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The Exorcist: Duel with the devil


Described as “The Scariest Movie of All Time” during its publicity, ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) gained cult status immediately after its release. A disturbing, shocking, exploitative and frightening film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 best-selling novel of the same name, it effectively dealt with the satanic demon possession.

The novel was inspired by a 1949 case of demonic possession and exorcism that Blatty heard about while he was a student in the class of 1950 at Georgetown University. As a result, the novel takes place in Washington, DC, near the campus of Georgetown University. In September 2011, the novel was reprinted by HarperCollins to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, with slight revisions made by Blatty as well as interior title artwork by Jeremy Caniglia.

The film experienced a troubled production; even in the beginning, several prestigious filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn turned it down. John Boorman, who was offered the chance to direct it, declined as he felt the storyline was “cruel towards children”. He did, however, accept the offer to direct its sequel ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977). Mark Rydell was also in active talks to direct, but Blatty, who himself produced the film urged Warner Bros executives to watch the 1971 crime thriller, ‘The French Connection’ directed by William Friedkin. Blatty had always pushed for Friedkin to direct and this helped seal the deal.

The studio wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Fr Merrin. Friedkin immediately vetoed this suggestion by stating that with Brando the film would become a Brando movie instead of the important film he wanted to make. Eventually, Max von Sydow was finalised to play the priest.

Audrey Hepburn was Friedkin’s first choice to play the role of Chris MacNeil, and Warner Brothers supported him because of her good relations with the studio, but she only agreed to do it if it was filmed in Rome. Anne Bancroft was another choice but she was in her first month of pregnancy and hence dropped. Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine were also suggested, while Barbra Streisand declined the role. Finally, Ellen Burstyn received the part after she phoned Friedkin and emphatically stated that she was going to play Chris. Burstyn however put a condition that she would not say the scripted line: “I believe in the devil!” The producers agreed to eliminate the utterance.

Dana Plato was offered the role of Regan MacNeil, as was Anissa Jones tested for the role. Sharon Stone was also considered. Interestingly, the agency representing Linda Blair overlooked her, recommending at least 30 other clients for the part of Regan. Finally Blair’s mother brought her in herself to try out for the role.

Jack Nicholson was up for the part of Fr Karras, before Jason Miller landed the role. Friedkin thought Nicholson was too unholy to ever play a priest.

The film’s opening sequences were filmed in and near the city of Mosul, in Iraq. Friedkin had to take an all-British crew to film in Iraq because the US had no diplomatic relations with Iraq at that time.

There were numerous reports of on-the-set friction between Friedkin and various cast and crew members. Miller had a major verbal confrontation with Friedkin after the director fired a gun near his ear to get an authentic reaction from him. Miller told Friedkin that he is an actor, and that he didn’t need a gun to act surprised or startled. Friedkin also barred Blatty from all post-production work after a major dispute.

Furthermore, composer Lalo Schifrin, known for scoring music of ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971) and ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) was asked to prepare the working score of ‘The Exorcist’. However, it was rejected by Friedkin. Schifrin had written six minutes of music for the initial film trailer but audiences were reportedly too scared by its combination of sights and sounds. Therefore, Warner Bros executives told Friedkin to instruct Schifrin to tone it down with softer music, but Friedkin did not relay the message. Instead, Friedkin used modern classical compositions, including portions of the 1972 Cello Concerto No 1 of Polymorphia and other pieces by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, Five Pieces for Orchestra by Austrian composer Anton Webern, and some original music by Jack Nitzsche. Furthermore, the “Theme from The Exorcist” – the piano-based melody, which opens the first part of ‘Tubular Bells’, the 1973 debut album by English progressive rock musician, Mike Oldfield – became very popular after the film’s release, although Oldfield himself was not impressed with the way his work was used.

‘The Exorcist’ contained a number of special effects, engineered by makeup artist Dick Smith. In one scene, von Sydow is actually wearing more makeup than the possessed girl. This was because Friedkin wanted some very detailed facial close-ups. When this film was made, von Sydow was 44, though he was made up to look 74.

Nine people died during the making of ‘The Exorcist’, including actor Jack MacGowran. The set for the film too burnt down during production delaying the film for 6 weeks. A carpenter on the set accidentally cut off a thumb, while a gaffer lost a toe.

Upon its release, ‘The Exorcist’ received mixed reviews from critics ranging from “classic” to “claptrap”. Produced at a budget of $12 million, it earned $66.3 million in distributors’ domestic (US/Canada) rentals during its theatrical release in 1974, becoming the second most popular film of that year trailing ‘The Sting (1973). After several reissues, the film eventually grossed $232.6 million in North America, and to date, has a total gross of $441.3 million worldwide.

Due to the death threats to Linda from religious zealots, who believed the film “glorified Satan”, Warner Bros had bodyguards protecting her for six months after the film’s release.

‘The Exorcist’ was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning two in the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound categories. It also became the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.

The success of ‘The Exorcist’ gave way for a number of sequels including ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977) directed by John Boorman, and ‘The Exorcist III’ (1990) directed by Blatty himself. ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ (2004) directed by Renny Harlin was the prequel to ‘The Exorcist’, while ‘Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist’ (2005) was said to be an alternative and original prequel to the film.

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