This movie didn't have a sleazy politician or an evil military leader, but a foul-mouthed, head-spinning, murdering 12-year-old girl. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel and won an Oscar for the screenplay, got the idea for his book after reading about an exorcism reputed to have taken place in a small Maryland town. (More details are below.)
The special effects were groundbreaking for their time green projectile vomit, spinning heads, shaking beds and gross makeup and people flocked to see this terrifying movie. People reportedly vomited, fainted and ran from theaters.
Warner Bros. did not preview the film before its opening on Dec. 26, 1973. The studio not knowing that it had a blockbuster released the movie in just 30 theaters. The film broke box-office records, grossing $165 million. It's still No. 54 on the all-time list (more than $415 million when adjusted for inflation). It lost the Oscar for Best Picture to "The Sting."
On washingtonpost.com: On this page, read William Peter Blatty's biography, a Q&A with the screenwriter, the first chapter of his new book "Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing" and answers to questions posted to him online.
From The Post: The movie opened exclusively at the Cinema in Washington. This story from January 1974 details how District police barred those 17 and younger from the film, despite its R rating, because of subject matter and reports of people fainting and vomiting.
"I honestly never saw or heard directly of anyone vomiting," Blatty said, "but I can attest to seeing people grow faint. However, this was not a response to anything frightening or shocking. It always occurred during the arteriography scene, when the medical tech inserts the needle and blood spurts from Regan's neck. Apart from the first time Bill Friedkin showed me his first cut of the film on a movieola, every time I happen to watch the film and come to that scene I duck my head and avert my gaze until I know it's over. It's one thing to write 'the two armies fight,' and quite another to watch it."
Washington Sites: The Key Bridge; Georgetown University; Dahlgren Chapel; the 75 steps at Prospect and 36th streets that lead down to M Street in Georgetown; the house near the top of the steps on Prospect Street; a bridge over the C&O Canal. The cardinal's office in the film is actually the office of the president of Georgetown University. Chris MacNeil is invited to a White House dinner, but the residence isn't shown.
It Wasn't Washington: Lt. Kinderman mentions a theater called the Crest, which didn't exist in Washington. Blatty said he was thinking of the Biograph, which closed in 1996. The hospital scenes were shot in New York; the scenes inside the house were shot on a sound stage in New York City. The bedroom set was refrigerated for the frosting of the breath. The lights usually raised the temperature again after about three minutes of filming, so a break had to be taken to re-refrigerate. All the crew worked in polar suits.
Film's Background: The bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, a Georgetown University graduate, was inspired by a reported exorcism of a young boy that took place in Mount Rainier, Md., in 1949. Here is the story that appeared in The Post. Before writing the novel, Blatty talked to a Jesuit at Georgetown. He told him of a priest at the seminary he attended, who, in his thirties, had shock-white hair and was said to have performed an exorcism. Blatty wrote to this man, who turned out to be the priest who had exorcised the demon from the Mount Rainier boy. The priest, Jesuit William F. Bowdern, was from St. Louis, Mo., and not a local priest. Though he had pledged to keep the exorcism from being publicized, Bowdern said that he and the priest who had assisted him had kept a diary and assured Blatty that what he witnessed was "the real thing." Blatty kept in touch with the priest until his death. Other than the possession syndrome, according to Blatty, everything else in the book was made up. The book isn't the story of what happened in Maryland, it "came entirely out of my head," he said. About 13 million copies of the novel were sold in the United States.
25 Years Later: Author Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drug-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" features filmmakers of the '70s. One of those was William Friedkin, who directed "The Exorcist." An one point, Biskind gives his analysis of the movie:
"It is easy to see why people, especially women, detested the picture. It presents a male nightmare of female puberty. Emergent female sexuality is equated with demonic possession, and the men in the picture – almost all of them celibate priests – unite to abuse and torture Regan in their efforts to return her to a presexual innocence. Having Regan thrust a crucifix into her vagina is intended to be a fiendishly inventive bit of sacrilege, but it is also a powerful image of self-inflicted abortion, be it by crucifix or coat hanger. 'The Exorcist' is filled with disgust for female bodily functions; it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to see the famously gross scene in which Blair vomits pea soup as a Carrie-like metaphor for menstruation. Indeed, 'The Exorcist' is drenched in a kind of menstrual panic."
Blatty responds: "I heave a sigh of exasperation when I read things like Biskind's analysis, and mentally place them in the same drawer where I keep interpretations of the intended 'meaning' of the film as a 'metaphor for the problems of parents dealing with teenage rebellion.' I once wrote a modest little comic novella supposedly written by the ghost of William Shakespeare in which the ghost 'proves' that Queen Elizabeth was the true author of his plays, and I take the Biskind analysis in much the same spirit. I mean, speaking of 'menstrual panic' . . ."
Plot: Famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who lives in a swank section of Georgetown, seeks medical help when her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), exhibits strange behavior. Doctors administer many tests but find no physical or psychological problem. Chris, an atheist, rejects the doctors' suggestion of religious counsel. But when then now-grotesque Regan begins moving furniture around the room by telekinesis and becomes so violent that she has to be tied to the bed, Chris seeks the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), whose own faith has been weakening.
During his visits, Karras sees a gross-looking Regan, who utters profanity in a deep voice and has serious convulsions. She can also open drawers without touching them and speaks English backward. The priest believes Regan is possessed and recommends an exorcism. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is contacted and arrives in the middle of a foggy night. Karras and Merrin enter Regan's room to battle the demon.
Regan: Mother? What's wrong with me?
Dr. Klein: The shaking of the bed, that's doubtless due to muscular spasms.
Chris: You're telling me that, I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?
Chris: And how do you go about getting an exorcism?
Chris: You show me Regan's double: same face, same voice, same everything. I'd know it wasn't Regan. I'd know in my gut, and I'm telling you that that thing upstairs isn't my daughter! And I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter except in her mind! You tell me you know for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good! You tell me that!
Father Karras: Hello Regan. I'm a friend of your mother, I'd like to help you.
Father Merrin: We may ask what is relevant, but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar, the demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don't listen, remember that, do not listen.
Memorable Song: On Halloween, as Regan's mother walks home along Georgetown streets, the haunting song "Tubular Bells" is played. The film helped Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" album reach No. 3 on the charts and sell more than 10 million copies.
Rating: R for profanity, violence, horrifying scenes.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
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