A few scenes later, Ellen Burstyn steps into Georgetown's crisp fall air as "Tubular Bells," the movie's haunting theme song, portends the unspeakable horrors that await her--and elicits a chorus of snorts, chuckles, and groans from the audience.
By the time cute little Linda Blair has transformed into a pea-soup spewing, obscenity-hurling, head-spinning child of Satan, forget it--the crowd had abandoned all restraint and was openly guffawing at even the slightest hint of ham-handedness.
Well, I thought, that settles one question: Will "The Exorcist" resonate with viewers today the way it did almost 30 years ago?
Perhaps no one in 2000 can be expected to view "The Exorcist" without jaded eyes after decades of countless imitations and hundreds of parodies, from "Saturday Night Live" sketches to Leslie Nielsen's 1990 "Repossessed," co-starring Linda Blair herself, to spoofs in more recent comedies like "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Scary Movie." "The Exorcist" pops into the modern imagination unexpectedly, as when the recent Pepsi ad campaign's sweet, curly haired girl demonically channels a deep-voiced Mafia don when a bartender informs her, "Sorry, we only have Coke."
Indeed, "The Exorcist"'s themes and images are so familiar today, even to people who've never seen the film, that it's all the more difficult to comprehend the hysteria initially generated by this now-classic tale of demonic possession.
In December of 1973, legions of theatergoers waited in lines for as long as four hours, only to wind up fainting, vomiting, and running screaming out of cinemas halfway through the picture. In a Newsweek cover story entitled "The Exorcism Frenzy," the manager of a United Artists cinema complained: "My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit." He also said he'd had to "replace doors and curtains damaged by unruly crowds, and even re-landscape the McDonald's plaza across the street where moviegoers park their cars." One patron in San Francisco literally attacked the screen in an attempt to kill the demon. The pandemonium got so out of control that Warner Brothers actually asked Father Thomas Bermingham, a priest who consulted on the film and played a small role in it, if he would attend an opening to offer spiritual counsel to viewers who couldn't cope with the subject matter. (In the months that followed, priests reported being flooded with requests to exorcise everything from loved ones and pets to houses and appliances.)
Outraged by depictions of desecrations, "hard-core pornography," and disturbingly vivid representations of evil, various religious groups and authorities fanned the flames of controversy. Some clerics picketed the film, and Billy Graham denounced it, claiming, oddly, that even the celluloid it was printed on was evil. Christianity Today, though it felt the movie served a purpose by illustrating just how bad the devil can be, cautioned readers from the film by quoting J.R.R. Tolkien: "It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy."
When the guy next to me fell asleep in a lull between Linda Blair's satanic outbursts, I had to remind myself why all the hoopla 27 years ago. For starters, the notion of demonic possession did not then have the grip on public imagination it enjoys today, due largely to "The Exorcist." Earlier films grappled with possession and evil--e.g., "Possession" (1947), "The Bad Seed" (1956), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)--but none of these involved full-blown incarnations of the devil himself (Rosemary's baby, remember, was merely Lucifer's cloven-hoofed offspring).
Another reason for the film's dramatic impact was that director William Friedkin, who had won a Best Director Oscar for 1971's "The French Connection," attempted to make "The Exorcist" "as realistic as possible." He wanted the film to seem like a documentary, which probably explains why he treats viewers to grim medical procedures, including a spinal tap. The movie was adapted from the best-selling book by William Peter Blatty, who penned his fictional account after carefully researching a reported exorcism in St. Louis in 1949. Educated by Jesuits, Blatty not only strove for realism in his novel (and the film's screenplay, for which he received an Oscar) but for a realism that packed a spiritual punch.