MORE scary, overall. I don't see much "scary" nowadays; too much reliance on special effects and "gore'"-which is NOT "scary".

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  2. P.S. My husband was once a Benedictine monk who was actually trained as an exorcist!

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    1. Scary movies are indeed harder to come by these days. In my case, I'm never quite sure if it's because it's harder to scare me now than when I was an adolescent, or because, as you say, bad filmmakers today rely on gore and spectacle and have absolutely no idea how to "scare" an audience beyond loud sounds and shock cuts.

      Oh, and if the children I see at the malls and in restaurants are any indication, having an exorcist in the family seems like a modern necessity!

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  3. Ken, your posts always knock me out. The detail!
    Having never seen The Exorcist, only hearing of what a frightening film it is, this makes me want to watch it. But something you mentioned about not knowing such well-known actors hit home the fact that whenever we do watch a film, despite our suspension of disbelief, you are somewhat safe in the knowledge that "these are actors". What befalls them is fiction and we are safe.

    Thank you for these posts.

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    1. Why, thank you for a very lovely comment! I'm thrilled you enjoy my posts, and very grateful.
      And yes, isn't that whole "safety net" phenomenon of casting stars always a bit of quandary in films? I guess that's why Janet Leigh's early departure in "Psycho" threw 60's audiences into a tailspin.
      In disaster films, you always could guess who was doomed based upon a a particular stars image or billing status.
      Certain horror films get an added boost of realism and heightened danger when the cast is not widely known and their fates not preordained by the star system.

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  4. I was six when this came out and the brief TV spots, most of them featuring the shot you have just above with the street lamp and fog, used to completely petrify me! It was years later before I finally got to see (and enjoy) the movie.

    I know they came out with an augmented version of this movie several years back, "fixing" and perhaps even adding some of the effects. I cannot stand when they do that. Let's draw some eyeliner on the Mona Lisa or glue some arms on the Venus de Milo... Just let art (and I do consider movies art) stand as it was. Clearly, it entertained and invigorated scads of people the way it was. We always have to approach older movies as products of their time and accept that things were different then. Of course, I vastly prefer the old style imagery versus CGI, but that's me...

    And what about that sequel??? Lord.... As always, a very interesting and insightful read!

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    1. Hi Poseidon-
      Those TV commercials! Leaving things to a kid's imagination was sometimes more traumatizing than the real thing.

      I'm in the same camp as you when it comes to the whole tinkering with movies after they've been released. I can only think of two films that I'm glad they went back and "fixed"(the Merchant Ivory film "The Wild Party" and Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend"- which wasn't really fixed, we Yanks just got a chance to see the director's preferred UK cut), yet in both cases, I wish they still made available the original theatrical versions.
      And, like you, I don't know if I'll ever warm up to CGI. Its potential is vast, but my limited experience of it to date has always been that it introduces such a fake, distancing feeling.
      Oh, and I could write an entire post about my experience seeing "The Exorcist II: The Heretic" on opening day (before all the damage control cuts were made). The audience was so obviously disappointed, I thought there was going to be a riot! My God...that film!!!

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  5. The whole culture of movie-going has really changed since the 1970s, as one can see from the footage of people going to see "The Exorcist". Those massive lines around the block, really not the sort of thing that you see much if at all these days. Back in those days, people really did go to the movies to watch a movie. It was also refreshing to see nobody in the line tinkering about with some mobile device. Also, as you mentioned, Ken, those huge crowds were generated largely by word-of-mouth, given the film didn't have a huge all-star cast to sell it to the public. I love all of the insights that you provide in regards to your film-going experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. They were indeed great times to be a film fan. I also love how so obviously involved the audiences got in the film. That's another thing that one rarely if ever sees these days.

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    1. Perhaps it's because I was younger, but moviegoing DID feel like a lot more fun then. The era of cinema rudeness hadn't really set in, they had actual working ushers who told people to put their feet down or not talk, and of course, no one was using those dreaded mobile devices.
      The last "event" movie I went to see the old-fashioned way was "Independence Day" when it premiered (what was I thinking?) It was a midnight screening and honestly it was less fun than terrifying. It felt like "Day of the Locust" could erupt at any moment, and it didn't feel like film fan enthusiasm so much as mob mentality. I learned my lesson...if i must go to these movies, go in the afternoon when kids are at school!

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  6. Moviegoing was certainly a much more challenging activity in those days if you wanted to see a hit right after it opened.
    In Philly, the movie played in only one relatively small downtown theater for many weeks.
    No advance telephone ticket sales in those days, so I stood on a line through one complete showing of the film before my group got in to see it, and it still lived up to our expectations!

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    1. If you were in Philadelphia back in the 1970s, I can only imagine what the opening week of "Rocky" must have been like! If I could time travel back to one decade for its movie-going culture, it would be the 1970s. I was born near the end of said decade, and if I went to the movies back then, I don't recall so well! Growing up in the 1980s here in Australia, and going to see largely G-rated fare was one thing--wonderful movie magic and some great films that I'm proud to say I experienced in their original run. However, catching films such as "The Exorcist" (definitely NOT family fun-time fare!) would have been something else, indeed! I love all of these old stories about film-going, especially from the 1970s.

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    2. Joe-
      Yes, the whole standing in line experience was a big part of most of my early film memories, too. It was fun. Although nowadays, when a local theater premieres a new Star Wars/ Star Trek/ or Superhero film and I drive by and see people with tents and chairs and sleeping bags camped out overnight (or even days)to be first in line, unless they're kids, it always looks sad or pathetic. I must be getting old!

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  7. Ellen Burstyn's knit hat. That is all. (I'm putting it on Pinterest now!)
    I remember passing the book around in middle school. Eep! Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

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    1. Ha! That has to be my favorite one-line summation of The Exorcist: "Ellen Burstyn's knit hat." You actually made me go look at the screen cap again...and you're right; she rocks it.
      Also, I thought I was the only one passing the book around at school!

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    2. I must be slipping. I just now got that...five days later!

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  8. I too read the book first...it was in my dad's library along with other horror classics like Rosemary's Baby and Harvest Home. (I guess that's where I get my love of the genre.) I was too young to be able to see either Rosemary or Exorcist in the theaters, but in the early 1980s the advent of VHS entertainment opened the doors to a lifelong love of classic film, and these two are among my very favorites. I think Rosemary's Baby is a superior film to The Exorcist, perhaps because the concept of evil is more conceptual and less literal. Exorcist is a very entertaining thrill ride, though, and occupies a deserved place in my collection.

    Ken, do you remember the Oscar controversy surrounding Linda Blair's performance and subsequent Best Supporting Actress nomination? Apparently Blair was the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar UNTIL the veteran character actress Mercedes McCambridge, outraged that she had been given no credit or billing for her chilling voice-over performance as the demon, made a public ruckus that she should share the nomination with the then-12-year-old actress. The Academy voters agreed that that piece of information made Blair's performance seem a bit less remarkable, and the Oscar went to another child star nominee that year, Tatum O'Neal, who became the youngest Oscar winning actor to that date. And in all subsequent releases and prints of the film, McCambridge's name now appears on the list of opening credits.

    I too remember when a hit movie enjoyed a six-month run, and even the flops stayed around forever!! That's how I got to see The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox ten times in 1975! :-)

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    1. Hi Chris - What fun points you brought up!
      Well, "Rosemary's Baby" is the Gold Standard as far as I'm concerned. I've never encountered a horror film to touch it (sadly, I hear there's to be yet another attempt to make a TV movie remake).
      And I'm glad you mentioned that whole Oscar brouhaha. One of the reasons I revisited this movie is that I'm reading William Freidkin's memoirs, and he recounts the whole mess. I thoroughly remember what a big push Linda Blair was getting for an Oscar win, and then all of a sudden McCambridge (and a little later, the stunt double, but I don't remember her name) appeared in the trade rags.
      Given "The Exorcist"S popularity, I remember there were bits about it in Variety and The Hollywood reporter for days. So cool you remember that. After everybody got a glimpse of Linda Blair's real acting talent in "Airport 1975", Academy Awards and the name Linda Blair never appeared in the same sentence again.
      Off topic, this reminds me of the "Flashdance" controversy with the dance double and how poor Jennifer Beals and the studio had to go around saying that everybody should have "known" it was a dance double (with that wig, they have a point). Also, I can't believe you saw "The Duchess & the Dirtwater Fox" ten times!! I'm the only one who should hold that crown!
      There was a time I had a huge crush on George Segal(?!?!) and I saw that film on cable TV more times than I can count. Alas, I can barely watch it today.

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    2. Hey, I thought Linda was awesome as the plucky girl in need of a transplant in Airport 75 (so hilariously spoofed in Airplane)...she acted her poor costar Helen Reddy (as the musical nun) right off the screen! And in Exorcist 2, The Heretic, opposite the great Richard Burton, she more than held her own, LOL...and what about Roller Boogie? Weren't you IN that movie, Ken ;-)

      I do remember the Jennifer Beals controversy and was so disappointed that it wasn't really her dancing. Many years later, she redeemed herself for me with her wonderful role in the Showtime series the L-Word.

      Ah, the Duchess!! The real reason I saw it ten times was so I could learn Goldie Hawn's bawdy song by heart: "Oh you can try my apples, you can touch my pears...you can squeeze my limes a thousand times, without any extra charge, but please don't touch me plums.."

      Now I'm REALLY embarrassed.

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