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The Exorcist (1973) - Illustrated Reference

Updated on December 27, 2013
William Friedkin with Linda Blair
William Friedkin with Linda Blair

The Exorcist was directed by William Friedkin and premiered on 26th December 1973. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Kitty Winn, Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb and Jack McGowran. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. Music by Jack Nitzche. 122mins (132mins Dir. Cut)

Regan MacNeil was a normal 12 year old girl who has suddenly started to behave very strangely and aggressively. Exhibiting a split personality her features have started to change, doctors suggest she see an exorcist. Her desperate mother pleads with Father Karras to help save her daughter.

Author William Peter Blatty (1928-) based his bestselling novel The Exorcist (1971) on an exorcism which was conducted in 1949 on a 13 year old boy in Georgetown, Washington DC. The event was reported in the Washington Post.

The boy's family reported hearing scratching noises on the walls of the bedroom and his bed shaking violently. A priest witnessed a heavy chair tip and fall over while the boy was sleeping. During the exorcism the 'possessed' boy was screaming, cursing and speaking Latin phrases, when the last rite was given the boy grew quiet. He was taken to a Catholic church to complete the exorcism.

Ellen Burstyn
Ellen Burstyn
Linda Blair
Linda Blair
Jason Miller
Jason Miller
Jason Miller with Max von Sydow
Jason Miller with Max von Sydow
Max von Sydow
Max von Sydow
Jason Miller with Lee J. Cobb
Jason Miller with Lee J. Cobb
Lee J. Cobb
Lee J. Cobb
Jack McGowran
Jack McGowran
Friedkin with Burstyn
Friedkin with Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn (1932-) / Chris MacNeil

Born in Detroit Michigan, Ellen Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), she was also Oscar nominated for The Last Picture Show (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Same Time Next Year (1978), Resurrection (1980) and Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Karras: You would like that?
Demon: Intensely.
Father Karras: But wouldn't that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.

Linda Blair (1959-) / Regan MacNeil

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Linda Blair won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for The Exorcist (1973), she also received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Regan in The Exorcist. Her films include – Airport 75 (1974), Exorcist II The Heretic (1977), Hell Night (1981), Chained Heat (1983), Night Patrol (1984) and Repossessed (1990).

Kitty Winn (1944-) / Sharon Spencer

Born in Washington DC, Kitty Winn won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Panic in Needle Park (1971). Her films include – They Might be Giants (1971) and Exorcist II The Heretic (1977).

Father Karras: Well, then let's introduce ourselves. I'm Damien Karras.
Demon: And I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.
Father Karras: If you're the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?
Demon: That's much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.

Jason Miller (1939-2001) / Father Damien Karras

Born in Long Island, New York, Jason Miller was Oscar Nominated Best Supporting Actor for The Exorcist (1973), his films include The Ninth Configuration (1980), Monsignor (1982), Light of Day (1987), Exorcist III (1990) and Rudy (1993). He was the father of actor Jason Patric.

Father Merrin: I cast you out! Unclean spirit!
Demon: Shove it up your a$$, you faggot!
Father Merrin: In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ! It is he who commands you! It is he who flung you from the gates of Heaven to the depths of Hell!
Demon: F@ck him!
Father Merrin: Be gone! In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

Max Von Sydow (1929-) / Father Lankester Merrin

Born in Lund, Sweden, the great Max von Sydow was Oscar Nominated Best Actor for Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and also nominated Best Supporting Actor for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). He received Golden Globe nominations for Hawaii (1966) and The Exorcist (1973). His films include – The Seventh Seal (1957), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965 as Jesus), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), The Emigrants (1971), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Exorcist II The Heretic (1977), Flash Gordon (1980 as Ming the Merciless), Victory (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Never Say Never Again (1983 as Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Dreamscape (1984), Dune (1984), Needful Things (1993), Judge Dredd (1995), What Dreams May Come (1998), Minority Report (2002), Shutter Island (2010) and Robin Hood (2010).

Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) / Lt. William Kinderman

Born in New York City, Lee J. Cobb was Oscar Nominated Best Supporting Actor for On the Waterfront (1954) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958). His films include – Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Captain from Castile (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), Exodus (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), Our Man Flint (1966), Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Lawman (1971). TV Series The Virginian (1962-1966) as Judge Henry Garth.

Jack McGowran (1918-1973) / Burke Dennings

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Jack McGowran’s films include – The Giant Behemoth (1959), Tom Jones (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), Dance of the Vampires (1967) and Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

Demon: Your mother sucks c@cks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime.

Mercedes McCambridge (1916-2004) / Voice of Demon

Born in Joliet, Illinois, Mercedes McCambridge won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for All the King’s Men (1949) and was Oscar Nominated for Giant (1956). Her films include – Johnny Guitar (1954), A Farewell to Arms (1957), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Cimarron (1960) and Airport 79 The Concorde (1979).

Father Merrin - Father Karras: The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!

Worried studio bosses considered changing the title of the film after a survey showed that people didn’t know what an exorcist was.

Stanley Kubrick was among the directors Warner Bros considered for the film, along with Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich and John Boorman, they all turned it down, Boorman would end up directing the sequel. WB were about to hire Mark Rydell but author William Peter Blatty insisted on William Friedkin and the studio finally agreed.

Director William Friedkin (1935-) had a smash hit with The French Connection in 1971 which scooped up many awards including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing and Best Actor (Gene Hackman).

Anne Bancroft, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Maclaine and Jane Fonda were approached for the role of Regan’s mother Chris MacNeil, they all turned it down for various reasons.

Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Stacy Keach were considered for the role of Father Karras.

Marlon Brando was considered for the role of Father Merrin.

Actress Eileen Dietz played the white-faced demon glimpsed in split second subliminal shots during the film. The directors cut included more subliminal shots of the demons face. Dietz also played the possessed Regan in a couple of scenes.

Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the voice of the demon, sued the studio for a screen credit after they tried to keep it a secret.

Both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn injured their backs during filming. Blair as she was jerked around on the bed and Burstyn as she was yanked back on a harness when struck by Regan she claims to have suffered permanent spinal injury because of this.

Regan’s projectile vomit was made up of pea soup.

Demon: Do you know what she did, your c@nting daughter?

The most disturbing and controversial scene in the film is Regan masturbating with a crucifix, how this scene got passed by the censor is surprising. Eileen Dietz doubled for Linda Blair in the scene.

The directors cut includes Regan’s “Spider-walk” which was intended for the original release but was removed because the wires holding Regan up were too visible, they were digitally erased for the new cut.

In the book the name of the demon possessing Regan is named Pazuzu, but this is never mentioned in the film. Pazuzu is a demon of Babylonian and Assyrian mythology.

Father Merrin confronts a statue of the demon Pazuzu in the opening sequence of the film set in an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. A manifestation of the statue briefly appears in Regan’s bedroom during the exorcism.

Filming was scheduled for 85 days and ended up lasting 224 days.

The bedroom set was specially built with a shaking bed and the temperature of the room could be dropped to below zero for some scenes.

Make up maestro Dick Smith created Regan’s possessed look, he also aged 44 year old Max von Sydow as Father Merrin making him look about 80. Smith had previously worked on the make up for Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972) and made Dustin Hoffman look 121 years old in Little Big Man (1970). Smith received an Honorary Award at the 2012 Academy Awards.

On its first release audience members would faint or vomit or leave the theatre before the film had finished, ambulances and paramedics would be outside theatres treating people for shock. Reports of these events helped make the film a massive success as people queued up to see what the fuss was about.

Ironically the scenes that made most viewers gag and look away were the hospital scenes involving Regan undergoing carotid angiography.

After briefly appearing on VHS in the early 1980’s The Exorcist was banned in Britain until the new head of the British Board of Film Censors approved it’s re-release in cinemas and on VHS and DVD in 1999 without any cuts.

The Exorcist ranked #3 on the American Film Institutes 100 Most Thrilling films list and the possessed Regan MacNeil is #9 on the AFI’s Top 50 Villains chart.

The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Art Direction and winning for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty).

At the Golden Globes The Exorcist won Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), it was also nominated for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn) and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow).

The Exorcist was a phenomenal success grossing an astonishing 440 million dollars on its worldwide release, adjusted for inflation it’s the 9th biggest film of all time, the highest grossing Warner Bros film ever and the highest grossing R-rated movie in history.

It was among the films chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2010.

Director Martin Scorsese included The Exorcist among his list of the 11 scariest movies ever made which included The Haunting (1963), The Innocents (1961) and Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

A sequel was released in 1977, Exorcist II The Heretic, directed by John Boorman and starring Richard Burton as Father Lamont, Max von Sydow and Linda Blair reprise their roles from the first film. It was poorly received and is considered one of the worst movies ever made.

Another sequel Exorcist III was released in 1990, directed by the author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty. Starring George C. Scott in Lee J. Cobb’s role of Lt. Kinderman and Jason Miller reprising his role as Father Karras, the film fared better than Exorcist II.

Two prequels appeared later, the first was directed by Paul Schrader but the studio wasn’t happy with his version and hired Renny Harlin to reshoot it, the film was released in 2004 and titled Exorcist: The Beginning, it was not a success. A year later the studio allowed Paul Schrader to release his version of the story and this was titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. The reviews were a little better.

All five films are available in a DVD box set, along with William Friedkin’s directors cut of the original film.

The Critics Wrote –

"All I can say after squirming through this sickening excess of blood, vomiting, lewd language and gruesome Satanic phenomena is that I hope never again to have to see anything half so hateful." (The Daily Mail)

"Startling, terrifying and downright superb." (L.A. Times)

“The well cast film makes credible in powerful laymen’s terms the rare phenomenon of diabolic possession... The climactic sequences assault the senses and the intellect with pure cinematic terror.” (Variety)

“The picture is designed to scare people, and it does so by mechanical means: levitations, swivelling heads, vomit being spewed in people’s faces. A viewer can become glumly anesthetized by the brackish color and the senseless ugliness of the conception. Neither the producer-writer, William Peter Blatty, nor the director, William Friedkin, shows any feeling for the little girl’s helplessness and suffering, or for her mother’s.” (Pauline Kael)

“An extremely powerful film which relentlessly batters the eyes and ears. It is high class horror.” (Sunday Mirror)

“One of the best movies of its type ever made... but are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all? ”..... (Roger Ebert)

"I hated it... For the first time I believe a film should be banned... it is unpleasant and nasty without the saving grace of having some artistic merit." (The Daily Mirror)

“A masterwork of the genre.” ......... (Alan Frank)


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