Episode 104: The Exorcist (1973)

Film chosen and introduced by Matt

In every sense, 1999 was a year of profound horror. I was sixteen going on seventeen, and careering towards my final year of secondary school. The queasy terror of receiving distinctly average GCSE results—though thankfully they were good enough to nudge me into a technical college, accompanied by a total brainlock in terms of what the hell I was going to do with my life had left me in a paralysed, passive state. Amid these real life fears, myself and my best friend, Sam—who I would collaborate with the following year on our first student short—the dodgy but gratifying slasher-horror, Night Class—took in Tobe Hooper’s notorious, fabled-turned newly available uncut edition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre together, and chilled ourselves witless at Teeside Park’s Showcase Cinema, witnessing the goose-pimple inducing, found footage frights of The Blair Witch Project. Earlier that year, bristling with anticipation, I would also subject my teenage self—alone this time, to what was labelled, “the scariest film ever made.” Newly liberated from the clutches of BBFC good taste overlord James Ferman after an 11-year absence on VHS, and unleashed upon the British public, was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

It was the week commencing April 26th, 1999. On a North Yorkshire cul-de-sac—scarcely resembling the affluent Prospect Street of the movie, though we did have kindred lampposts—my childhood back bedroom was the scene of the scares, and a modest, portable TV-VCR combi the instrument of torment, containing an 18 certificate (better late than never, BBFC) rental copy, fresh from Choices—my preferred video shop at the top of Richmond market place, courtesy of my kind and obliging mum. I was shaken; frozen; unable to move or pause the tape—spellbound by the ghosts in the machine. The next day, my mate, Rob—who also courageously caught the film that week upon re-release, tentatively asked, “Are you alright?”—and we never cross-examined each other like that. Evidently, I had checked out, and was gazing blankly through the window of one of Richmond’s disembodied classroom huts with a vacant expression, and had to confess—I couldn’t stop thinking about The Exorcist. This was the first—and to that disturbing degree, the last time I have been truly unsettled by a motion picture.

“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”

Demon, The Exorcist

Each of us must confront and come to terms with what we believe, and what we don’t. As someone raised as religiously as you can be raised when you’re unwittingly Christened, but not bread and wine communion “confirmed,” then merely nudged in the general direction of the casual Church of England—but find yourself believing more in the divinity of the Jelly Tots skewering the orange, rather than the Christingle message itself, I’m no exception. When I first took in the film, I didn’t know what I accepted in terms of religion, which made its gritty impact so much more forceful and intense. I would certainly be less susceptible to the theological might of The Exorcist as a 40-year-old, ardent atheist—a label I wouldn’t fully commit to until perhaps 2004, than as the daydreaming, vaguely confused, ambivalent and apathetic 16-year-old agnostic of my teenage years. Yet twenty-three years later, I still feel the desire; a need, to dismantle the film that once petrified me, and perhaps conquer some horrific bygone hang-ups. Demythologising and dissecting the mechanics of a beloved movie is nine times out of ten a thickheaded undertaking, but I sensed it wouldn’t entirely obliterate my enjoyment of The Exorcist—a deeper knowledge and understanding could surely only ever enhance it. I’m keen to investigate the technical approach, deconstruct the story—via both William Peter Blatty’s book, and the final film, and in doing so examine its profoundly distressing effects.

I pestered my parents about their first experiences with The Exorcist, as the furore and phenomena surrounding its 1973 unveiling was firmly in their era. My mum—just nineteen at the time, vividly recalls one audience member being sick during her Darlington Odeon screening, and another fainting. She couldn’t believe how frightening the film was, and admitted to watching some scenes through open fingers. Apparently, lots of filmgoers upped and left the showing, but alongside her college friends, she bravely remained until the end—the disturbing memories staying with her for a long time after. It still ranks as probably the scariest thing she’s ever seen. My Methodist dad took in The Exorcist shortly after its UK theatrical launch, accompanied by his best friend, Arthur, in either a Whitley Bay or Newcastle picture-house. By his account, it was scarier than the usual X-rated horrors of the ’60s and early ’70s, and was very uncomfortable to watch. Dad revealed, if he hadn’t been at the wall end of a row, he may have got out—noting the film conjured a real sense of evil that was chilling to experience. My sister—seven years my junior remembers not being able to watch it all the way through for a very long time, but also confessed she found the built-up idea of The Exorcist worse than the experience of finally seeing it.

These parental reports check out, as this collective psychosis of sorts did spread. Remarkably, members of the general public had indeed suffered from bouts of hysteria, and reports of patrons passing out and vomiting weren’t uncommon, and would later became inseparable from screenings worldwide. Although there were undoubtedly some moviegoers playing up to the TV cameras in the staked-out lobbies of cinemas—lurching into the light of the lobby in the first thirty minutes, and refusing to return, which I always found feigned. As mournful and foreboding as it is, these deserters would be hard-pressed to suggest the Iraq prologue made them puke or keel over. Besides, literally nothing even remotely freaky occurs until Regan’s bed starts shaking. Perhaps it was all in their prayerful heads. Other reports suggested audiences weren’t succumbing to spinning heads, garden hose spew, or crucifixes plunged into preteen nether regions—it wasn’t the Demon, or the Devil himself—filmgoers were more likely conking out due to Regan’s ultra-realistic, crimson-spurting arteriogram procedure, as opposed to sacreligious outrage. That’s a true testament to, and fixed merit of The Exorcist; even godless unbelievers such as myself struggle with the fact we’re witnessing the plight of a blameless little lass, and we’re well aware that every single one of these invasive medical tests by smug, know-it-all doctors are for naught. Moreover, holy attitudes aside, each self-inflicted crucifix gash, and holy water flesh-tear—licking bloody, gaping wounds across Regan’s legs, actually slashes her body, and a belief in a supreme being or not—at the risk of chanelling At the Movies dope, Gene Siskel, and adopting his familiar pet peeve—a child in peril is affecting to the degree that anyone can feel emotionally manipulated, and it’s often pretty tough to endure in a picture.

“The Devil is in every frame.”

Billy Graham

The movie was flagged as, “a genuine threat to mental health,” and the US ratings board forewarned, “The Exorcist may well be the most dangerous motion picture ever made in relation to its potential threat to the emotional health of preteens, teenagers, and some adults as well.” Labelled on its release as, “a sociological phenomena, which gives credibility to the devil myth, and the power of exorcism and ritual,” the movie was sold on this controversy for the sake of cheap yet potent, word of mouth PR—using every brazen trick in the book, from an incendiary death curse, to hackneyed tabloid slogans galore, e.g. “not for the week of stomach or faint-hearted.” Pregnant women were urged not to attend shows, and paramedics in ambulances hung around outside theaters just in case. Many of these studio-orchestrated puking or passing out capers were later whistle-blown by Linda Blair herself, who confessed she was told by an executive about the phony, public relations ruses. Another certainly non-fateful coincidence was that 666 Fifth Avenue in NYC was the post-production office hosting the Moviola editing, and marked the location in which the picture’s devout Catholic writer/producer, William Peter Blatty first witnessed the finished assembly.

The picture seemingly had everything necessary to provoke a public reaction—even a swiftly-pulled, potentially seizure-inducing black and white teaser trailer. As would follow suit with The Omen, Poltergeist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Exorcist was exploitatively branded a “cursed” production, with Beelzebub allegedly striking out against the cast and crew for revealing his trickster duplicity on a Hollywood scale. Every set burned to the ground except Regan’s bedroom, which was mysteriously unaffected, there were several actor and set-related deaths—most notably Jack MacGowran, who played the foul-mouthed English filmmaker-turned twisty-necked drunkard, Burke Dennings. Nowadays we know it’s all claptrap, as many involved have conceded, a fifteen-month shoot will span the same time in which people related directly and indirectly to the production will sadly perish. Ever the snake oil salesman, Friedkin had even requested for the set to be exorcised—but again, this is Billy the businessman—the shameless publicist within. In addition, creepily contributing to the the muddy myth of actual wickedness lurking in the celluloid, a young, bearded chief neuroradiology technologist and real-life serial murderer, Paul Bateson—catalyst for Friedkin’s 1980 homosexual crime thriller, Cruising, bizarrely pops up during one of Regan’s hospital scenes.

Rated X without cuts, The Exorcist triumphantly haunted the UK’s late-night cinemas, pulling in gargantuan box office returns, and was released unmolested and uncertificated to the masses by Warner Home Video in 1981. Then, quite contradictorily, in early ’88—after being previously available to rent or purchase in England for some seven years, The Exorcist was hastily pulled; withdrawn from UK shelves; yanked from the paws of wholesome younglings, deranged yobbos, and everyday fans of cinema alike, and fell into the cupped hands of uptight censor, James Ferman—amid pressure group campaigners, the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association’s reactionary, and at times arbitrary “video nasty” ban—a term coined by do-gooder square and uber-dragon “Karen” of ’80s Britain, Mary Whitehouse, in a futile attempt to mollycoddle a predominantly sensible nation.

“Demonology is an important part of Catholic doctrine that really ought to be studied again.”

Pope Paul VI, 1973

The powers that be feared The Exorcist had potential to cause severe emotional problems for any crackpots actually believing in demonic possession, and also remained troubled by the fact that its 12-year-old protagonist, Regan would render the picture more appealing to little devils, who could simply pop their parents’ VHS copy into a VCR—as they no doubt had been doing for years—and bend their brittle minds beyond repair. This overbearing concern—as domineering as it may seem, does ring true, as throughout my youth there were scattered, whispered rumours of circulating pirate copies, and—perhaps not as apocryphal as once thought—tales of, “Oh, my dad; grandad; uncle; brother; next-door neighbour, has The Exorcist on video.” In our somewhat cynical circle this claim would have been customarily met with, “Does he fuck as like, it’s banned!” Or words to that effect. It would now, however, seem to be verifiable—likely one of the straggling 1981-1988 copies that snuck out and were readily available to buy at that time. This availability fiasco, of course, only added to the legend—the inaccessibility and accompanying frustration fuelled a morbid curiosity, and a forbidden interest from debased—or perhaps just intrigued, adolescent Brits, who would inevitably seek out banned material at any cost to catch a glimpse of what the domineering nanny state deemed worthy of shielding from our unworthy sight.

In terms of the whole UK video certificate refusal debacle, cheers to the BBFC for the transparency of information—but not for their half-witted, asinine Bogarting of one of the most artful, masterfully made movies of all time. Unlike prosecuted “nasties,” such as the still presently problematic, 1978 rape-revenge exploitationer, I Spit on Your Grave, which had 1 minute and 41 seconds clipped out for even its latest 2020 Blu-ray release, and non-prosecuted, but nevertheless infamous—with court hearings and chat show debates abound, Sam Raimi’s undead splatterfest, The Evil Dead—a movie that curiously wouldn’t see the light of day in its uncut form until 2001. The Exorcist, however, was never taken to (literal) trial, nor indicted for any obscenity law breaches, and in spite of its indisputably lewd and blasphemous content, Friedkin’s film wasn’t judged to violate any child indecency image guidelines. It seems to have been the weighty accolades and overall acclaim—Oscar nods, and a keen public demand, that ultimately protected The Exorcist.

In the nineties, Sky TV made moves to show the film, but they were once again nixed by Ferman, who found it peculiar and contradictory that although the film was withdrawn on video, it would still puzzlingly play unmolested for subscribers on BSkyB’s satellite telly. Following several attempts in vain to unleash The Exorcist on VHS, a gigantic leap forward occurred in 1998 when Camden London Borough Council allowed The Exorcist to be shown publicly. This tide-turning screening twisted the BBFC’s arm in terms of reassessing the picture’s content, and subsequently prompted them to rerelease it, wholly intact on tape—newly adorned with an elusive, blood red 18 certificate. Later in ’98, the film was re-released in cinemas to commemorate its 25th anniversary, which handily served as somewhat of a dummy run as the public failed to replicate the insanity and delirium of the ’70s run. The picture, heralded by Kommandant Ferman’s retirement and his BBFC replacement—former Sky guy, Robin Duval’s entrance in 1999, was thought to no longer have the same level of impact, and was granted general release once again.

A similar matter of censorship-lifting emerged the same year, with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was outlawed outright in Blighty since its earliest London screenings back in ’75. The title didn’t help Hooper as the word, “chain saw” had been banned unreservedly from titles at the time. As with The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw was later let out on video in 1981, with the ensuing Video Recordings Act of 1984 meaning it was likewise shelved. However, in ’98 and ’99, during more open-minded times—the very same time as Friedkin’s feature began to sever its own straps, Chain Saw was also shown in liberal, arty Camden as a pristine new print, and was soon passed uncut—once again, as an 18 for cinemas in March of ’99, and then untethered on VHS and DVD. Signifying a real sea change in UK film censorship, and exhibiting unequivocal evidence of a demand for such controversial pictures in Britain, Texas Chain Saw would even hit terrestrial telly for all to see in the year 2000.

“You’re gonna die up there.”

Regan, The Exorcist

Since gearing up for Hallowe’en 2018—my first ever All Hallows’ Evenings HorrOctober, screening 31 scary movies at home here in South Korea—I have exclusively favoured Dr. Sapirstein’s 40th Anniversary Preservation of The Exorcist. Bear with me—cinema snob mode: on. This “fan edit” was painstakingly remastered from diverse elements including official Blu-rays, DVDs, the CD release of the Japanese soundtrack, and cribbed from exhaustive, original visual and audio sources including earlier DVD, VHS and telly recordings, the Japanese LaserDisc, official 8mm digest, bits and bobs from a damaged 1973 35mm print, various photos, and 35mm slides—all to thoughtfully reflect, and diligently recreate the true power of those primary theatrical experiences.

Though it’s arguably imperceptible—a somewhat subconscious occurrence, and you may not necessarily realise something’s off—if you’re hearing anything other than the original, Oscar-winning mono sound mix, you’re missing out, as its distinct sonic resonance is so heavy and intense. The gurgling, and prickly distortion—especially under headphones in a pitch black room, is legitimately horrifying. Likewise, if you’re watching any version currently available to stream—or even the immaculately tidied and transferred Blu-ray disc, your eyeballs may be getting a treat in terms of the spick-and-span scan, but you’re in the presence of an imposter. The Exorcist was revised, and reissued in 1979 as a blown-up 70mm print, and it was this tinkered-with incarnation with a much brighter, vibrant image—debuting significant alterations to the dominant, sickly green tint of Owen Roizman’s muted, visually dark cinematography in terms of both the saturation and contrast, and Friedkin’s gloomier theatrical release colour timing—yet still became Warner Bros.’ inferior, go-to master for all successive releases, and unarguably, in my eyes, an inaccurate misrepresentation—even bastardisation, of the 1973 print.

The same applies to the “depecialised” fan versions of the original Star Wars trilogy—mournfully, it’s the only legit option for those amongst us who care deeply about true restoration, conservation, and seeing the pictures of the past not just as clearly as humanly possible, but also precisely as they first appeared to audiences upon their initial release. As with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, there are standard definition DVDs available—albeit in the original trilogy’s case ported over poorly from the LaserDisc release, the original version of The Exorcist can be purchased in its 1997 US DVD form, as well as its UK counterpart, and the theatrical is, at a glance, retained fully on the latest Blu-ray alongside the extended, but as previously mentioned, the color timing and sound mix are long gone in favour of a more naturalistic, subtle blue tinge, and a freshly mixed, Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. Over the years, I have seen The Exorcist in its prime, theatrical cut on VHS, and the DVD release of the same cut, followed by the DVD of *sigh* “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” which had brand new extras, and excitingly showcased the reintegrated spider-walk sequence. Finally, in spite of the thoughtful package—including both theatrical and extended version discs, I was still let down by the Blu-ray, as I flat-out rejected the imbecilic, spliced-in, “subliminal” CG phizogs. Nonetheless, when researching The Exorcist, I wanted to watch it on my big smart telly in the highest possible resolution, so I popped on the current, most popular pin sharp Blu again for the majority of my research, as it’s the cleanest and clearest the film has ever looked.

“It wants no straps.”

Karl, The Exorcist

We have John Calley—head of production at Warner Bros. to thank for coaxing Friedkin to cut Blatty’s soft, Casablanca-copping coda. Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer don’t know each other from Adam; it has little to no clout due to this, and is purely incidental business to pad the hellish, harrowing fall of the film. The Exorcist is a gut-punch that can’t be pulled, and this dreary denouement is in drastic danger of undermining the knockout blow administered mere moments earlier. Richard Roeper, after quite rightfully praising the “wonderful Burstyn,” and “masterful pacing,” blurted out, “What’s the problem? We’re getting out of our seats—the movie’s over. It was hard-hitting enough.” I wholeheartedly disagree—and to me, it’s such a callous comment reflecting a shallow attitude to cinematic delivery and structure—a truly great film should retain its importance until the final frame. Don’t excuse a film for fucking itself up right at the very end—that constitutes a cardinal cinema sin in my book. I’m thrilled to say—because I so rarely get to wax his car, that I’m 100% in Roger Ebert’s critical camp here, as his impassioned retort made it crystal clear that he also found the “mood-destroying” new footage entirely dispensable, and bit back twice as hard, equating its inane dialogue to a comedian who has forgotten the punchline of his joke. “The movie is over! What are they blathering about?” Ebert knew Friedkin was over the moon with The Exorcist for all those years, refusing to preen, clip or even consider altering a single frame, and it’s rerelease is evidently nothing more than a marketing ploy flip-flop—like a badgered politician under pressure, Billy regrettably yielded, and slashed his Louvre-worthy canvas.

In another senseless proposal that just goes to show even genius is temporary, Friedkin pitched to Warner Bros. to reshoot one single closing image, and rerelease The Exorcist—at the time in the seventies, the most successful movie ever made—by splicing in a new, final shot—some bloke, who may or may not be Karras, ascending the steps below Regan’s window is witnessed by Father Dyer, who smiles slightly. Sometimes classics are made in spite of dopey ideas that almost came to fruition. Besides, as Roger Corman once eloquently stated, “When the monster is dead, the movie is officially over.” By my rationale, when you obliterate box office records, are nominated for—or win an Oscar, the film is definitely over. The self-sabotaging egos of Lucas, Friedkin, and regretfully, to a degree, Spielberg with his Extra-Terrestrial handgun-walkie-talkie kerfuffle. Leave the films be, you lot. You’re sore winners. Quit while you’re ahead. Besides, the film doesn’t belong to you anymore—it’s ours. In fact, I’ll go one step beyond and argue the case that any movie made unavailable in its original form by its creators should be stripped of any Oscars, other major awards, and the acclaim it initially garnered. Mess with the filmmakers’ prizes—that’s all they understand. If this threat was issued to Friedkin, there’s not a chance in the pit of Hades he’d alter his baby in such a way. As he once said, it’s the digital discs and streaming files that will last forever. Prints won’t survive—they’ll turn to dust, so it’s an absolute travesty that The Exorcist has not been retained in its original manifestation. What we are consuming today is unfortunately worlds apart from what was first released. A preservation and research tool has been eradicated. It’s not the way it was, and it should absolutely be recreated—precisely as it was shown in cinemas. We have been robbed of the genuine, first edition of The Exorcist—and I want it back.

Just like a demonic effigy—forgotten in ancient dust, some relics should never be excavated. Without wanting to lay the blame for the existence of the new edition solely at the feet of us Brits, the fact of the matter is the marketing potential in the UK—as the BBFC video ban was lifted, illustrated there was room to manoeuvre financially, and lest we forget the whole devilish ball only started rolling after Kermode’s Fear of God film exhumed not only the age old dual between Merrin and Pazuzu, but also Friedkin and Blatty. The unearthed work print of The Exorcist held twelve extra minutes. From ’74-2000, Friedkin stood proudly behind his unimpeachable theatrical—and rightly so. The moronically monikered, “Version You’ve Never Seen” is not a director’s cut—it’s more a writer/producer effort, as although it is Friedkin’s extended assembly, he allegedly rereleased it solely for William Peter Blatty as a personal favour, following years of ungrateful pressure and badgering—although something about that gesture doesn’t quite compute. I find it hard to believe Friedkin would cave, and compromise what he proclaimed to be his finest work, and, “as close to a perfect film as you can get.” I’d assume taking advantage of an ego-boosting rerelease with a substantial cash value was the main motivator, sending bighead Friedkin’s name high up the filmmaking flagpole once again—raking in more dosh, and reestablishing the film as the scariest ever made.

Is it a case of don’t go diggin’? Don’t go dredging up so-called superior versions of the movie that have been lost? If you want to discuss gifts from the heavens—it’s unclear if Friedkin ever believed in a traditional deity, but he does, however, believe in a “movie God,” a divine overseer that sends actors, orchestrates circumstances, script ideas, and imagery—as Friedkin himself often cites in reference to the happenstance, good fortune—don’t mention the curse, and sheer luck of The Exorcist‘s entire production. The movie Gods gave us the Oscar-winning theatrical cut of The Exorcist; the version we have seen, and likely love. Look no further. To ask for more is truly movie blasphemy, and for the filmmakers themselves to want more money and publicity, is an act of disgraceful self-service, and a big green loogie in the face of devout fans everywhere. A mighty ten Oscar noms resulted in a mere two trophies for Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman’s Best Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay—Blatty’s own, which is a laugh as the misery-guts author later did everything in his diminutive power to butcher that treasured, acclaimed version. Again, if only the Academy had threatened to retract his Oscar if he tampered with the film any further, we could have satisfyingly watched Blatty wind his neck in. Also, as the film’s so-called biggest fan, and author of the authoritative companion piece to the picture, Mark Kermode should’ve known better than to snoop and interfere—as should Blatty, who should, above all else, be thanking his lucky stars for Friedkin’s vision and crafty adaptation of his preachy base material, instead of piling on guilt, and wearing the poor fella down over all those years to ultimately encumber the film with his God-fearing, all’s well that ends well, crippling conclusion. Christ, even Roger Ebert knew better. Most of us don’t wish to be told; to be dictated to. We much prefer to let our own lives colour our moviegoing experiences, and opt to make up our own minds—to decide and decipher on our own terms.

“The painting is in the Louvre! It’s finished! It’s hangin’ on the walls of the Louvre, pal! It’s over and out! Walk away!”

William Friedkin

Right from the recut outset these ungrateful bastards got my goat. I was immediately taken aback by the extended’s icy blue Warner Bros. logo and wondered for a moment if I was watching Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Then, compounding matters further, the claret text that follows—bleeding into the thematically-apt, “God is good, God is great” thump of the prologue, in which the first lines—the reverberating cries of “Allahu Akbar” resound, is compromised immediately with the first of many unwanted scenic insertions we needed like a hole in the head. In this inferior incarnation, the opening titles instead give way to an inane, panning street scene, and a spare statue shot of the Mother Mary. Fortunately, the restoration team couldn’t find certain lines of dialogue, and certain shots and scenes were only available in low quality, scratched-up, work print form—not the original 35mm negative, so fortuitously Friedkin couldn’t reinstate more nonsense that would’ve impaired his masterpiece further. Talk about offensive—I reckon the way this lot cheaply butchered The Exorcist is more vulgar than anything in the film, and guiltier than any “video nasty” in terms of obscenity charges. A tremendous amount of respect is sadly absent and drastically due. Friedkin, if he searched his feelings—in his heart of hearts, still knows this to be true, as evidenced in a wonderfully apt anecdote regarding the impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard from a discussion between the man himself and Blatty, in which the French artist tinkers with his framed piece—now hanging in the Louvre, with a palette and brush before getting chucked out by baffled security guards and then promptly nicked. Perhaps it would be equally fitting for Friedkin to suffer the same fate. I personally go easier on Billy than say, George Lucas, for example—although the two are main offenders in this painfully prevalent issue.

On his audio commentary, recorded in 1998 for the 25th Anniversary Special Edition LaserDisc and DVD release of The Exorcist, Friedkin—ever the contrarian, blunders, “The temptation today would be to hide little demons in the darkness, but I try to have more restraint.” Then what does he do? He literally hides dumb, maddening Pazuzu digital fuckery in the darkness—and most insultingly, they’re over the exact scene in which he’s discussing the futility of such things. What a betrayal! He sold out his opus to make some extra pocket money with a double-dip cash-in, and to accommodate the unappreciative nagging of that bible-basher, Blatty. All those perfunctory visages lobbed in like clumsy exclamation marks, and yet Friedkin—who confessed he needed a “Manhattan” subtitle to help establish the fact Karras had travelled all the way from Washington to New York City to visit his ailing mother, and if redoing the picture, would certainly include one. Well, why didn’t you then, when you had the nerve to inflict “The Daft Version We Should Never Have Seen” upon us all? Instead of dicking about with silly, superfluous subliminals, put something in that actually improves the coherence of the film.

The filmmakers couldn’t remove the wires on the spider-walk stunt until the advent of digital technology, and as several other excess scenes were being reconstituted anyway—why not this fabled one too? Purely as an image, I love the alarming nature of the spider-walk, but it’s become legendary as perhaps the most famed deleted scene ever, and therefore was coveted, but denied us, lurking notoriously in the shadows. When reintegrated, it really does fuck with the rhythm—and as scary as the imagery is, it’s the perfect example of going too far—the line of effects-based logic, realism, and taste were all concurrently crossed. It errs on the edge of comedic, and for my money, along with the gimmicky rotating puppet head—which admittedly works fine in context, tips The Exorcist a little too close to laughable farce. In the full-length deleted scene, it’s not just the slightly too light on her feet, crab-like descent that bothers me—it’s also the protruding snake tongue as Regan snaps at Sharon’s ankles on all fours—it’s all a spider step too far. Friedkin and his effects team mistakenly state claptrap like, “It would be a piece of cake to achieve these effects today.” Bollocks—it would be a piece of shit. Thoughtful, seamless, mechanical, practical effects are inevitably abandoned today in favour of clownish CG, which will no doubt once again rear its ugly Pazuzu head and destroy all mystique, when David Gordon Green dredges up the peacefully at rest cadaver of The Exorcist, and no doubt bungles his direct sequel later in 2023.

Anyone still unconvinced, there’s an additional redundant, cheapo CGI snarl when the hypnotist is speaking to “the person inside Regan,” and that palpable, hate-filled gaze as she looks up sinisterly, has been crudely painted over—ruined by some jumped-up sub-George Lucas 1997 computer horseshit. I was so mad, I wanted to spit—for Linda Blair, who had her iconic, captivating performance vandalised, and for every kid, and first-time viewer who’s seeing this tainted version. It’s also an insult to Roisman’s considered photography. That was the alteration that really got to me—I felt like I was in that fucking stupid bar in Jabba’s palace, and it was the retouched Return of the Jedi all over again—some techie twat with a mouse and a half-baked idea was force-feeding me computer-rendered garbage. Friedkin is sharp enough to lament that the quality of visual storytelling has diminished over time, yet what does he do to combat this fact? He does the same shit he’s criticising. Dropping of standards? Total hypocrisy on Friedkin’s part. If the theatrical is like a freshly sharpened knife, then the long version has been dulled. If only Billy had stuck to his *ahem* guns. Ironically the flattery, and borderline sycophancy of Kermode’s—at this point quite tedious Exorcist fetish, led to the unearthing of these unnecessary elements, and ironically damaged his beloved film—perhaps beyond repair. Imagine being partly responsible for ruining your favourite film for generations who were yet to discover its cinematic beauty and deep psychological resonance.

“I cast you out!”

Merrin, The Exorcist

Contrarily, in spite of loathing the novelty-driven “Version You’ve Never Seen,” I do go in for the added, admittedly seamless digital face morph on the possessed Karras—but for posterity alone, in the interest of retaining the earliest version in every sense, I’d still reject it outright, in favour of the clunky but entirely in-camera jump cut of the original. To me, authenticity always wins out over modern, digital manipulation—unless the sole goal is to restore and recreate the initial cinemagoing experience. Purity is so important here, and the retention of these moments may have had historic merit, and value beyond measure for future cinephiles—after all, as inaccurate as it may be, the elongated, digital streaming reproduction currently circulating will likely act as the forever cut of the film.

Unfortunately, these days Friedkin’s pathological exaggerations have apparently led to him to believe in demonic possession—leaning into exorcism-related quackery with his Exorcist-tinged 2017 documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Pull the other one, Bill, it’s got bells on. What a load of old cobblers. He’s also seemingly retreated on his religious views as he’s aged—as most fearful folks do nearing the grave. I’d prefer to imagine it’s akin to Spielberg, who insisted he believed in aliens in the eighties because it all helps the cause and promotion of the movie, and in turn, the filmmakers’ livelihoods. After all, they’re both as shrewd as they come—but the blind comfort of fraud and mythomania are powerful enemies, even for the most rational thinker.

Friedkin now states the best; most definitive—or complete version, is the extended rerelease. He’s dead right that it’s the most complete; and dead wrong in saying it’s the best. I’d estimate two hours is just about the limit for one note dread—a filmmaker can only stretch the elastic band of anxiety for so long. The extra twelve or so minutes of “The Blah-Blah We’ve Never Blah’d” tips the picture over, as it loses significant momentum and mystery. The 132-minute edition is nothing short of a travesty. The 122-minute original wants no straps; no embellishments—needs no disclaimers, and no safety net. It lets us plummet, and forces us to make sense of the fall.

“I don’t believe there are old movies; or old books; or old paintings; or old music. I just think there are works of art that stand the test of time, and can move people emotionally in generations hence.”

William Friedkin, The Barry Norman Interview, 1999

William Peter Blatty, whose premier preoccupation with—if you can convince people the Devil exists, then you can convince them about God as his rival, largely outweighs his artistic contribution—not to his best-selling novel, but to the motion picture of The Exorcist. He’s more concerned with his dictatorial, religious agenda, which backfired on him hard in ’73 with Friedkin’s deadpan, sobering cut calling into question amongst many moviegoers whether good or evil was ultimately victorious—a proposition Blatty is uncomfortable with to say the very least. “The Awful Version We Should Never Have Been Subjected To” is a desperate man’s attempt to remedy a non-existent problem, way after the fact. No one buys his novel’s insouciant, tough guy priests—they are weak in the film, as they should be. They doubt, they smoke, they cower and shiver in fear—and that’s the way I like it. The over-explanatory explicitness of Blatty’s book brings into question whether the film would’ve been laughed off screen if it had been made with any directorial hands other than the frank and frugal Friedkin’s—as its religious doctrine, biblical brainwash passages, and overt articulation of the meaning of moments were stripped out so cleanly, with surgical focus.

Regan’s bedroom scenes lose all their bewitching vagueness, and become all too conversational. At one pivotal point, in which the Demon is doing his damnedest to convince Karras he’s actually Satan himself, he laughably and benignly suggests the priest think of a number between one and ten. All the murky, beautiful restraint is gone in favour of unending, risible chatter between the rival minds. Most perplexing of all is where Pazuzu begins reeling off geographical trivia like he’s on a satanic episode of QI—confidently stating the answer is “Lake Titicaca”—which, along with “Pazuzu” is a word that should never be uttered in a film such as this. Are you listening John Boreman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic? What the hell is this pointless jibber-jabber doing here, Blatty? Thank the heavens for the editorial capabilities of Friedkin—the dialogue he chose to retain is exacting and curt. The disposable poppycock—abandoned and banished from the pages of the screenplay, renders the picture lean, ambiguous in all the right places, and leaves plenty of room for audiences to psychologically decode it.

I don’t give a hoot what Stephen King thinks about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I couldn’t care less what Peter Benchley makes of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws—it’s immaterial. Author intent holds little bearing on the book itself, let alone the movie. It’s an adaptation—once it’s public, you don’t own the story anymore. Like when Macca told everyone “Martha My Dear” was about his dog—put a sock in it, Paul! As soon as you stick it on the White Album, and it’s in the shops, it doesn’t belong to you, or The Beatles anymore. As soon as it’s released into the world, it means whatever it needs to mean to whoever wants to hear it—or in the case of cinema, watch it. You’re gonna show me something in a theatre that could be potentially life-altering, and then fiddle with it before its home video release? I want to own the art I saw the first time—not someone’s “improved” idea of it—even if it’s the authors’ themselves.

“I make the questions and he does the answers.”

Regan, The Exorcist

Ellen Burstyn set her heart on playing the actress, and plagued mother of Regan, Christine “Chris” MacNeil, and was persistent in her pursuit, beating sturdy competition from Audrey Hepburn—who would only have taken the role if the picture was shot entirely in Rome, Anne Bancroft, who had a bun in the oven, and the effectively blacklisted “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, who turned it down flat, labelling the film, “capitalist bullshit.” In terms of Burstyn’s pivotal performance, I love the way Chris gets gradually more covered and hidden as the film proceeds—the headscarf, the over-sized jacket with the collar turned up, the dark movie star sunglasses, the gloves—she’s retreating; morphing into a different, forever changed person before our very eyes.

Jason Miller as Father Damien himself still feels astonishingly real to me—partly because I’ve never seen him in anything else. The revealing fact that author, screenwriter, and producer, William Peter Blatty offered to hand his entire earnings on The Exorcist over to director, William Friedkin if he agreed to let him play Karras speaks volumes. Friedkin shot down this gesture immediately, amid dodging bullets from Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman, who both wanted to play the role, and instead plumped for Stacy Keach, who was usurped by the actual lapsed Catholic, and playwright, Jason Miller, to the bewilderment of everyone on the production. How precisely is anyone’s guess, as tales vary—with Friedkin relaying on his revealing, first-rate solo DVD audio commentary, that Miller wanted to play Karras so badly he begged to screen test, but in contradiction—in Kermode’s The Fear of God: 25 Years of ‘The Exorcist’ documentary, it is Friedkin who approaches Miller and asks him to try out after seeing his latest play, which, “reeked of failed Catholicism.” He would later say, “the camera loved him,” and granted him the role. What resulted is one of my favourite screen performances, and perhaps the finest film debut I’ve ever seen. Although Bob is Bob and I wouldn’t change a thing, I’d also have loved to have seen him take a crack at Travis Bickle for Marty’s Taxi Driver three years later. Perhaps it’s because Miller is not a star—he isn’t Robert Redford or Gene Hackman, but I believe him in the part. I accept every word and every expression—he is Karras. Perhaps I was a little slow on the uptake as a teen; perhaps I just wanted to accept, or just loved films enough to suspend my disbelief in order to immerse myself in these fantastical stories, but I believed in The Exorcist. Karras’ mother was never an actress to me. When I watch Miller in The Exorcist, I feel as though I’m eavesdropping—observing real, human behavior, and not a performance. In the same spirit, a combination of unknowns and seasoned professionals in secondary character roles—most notably Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman, round out a grounded group of players.

Linda Blair—much like we saw with ’60s Beatlemania—experienced America go wild, and then blame her for it, resulting in so-called tragic, irreversible effects. Some bonkers believers thought she was actually evil, and felt it necessary to spout spurious, hurtful hokum—the teen even required bodyguards to protect her from the kooks. After all, how we are seen and treated by the world can shape us. The truth is less interesting, but thankfully more pleasant. From what I’ve seen, she’s extremely well-adjusted, and by all accounts a lovely, philanthropic person—focusing her efforts on a pet rescue dog shelter, the Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation.

For me, not even the 1990 comedy, Repossessed could break the spell or diminish The Exorcist‘s eerie effect. In all likelihood, I saw the daft spoof before, and it was subsequently lacking all context, but for the kind of imagery that tends to linger in pop culture potholes after a cinematic explosion makes its monumental, cultural impact—such as rotating head gags, split pea soup puking, and general bedridden green-faced grossness. At a younger age, I had already leaned into Leslie Nielsen’s Naked Gun movies. Here, he puts on a preposterous Irish accent, and acts as a half-arsed narrator who sort of comes and goes throughout. Repossessed even ripped off the Naked Gun one sheet art for its video box—depicting a pricelessly named, “Father Jebediah Mayii,” surfing a king-size crucifix, whilst brandishing a Bible, so it cunningly tricked me at that tender age. Although inferior in almost every way, it does feature a brazenly topless lady. I didn’t yet recognise The Exorcist‘s own, Linda Blair as the demonic matriarch, Nancy (Reagan—geddit?) Aglet, although she’s actually pretty funny, and a really good sport—spewing goo in bed in her full Regan makeup, referencing Pee-wee Herman, and branding priests as, “collar jockeys.” WWF pundits of the day, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and mean Gene Okerlund even have a third act cameo, and the catchy, earwormy theme song, “Re-re-re-Repossessed!” still jangles around in my brain to this very day.

“My dear friend Billy Friedkin is a maniac.”

Ellen Burstyn

We arrive at The Exorcist‘s tobacco-tinted lensed, flat cap wearing, gun-toting, priest-punching, irascibly out of control director, William Friedkin. All things considered, is Friedkin purely a movie brat, toy-throwing pram-dweller? Just ask poor casualty of bad Billy—Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, who was yanked by harness, high off her 41-year-old feet and across Regan’s bedroom into a wall, and onto her coccyx at the behest of the out of control, common senseless director by an equally mad disciple of Friedkin—the overzealous special effects technician, Marcel Vercoutere—injuring her spine permanently, only to be continually filmed whilst crying out in pain. Or ask little Linda Blair, who was flung around like a rag doll in agony whilst the cameras rolled, and when her metal back brace slipped and repeatedly smashed into and fractured her lower spine, left her crying out for, “Billy!”—her director, in floods of tears. Or try Jason Miller as Father Karras, who got direct-hit slimed in the gob against his will by Dick Smith’s gang, and was left genuinely started—anything for a decent take, when heat-packing, prankster crackpot, Friedkin busted a cap to simulate the sudden ringing of a rotary phone—a dimwitted directorial flourish employed famously by John Ford, and then George Stevens, who would employ any methods necessary during production of 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank. Or perhaps review the finale of the film, in which Friedkin flagellated actual priest, Father William O’Malley as Father Dyer—striking him across the chops to trigger an authentic shaky hand as he administers the last rites to a dying Karras at the foot of the “Hitchcock steps.”

Friedkin, tirelessly in search of score music that felt like, “a cold hand on the back of the neck,” also disposed of two well-regarded composers—Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) due to a “working methods” clash, with Herrmann dictating the director should erase the whole Iraq segment, essentially hand the picture over to him, and he’d score the entire thing with a church organ. Friedkin simply said, thanks but no thanks. Secondly sacked was Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, Dirty Harry), whose cacophonous, wall-to-wall attempt allegedly drove Billy to bark, “This is Mexican music! I hate Mexican music!” before hoying the reel-to-reel recording across the adjoining street and into a car park—concluding, “That’s where that belongs.” He fired Lalo on the spot, in front of both Schifrin’s wife and agent, and the two never spoke again. If I may play devil’s advocate, perhaps Friedkin simply learned the valuable lesson that sometimes a score isn’t as good as the temp track, and although he kicked off massively, the passion perhaps justified the irresponsibility and rampant mania. All that being said and done, literally everything mentioned above is in the film—on the celluloid, and preserved forever. A handy quote typically attributed to director, Robert Zemeckis is that “Pain is temporary. Film is forever.” As hard as it is to justify Friedkin’s behaviour, when the dust settles on the careers of these actors, these controversial moments will live on in perpetuity. Burstyn, by all accounts would disagree, and if I were her I’m certain I’d feel the exact same way. Certainly, unnecessary risks were taken—which provokes the question, how far should a director go to achieve their vision; their art? Was Billy really a virulent loon, or was he so invested in this piece that he would die for it; slap, injure, maim, for every frame of it? Is this ever justified in the pursuit of collaborative art? After all, he wasn’t slapping himself, was he?

As well as exhibiting potentially criminal negligence on set, conversely, the devil-may-care Friedkin was also an artist adding “grace notes” and magical movie moments like Von Sydow shambling through shafts of light in Iraq as if pacing through a Rembrandt, or the writhing, almost imperceptible—incorrectly thought of as subliminal, Alain Renet-style Eileen Dietz flash frame as the pale-faced Pazuzu appearing momentarily during the exorcism. Friedkin confessed in his informative feature-length documentary chinwag for Shudder—Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, that film-wise, 1955’s Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer was the only influence in terms of cinema. Most of The Exorcist‘s cues originated in art and music. James Ensor—a Belgian painter, certainly had impact, although more so in 1978’s follow-up to Friedkin’s SorcererThe Brink’s Job. “The greatest of all the surrealists,” René Magritte’s Empire of Light is evident in the iconic, streetlit arrival of Merrin on Prospect Street, the “moments of truth” captured in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s candid, monochromatic, humanist photographs played a key part, as did View of Delft by Dutch Baroque Period painter, Johannes Vermeer. Any of Caravaggio’s jet-black backgrounds encircling dramatically lit figures, and depicting a strong, emotional, hard edge could be noted. Also, Rembrandt’s trademark hard light on one side of the face, and softer on the other, with a fraction of back light immediately conjures the image of the subway vagrant pleading with Karras to help an old altar boy—however, these self-aggrandising, art-savvy citations may be designed to validate the status of the director himself, and no doubt could be cited in most film lighting setups, but it’s safe to say they’re all present in the film somewhere if we go looking, and choose to see them.

Recently, I’ve reassessed what always appeared to be an excisable prologue. Call it teenage naivety, but a neat severing of the at a glance indulgent opening ten minutes, and instead beginning with the gloom of Georgetown always felt like a no-brainer. However, as well as to cushion the shadowy arrival of Merrin in the film’s final act, the scene’s importance lies in its function as a thematic table setter; a solid underpinning. It stabilizes the tone, and sets the scene of an ancient, supernatural mystery and the mythology of what The Exorcist is all about. Two worthy opponents—Pazuzu and Merrin, are inexorably drawn together—the twisted snake phallus, snarling dog fight, and square go stare-down, echo the dusty remnants of the first African face off between the priest and the Mesopotamian demon. Most importantly, as the novel clearly states—it’s a premonition. It’s the innate knowledge that he’s about to face this fiend again in a rematch that will ultimately result in his demise. It’s a conundrum for audiences, both then and now. On paper, it’s traditional narrative suicide—casting arguably our lead protagonist and titular character, Father Lankester Merrin out, until the final act of the picture—yet it’s also thematically resonant, and purely as a tool of character-based foreshadowing, enhances the depth of the tale. It’s so rich in its visuals and thesis that it somehow holds up to scrutiny and deepens the many perceived meanings within the movie.

The more I returned to the picture this time around, the more overpowered I was by the blocking and staging of the prologue—concocted not by the film’s director of photography, Owen Roizman (The French Connection, Network) as with the rest of the picture, but by British cameraman, Billy Williams (Women in Love, Gandhi) alongside Friedkin—who insisted upon including the sequence in the screenplay after Blatty excised it from his first draft adaptation, and also actually shooting it on location in northern Iraq at a real dig. It’s an audacious approach to tone-setting that makes perfect sense to me today, but passed me by like a 108-year-old crone in a rickety carriage for most of my viewings. The milky-eyed stranger, perpetually hammering away is evidently a precursor to some of Regan’s physical alterations to come, and the textured sound design—the rhythmic, pounding, digging, beating, and cobbling with nails and pickaxes is intentionally mirrored in the clattering and banging of the hurtling, robotic-tentacled machinery in the film’s medical sequences.

The Exorcist‘s color timing is incredibly important throughout—notice the way Friedkin turns the black-and-white sun blood red at the climax of the prologue—that’s a conscious, artistic decision. Why he thinks he has the right to arbitrarily alter the rest of the colour palette all these years later is beyond me. The dual pillars of good and evil in ancient battle, either side of a setting sun, with the scarlet desert sky conceding ground to the cool, detached blue of Washington, as we enter the next chapter. Perhaps the point of the prologue is to make us despair; to show how ancient evil is—and to me, quite damningly—to articulate that it will never retreat. Consider the deliberate manner in which Regan’s right hand is raised later on during her hypnosis. It’s clearly reminiscent of the intro’s Pazuzu statue—the right arm is up, and the left is positioned across the body.

“You know what she did? Your cunting daughter?”

Demon, The Exorcist

Did The Exorcist signal the end of an era, or a new beginning? As with the year one, sci-fi monster spectacle, Alien, or the aforementioned found footage front-runner, The Blair Witch Project, which each heralded the arrival of a new kind of film within a burgeoning genre. Yes, films like them had come before, and as with Alien, almost every beat existed—the plot points had mostly been done, but never quite like these films depicted them. Note the firsts—The Exorcist was the first “horror” to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and remains in that elite club alongside Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs (the only movie to actually win), The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, and Get Out. By the time Burstyn was investigating fluttering sounds in the attic, the technique was somewhat old hat—a played out trick straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, made ten years previous, yet still represented precisely where horror resided in people’s minds back in ’73. Friedkin had cracked the code on something new, and that special something was still resonant and impactful enough to cut through the slasher-horror fare of the late ’90s, and remarkably still resounds, even today. The cryptic candle flareup and scuttling demonic activity embodied by the rapping in the attic, ticks a suspense-horror box, but it’s really only there to illustrate a watershed moment, and a changing of the guards.

Even today, the infamous, profane crucifix masturbation scene, or more accurately—the bloody, savage genital mutilation, involving 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, is admirably blasphemous and distasteful, and possesses a shocking, sweary clout beyond what modern cinema usually chucks at us. Preceding this alarming highlight is the subtle, almost imperceptible—yet psychologically effective sound of a grandfather clock just after Kinderman leaves, before McNeil runs upstairs into the chaos of the flying vinyl records in a swirling room vortex. It’s also a scene I originally misread. After my initial viewing, I naively and mistakenly referred to the scene as Regan stabbing herself in the leg, as it was somewhat unclear to me what the possessed girl was actually up to. Furthermore, I’d always read the scene as Regan telling anyone listening—here it’s solely her mother, to “Let Jesus fuck you!” several times over, but in reality it was somehow a more troubling thought. The Demon, now in full force, is inflicting this sexual abuse act upon Regan—speaking these unforgettable words not through her—but directly to her, forcing Regan to give in; to concede defeat, which not only amplifies the horror of the scene, but with this upsetting context, renders it far more disturbing. When sharply followed by the Burke-mirroring head rotation, which although is my least favorite mechanical, practical effect in the picture, when combined with my second favourite makeup stage—Dick Smith’s gangrenous green canker sore, self-inflicted wounds level—the bloody, yellow-toothed but still girlish Regan affecting Burke’s British brogue, may be the scariest image in cinema. It may play a little dated, but the scare is so clearly coloured by character in the storytelling reveal that she is in fact Burke’s murderer—this being her supernatural confession, that it still satisfyingly sends shivers down the spine—and like the ancient clacking of a ghost train that’s run the same rails ragged for decades upon decades, it still jolts and shakes its somewhat unprepared passengers.

Composer, Phil Spector acolyte, and Rolling Stones collaborator, Jack Nitzsche’s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) finger slid around the edge of a wine glass to create a theremin-esque, tone-setting whine. A bee in a jar layered sixteen times with pitch changes, and mixed with real pigs led to slaughter—there may not be a real Devil in the celluloid as Billy Graham once fearfully preached, but there is real death in the workings of the soundtrack. El Topo‘s Gonzalo Gavira—who Friedkin described as, “a Mexican peasant with no shoes,” and his ingenious, on the spot foley sound effect of a credit card-filled, folded leather wallet cracking and clicking to simulate Regan’s possessed head rotating through 360 degrees, is now the stuff of legend. Friedkin took the silences in the film so seriously that occasionally we’re not even listening to a soundless film strip—it’s just the white leader. There’s no sound at all—absolute dead silence.

When you’ve got the gravel-voiced Mercedes McCambridge in restraints—crouched and bound to a chair, necking whiskey, chain-smoking cigarettes, and downing raw eggs, you perhaps don’t require manipulated, bullshit post-production roars. In context though, when you watch the whole piece, it absolutely works—faults and all. Somewhat cryptically, Friedkin wanted the Demon’s voice to sound akin to a Hieronymus Bosch piece, which makes more sense when we take into account the concept of “Legion” with the innumerable bodies in fleshy, sexual repose and the imagined yet perceptible caterwauling, as seen in his Garden of Earthly Delights—especially with its third panel’s illustrations of sin, punishment, and Hell. The Exorcist boasts a mix so densely detailed and layered that even Friedkin confessed to hearing new elements during the digital remastering and rerelease.

I love that it’s such a downer. A shock to the system is always refreshing—to our internal systems as audiences, and to the Hollywood system itself. It’s a tad simplistic to say “the Devil wins,” but by Blatty, Kermode, and company’s own rationale—in spite of the damage to her physically, if the Demon’s true target is not the pure and innocent Regan, and is instead the despairing believers and non-believers being the emotional prey—to make every other soul under that Georgetown roof completely despair—which is precisely what unfurls, then perhaps it’s beyond doubt. Merrin lies dead from an inevitable heart attack—arguably defeated by the Assyrian Demon. Yes, Karras’s actions are heroic in his self-sacrifice to replace Regan as the vessel for Pazuzu, but his death in the process—by, to Catholics, the unholy sin of suicide no less, concedes the game. The Demon presumably lives on elsewhere to fight another day, as with the previous case in Africa decades earlier. The Devil is driven out, but surely lives on—evil is still present in the world when the final credits appear.

Call me a heathen, but I also cherish that The Exorcist spooks the religious. I find the fact that believers fear their own loving God to such an extent that a lowly horror picture such as this can rattle them to their very foundations by turning their own superstitions and dark age faith against them—purely by using art. Besides, as an atheist heretic, I’m not interested in a film where God “wins.” If I’m picking and choosing, I’d sooner the Devil did emerge victorious, as it’s simply more interesting—and preferable to either of those options, I’d rather make up my own mind. Blatty wants his God to win, Friedkin preferred the picture to be ambiguous, and that’s why the theatrical remains the superior cut. It exposes the separateness of humanity—a vein of futility, and it mournfully illustrates how we’re all ultimately on our own. It’s reflective of an ongoing battle of good versus evil within us, and within the entire world. There is a power for good, just as there is a power for evil, and they’re in combat all the time—life is ambiguous, and so is the dark denouement.

For Blatty to quietly remark, “I don’t want them to think the Devil wins,” is just as feeble and frail as the desperate cloying and sycophantic pious ramblings of his text, and Friedkin—an alleged unbeliever at the time, possessed the precise attitude necessary to adapt and adjust it. I always admire the film’s confidence—the brash boldness to take on religion, and allow the Demon an incredible amount of freedom, reign, and power, and ultimately give him the upper hand. The sneering, cackling, and contemptuous mockery exuding from the bedevilled Regan right before Merrin sternly cries, “I cast you out!” only proves the Demon will only leave her body if it chooses to—the priests are altogether helpless, mirroring the tragic truth that Blatty is in fact seeking to hide from both audiences, and himself.

As Billy Friedkin often repeats, “Everybody who sees this film takes from it what they bring to it.” Even the face of Pazuzu, and Blair’s body double for the picture, Eileen Dietz, beautifully and poignantly stated, “We bring upon our own Hell, and our own Heaven.” Friedkin endlessly regales us with his, “I didn’t set out to make a horror film. It’s not a horror film—it’s a story about the mystery of faith” spiel. Blatty would regurgitate the same—that he never intended to frighten the audience. But come on—let’s face it. More than a little horror crept onto the pages, and into the frame. The fact is that Friedkin may not have approached his film of The Exorcist as a by the numbers, hokey Hammer horror—yet somewhat ironically, it’s still a priest staking a vampire of sorts. It’s also a persistent, one note of dread, played dead straight, and captured with documentary realism amidst true, character-driven drama.

“Could you help an old altar boy, Father?”

Subway Vagrant, The Exorcist

A simplistic word like “realistically” betrays the film, as The Exorcist is, at times—like the majority of my favourite films—a phantasmagorical experience. There is undoubtedly an experimental side. Take perhaps what is perhaps my favourite nightmare sequence ever captured—Karras, racked by guilt, dreaming of his deceased mother as she descends the NYC subway stairs, down to her impending fate, juxtaposed with the stopped clock and the falling medallion. Maybe it’s my admiration of Friedkin, and my love for the film, but using “symbiosis” to explain away blatant plot holes is beyond bold. In fact, so staggeringly arrogant is the assumption we will go along with this harebrained theory, I almost admire it. After all, what is the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why is it on Jupiter, and then finally in the white room? Not every filmic image requires a definitive answer. Who knows, perhaps this technique allows the film to be seen through different prisms over time, and ultimately adds to the longevity and rewatchability of The Exorcist.

As I take it, symbiosis is utilised here as the subconscious sharing of images and thoughts—most notably experienced by Merrin and Karras. Father Merrin’s premonitions and experiences inexplicably intrude on Karras’s dream—the warring dogs, the Saint Joseph medal, the stopped clock that only Merrin sees. The medallion is perhaps the most compelling inclusion. As a talisman—much like “Rosebud,” the symbolic sled of Citizen Kane fame, it’s indecipherable and infinitely intriguing. This pendant shows up for bewildering, curious reasons. There’s no way a Saint Joseph’s medal would ever be found at the Iraqi dig. Then, how could that very same necklace appear around the neck of Father Karras? Friedkin was working instinctually, and later confessed outright that he didn’t know what all this business really meant, but also let slip a telling and worthy piece of advice referencing what filmmaker, Fritz Lang once called, “sleepwalking security.” As David Bowie once said, “Never play to the gallery.” Friedkin directly asserts, “You do things that you think are right. Period.” It’s hard to argue when the result of that ethos births a film this formidable. That beautiful ignorance is, I believe, the key to creating art, and the fundamental principle used when crafting The Exorcist.

This film has both the courage and the nouse to ask unanswerable questions, and then trust that it will be provocative enough intellectually to conjure, and then inhabit that wonderful cinematic zone where it’s able to be experienced repeatedly. As Kermode rightly says, it becomes a different movie with each watch because our interpretation of these unfathomable details shifts. It’s all quite illogical, yet it’s never enough of an issue that it damages the picture—it only proves that we are spoon-fed far too much in modern cinema—there’s no room to breathe. The Exorcist is pitch-perfect with its exposition—both voluntarily given, and thoughtfully hidden.

Upon release it was the most successful motion picture in film history, and a sociological phenomenon—it remains a film beyond genre; beyond cinema itself. What the fanatical Friedkin and his cohorts released back on Boxing Day ’73, was something else. The duelling egos of its primary caregivers—a delicious blend of Blatty’s blind faith, and Friedkin’s purist attraction to story, as a director undeterred by deities. The Exorcist is conceivably the most vicious and uncompromising movie ever produced, and a work that preys relentlessly and unapologetically on superstition; the ingrained theological fears of believers, and the inherent, ceaseless ties between horror and religion.

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