Like body-swiping demons, exorcism movies simply refuse to go away. The latest one to take possession of the multiplex is 'The Devil Inside,' which premieres this Friday, and which is just one of several that will open this year. You may think you know all about exorcism movies, since you've seen 'The Exorcist' (the 1973 classic by which all other exorcism movies are judged), as well as all the documentary-style possession-and-expulsion chillers of recent years. But you may not know about the forgotten Jewish exorcism tale that launched the genre, or the apparent curse that afflicted 'The Exorcist' both during production and after its release, or the truth behind the real-life exorcism stories that inspired many of these films. Read on, if you dare, for a history of the horror movies that will make your head spin.
1. One of the first movies about an exorcism, if not the first, was 1937's 'The Dybbuk,' filmed 36 years before 'The Exorcist. Based on the celebrated Yiddish play by S. Ansky, it's the one of the only exorcism movies that draws upon Jewish lore (including Kabbalah mysticism) rather than Catholic traditions. Shot in Poland, the Yiddish-language film tells the story of a bride possessed on her wedding day by the tormented spirit (the "dybbuk" of the title) of the man to whom she was betrothed before her current groom. As a folk tale, it was the product of an insular Jewish culture that was already vanishing in 1937; seen today, it seems especially haunted, as if by foreknowledge, of the Holocaust that was about to finish the job and destroy the world portrayed on screen altogether.
2. The genre as we know it starts with 'The Exorcist,' based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. The author was inspired the story of a real-life exorcism as performed on a 1940s child named Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim, depending on the account. Blatty borrowed several details from the Doe story, including the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area setting, the levitating furniture, the strange marks on the child's body, and the guttural voice emanating from his throat. Catholic priests performed the exorcism ritual on him 30 times before the strange events stopped happening. Today, it's still not clear what really took place, or whether the boy might have been faking his symptoms for attention.
3. During the filming of the 1973 movie version, an apparent curse seemed to plague the production. An increasingly serious set of unexplained mishaps led the filmmakers to call in a priest to bless the Washington, D.C. film set. A fire destroyed much of the set except for the bedroom of young Regan (Linda Blair), where most of the demonic action takes place. A scene where a demonic force throws Regan's mother Chris against a wall led to a permanent back injury for co-star Ellen Burstyn. Most eerily, actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, whose characters both die in the movie, died in real life before the film's release. (Read more little-known facts about 'The Exorcist' here.)
4. The curse seemed to continue once the film was released. 'The Exorcist' was one of the most successful R-rated movies ever made and is still regarded as one of the scariest -- so scary that one moviegoer fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. As a result, he sued distributor Warner Bros. and received an out-of-court settlement. He wasn't the only viewer who had a violent physical reaction, which is why some theaters started passing out 'Exorcist' barf bags.
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5. The movie did lead some Catholics to reaffirm their faith. Director William Friedkin says he met James Cagney shortly after the film's release, and that the screen legend complained to him that the movie made his longtime barber decide to quit cutting hair and enroll in a seminary, and that the actor felt he hadn't been able to find a decent barber ever since.
6. Also cursed: the relationship between Blatty and Friedkin, whose dispute over cut scenes ruptured their friendship for nearly a quarter of a century. Eventually, the two reconciled, and 12 minutes of footage that Blatty missed were restored for a 2000 re-release, including the notorious scene where a contorted Regan walks like a spider and another scene in which the two exorcists discuss the possible reason for Regan's possession.
7. 'The Exorcist' spawned a number of instant copycats in other countries. One of the most unusual was 1974's 'Seytan,' a Turkish version (the title means what you think it means) that puts an Islamic spin on the tale of a possessed girl.
8. There was also a German version, 1974's 'Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil,' and a Spanish version, 1975's 'Exorcismo.'
9. The curse continued: A sequel starring Blair, 1977's 'The Exorcist II: The Heretic,' is generally regarded as one of the worst horror movies ever made. Blatty himself directed the third installment, 1990's 'The Exorcist III.'
10. In 1979, 'The Amityville Horror' launched the current wave of exorcism movies based more explicitly on real-life stories. Based on Jay Anson's best-seller, it was the supposedly true story of a Long Island house whose inhabitants are tormented by paranormal phenomena unleashed by the house's bloody history (a previous resident had shot and killed six family members there). The film spawned eight (!) sequels and a 2005 remake.
11. There have been a few comic spoofs of the exorcism genre. The most famous is 1988's 'Beetlejuice,' Tim Burton's second movie, in which it's the dead who try to expel the living from their house because of their frightful taste in interior design.
12. The other noteworthy exorcism comedy was 1990's 'Repossessed,' with Leslie Nielsen (of course), and with Linda Blair spoofing her signature role.
13. More evidence of the 'Exorcist' curse came in the early 2000s when an 'Exorcist' prequel was made and then re-made. John Frankenheimer was supposed to direct the film, but he died and was replaced by Paul Schrader. Schrader spent $30 million making a film the producers ultimately regarded as too psychological and not gory enough. Renny Harlin was brought in to retool the film. He ended up reshooting most of it, at a cost of $50 million. His version, 2004's 'Exorcist: The Beginning,' was generally panned but earned $78 million, not quite what the film had cost to make. So the producers gave Schrader another $35,000 to finish the cut of his own footage. That version was released in 2005 as 'Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.' It earned better reviews but, playing on only 110 screens before heading to video, it grossed just $251,000.
14. In 2010, NECA Toys came out with a Regan doll, with a demon-distorted face and a mechanical head that spins 360 degrees and barks out lines from 'The Exorcist.' At least it doesn't projectile-vomit pea soup.
15. There may be medical explanations for the symptons Regan displayed in 'The Exorcist' -- or at least for the symptoms displayed by Robbie Mannheim in real life. Among the strange conditions that could have been involved are Dermatographic Urticaria, a skin condition that would explain the formation of strange markings and raised figures, and Allotriophagy, the pathological swallowing of objects that may later force themselves through the skin.
16. In 2000, a made-for-cable movie, 'Possessed,' depicted the story of Roland Doe/Robbie Mannheim that had inspired Blatty's 'Exorcist.' Starring Christopher Plummer, Timothy Dalton and Piper Laurie, the cable movie hewed much closer than 'The Exorcist' to the reported details of the Doe/Mannheim story.
17. Not all exorcism films were based on real-life stories. 1999 saw Patricia Arquette star in 'Stigmata,' a purely invented tale. In 2005, Keanu Reeves starred in 'Constantine,' based on the noirish DC comic series about a suave, urbane exorcist.
18. Atmospheric Japanese horror films (dubbed "J-horror" by fans and critics) emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of them focusing on evil spirits, possession, and haunted children. Exorcism was a theme particularly in the 'Ju-On' series, remade in America as the 'Grudge' movies.
19. A new trend towards seemingly realistic, fact-based exorcism movies began with 2005's 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose.' Based on the case of a German woman named Anneliese Michel whose exorcists when on trial after she died in 1976, 'Emily Rose,' was unique in that it was part courtroom drama, part horror movie. The trial inspired two other films: the 2006 German film 'Requiem' and last year's American-German co-production 'Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes,' which is the version that sticks most closely to the details of the Michel case.
20. The trend kicked into overdrive with so-called "found footage" dramas like 'Paranormal Activity' (2009) and 'The Last Exorcism' (2010). Inspired by the success of 'The Blair Witch Project,' these films pretended to consist of real-life footage of demonic possessions and exorcisms. Studios liked them because they could be made for a shoestring, without star salaries ('Paranormal' leads Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were each paid just $500 initially for the week-long shoot). Both titles have become successful franchises. A fourth 'Paranormal' is due this fall, as is a second 'Last Exorcism.' (Does that mean they should change the title of the first film to 'The Second-to-Last Exorcism'?)
21. Another found-footage chiller, 2009's Spanish-language '[REC] 2,' features a unique twist. In the first '[REC],' it's implied that a zombie plague is the result of a '28 Days Later'-type virus. In the sequel, however, the source turns out to be an intrusive demonic presence. Uh oh.
22. 2009's 'The Unborn,' about a young woman possessed by the spirit of her stillborn twin brother, may be the first possession movie since 'The Dybbuk' that involves a dybbuk and a Jewish exorcism.
23. The producers of 'Emily Rose' also made 'The Rite' (2011), about an apprentice exorcist who learns the ritual from a priest in Rome. It was based on Matt Baglio's book 'The Making of a Modern Exorcist,' about Father Gary Thomas, who learned the rite in a similar fashion and who allowed Baglio to witness some 20 exorcisms. Thomas served as a consultant on the film and was said to be pleased with its accuracy.
24. 'The Rite' wasn't the only exorcism movie out last January. There was also 'Season of the Witch,' a medieval twist on the genre, starring Nicolas Cage as a Dark Ages hero. Alas, the film wasn't able to lift the apparent curse afflicting the Oscar-winner's recent career.
25. 'Devil Inside' is another documentary-style tale, centering on a young woman trying to determine whether her mother, who killed three people while undergoing an exorcism, is clinically insane or really possessed. The star-free saga comes from Paramount, the studio that made a fortune on the similar 'Paranormal Activity' series. Whether or not it becomes a big hit like the others, it's clear that movie studios still have a strong appetite for exorcism movies. Like Regan McNeil's head, they keep coming around to scare us again.
[Photos: National Center for Jewish Film ('The Dybbuk'), Paramount ('The Devil Inside')]
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