It's been called the scariest movie ever made, and arriving today on Blu-ray nearly 37 years after its original Yuletide release, 'The Exorcist' is as enigmatic and creepy as ever. It's also still ripe with the contradictions that transformed it into a classic: a "theological thriller" written by a devout Catholic and directed by an agnostic Jew; a film not considered a horror tale by its creators yet invoking terror in its audience; and a young teen star engaged in disturbing acts who did not understand their implication at the time of filming. Yet it is these inherent dichotomies that give the film its undeniable power.
Director William Friedkin recalls a mixed reaction from Catholics around the world upon the film's initial release. Although he reports that there was no stated reaction from the Catholic Church, some within their ranks liked it, while others despised it. Friedkin says Cardinal O'Connor "used to talk about in his homilies at St. Patrick's Cathedral," while the head of the Jesuit order at the time, Father Pedro Arrupe in Milan, "loved the film, had his own print and used to run screenings of it for friends and clergy". On the flip side, adds Friedkin, "Billy Graham once said publicly that 'the Devil is in every frame of 'The Exorcist.'' That's a quote. I, of course, never saw it that way. I saw as a story of good and evil and one explanation of an inexplicable topic, which is why bad things happen to good people."
The young director even met one of his idols, James Cagney, backstage at a talk show at the time. The legendary actor griped that thanks to Friedkin's film, his dependable, lifelong barber retired to become a priest, and he hadn't found a decent barber since. That latter point is of interest as Friedkin claims that the harrowing film resonated with many Catholics who reconfirmed their faith through the congregation or by becoming clergymen.
Naturally one wonders what the effect of this controversial film had on then 14 year-old star Linda Blair. Looking back at the making of the film, she says that the director knew "that 90 percent of it I didn't want to do. I didn't want to do it. I knew I had to do it because it was my job. There were things that I didn't want to do and that didn't seem right, and all a child has is to say, 'I don't want to.' He'd say, 'Yes, you can.' Inevitably, I always had to do it, and we know who won."
What was very emotional for Blair back then was watching the film with the public at a major screening. "It was the first time I'd seen it," she admits. "It would've been nice if I'd seen it by myself first. I'm watching it and going, 'Oh my God, that's what they were doing? That's what they were doing?'" She was overwhelmed when the audience gave her a standing ovation after the screening, "when I was doing my job. I was trying to calculate it from my own perspective. It meant a lot." She broke into tears at the time.
While Blair is proud of her work on 'The Exorcist,' and she publicly praised her collaborators after last week's MoMA screening of the film, other films she later did meant a lot to her also, like 'Born Innocent' (which tackled sexual abuse), 'Sarah T.: Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic,' and, on the lighter side, the Exorcist parody 'Repossessed' with Leslie Nielsen. "I think a lot of great things came from it," said Blair of 'The Exorcist.' "You wish that [people] could remember other things, like when someone says they saw me on Broadway or saw this film or that film. 'The Exorcist' is something that has been talked about almost every day of my life in some capacity, even if it's just a comment."
Blair is pleased with the Blu-ray release of the film, because burning fan questions can be answered, and she feels it will set her free. Further, she is using her celebrity status to bring attention to the cause of animal rescue, which she has been involved with for over 20 years and, most recently, through her own WorldHeart Foundation. Her property in Acton, CA, is a temporary shelter for rescue dogs that need homes, and she wants to educate people about stopping animal abuse and neglect. Her experience rescuing animals in New Orleans after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina further strengthened her resolve.
An unexpected fallout from the production was that the original cut of the film caused such a strong rift between Friedkin and screenwriter/producer William Peter Blatty that they did not speak again until the early-'90s. Blatty originally saw a cut of the film (that he blessed with holy water) that included a scene between Father Karras and Father Merrin discussing the reason for Regan's possession. The author strongly felt that that scene, cut due to studio pressure on Friedkin after Blatty had originally seen it, was the moral center of the film. The author was upset by its exclusion. Friedkin has called him a "sore winner" given that the movie won two Oscars (including one for Writing Adapted Screenplay) and has since grossed over $400 million worldwide.
Blatty says that in the early-'90s he persuaded Warner Bros. to let him restore that scene and other lost footage from the film, and he reached out to and almost convinced Friedkin to edit it. The author eventually wooed the director to his side, but it was not until the end of the decade that the extended director's cut with 12 restored minutes emerged with most of the excised scenes, including the crucial one for Blatty.
The old wounds have since been healed, according to both Friedkin and Blatty. "In recent years we talk to each other a minimum of three times a week," says Blatty. "Sometimes every day."
Friedkin admittedly has not seen recent like-minded films like 'The Exorcism Of Emily Rose' and this year's 'The Last Exorcism,' and he does not feel that he can gauge the impact that 'The Exorcist' ultimately had on cinema. "It is what it is," he says. "I know that people think of it as a horror film. I don't." When asked if a film like this could be made today, the director said, "I think there's a lot more caution and less of an appetite for edginess, certainly at the major studios."
One wonders whether 'The Exorcist' can be perceived as being scary by a younger generation not as strongly weaned on Judeo-Christian beliefs as older generations. That said, the film has benefited from modern digital technology that allowed the insertion of the grotesque "spider-walk" scene -- which has since been imitated by myriad Asian and Hollywood fear flicks -- as well as various CGI effects that augmented some scenes of demonic possession.
"This is all a guessing game to me, but I would think after kids have seen some of the mythic scenes -- the head spinning around, the vomiting, and everyone who's seen all the myriad takeoffs of those moments -- I would think that elicits laughter," muses Blatty. "But when they first trotted out this cut in 2000, I went to a theater in Santa Barbara. I noticed that there was some teenage laughter at various moments, but when we got into the exorcism there was a hush that weighed a million pounds right through to the very end. It still grabs them."
"Kids can't decipher all the mechanics," believes Blair. "They can't. They think they can. Most kids say, 'I wasn't scared.' I say it's because it's about religion, and they don't know enough about religion yet. I don't want to belittle them, and I really have to stop myself from belittling. I'm not trying to do that, but" -- she adds with a sly cackle -- "don't piss me off!"
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