Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty:The Exorcist – The Fear of God

The Exorcist made viewers faint, vomit and flee out of screenings. It also made audiences queue for hours in the snow for the chance to see it, and remained showing in cinemas for an astonishing two years. After watching this documentary I was keen to re-watch the film. As I did so, it became apparent to me why it has become one of the highest grossing films of all time and one of the most disturbing. As a young teenager my friend and I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. It was quite dull and relatively uneventful until heads were spinning round and vomit was sprouting out of possessed Regan’s mouth. I found the experience entertaining but underwhelming. At times it seemed comical, almost self-parodying.

Now however, it struck me what a well-made film it is, and how remarkably ahead of its time it was. It is well paced, incredibly well shot and there is an intriguing balance of different approaches to Regan’s state. He mother asks eighty eight doctors for an opinion, and one of them even suggests an exorcism, for psychological effect rather than religious.  Damien (Jason Miller), the priest who is asked to perform the Exorcism has studied medicine at Harvard, and initially tells Regan’s mother to “take her to the best hospital you can find, and leave her there for six months”. Rather than separate traditional Catholicism and more modern approaches, it merges the two together, and the outcome is more convincing and realistic for it. As the director William Friedkin remarks in the documentary: “It’s about a real street in a real town with real people living in it, and upstairs on the third floor is a real little girl who happens to be possessed by a demon”.

"We wanted to make a good movie, we wanted to make a scary movie, but I had no idea it was going to be that good or that scary." - Ellen Burstyn

This BBC documentary from 1998, presented and produced by Mark Kermode, was made as a retrospective for the twenty fifth anniversary of the cultural movie phenomenon. Cast and crew give humorous anecdotes of the filming experience and recount how it was created, as well as examining the hysteria and controversy that surrounded it. There were rumours of a curse over the making of the film, as a fire broke out on set when nobody was there, an occurrence that is still a mystery. There were nine deaths of crew members and their families over the fifteen months it took to make it. This helped fuel publicity and the fear that surrounded the film, adding to the contention that it contained evil itself and should be banned. The special effects may seem like nothing special now, but as we discover during the documentary, they took a remarkable amount of imagination and patience to construct. The director remarked: “Today it would be a piece of cake, today they can convince you that the Titanic is sinking. In those days with an optical I could not make you believe that a bed was thumping on its own. It had to happen on the set”. To create the breath in the room when it goes cold, a man had to be employed to refrigerate the room (a man who later died). Four large air conditioners were left on the set overnight, and when the actors arrived the room would be forty degrees below freezing. Conveying emotion was difficult as their faces would be frozen stiff. Ellen Burstyn, who plays Regan’s mother, recalls having to ring an ambulance after she had to be thrown forcefully to the ground repeatedly to create the desired effect. To make the projectile green vomit, a device had to be fitted in an actresses mouth, (who was actually a twenty five year old with the same frame as the twelve year old Linda Blair) full of hot pea soup. To make the penultimate scene where Damien sacrifices himself and plunges down 97 stone steps, a stunt man had to actually do this twice. Each step was lined with rubber. Miller recalls marvelling at this and asking the stuntman how he did it, to which he responded: “Zen. The complete, non-resistance of my body so that it becomes totally relaxed.” Local children had hired out the roofs of their homes and sold tickets so people could see the stunt performed.

Mark Kermode was giving anecdotes in a Q&A after the screening. Kermode speaking about horror film, particularly the Exorcist, seems as necessary to him as breathing. He was obsessed with the film from aged eleven and read all the related literature on it, but didn’t get to see it until he was seventeen, when he had an almost “out of body experience”. He has now seen the film an “unhealthy amount of times” and is friends with the director, an ever changing friendship due to Friedkin’s fiery character. Ellen Burstyn also says in the documentary: “My dear friend Bill Friedkin is a maniac”. Stories were told of him keeping guns on set, to fire when the actors had to look startled. His methods of motivating actors were unusual and created a lot of tension, but they were effective. Here was a man who had made the acclaimed ‘French Connection’ starring Gene Hackman and had his reputation was on the line, Warner Bros was taking an expensive gamble and he was taking a risk, both due to the daring subject matter and the large reliance on a child actor. Warner had approached Mike Nichols (‘The Graduate’) to direct, but he declined due to the latter reason.

Kermode recounted how, after investing $10m dollars in the making of the film and seeing it for the first time, Warner Bros suggested that perhaps they shouldn’t distribute it. After all the time and investment, perhaps it was best just shoved under the carpet. At the first public screening, many were repulsed, and after the credits had rolled the theatre was met with total silence. Initially, the makers thought it would be a complete failure. Of course, it then went on to be nominated for ten academy awards, and winning two. ‘The Exorcist: The Fear of God’ is a documentary that both celebrates a piece of timeless horror cinema but still poses the question of why exactly it provoked, and still provokes, such an extreme reaction. It is revealing, fascinating and entertaining study. A must see.

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.