Since the inception of cinema, there have been precious few films which have achieved the level of notoriety enjoyed by The Exorcist. Based on a novel by William Blatty and widely regarded as one of the most terrifying films ever made, the story of a young girl named Regan who is possessed by an insidious foe was a box-office hit and became the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, at the 1974 Academy Awards. Yet perhaps with all great works of cinema, the film’s production was beset with challenges and mysterious incidents which caused some to label the film as “cursed”.
No fewer than six people associated with the making of The Exorcist died either during production or prior to the release of the film. Among them was actor Jack MacGowran, who played Burke Dennings, a close friend of Regan’s mother Chris. Moreover, during the production of the film, a nightwatchman for the set and the set refrigerator also passed away. What’s more, the entire schedule had to be pushed back after a fire destroyed part of the set, delaying the sequence in which the audience is introduced to the demonic antagonist.
While events such as these would be enough to mar the production of any film, it was the antics of director William Friedkin which are perhaps most noteworthy. Despite winning an Oscar for his work on The French Connection (1971), the methods used by Friedkin to visualise Blatty’s novel were far from orthodox. In the sequence where Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is slapped violently by her possessed daughter, a harness was used to pull Burstyn away from the bed. Dissatisfied with the previous takes and unbeknownst to Burstyn, Friedkin instructed the grip manipulating the harness to use greater force when yanking the unsuspecting actress. In the ensuing take, Burstyn fell painfully on her coccyx and screamed in pain. This take was subsequently used in the final cut, while Burstyn continues to suffer from back problems to this day.
This anecdote illustrates a point made subsequently by many members of the cast: that in certain shots it was not necessary to ‘act’. One of the film’s more memorable scenes, in which Regan projectile vomits at Father Karras, was captured in just one take. The vomit (made of thick pea soup) was fired through a line of plastic tubing, and was intended to hit Father Karras (played by James Miller) on the chest, but the mechanism misfired and Karras was instead hit full in the face. The look of shock and disgust on Miller’s face is genuine.
In the scene where Regan is repeatedly tossed back and forth on the bed, Linda Blair’s screams were simply a natural reaction to the force with which her body was being manipulated by the operator of a hidden wire mechanism. Moreover, towards the end of the film when Father Dyer (played by real-life Catholic priest Reverend William O’Malley) attempts to administer the last rites to Father Karras, Friedkin did not like what he saw. After one take, Friedkin took O’Malley to one side and asked, “Do you trust me?” to which O’Malley barely had time to respond before being slapped across the face by his director, who then promptly called “Action!” This take made it into the film.
There is little doubt that when it comes to Friedkin’s style of direction, the ends very much justify the means and when it came to creating the voice for the demon, special measures were required. The demon itself was voiced not by Linda Blair, but by renowned radio actress Mercedes McCambridge, who insisted on swallowing raw eggs and chain smoking in order to alter her vocalisations, which she succeeded in distorting still further via the steady consumption of whiskey. Furthermore, at Friedkin’s direction, McCambridge was tied to a chair with pieces of a torn bed sheet at her neck, arms, wrists, legs and feet to achieve a more realistic sound of the demon struggling against its restraints.
Yet the strange tales did not stop when the director finally called “cut!” After the film’s release, Warner Bros. hired bodyguards to protect Linda Blair after she received death threats from those who believed the film ‘glorified Satan.’ One cinemagoer attempted to sue Warner Bros. when he fainted during a showing of the film and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. These are just a couple of examples of the chaos which was unleashed following the release of this epoch-defining film, the like of which we shall perhaps never see again. The Exorcist cemented William Friedkin’s name in the annals of cinematic history. His seminal work set the standard for every supernatural horror film which followed, and there cannot be many other examples of a director subjecting his cast to such a relentless barrage of borderline harassment in pursuit of demonic perfection.