Imagine if a young Jamie Lee Curtis had played Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist? That was William Friedkin’s intention one day almost 50 years ago when he made a phone call to Curtis’ mother Janet Leigh. As the Halloween actress would later recall, the call was very short as after hearing for a bit, Leigh responded, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and hung up the phone.
Another actress considered was Denise Nickerson, who played Violet Beauredarde in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Nickerson’s parents said they redrew her for consideration after being worried about the movie’s subject matter. And it’s for a good reason, because The Exorcist changed audiences. It’s normal for young kids to go run screaming from the theater when the Wicked Witch of the West sends out the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. But grown adults frantically pacing back and forth in movie theater lobbies refusing to go back into the theater? That was something on a different level.
The aftermath of the movie led to Linda Blair, who did finally play Regan, receiving death threats out of accusations she was promoting Satanic worship by appearing in the movie. And because they used equipment used in meat lockers to bring the set to subfreezing temperatures to show breath, Blair reported it made her hate colder weather and temperatures the rest of her life. Blair also suffered an injury when the harness she was strapped in to make her upper body move up and down in the bed broke causing pain.
Ellen Burstyn, who plays her mother, Chris MacNeill, a well-known actress, suffered permanent back injury when a special effect to cause her to fall backwards was pulled too hard. It was a crazy production. The set caught on fire at one point. Jack McGowran, who played film director Burke Dennings died of influenza shorting after completing his role. Several other cast and crew members reported they had deaths in the families during production including the death of an infant.
At the helm of The Exorcist was William Friedkin, a man who was known to do risky things on movie sets. He would walk around with real firearms loaded with blanks and fire them off to get the actors riled up. When Fr. William O’Malley, a real Jesuit priest, playing Fr. Joseph Dyer, couldn’t deliver the last rites as distraught as Friedkin wanted, the director backhanded the priest to shake him up. Famed and respected make-up wizard Dick Smith reportedly broke down and starting crying in front of Friedkin because of the pressure.
But some things are like that. Some movie sets have so much tension but produce such classic movies. And some of the worst movies have had some of the best sets to work on.
The story of The Exorcist was rooted in a real-life story William Peter Blatty had heard about a 1949 case of demonic possession while was attending Georgetown University. By the 1970s, exorcisms were often considered ancient rituals. But at the time of the book’s release and especially the film adaptation, America was going through a hard time. Watergate was on everyone’s mind despite Richard M. Nixon being re-elected. The Vietnam War looked unwinnable and problems were arising in nearby Cambodia. There was also an energy crisis.
For many people, a young cherub looking tween girl being possessed by a demon seemed like all hope had been lost in America. She’s throwing up pea soup and swearing worse than Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail. With the Hays Code becoming obsolete less than 10 year earlier, audiences must have been dumbfounded by hearing a child drop the “F-bomb” and masturbating with a crucifix.
Now, movies like The Wolf of Wall Street have characters dropping the “F-bomb” as if it was punctuation and male genitalia was all over the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. Times have changed. But not only was The Exorcist pushing the limits in 1973, it was pushing the limits at the same time people were still playing with their Christmas gifts. Released on Dec. 26, 1973, I’m sure audiences didn’t know what to expect with Regan’s head spinning around and telling her mother to “Lick me!”
At the heart of the movie is a story about a priest questioning his father after suffering the loss of his mother. Jason Miller plays Fr. Damian Karras, who also has a doctorate in psychiatry, who is working in the Georgetown community. A former boxer, he is also living with guilt over the fact that his vow of poverty as a Jesuit led to his mother not having access too good healthcare as her health decline. She later died alone with no one discovering her body for days.
Karras is notified by Chris to examine Regan and initially suggests the best medical help Chris can find. But Chris has gone to all the doctors who can’t give her many answers. Chris doesn’t believe in God, but asks Karras about an exorcism, which he vehemently dismisses. That is until Karras starts notices strange things such as Regan speaking in tongue as well as knowing things she couldn’t know.
Finally, when Regan’s bedroom has turned freezing cold for no reason, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) a family assistant shows Karras a “Help Me” message that appears on Regan’s abdomen. He brings this to the attention of his superiors who decide to notify Fr. Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) to perform the exorcism with Karras assisting because of his medical background.
At the same time, a local police detective, Lt. William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) is investigating the death of Dennings who reportedly fell down a long public stairwell just nearby the MacNeil household. There’s also been a vandalism at one of the churches.
Friedkin was raised Jewish but later said he was agnostic. In recent years, he has said he strongly believes in God and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Blatty was a Roman Catholic. Is The Exorcist a Christian movie? Yes. There’s a line of dialogue emphasized in the book but only shown in the director’s extended cut that for there to be an existence of demons, you must believe in the existence of God.
In the end, the movie has Karras reclaiming his faith by asking the demon to enter his body, then immediately committing suicide by jumping out the bedroom window.
But I do feel it’s also a movie for atheists and agnostics as well as other religions. While Christians and others believe their faith is tested, I think Karras realizes he is his own worst enemy. Notice how he is only shown boxing with a punching bag. He’s a man of God, but he’s also a man of science. Both can coexist within one person. But also atheists/agnostics can also acknowledge and respect people of religion. At the end when Regan notices Fr. Dyer’s cross, she hugs and kisses him because she’s grateful for what the Church did.
The Exorcist went on to be a huge blockbuster and nominated for Oscars but only won for sound and the screenplay. There was controversy as some felt Mercedes McCambridge deserved some recognition for her uncredited work as the voice of the possessed Regan. It remains one of the scariest movies ever, if not the scariest after 50 years for a reason. It tells a good story about good people we care about.
The Saw or Hostel movies are just torture porn. Even the slasher movies reduced the victims to be so one-dimensional and unlikeable, you were rooting for Jason, Freddy and Michael in the end.
The villain in The Exorcist can’t be seen except in subliminal images. As much as we want it to be defeated, we don’t want any more harm to fall on Regan. And Karras dies by sacrificing himself but did where did the demon go? Evil doesn’t have to die for good to win.
In the end, good prevails in The Exorcist. Maybe that’s the movie has prevailed over the years. It’s not bleak really. Jesus may have died on the cross but He was resurrected. So He won.
Regan and Chris can get on with their lives at the end. Fr. Dyer may have lost his good friend, Fr. Karras, but at the end he knows Karras did the right thing. He remained true in his faith until he died.
What do you think? Please comment.