Legendary director William Friedkin died last month, just four months shy of the 50th anniversary of his most notorious film: “The Exorcist.” Released the day after Christmas in 1973, the movie irrevocably changed the pop culture landscape, and half a century later it’s only fitting that someone make a serious attempt to grapple with the legacy the film left behind.
In Nat Segaloff’s The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, the former movie publicist forgoes the carnival barker approach to “The Exorcist,” which all these years later is not only the scariest movie Hollywood has produced but also the most controversial. The film, with its sacrilegious content and terrifying scenes, was ripe for publicity and exploitation. But Segaloff, who worked as a publicity agent at a Boston theater when the movie came out, mostly keeps his head by neither affirming nor denying the existence of Satan.
Segaloff doesn’t begin the book in 1971, the year William Peter Blatty’s novel was published. Instead he goes back to 1949, when a real-life exorcism was conducted on a young boy in Maryland (whose behavior Segaloff dismisses not as possession but as manipulation by a crafty kid). Convinced by one of the priests who participated in the exorcism that it was the real deal, Blatty, then a student at Georgetown University, was inspired later to write a case study that quickly became a novel
From there, Segaloff describes the nuts and bolts of adapting the novel into a movie as only a Hollywood insider can. He then details the controversy caused by the film — a movie that, incredibly, the Catholic Church endorsed. He focuses as much energy on why “The Exorcist” continues to frighten as well as how. On these matters, Segaloff is spot on.
Filmmakers who try to duplicate the horror of “The Exorcist” (1973) misunderstand what makes the film so scary. They often assume it is the gross-out factor of head-spinning and projectile vomiting and spider-walks down stairs that provokes terror. (The latter was cut from the original film but, when restored decades later, really wasn’t worth the wait.) But it is the “little things” that make the film the gold standard in the possession genre. The demon’s androgynous but still somehow bull-bellowing voice is still chilling, achieved by method actress Mercedes McCambridge who was so committed to getting a denizen of hell’s voice right she lashed herself to a chair, ate raw eggs, and slipped back into alcoholism. Such commitment was evident in the effort Blatty put into doing more with the demon’s dialogue than relying on the “F” word (as a writer, Blatty is better at dialogue than description). Instead, he co-joined hateful and pornographic imagery into phrases that still shock in their nastiness.
“The Exorcist” is a film with everyone operating at the top of their game. As with many horror films that aren’t in the campy Vincent Price category, the actors must do the heavy lifting of convincing the audience that this is really happening. Ellen Burstyn, part of the New Hollywood wave of actresses at the time, gave a crucial performance. If this convincingly agnostic feminist can, by the middle of the movie, be desperate to get a male priest to perform an exorcism on her daughter, then the devil must be real. Jason Miller — as the priest with doubts even about the existence of God, let alone the devil — becomes a believer by the story’s end, and it is he, and not the veteran exorcist Max Von Sydow, who emerges as the true hero of the film. Von Sydow, convincingly aged, proves not to have the necessary energy to defeat the demon one more time.
Against such heavyweights even with her voice dubbed, 13-year-old Linda Blair holds her own. She exudes hate, lunging at Von Sydow in a way that convinces audiences that if she weren’t lashed to the bed she would gleefully rip his head off. Her yellow eyes (contact lenses — no CGI back then) dance with ancient resentments and hateful humor. She is an onslaught of psychological manipulation, allowing in one moment Miller to consider that she really is a host for a demon and in another that she is just a manipulative little girl.
But what really makes “The Exorcist” work is director Friedkin. Without him, the film could have easily descended into camp. Friedkin, a former documentary filmmaker, never forgot he was making a horror film and kept the audience off-guard with a sinister atmosphere present even when nothing is happening. There is only one jump scare — a candle igniting into flame — and most contemporary horror directors wouldn’t have the same restraint.
Friedkin, near the end of his life, considered himself a Christian. However, when the film was released he toyed with reviewers by suggesting he believed the devil was real, which, by default, made him a believer in God, while in other interviews he presented himself as agnostic. Nevertheless, Friedkin adds supernatural moments not present in Blatty’s novel, and they are welcome additions without Blatty’s at times unsubtle proselytizing.
Friedkin always advertised himself as a filmmaker who operates from the gut, and not the mind. His feel for the material as he goes along is what gives the film its bite. In a majestic scene at the beginning of the film, it isn’t just Von Sydow, on a hill facing a statue of his foe, a winged, hideously fanged Pazuzu that is terrifying. It is also the dogs in the background rabidly tearing themselves apart.
Friedkin was so committed to making Blatty’s often unwieldy and overly descriptive screenplay work — Blatty nevertheless won an Academy Award for it — that he made sound as important in the film as the special effects. The soundtrack, which alternates between such disparate music as Arabic chants, the chime music of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia,” and the now iconic early synth sounds of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” enhances the horror immensely. To find the right sound for a head spinning around, he flew a special effects expert onto the set (the expert used a leather wallet he slowly scratched his finger across). Friedkin even fired a gun to scare the actors during a take.
In the end, Segaloff was wise to make Friedkin front and center in his book. Friedkin was one of the best directors New Hollywood produce; a number of his other films, such as “The French Connection,” “Sorcerer,” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” are also rightfully regarded as classics. It is a testament to his talent that he took Blatty’s difficult-to-adapt novel and created a horror classic that 50 years later, all our technology and teams of screenwriters still can’t match.