If Roger Corman legitimized low-budget genre cinema, John Carpenter made it an art form.
…because whether it’s Christian occult mythology or subversive feminine body horror, this movie owns demonic possession. Director William Friedkin pulled every dirty trick from the devil’s bag to make "The Exorcist" one of the most controversial and disturbing films ever made. Despite rumors of a cursed production, the film’s innovative visual effects and makeup created graphic imagery that influenced a generation of horror films. Writer William Peter Blatty, who won an Oscar for adapting his own novel, based the story on an actual event and reportedly used his one-time neighbor Shirley Maclaine as the inspiration for Ellen Burstyn’s character.
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Although the idea that "The Exorcist" was “inspired by a true story” has probably been blown out of proportion by listicles and clickbait links, writer William Peter Blatty did undertake exhaustive research to add a layer of realism to the narrative. Yet perhaps the most important change from the “source material” was Blatty’s decision to make the possessed child a girl instead of a boy, as was reported in the news stories that influenced the author/screenwriter. By portraying a female character’s transformation from angelic child to sexualized demoness who spews blood and vomit, the film plays on our cultural discomfort with female sexual awakening and the physical changes of puberty. Indeed, many viewers have expressed as much squeamishness towards the medical probing of Regan as to the exorcism scenes. Blatty further undermines traditional feminine roles in the story through Chris, the androgynously named successful single mother, and Father Karras’s own struggles with his ailing mother. So while a religious reading of the final scenes might suggest a battle between good and evil, Blatty’s script opens the door for a more nuanced interpretation through gender roles: the patriarchal authorities battling the upstart feminist. Of course, the allegations of director William Friedkin’s abuse on the set, particularly towards the actress Ellen Burstyn, suggest a disconnect from the film’s complex picture about the treatment of women. At least child actress Linda Blair somehow had a good time making this movie…though her initially un-credited voiceover actress had to speak all the potentially traumatic lines.
Especially in today’s climate of CGI, effects artists still marvel at the complex engineering involved in "The Exorcist." While everyone remembers the pea soup vomit, the film’s visual aspects go well beyond simple gross-out effects and graphic violence. The levitation and limb contortion shots, including the often-parodied rotating head, brought a physical dimension to horror that has since become the standard. Prior to this, most horror films either evoked a psychological sense of fear through suspense or disturbing imagery or shocked the senses through over-the-top violence. "The Exorcist" effectively combined both of these qualities through its influential visual style. One of the film’s most unnerving and impressive shots of Regan spider-walking on the ceiling was actually cut from the original version to ease the film’s rating (though it’s since been added to re-releases). The makeup design for Regan’s transformed state was also so detailed and intricate that it required hours of preparation each day on set.
"The Exorcist" is also a great example of how both sound design and music contribute to the atmosphere of terror in horror films. The film’s award-winning sound used jarring effects to shock the viewer, while also adding an extra element to the visual imagery. For instance, the creaking noises in the famous shot of Regan’s head spinning around add a layer of discomfort to the already terrifying image, forcing us to imagine what it would be like to have this happen in our bodies. And yeah, there’s the vomit sounds too. Director Friedkin also asked composer Jack Nitzsche, who had worked mainly on rock albums, to create a more experimental soundtrack that would almost blend in with the sound effects. Nitzsche also famously sampled Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” an eerie New Age, progressive song that’s since become identified with the fear invoked by this film. While everyone forgets about sound in the filmmaking process, "The Exorcist" reminds us why – especially in the horror genre – sound is often a more effective way to create a sense of fear.
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