When people ask me my favorite movie of all time or what I believe is the greatest movie ever, I usually go with the easy albeit truthful answer of “The Godfather” I and II, with the caveat that I love dozens of movies just as much or nearly as much as I cherish Francis Ford Coppola’s classic.
When I’m asked about the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, there’s no asterisk, no hesitation, no wavering: It’s “The Exorcist.” I’ve never been as mesmerized, as terrified, as ain’t-no-way-you’re-sleeping-tonight shocked, as I was when I first saw William Friedkin’s demonic, head-turning, supernatural horror film at the Dolton Theater in the spring of 1974. (Warner Bros. actually released the film on Dec. 26, 1973 — the day after Christmas, how about that — but I had to wait for a second-run showing with the more user-friendly $1 admission price.)
No doubt that initial experience was shaped by the fact I was just 14 and had eight years of Catholic education swirling in my brain and soul, but whenever I return to “The Exorcist,” it’s still disturbing as hell — a masterful mélange of shock-value scares, haunting cinematography, an elaborately constructed slow-build of a plot, and a brilliant cast.
“The Exorcist” became the first pure horror film to be nominated for the best picture Oscar and continues to be a major influence on the genre to this day.In memory of Friedkin’s death last August and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the film, we’re getting a theatrical re-release and a 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray and Digital edition of “The Exorcist” that includes the Original Theatrical Version and the Extended Director’s Cut, which incorporates 11 extra minutes of footage and ends with a certain exchange that offers a slightly more hopeful note.
The cover for the physical media version is absolutely hideous — an oversaturated image of Linda Blair’s possessed Regan and the title in lime green, as if this is some sort of cheap B-movie you would have seen at the drive-in. (As opposed to the famously elegant and haunting, black-and-white silhouette of Max von Sydow’s Father Lankester Merrin standing in the mist outside the MacNeil home, as a beam of light shoots from Regan’s upstairs bedroom window.)
That quibble aside, without getting too deep into the weeds about the Dolby Atmos remix and the color timing et al., the overall rendering is sharp and vibrant, and reinforces my firm belief in keeping a DVD player hooked up at home.
Whether you’re going to revisit “The Exorcist” in the theater or on digital or DVD, or you’re gearing up to see it for the first time, here are some of my favorite things to look for and anecdotes to consider while you’re getting the life scared out of you.
In one of the first scenes indicating Linda Blair’s 12-year-old Regan is more than just a little under the weather, Regan comes downstairs during the home stretch of a cocktail party her mother is hosting in their Georgetown home, says, “You’re going to die up there,” and urinates on the carpet, to the shock of the guests.
Upon first viewing, it’s easy to assume that line is directed toward Father Joseph Dyer (played by real-life Jesuit priest Father William O’Malley) — but earlier at that same party, we saw Father Dyer in conversation with one Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Dick Callinan), an astronaut who will soon be going up in space, i.e., “up there.”
Was Regan/the Demon warning/cursing the astronaut? This theory is borne out in the 1980 film “The Ninth Configuration,” written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the novel and the screen adaptation of “The Exorcist.” A primary character in the latter film is one Billy Cutshaw (played by Scott Wilson), a former astronaut who aborted a mission to the moon at the last second after suffering a breakdown.
There’s a movie-within-a-movie in “The Exorcist.” The reason the famed film actress Chris MacNeil (the luminous Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter are in Georgetown is that Chris is starring in a movie called “Crash Course.” When Chris is filming a protest scene on the Georgetown campus, we hear a voice on a megaphone saying, “In the group over here I need a priest, a nun and two students.”
The religious symbols, huge and small, continue throughout the film, as when Chris walks home after a day of filming (as we hear Mike Oldfeld’s “Tubular Bells” on the soundtrack), and she glimpses of pair of nuns in full habits bustling by. Once Chris is home, she tells her assistant and Regan’s tutor, Sharon (Kitty Winn), that the movie she’s in is “kind of like the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story,” and do with that what you will.
When a sheepish Lt. Kinderman asks Chris for her autograph on his business card, he says, “That film you made, ‘Angel,’ I saw that six times.” “Angel!” Hmmmm, what an interesting title for a film starring Chris, who for most of the story refuses to consider that Regan is possessed and seeks out scientific rather than religious solutions, even subjecting her daughter to some excruciating medical procedures before finally relenting and allowing the priests to do their “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!” thing.
Amazingly, there was no best makeup category at the Academy Awards until 1981; had there been such an award in 1973, “The Exorcist” surely would have been a front-runner — not only for the incredible work Dick Smith did with Linda Blair, but for the aging of the great Max von Sydow, who was in his early 40s during filming but was utterly convincing as the 80ish Father Lankester Merrin.
The “Exorcist Steps” (where two characters meet their demise in separate scenes) between M Street and Prospect Street at 36th in Georgetown are among the most famous outdoor staircases in movie history, along with the Primorsky Stairs aka Potemkin Stairs from “Battleship Potemkin,” the “Rocky Steps” leading up the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the “Joker Stairs” in the Bronx. In 2015, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Browser officially commemorated the steps as a tourist attraction. At the ceremony, director Friedkin paraphrased the George and Ira Gershwin standard “Love Is Here to Stay,” declaring, “In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay, but these steps are here to stay.”