Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Exorcist

In 1949, The Washington Post reported that a Catholic priest in Mount Rainier, Maryland, had exorcised a young boy apparently possessed by a malignant force or spirit. William Peter Blatty, studying at Georgetown University, read of the case a year later and became passionate about developing it into a book-length study. He managed to contact a priest involved in the exorcism, but church authorities denied him permission to discuss the events, citing the potentially traumatic effects on the boy should the case become widely publicised.

Blatty embarked on a career as a screenwriter and sometime novelist, mainly penning lightweight comedies. But the exorcism case stayed with him. In 1971, he published ‘The Exorcist’. Although ostensibly based on the actual case, Blatty made numerous diversions, both in terms of the circumstances surrounding the possession and the nature of the manifestations, as well as changing the possessed child from a 13-year old boy to a 12-year old girl.

Blatty’s first compromise came when his publishers stipulated a more ambiguous ending (Blatty has always been concerned that the ending of the piece, book or film, should emphasis that evil has been defeated, normalcy has returned and all is well). When Warner Bros acquired the film rights, Blatty himself wrote the first draft screenplay, bringing it in an unrealistic 220 pages (using the industry standard rule of thumb that a page of script equates to a minute of screen time, Blatty’s preferred script would have resulted in a four hour movie).

Various directors were offered the project: Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols all turned it down. Kubrick simply wasn’t interested in the material, while Penn had teaching commitments at Yale. Both Nichols and Boorman were hesitant over casting a child actor in such a demanding role. Blatty lobbied for William Friedkin, even though the director had been openly critical of one of his earlier scripts.

Friedkin began whittling down Blatty’s screenplay, truncating (or even excising) entire screeds of theological discourse, and reducing the centrality of Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb). Still, his original 140-minute cut of ‘The Exorcist’ earned Blatty’s approbation. It was the changes he made as the release date approached and the commercial considerations of a 2-hour running time became paramount that caused ruptions between writer and director.

Amongst the scenes Friedkin cut wholesale are the now-legendary ‘spider-walk’ (although both agreed on its deletion, given that it would have freighted an already emotional scene with a double climax); a scene where Regan (Linda Blair) is checked out by her doctor (leading to discontinuity given an allusion in a subsequent scene to Regan being prescribed pills); a conversation between Fathers Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller) during a lull in the exorcism; and, perhaps most significantly to Blatty, the original ending focusing on the developing friendship between Kinderman and Father Dyer (Father William O’Malley). This he replaced with a more dour scene in which Dyer, having bade farewell to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan, glances down the vertiginous flight of steps where Karras plunged to his death, then turns and walks away, alone.

If Blatty found Friedkin’s aesthetic decisions controversial, they pale in comparison to his directorial techniques. The undisputed highlight is Friedkin’s treatment of Father O’Malley. A Jesuit priest, author and teacher, O’Malley had been hired as technical advisor; Friedkin then decided to cast him as Karras’s friend and mentor. Dyer’s big scene is his horrified and shaky administering of the last rites to Karras following his fatal plunge. A non-actor, O’Malley was unable to emote in front of the camera. Between takes Friedkin asked O’Malley, “Do you trust me?” O’Malley replied that he did. Friedkin hauled off and slapped the priest across the face, then shoved him onto the set to do the take.

Elsewhere, Burstyn and Blair sustain back injuries during physically gruelling stunt work; Friedkin discharged a blank round from a pistol to startle Miller for a key scene; and the sound effects for the exorcism sequence were blasted out at extreme volume on set without warning to create a tense, nervous, jumpy atmosphere.

The film opened to packed cinemas and round-the-block queues. Controversy was immediate. There were reports of vomiting, fainting* and miscarriages. Much was made of Friedkin’s use of subliminal imagery (the ghost face in Karras’s dream), however this is a very brief edit rather than something truly subliminal. As Friedkin inarguably put it, “if you can see it, it’s not subliminal”. True to the tendency of urban legend to attached itself to the film, this has been taken as a suggestion that there are subliminal shots in the film.

Evangelist Billy Graham went further, declaring that there was evil in the very celluloid. Why the devil would want to possess a few cans of raw film stock is something Graham failed to elaborate on, though it does explain a few things about the work of Michael Bay.

Mark Kermode’s definitive book (published as part of the BFI Modern Classics series) is essential reading. He discusses the “complex and contradictory” nature of the film, stating that in depicting the invasion of the abnormal into the normalcy of a white middle-class American home, the setting firmly rooted in a recognisably suburban environment, Friedkin pushed back the boundaries of what audiences of the time were comfortable with (particularly in terms of the horror genre, which had hitherto channelled its aesthetic from the gothic); and yet the good vs. evil narrative that ‘The Exorcist’ finally boils down to represents a highly conservative worldview “in which priests, policemen, good mothers and devoted sons” are the arbiters of what is right and sanctified.

Kermode nails it perfectly when he says, “It is in this tension between the progressive and the regressive, the divine and the depraved, the hidden and the apparent, that the power of ‘The Exorcist’ lies.”

The 2nd edition includes a transcript of a conversation between Friedkin and Blatty conducted by Kermode in 1998. Friedkin considers the film finished. Blatty – who has written alternative endings suggesting Karras’s resurrection/ascension – feels otherwise. Beyond the divergent visions of writer and director, beyond the very tensions that make the film what it is, ‘The Exorcist’ continues to haunt the imagination, permeate popular culture/consciousness and agitate the mind.

*The first time I saw ‘The Exorcist’, back when it was still banned on video in the UK, was at a midnight screening at a local fleapit. During the arteriogram sequence – a set-piece that is arguably more disturbing than any of the supernatural shenanigans – I bolted from my seat, weaved shakily to the gents and communed with the cold water tap for a minute or two.

‘The Exorcist’ by William Peter Blatty (Harper & Row, 1971)
‘The Exorcist’ (2nd edn) by Mark Kermode (BFI Publishing, 1998)
‘The Fear of God’ (1998 BBC documentary produced by Nick Freand-Jones)

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