Karras: “Why her? Why this girl?”
Merrin: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”
My earliest memory of being scared at a movie was watching the witch give Snow White the apple. I must have been extremely young, and I remember comprehending what I was seeing was a representation of evil on the screen. I nestled close to my mom for protection. Later on, in my continuing experiences with movies, I would always go back to that early recollection. The idea of resisting something that was threatening and things ending well afterwards was empowering. I understood it was a safe way to learn how to handle difficult situations in life – facing your worst fears straight on. Besides – I felt a great rush after a good movie scare, when my brain registered the threat was over – and my tension started to dissipate. It’s purgative.
The last half of “The Exorcist” (1973) leads up to that point where you’re able to directly confront a primal fear. With Father Karras, you ascend the stairs of the Georgetown house and enter a room where the devil is. You see for yourself the struggle between good and evil in literal form. The whole film builds up to that showdown – and it’s quite a spectacle.
Father Karras’ background – the psychiatrist the mother approaches for the exorcism – provides a compelling story arc. It is his mental state that becomes the point of view of the film. He’s recently lost his mother – whom he was unable to look after either financially or physically, for she lived in New York and he was stationed in Washington. This triggers a crisis in faith – and he feels God has abandoned him. What better way to prove God’s existence to Karras than to summon and provoke the profane presence of the devil himself?
Watching the film again recently, it dawned on me the effectiveness of casting Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin. When the film opens, we’re in the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, where Merrin – a paleontologist – is at an archeological dig. He finds a small amulet representing Pazuzu who in Mesopotamian religion was considered the king of demons. Merrin has encountered this terror before – in Africa during an exorcism. After his discovery, he starts to see premonitions. A clock stops. A carriage with a woman dressed in black almost runs him down. He sees dogs ferociously fighting. It all leads to him standing face-to-face with a big statue of the demon – a tableau that recalls Von Sydow challenging Death itself to a chess match in “The Seventh Veil.” The actor was 43 years old during filming and underwent 4 hours of make-up — his is heavier even than Regan’s – the possessed child.
“The problem with your daughter is not her bed, it’s her brain,” says a doctor in “The Exorcist.” I couldn’t help but feel the parallels at the crux of the narrative with our current dilemmas. We’re living at a time in America where science and beliefs have been put into conflict with one another. The first half of the film is about trying to come to terms with the unexplainable and the uncontrollable. The script systematically goes through every scientific procedure possible. The most appalling scene is not the demonic exorcism but an arteriogram – which is graphically detailed – an imaging test that uses x-rays and a special dye to see inside the arteries. “You’re telling me I should take my daughter to a witch doctor, is that it?” asks the mother after specialists have exhausted every possibility.
Director William Friedkin fuses documentary style filmmaking with fiction. There’s a constant exploration and searching in his work (which includes the Academy Award-winning “The French Connection”). After multiple viewings, I have been fascinated by his usage of stairs as a symbol. Two major deaths take place near the long steps adjacent the main home. Make note of how visually, Friedkin emphasizes characters ascending and descending throughout the film. Karras’ nightmare involving his mother’s death includes her descending unto the subway entrance. The two priests – during a break from battling the devil – sit at opposing sides of the stairway landing. At the pivotal point where Chris asks Karras if her daughter is going to die, he’s seated at the bottom of the stairs of the home, and he heads up assuring her she will not. There’s an association with a journey taking place, and not just in terms of the physical act of ascending or descending, but also in terms of the emotional and spiritual implications of voyaging.
Father Karras: “Well, then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.”
The Demon: “And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.”
Father Karras: “If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?”
The Demon: “That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.”
Available to stream on DIRECTV, fubo TV, Philo, AMC Premiere and Sling. Available to rent on Redbox, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, iTunes and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller and Linda Blair
Screenwriter and Author William Peter Blatty on Writing “The Exorcist”
In 1946, William Peter Blatty was a senior at the Jesuit-run Brooklyn Preparatory School. He was the class valedictorian, but had no thoughts of further education. “I was there on scholarship,” he said in interviews later. “College was out of the question as we couldn’t even afford to pay for the books.” In fact, for years he, his four siblings and his single mother had never lived at the same address for more than a couple months. “Eviction was the order of the day,” he told The Washington Post. But a chance meeting between his mother and a Georgetown University theology professor convinced his mother that Blatty belonged there. Georgetown offered one full scholarship a year to the applicant who scored highest on its seven-hour entrance exam. To his surprise, Blatty won. “Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of my life,” he would later say. “Until then, I’d never had a home.” In Blatty’s junior year, The Washington Post published an incredible article about a 14-year-old Maryland boy who had been supposedly “freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil.” The piece described objects moving across the room of their own accord, the boy speaking in Latin and shouting obscenities, and neurologists and neighbors admitting to having witnessed uncanny events. “I wasn’t just impressed: I was excited,” Blatty, who died in 2017, later wrote of reading the Post story. In his 1974 book William Peter Blatty on ‘The Exorcist’ From Novel to Film, he explained, “For here at last, in this city, in my time, was tangible evidence of transcendence. If there were demons, there were angels and probably a God and a life everlasting.”
Twenty years later, following a series of colorful jobs that included vacuum cleaner salesman, head of the policy branch of the U. S. Air Force’s Psychological Warfare Division and public relations director for Loyola University of Los Angeles, Blatty had settled into a successful career as a comic novelist and screenwriter. Groucho Marx had called his 1960 novel “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” “that rare thing, these days, a truly funny book.” But that 1949 story about the possessed child stayed with him. He wanted to turn it into a serious novel, “a supernatural detective story,” but for years neither his agent nor his publisher would consider it. Then a conversation with an interested editor at a New Year’s Eve party gave him his chance. In his book proposal he wrote that the “novel would ask…what effect a confrontation with undisputed paranormal phenomenon would have on the book’s main characters.” Its theme would be “the mystery of goodness”: “in a mechanistic universe, where the atoms that make up a human being should logically be expected, even in the aggregate, to pursue their selfish ends more blindly that the rivers rush out to the seas, how is it there is love in the sense that a God would love and that a man will give his life for another?” But researching the phenomenon of possession for the novel proved difficult. Much like his character Father Karras, Blatty found most tales of possession inconclusive and overly credulous. The lack of real evidence shook his faith in the project. “I felt that if I couldn’t write the novel with conviction, I probably wouldn’t want to write it at all,” he wrote. “A hollow heart cannot excite.” Then, through his Jesuit connections, Blatty was able to contact one of the exorcists from the 1949 case. The priest had kept a detailed diary of the process of exorcising the boy; while he refused to give it to Blatty out of concern for the privacy of those involved, Blatty somehow got ahold of a copy of it through others. He found it “beyond any doubt, the thoroughly meticulous, reliable—even cautiously understated—eyewitness report of paranormal phenomena.” And the novel proceeded. (americamagazine.org)
Director William on Bringing “The Exorcist” to the Screen
“I was in San Francisco on my last night of a press tour for ‘The French Connection’ in 1971. I’d finished my interviews for the day and saw this package I had just thrown into my bag, with the name “William Peter Blatty” on the return address — the manuscript for ‘The Exorcist.’ I opened it and started to read the novel. After the first 20 pages, I canceled my dinner plans. I read the entire book that evening. A few years earlier, I’d been at Blake Edwards’ office to meet about directing a movie version of ‘Peter Gunn.’ I didn’t care for the script at all and said so in rather graphic terms. As I was leaving Blake’s office to go to the parking lot at Paramount in front of the big sky-drop where Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea, along comes this fellow who introduced himself as Bill Blatty. I didn’t know he’d written the script, but he said: “Thanks for doing that. We all think the script needs a lot of work, and I’d told Blake that. I appreciate it that you were honest, even if it cost you a job.” We hadn’t seen each other much for several years after that. But when I called Bill and he told me some of the background of how ‘The Exorcist’ had come about and that he’d made a deal at Warner Bros. to write the script and produce it, he asked me if I’d be interested in directing. He had not seen any of the films I had made before sending me the book, but the reason, he said, was: “You’re the only director I’ve met who hasn’t bullshitted me. I really appreciate that, and I think that’s the kind of relationship I need to get this story made the way I’d like to see it made.”
Then came a long campaign of Blatty fighting for me and the studio pushing back. Warners had sent the script out to three other prominent directors: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. They all responded in the negative, for various reasons. Kubrick said, “I only like to develop my own stuff” — he changed his attitude about that when he did The Shining, but that was his excuse. Arthur Penn had just done ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and said he didn’t want to do anything else about violence, especially with a child. Nichols thought it was going to be impossible to pin this story on the acting of a 12-year-old girl. None of that stuff bothered me because, frankly, I was so overwhelmed by the power of this story, and I didn’t stop to think about the problems involved with making it. Blatty, who was very good on the air and [after ‘Exorcist’ became a best-seller] had become something of a celebrity on the talk-show circuit, kept threatening Warners that he’d go on ‘Johnny Carson’ and tell Carson’s audience that Warners was going to hire a director he didn’t want. Then, finally, The French Connection came out and was an instant success. (Why? I don’t know.) Blatty was called into a meeting at Warners with Ted Ashley, Frank Wells and John Calley, the triumvirate who ran the studio. “Is this about Friedkin?” Ashley asked, and Blatty said, “Yes.” Ashley said, “Bill, we’ve seen ‘The French Connection,’ and we want him more than you do now.” That was the way it went. Frankly, they thought Blatty and I were crazy and that there was nothing they could do with us. Once the ship had launched, they discussed getting rid of me, but it would have unraveled the whole project. The cast was mine. Jason Miller [who played Father Damien Karras] had never appeared in a film — he was a playwright. I was hiring priests and doctors to play parts. I went to Iraq for three months to film the opening scenes, with no help from the State Department. I remember Ted Ashley saying, “If you go over there and you get killed, it’s your own fault.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Cinematographer Owen Roizman on “The Exorcist”
“I became associated with the picture through the Director, Bill Friedkin. We’d made ‘The French Connection’ together and he figured that since we’d done so well the last time, maybe we could do it again. When we first discussed the picture we naturally discussed style and he said that he would like this film to have a realistic, available-light look — very natural. But he said that he would like to take it a step above what we did the last time and not go for such a raw documentary feeling. It was to have a little bit slicker, more controlled look to it — and that’s what we attempted to get. The sets were very normal. We didn’t go for a ‘Psycho’ type of house. All the rooms were basically designed to be elegant and well-furnished — a warm and moody house. What we tried to do, by means of the lighting, was to give it a kind of ominous feeling — as if some lurking, mysterious thing were hanging over it. That’s about as far as we went with photographic style.
…The exorcism sequence did involve some very special problems. One of these stemmed from the fact that in the story anyone who walks into the child’s room becomes extremely cold and develops a chill. The only way you can really show that kind of cold is to be able to see the breath of the characters — and the only way to see this breath is to actually have them in a very cold room. For this reason, the child’s bedroom was duplicated and built inside a “cocoon” — as they called it — which was refrigerated, generally to about 20 degrees below zero. We tried it first at just below freezing (about 25 degrees) and you could see some breath, but it really wasn’t enough and as soon as the lights were turned on the heat took care of the cold so quickly that we couldn’t even make a take. We found out during the test period that this wouldn’t work, so we went back to the drawing board. A system was developed that could refrigerate the room quickly to any temperature from zero to 20 below. The breath showed up fine at zero, but Friedkin wanted the actors to really feel the cold because he felt that would help their acting. An actor on his knees for 15 minutes at 20 below zero is really going to feel cold. It worked out very well.” (ascmag.com)
About Screenwriter and Author William Peter Blatty
He was born in New York; his parents were immigrants from Lebanon. His father, Peter, a cloth cutter, abandoned the family when Blatty was eight. He was raised by his mother, Mary (nee Mouakad), a devout Catholic and the niece of a bishop, in what he called “comfortable destitution”. She sold quince jelly on the street, and moved the family from flat to flat just ahead of eviction. But she made sure William was educated by Jesuits, on scholarships, first at Brooklyn Prep, then at Georgetown University, from where he graduated in 1950. Blatty took menial jobs while studying for a master’s degree in English literature at George Washington University, then joined the US air force, where he worked in psychological warfare. After his discharge he worked for the US Information Agency in Beirut, then returned to the US to become head of public relations at what is now Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit college in Los Angeles. Moving to the bigger University of Southern California, in his spare time he wrote a comic memoir of his air force service, ‘Which Way to Mecca, Jack?’ (1960). The following year he appeared on Groucho Marx’s television game show ‘You Bet Your Life’ and, with the $10,000 he won, quit his job and began writing full time. His first novel, ‘John Goldfarb,’ ‘Please Come Home!’ (1963), was a farce that combined the U2 spy plane crisis with American football in the Middle East, and drew comparisons with SJ Perelman. He went on to movies with the screenplay for Frank Tashlin’s Danny Kaye comedy ‘The Man from the Diners’ Club’ (1963), but wrote two more novels, ‘I, Billy Shakespeare’ (1965) and ‘Twinkle Twinkle “Killer” Kane’ (1966), a black comedy set in a military psychiatric facility, influenced by ‘Catch-22’ and by his own experiences in “psy-ops”. In 1964 he began collaborating with the writer/director Blake Edwards on the second Pink Panther film, ‘A Shot in the Dark.’ They then did the war comedy ‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?’ (1966) and the underrated noirish thriller ‘Gunn’ (1967), an updating of Edwards’s 1950s hit television detective. He also scripted ‘Promise Her Anything’ (1966), ‘The Great Bank Robbery’ (1969) and a Charlie Chan parody, ‘The Mastermind,’ which took seven years to gain release in 1976, with Blatty’s credit changed to a pseudonym. After a final film, ‘Darling Lili’ (1970), with Edwards, he changed direction.
Blatty’s mother died in 1967, prompting in him the crisis of faith that lay at the heart of ‘The Exorcist,’ though its direct inspiration was a notorious case of exorcism by Jesuits of a 13-year-old boy in Washington DC that occurred while Blatty was at Georgetown…‘The Exorcist’ became the first horror film nominated for an Academy Award for best picture; the film and Blatty’s screenplay both won Golden Globe awards. Publishers clamoured for a sequel, but Blatty’s next book was a memoir of his mother, ‘I’ll Tell Them I Remember You’ (1973). He refused to have anything to do with the film ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977), though in 1983 he wrote his own sequel, ‘Legion,’ which would become the basis for ‘The Exorcist III’ (1990), Blatty’s second film as writer/director. The first had been ‘The Ninth Configuration’ (1980), based on his 1978 novel of that name, itself a rewrite of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle.’ The original intention was that this should be directed by ‘The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, but Blatty wound up funding half the costs himself after Friedkin dropped out and no studio would pick it up. It starred Stacy Keach, Jason Miller (Father Karras in ‘The Exorcist’) and Scott Wilson, and is a darker and wilder remake of the original novel; the astronaut character in the military asylum being consciously connected with the astronaut whom Regan warns against going into space in ‘The Exorcist.’ Unsuccessful at the time, and appreciated more in Europe (he won his second Golden Globe, voted for by Hollywood’s foreign press, for the screenplay), it is now considered an underground cult classic. It was hard to escape ‘The Exorcist,’ and Blatty addressed that in a comic novel, ‘Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing’ (1996), and in a book about the making of the film, ‘If There Were Demons’ (2001). The film was reissued in a director’s cut in 2000, with Friedkin making changes to make the ultimate triumph of Karras more obvious. For the 40th anniversary reissue of the book, Blatty added an additional chapter aimed at further clarification. ‘The Exorcist’ was eventually remade as a 2016 TV miniseries; a stage adaptation starring Richard Chamberlain and Brooke Shields premiered in 2012 in Los Angeles, and in the UK in 2016. Blatty’s later writing included a short horror novel, ‘Elsewhere,’ which appeared in a 1999 anthology; ‘Dimiter’ (2010), about the execution of a priest in Albania, which Friedkin tried to get made as a film; and ‘Crazy’ (2010), an offbeat novel set in 1940s New York that combines religious, psychological and horror elements of his previous work. His 2015 memoir, ‘Finding Peter,’ deals with the death of his son, and “evidence of life after death”…he is survived by his fourth wife, Julie (nee Witbrodt), whom he married in 1983, three daughters and two sons, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. (theguardian.com)
About Director William Friedkin
William Friedkin was born on August 29, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. While a teenager, Friedkin began working in Chicago television, and he later directed several nationally broadcast documentaries. In 1967 he moved into film directing with the Sonny-and-Cher musical “Good Times,” then took on the more-elevated “The Birthday Party” (1968), a respectable if static adaptation of Harold Pinter’s enigmatic play. Equally ambitious was “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968), a lively comedy about an innocent Amish girl who becomes a burlesque dancer in 1920s New York City. Friedkin earned generally positive reviews for “The Boys in the Band” (1970)…Adapted from Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about gay men at a birthday party, the film featured all the members of the Off-Broadway cast. “The French Connection” (1971) provided Friedkin with his first big-budget property. Based on Robin Moore’s best seller about two real-life narcotics cops on the trail of international heroin dealers, the film was a critical and commercial success. It was especially noted for a number of tense action sequences, including a climactic car chase under an elevated train. Friedkin earned an Academy Award for directing, and the film won four other Oscars, including those for best picture and best actor (Gene Hackman). For his next project, Friedkin chose another best seller, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. The frightening tale of the supernatural focuses on a young girl (played by Linda Blair) who is believed to be possessed by the Devil. Although the centre of much controversy when released in 1973, it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time (when adjusted for ticket-price inflation) and earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including one for best director…
…Friedkin’s subsequent credits included the television movies “C.A.T. Squad” (1986) and “C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf” (1988). In 1987 he directed “Rampage,” a crime drama about a serial killer; it was not released in the United States until 1992. After the supernatural “The Guardian” (1990), Friedkin found modest success with the basketball drama “Blue Chips” (1994), which starred Nick Nolte and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. However, his next film, “Jade” (1995), was almost universally panned. The over-the-top erotic thriller starred David Caruso as an assistant district attorney whose investigation into a high-profile murder begins to point toward his ex-girlfriend (Linda Fiorentino). Friedkin returned to television for “12 Angry Men” (1997), a remake of the 1957 classic that earned solid reviews. Friedkin’s later films included “Rules of Engagement” (2000), a military thriller with a cast headlined by Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, and Ben Kingsley; “The Hunted” (2003)…and “Bug” (2006), an adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play about the mental breakdown of a military veteran (Michael Shannon) and of his girlfriend (Ashley Judd). In 2011 Friedkin adapted another Letts play, “Killer Joe,” which centred on a drug dealer who hires a contract killer (Matthew McConaughey) to dispose of his mother for a life insurance payout. He later returned to the subject of exorcism with the documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth” (2017), about the chief exorcist in Rome and one of his last cases. In 2013 Friedkin published the memoir “The Friedkin Connection.” “Friedkin Uncut” (2018) is a documentary about his career. (britannica.com)