The Exorcist: the cursed stories behind an horror masterpiece

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You can ask to who was there: nightmares, fear, horror and that title just whispered, as if it could unleash its evil even if you mention it of the theatres. The Exorcist gathered quite an attention when it landed in December 1973: viewers were not prepared for that shock and they often reacted unconsciously to the vision, with scenes of panic, fainting and convulsions.

Many countries imposed restrictions and censorship on the film, which encountered many difficulties in distribution, ending up in many markets months after the official US release. The most worrying part was the hysterical reactions of women, apparently unable to bear with the images coinceived by William Friedkin, who, despite all the adversity, got a huge success with critics and audience.

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The Director of Evil (as Friedkin was referred to afterwards) drew the story of The Exorcist from William Peter Blatty’s novel, and Blatty produced the movie and collaborating even in the screenplay. Blatty’s book, published in 1971, was based on a true story: an alleged demonic possession occurred in 1949 in Cottage City, in Maryland. It seems that the facts that inspired the writer were about a fourteen-year-old boy who, while trying to get in contact with his dead aunt through an Oujia board, ended up being possessed: the family spent months looking for a cure, until a priest convinced them that the only way to free the boy was an exorcism. The possession was completed after several attempts, although somebody said that actually it was nothing but a joke, set by the boy to get more attention.

The girl possessed in The Exorcist was not supposed to be Linda Blair at the beginning: the first choice was Pamelyn Ferdin, already known for some TV shows. Another option was Denise Nickerson, who starred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but her parents didn’t agree at all, worried about the topic of the film. Blair was the one who got it, and ironically she found in her mother her best ally: the lady pushed the girl’s agents (who initially were quite skeptical) to ask for an audition, believing that The Exorcist would have been an excellent trigger for the daughter’s career.

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Blatty was clever when he decided to sell the rights of his novel to Warner Bros: they were allowed to make the movie, but he would keep the control as a producer. The writer already had in mind how to develop his work and chose immediately Friedkin as director, despite of some pressures he got about names like Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich and Mike Nichols. Somebody said that Warner also tried to propose Stanley Kubrick, the only one that perhaps would have convinced Blatty, but Kubrick apparently declined the offer: Friedkin, who gained success with The French Connection, was then hired.

At least for the role of Father Lankester Merrin, Warner tried to impose the name of Marlon Brando. Friedkin, aware of the fame that accompanied Brando, didn’t agree: he was concerned that the production would become then a typical “Brando Movie”. The choice fell almost immediately on Max von Sydow, who had to take several hours at makeup to look older for the part of the exorcist.

Blatty insisted on assigning the part of Father Karras to Stacy Keath, even though once again Warner tried to propose a big name in the cast (Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman or Gene Hackman): last word was always on Friedkin, who persuaded the producer to choose Jason Miller.

The actress for Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, was chosen by Friedkin, after Blatty promised the part to his friend Shirley MacLaine and Warner Bros (who still wanted a star in the movie) proposed Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft. Nevertheless, Ellen Burstyn had some issues during shooting, as she suffered permanent damage to her vertebral column after an accident. And it wasn’t the only one.

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The shooting of the film, in fact, was full of accidents: the crew was sure that the set was “cursed”, given the multiple fires and difficulties that took place during filming. Moreover, the mysterious deaths of some actors and crew members after the release increased the terrifying fame that the film was gaining.

Horror movies never received great gratifications from Hollywood, as they were always considered as second-category movies: however, The Exorcist managed to attract so much attention that it ended up with ten nominations (and two vitories) at Academy Awards (winning two), event that represented the breakthrough of the genre.

Friedkin filmed it with raw realism, a bit like documenting a true story (a thriller, more than a real horror): the intention to not show too much (using parsimony with special effects) and to use sounds and whispers in order to convince the spectator about the plausibility of the story, was the real success of the movie. For this reason and for the right decisions at all levels, the film about Regan’s possession and mankind’s ability to face Evil entered collective imaginery as the most frightening and terrifying movie of all time.

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Luca Divelti writes stories of music, cinema and TV on Rock’n’Blog and Auralcrave. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and Telegram.

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