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How many horror films can you name which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? We're not talking about mysteries like Spellbound (1945) or science fiction like A Clockwork Orange (1971) but out-and-out HORROR films. You'll be hard pressed to come up with any title other than The Exorcist.
There has been no other film in the horror genre that has received so much attention or aroused such controversy among filmgoers as this 1973 release. Not only was The Exorcist plagued by production problems and behind-the-scenes power struggles, but it also ignited a heated debate among the religious community, film critics, and audiences who were alternately repulsed and fascinated by its disturbing tale of good versus evil.
The Exorcist was adapted for the screen by its author, William Peter Blatty, who in turn had based his original novel on a strange incident which took place in Mt. Rainer, Maryland in 1949. It seems that during his days as a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Beatty had come across some unusual newspaper accounts about the exorcism of an adolescent boy. The facts surrounding this case and another demonic possession incident that occurred in Earling, Iowa in 1928 were partial inspirations for Blatty's best-selling book.
It wasn't until The Exorcist went into national release that people began to read about all the disturbing things that went on prior to and during the film's hectic production. For instance, Jack MacGowran died one week after completing his scenes in the film. The brother of Max von Sydow died the week Max arrived in New York for his first scenes. The son of Jason Miller was struck down at the beach by a motorcyclist and was almost killed. Ellen Burstyn seriously wrenched her back and was out for several weeks. A carpenter on the set accidentally cut off a thumb and a gaffer lost a toe.
There were also numerous reports of on-the-set friction between director William Friedkin and various cast and crew members. Composer Lalo Schifrin was fired just before putting the final touches on the music score and replaced with Jack Nitzsche who effectively utilized selections from Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" album. Jazz legend Ken Nordine sued Friedkin for non-payment of sound effects and voiceovers commissioned for the film. And Mercedes McCambridge, who was the voice of the demon, made a public fuss over being denied a screen credit (It has since been added to the film) and also revealed several tricks of the trade: Her vomiting sounds were achieved by swallowing 18 raw eggs and a pulpy apple.
As for William Peter Blatty, he was barred from all post-production work by Friedkin after a major dispute. He also incurred the anger of Shirley MacLaine, his former neighbor in California. Apparently, Blatty modeled Chris MacNeil, the mother/actress character, on MacLaine and wanted her to play the part in the film version. Unfortunately, MacLaine's business partner, Sir Lew Grade, discouraged her from taking the role and the part went to Ellen Burstyn. Later, when reviewers began to suggest that the Chris-Regan relationship was really just a thinly disguised version of MacLaine and her own daughter Sachi, MacLaine began to accuse Blatty of exploiting their friendship.
But enough of these petty intrigues. Here's what everybody really wants to know. How did they do those levitating scenes? How did they get Regan's head to revolve in a 360-degree turn? What is really in that concoction which spews out of the demon's mouth? How did they get Linda Blair's parents to allow their twelve-year-old daughter to appear in this film, especially that crucifix-jabbing scene? (Linda's mother was quoted as saying she "thought it sounded like a fun part.")
In an interview with Cinefantastique correspondent David Bartholomew, special effects artist Dick Smith revealed a few (but not all) of his tricks: "The vomiting - by all means - was the most difficult...it involved making flattened tubes that fitted across the cheeks of the actress. They were connected to a tube which went across the mouth from corner to corner - kind of like a horse's bridle - and it had in it a nozzle. Now, the rear part of this apparatus went back below her ears and was connected to rubber hoses which went down her back. Now that's where the special effects man came in. He had the responsibility of having the pea soup at the proper temperature and properly seasoned. We never realized that people would tumble onto the fact that it was pea soup so rapidly. It was picked as a convenient item that seemed to be a color close to bile-like vomit...The final effect then, with the makeup and all, and a wig on top to cover the harness that held it all on, was a very good duplication of the demon makeup with the mouth open."
As for working with Linda Blair, Smith admitted, "she's a most unusual little girl and I can't imagine anyone else enduring - being as patient - as well as she. She was, of course, a child, and the most patient child in the world is not the same as an adult. The makeup involved approximately two hours or more every morning. We would start around 7 A.M. She was bored by the whole thing - you can't blame her - so we had a little TV set sitting on a shelf on the opposite wall which she could see by looking in the mirror. It got to be a bit dodgy at times, because if I would get in the way of the reflection of the TV set, she would move her head in order to continue seeing what The Flying Nun [the TV series starring Sally Field] was up to, and it just made it difficult to do the makeup....We were working for the most part....on a refrigerated set. It averaged about 10 degrees."
Needless to say, The Exorcist was a smashing success and unfortunately inspired numerous imitations which glutted the horror market for years. Titles like Beyond the Door (1975), Abby (1974), The Tempter (1974), and The Devil Within Her (1975) expanded on the demonic possession theme and took the genre to a new low. However, none of these films suffered the scorn and critical abuse heaped on John Boorman's ambitious and weirdly allegorical sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
Producer: William Peter Blatty
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty (based on his novel)
Production Design: Bill Malley
Cinematography: Owen Roizman, Billy Williams
Editing: Norma Gay, Evan A. Lottman, Bud S. Smith
Music: Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield, Krzysztof Penderecki
Makeup: Dick Smith, William A. Farley
Special Effects: Marcel Vercoutere
Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Lee J. Cobb (Lt. William Kinderman), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings), Peter Masterson (Barringer).
By Jeff Stafford