Thursday, December 26, 2013

Casting Out a Demon

Chris (Ellen Burstyn): She doesn't remember any of it.

It wasn't long after "The Exorcist" was released to theaters, 40 years ago today, that the news reports were full of stories about people losing their minds while watching it. Well, that's probably an exaggeration. I do remember hearing a lot of reports of moviegoers who fainted or vomited while watching it (some theaters made "Exorcist barf bags" available for squeamish patrons).

I was a child at the time and really didn't understand what was being said. I just knew the story was about a young girl who was possessed by a demon, and her mother sought the help of an exorcist to free her of the demon's grip.

The young girl was Linda Blair, who went on to encourage many a young boy's fantasies in the '70s. "The Exorcist" was the first real glimpse most people had of her. She had a couple of minor roles in some low–profile movies before that; her projects in the next few years could hardly be described as "low profile" — simply because she was in them.

But her movie career — which more or less ground to a halt after she ran into problems with the law in the late 1970s — is the subject for another article at another time.

On this day in 1973, Blair was about to turn 15 — and she was about to become a national sensation.

The role she played was inspired by the last recorded Catholic–sanctioned exorcism in the United States. In that 1949 case, a 13–year–old boy was the victim. Novelist William Peter Blatty altered the victim's gender and the age for the novel that spawned the 1973 movie.

I didn't see it until several years later. The movie was re–released to the theaters (why, I do not know) a few years after its initial release. I wanted to see it, but I was too young to get in without an adult so I talked my father into taking me to see it.

By that time, things like the scenes in which Blair's character vomited pea soup on the priests or spoke in a series of low–pitched voices were practically cliches. I remember being distracted from the story on the screen several times by the persistent giggles of a group of young people in the back of the theater.

No one was giggling in 1973.

The Oscars didn't reward makeup work until the 1980s; I suppose makeup was considered part of costumes until that time, but "The Exorcist," which was nominated for 10 Oscars, did not receive a nomination for its costumes — or any other category that would have taken into consideration the really impressive achievement of transforming a seemingly ordinary young girl into a victim of demonic possession.

Director William Friedkin (a recent Best Director winner for "The French Connection") broke a lot of ground in special effects (which, I suppose, included the makeup) and, simultaneously, pushed the project over budget. But it earned more than $440 million at the box office, which probably compensated for quite a bit.

In the movie, Regan's possession put mounting pressure on her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn), who first sought the help of doctors but gradually became convinced that her daughter's behavior was due to possession.

As with the case that inspired the story, a Ouija board was the conduit.

The British theater director for Regan's mother died after falling from a window in Regan's bedroom, and a detective (Lee J. Cobb) was called in to investigate.

For her part, Burstyn called in a young priest (Jason Miller), who evaluated the situation and decided that an exorcist (Max von Sydow) was needed.

And the two priests did battle with the demon.

I read Blatty's novel before I saw the movie. When I saw it, I was disappointed that most of the theological conversations between the demon and the young priest that were in the book did not make it into the movie. I understood then (as I understand now) that it simply isn't feasible for everything in a book to be included in a movie version. There will always be things that are omitted, for one reason or another.

But I found those conversations to be the most thought–provoking parts of the book. The demon, essentially, challenged the priest's faith by pointing out inconsistencies in scriptures and religious practices and beliefs; the priest deftly defended his faith in a fascinating display of linguistic dexterity.

Because of the subject matter, I guess it was really no surprise that there were numerous claims that the project was cursed. There were so many incidents while the movie was being made that priests were brought in frequently for the purpose of blessing the set.

Books and movies and music that deal with supernatural topics are often magnets for suspicion. Not surprisingly, I guess, "The Exorcist" was accused of many controversial things, the most controversial may have been the suggestion that it used subliminal effects in its sound and imagery. I recall hearing such allegations, but I don't recall the messages that supposedly were being transmitted.

Maybe it was fallout from the backward masking, both actual and alleged, in Beatles records a few years earlier.