2016-06-30
Moments into the film, I realized that watching Warner Brothers' re-release of "The Exorcist" at a media screening wasn't the most conducive atmosphere. As Max Von Sydow, staggering under the Iraqi desert sun, confronts a large stone sculpture of a winged demon, with light and shadow conspiring diabolically and wild dogs gnashing and growling in the background, knowing snickers erupted throughout the theater.

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).

For believers, possession and exorcism were largely theological abstractions. It's one thing to read about Jesus casting out demons in the Bible; it's quite another to watch a 12-year-old girl savagely stab her vagina with a crucifix, slap her mother clear across a room, and give one priest a fatal heart attack and cause a second to leap to his death through a window in order to save her.

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.

"When I first learned about this case [the 1949 exorcism]," says Blatty, in an interview included on the 25th anniversary special-edition DVD, "it struck me immediately that if one can demonstrate credibly the existence of evil spirits--if there are devils and demons--then there can be angels and, at the very least, a spiritual dimension to intelligence.

"My exploration of this subject matter," he continues, "my digging and digging and digging to find proof that, yes, this happened, it wasn't made up, that was all grounded in [my] terror of the total obliteration of death. That's what this was all about--a personal pilgrimage."

Clearly lost on many viewers in 1973, particularly the ones preoccupied with tossing their cookies into popcorn buckets, was that "The Exorcist," shocking visuals and ludicrously literal portrayals of spiritual forces aside, is a highly moralistic film that deliberately hit a lot of nerves. The story is set in Washington D.C.--widely considered a center of evil at the time the movie came out, what with the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal vying for daily headlines. Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, a self-absorbed single mother (the book makes it clear that she filed for divorce, presumably to pursue her career as an actress) who also happens to be an avowed atheist whose every other word is a curse involving God and Jesus. Her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), naturally spends hours alone, consulting her mother's Ouija board in the basement with an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy (Satan).

All hell really starts to break loose after Regan's father fails to phone her on her birthday. Here enters the medical community, which has never been made into more of a laughingstock: A pair of doctors is summoned to Regan's bedside, where they witness the girl flap around in a way that is humanly impossible, then roll her eyes into the back of head as her throat swells to the size of a football. She sends one doctor on a flier that presaged the World Wrestling Federation, and demands, in a voice that could only be of Satan, "The sow is mine! F--- me, f--- me!" After they've sedated her, the experts diagnose a lesion on the temporal lobe.

Regan's only hope, it turns out, is a father--or rather, a Father.

Nothing against Catholicism, of course. But all said, it's hard to fault The New Yorker's Pauline Kael for having knocked "The Exorcist" as "the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of 'Going My Way' and 'The Bell's of St. Mary's.'" Or to object too strongly to The Christian Century's uncharacteristically partisan criticism that the film "uses the human fear of evil to create an emotional response and then provides--by our Protestant standards--a completely impossible solution."

What changes does the re-release offer viewers in 2000? There are added scenes cut from the original, scenes that push the film even more over the top. After MacNeil-mere receives the devastating news that a family friend has died outside her home, MacNeil-fille comes flying down the stairs on her back, like a spider. Other additional footage includes a theological discussion between the two priests outside Regan's bedroom, and a new ending that offers hope and assurance that the devil definitely did not win this battle.



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