William Friedkin and “The Exorcist”

MovieFanFare welcomes our newest guest blogger, Peter Bell, who shares his thoughts on why The Exorcist is such an enduring classic:

“I have my finger on the pulse of America.” These were the words of William Friedkin, Director, upon the release of The Exorcist (1973), according to Mark Cousins, director and occasional presenter/critic on film (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2012). While most today would view such a statement as slick marketing, in the case of The Exorcist and its 1970 contemporaries, this was no joke. The American film scene was changing rapidly. By the end of decade, new type of films, modern blockbusters, were making more money than Hollywood had ever seen or could imagine. Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), and The Exorcist brought back the thrills and visual sensations of the early silent era of Hollywood. These zeitgeist films became what the public wanted to see.

At the TCM Film Festival pre-film Q&A, Friedkin proclaimed that his faith in the exorcist phenomenon is stronger than ever. This faith led him to revisit the subject matter recently, as he directed a documentary entitled The Devil and Father Amorth (2018). The documentary focuses on exorcism expert, Father Gabriele Amorth, an Italian priest, and one of his harrowing house calls.

Friedkin’s release of this 2018 documentary brings renewed interest in The Exorcist, over forty years after its release. It is a hallmark horror film, a Halloween staple that leaves viewers unsettled, yet coming back for more. A key to its historical success is Friedkin’s commitment to bringing the reality of exorcism to the screen. Though the characters are fictional, the underlying story of The Exorcist is based on the actual events of a 1948 case. William Peter Blatty wrote a book about that case and later became the screenplay writer for The Exorcist. When interviewed on Fiction Film Festival (1979) by host Mick Garris, Friedkin responded to the challenge by critics that The Exorcist is unbelievable and over the top. Friedkin told Garris, “The Exorcist is based on a true, but highly puzzling occurrence, so I had to present it as realistically as possible.” I contend Friedkin excelled in this endeavor capturing mainstream attention and applause for presentation of a topic that seems surreal.

When contemplating the extraordinary success of The Exorcist, I attribute it to two distinct traits. The first is Friedkin’s absence of cinematic trickery. In his book, William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession, and Reality (1990), Thomas D. Clagett points out that Friedkin cut out all the typical movie fat, including freeze frames, flashbacks and flash-forwards. Friedkin relayed to Clagett that he tried to make the film without any distinct style, with no sense of creating a film of the horror or fantasy genre (p. 137). The unique soundtrack stands out to me. Friedkin relayed at the 2018 TCM Film Festival that he searched for sounds that one would not associate with horror. His search led him to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” The film only uses the first four minutes of this psychedelic fantasy tune, but this introductory sound sensation sets the tone for the whole film. The sound of chimes, mixed with images of trick or treaters and nuns, foreshadows the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and the religious intervention that is to come. Throughout the rest of the film, the music is in correlation with the events transpiring in real time. For example, when Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is delivered the crushing blow that the only solution to her daughter’s problem might be psychiatric treatment, frenetic music is played in the next scene. Chris is driving home and looks troubled. The use of POV tunnel vision along with sharp lighting and music represent lives spiraling out of control – the lives of Chris and her daughter.

The next key trait is the sense of realistic pacing. Rather, than throw his viewers head first into the supernatural, Friedkin slowly draws in his audience by presenting the entire mental and physical breakdown of Regan. Strange observations start out simply enough with bizarre Ouija board occurrences, but quickly escalate to bipolar activity and the need for medical testing. At the TCM Festival, Friedkin revealed that he used actual equipment and real doctors during the diagnostic scanning scenes when Regan’s blood gushes wildly. When the medical tests prove negative, the only logical solution and last resort is an exorcism. At the point of this conclusion, the room turns ice cold, the bed starts shaking maniacally, and the ceiling begins to crack in two. This action culminates with the demon/Regan twisting her head and literally floating off the bed.

After its release in 1973, The Exorcist went on to be nominated for ten Academy Awards, and become a watershed moment for the horror genre, embracing innovative make-up and mechanical effects. However, for me personally, actor Jason Miller’s portrayal of Father Karras really solidifies the film. Back during his ’79 interview with Mick Garriss, Friedkin said he wanted an unknown for the role of Karras. The actor had to be completely acceptable to the audience as a priest. Miller was an off Broadway playwright who had at one time actually studied to become a priest. Miller’s facial expression and mannerisms in the final moments of the film really sell the idea of angels and demons. He emits a feeling of absolute fear when the bed floats.

Ultimately, the reason The Exorcist works so well and merits recognition as a timeless classic is its brilliant narrative through line and the intriguing examination of the mysteries of faith in the most realistic and abstract ways. It has a sort of commitment that no film to this day has come close to capturing in such a haunting and believable manner.

Peter Bell is a graduate of Columbia University, School of Arts, New York, NY with a Master of Arts in Film Studies. His cinematic interests include film history, theory, and criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has always had a passion for film and is always trying to add greater context on film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark, and Inception. Peter’s favorite director is Christopher Nolan, whom he had the pleasure of seeing speak in 2015 at the Tribecca Film Festival. Past film experience includes a documentary research internship with Pierpoline Films and volunteering for ReelAbilities Film Festival. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. His hobbies include soccer, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 and reading 1980s and Golden Age comic books.