The day after Christmas 1973, “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and Hollywood horror films would never be viewed in quite the same way. The film is back in the spotlight with the Sept. 30 one-night release of “The Exorcist Extended Director’s Cut” at more than 450 theaters nationwide and that edition’s Oct. 5 release on Blu-ray in a special high-definition, two-disc set that also includes the original theatrical version. The movie is often called the scariest film of all time, and its influence runs far and deep. One of the devoted disciples of the William Friedkin classic is David Eick, the executive producer of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” the acclaimed science-fiction shows that were informed by the merciless, genre-transcendent example of “The Exorcist.”
“Well, you know, it’s based on a true story, right?”
Those 10 words, spoken to my 12-year-old self by my fallen Catholic stepfather Vic, standing in our Phoenix kitchen in the wee hours of some godforsaken night in 1980, changed everything. Forever. I was a serious movie geek whose nascent social life already had one foot in its grave. Pale from lack of sun (no small feat in Arizona) and armed with my collection of Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael movie reviews, I routinely forced my preteen neighborhood chums – most of whom would later be forbidden to venture anywhere near the Eick house – to join me for (VCR!!) screenings of “The Deer Hunter,” “Network,” “Lenny,” “Taxi Driver” and any other R-rated forbidden fruit I could sink my meat hooks into. But when I saw the CBS world network television premiere of “The Exorcist” (sans foul language and bloody-crucifix-masturbation-“lick me”-scene, of course), I thought it wasn’t just a great horror film, but maybe the best movie I’d ever seen, period. It inspired hell-bent visions of a career in show business, where I might thrill, shock and terrify unsuspecting victims with an approach to so-called “genre” storytelling that would upend expectations with disarming, documentary-like believability and undeniable realism. It was suddenly possible to disrespect the long-held tradition of playful scares. Grounded, tactile verisimilitude could be imposed where it absolutely did not belong. The time had finally come to punish the audience for its smug sense of blithe security. Horror, fantasy and science fiction were no longer obliged to be “fun.” These genres now had the capacity to inflict something far deeper. Trauma. Suffering. Pain. And I couldn’t wait to figure out how to do it.
I knew that the only way to defuse my own fear was to be in the driver’s seat, to become a producer of material capable of perpetrating these traumatic reactions myself. It could still be fun for me, so long as it could be made excruciating for the audience. And it was as I prepared to embark on this fiendish journey that I heard that unsettling remark from Vic in the kitchen. And then, it wasn’t fun anymore. Not even for me. If “The Exorcist” wasn’t strictly the product of disturbed – if inspired – genius and a groundbreaking harbinger of what visual storytelling could make possible, but was instead merely a chronicle (however loosely presented) of a real, true event that happened, then I had reason to worry. Not about what to do with my life. But what to do with my soul.
I was stricken with a haunting, bacterial fear of an all-powerful, diabolical intelligence that would use my body to spew obscenities, do terrible things to my mother and exact revenge for my smug, patronizing view of its significance in the world and for my belief that I could harness and employ it to do my bidding. Soon the fear became a strangling phobia I couldn’t overcome. I stopped shopping for film schools and began searching for a cure. I spent my summer in the library, reading every book about the subject. I became an adolescent demonologist, determined to ward off the inevitable invasion and willing to forsake all my dreams in exchange for salvation.
A minister at Christ the Redeemer Lutheran Church at 43rd Avenue and Dunlap took pity on me one Saturday afternoon during his sermon rehearsal. Seeing me loitering alone in the chapel and learning that I’d become obsessed with demonic possession, he informed me that as a baptized Lutheran, the Holy Spirit had entered my body, and therefore no evil spirit could ever inhabit it.
I said: “Oh.”
And from that moment on, I was saved. I was Dumbo with the feather back in my trunk. With rekindled spirit, I returned to my first mission. I vowed to impose on others the sleepless nights and woeful paranoia I’d been forced to endure. And so far, I have failed. But I vow to continue trying.
In its guts, “The Exorcist,” directed by Friedkin and based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, was not just a film about a mean spirit. It is mean-spiritedness, incarnate. And therein lies its true power. As Pauline observed in 1974: “Blatty and Friedkin can’t muster up any feeling, even when Father Karras sacrifices himself – a modern Christ who dies to save mankind. We in the audience don’t feel bad when the saintly Father Merrin dies; we don’t even feel a pang of sympathy when the words ‘Help Me’ appear on Regan’s body. From the mechanical-scare way that the movie works on an audience, there is no indication that Blatty or Friedkin has any feeling for the little girl’s helplessness and suffering, or her mother’s, any feeling for God or terror of Satan.”
What Pauline (and, yes, after decades of worship, I call her Pauline) may have failed to observe at the time, and what has become imminently clear in the ensuing 37 years, is that it’s precisely this distance from and contempt for sentimentality that serves the film in its most meaningful and effective pursuit: to create in the viewer a sense of being truly alone in the universe. Perhaps the greatest practical joke of “The Exorcist” is to depict evil in its most overt, graphic, vile form, only to obscure its more insidious message about the futility of the human spirit: how real evil quietly separates and detaches us from one another, how it allows us to impugn the very essence of what it means to be human in the everyday banality of our existence. We are ugly beings, it turns out. We are, perhaps, not redeemable. And, somehow, maybe paradoxically, we find that story endlessly irresistible.
Tales are legion of Friedkin-as-harpie-director during the production of the film – profanity-laden rants, physical abuse of actors, rampant firing of key crew, irrational demands that serve as the picture of ’70s-era excess and coke-encrusted narcissism. His spirit possesses “The Exorcist” in ways that his peers of the time – the hard-hitting but ultimately optimistic Lumet or the tortured but soulful Scorsese – never could have approximated. Wherever Friedkin’s rage or unapologetic hostility comes from, it oozes from the pores of every frame, and is the perfect recipe necessary to faithfully translate the novel.
Today, Friedkin and his accomplice, novelist-screenwriter-producer Blatty, mellowed by time and age and maybe a touch of regret, now claim that hope – the beacon belief in the power of goodness – was actually the point all along. I say: Nice try, fellas. No question, this type of revisionist history makes for great DVD extras, but you’re still going to hell, and we, your wounded sufferers, can’t thank you enough. The genius of “The Exorcist” is that it is bereft of any sincere attempt to balance its sense of godless despair and raw, obscene terror with any familiar or comforting antidote. To pretend otherwise is to rob the movie of its dark, ruthless intent.
Years later, the lesson of “The Exorcist” for me, ironically, is that its controversial “source material” (what we would today cynically call “inspired by true events”) came to matter little, if at all. The absence of any honest external motivation for the story is partly why it’s so powerful. It’s something made up; it crawled out of the foulest nether regions of two mortal guys deeply jazzed by the challenge of forcing us to look at something unspeakably hideous, until they realized they didn’t have to worry, that we couldn’t look away even if we wanted to. That’s why it’s not just a scary movie, but also a profound phenomenon not to be taken lightly. And what it accomplished was deceptively prescient, for as we now know, it forever stripped away all the layers of protective coating that we had come to faithfully rely upon from our celluloid storytellers. We have been betrayed, our covenant of trust permanently violated. Going to the movies now means anything can happen to us – however unimaginable, however challenging to our innermost senses, however much it threatens the boundaries between storyteller and audience, or audience and ourselves. Today, this is not only allowed, it’s expected. Maybe somewhere, it’s still being demanded. We have been possessed. And thank God for that.
– David Eick
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