The Exorcist

What an Excellent Day for ‘The Exorcist’: William Friedkin on the Making of his Horror Masterpiece (Part 1)

As a kid, Christmas was my favourite time of year. Snowmen, sweets, Santa – what’s not to love? Now that I know snow requires shoveling, sweets give me breakouts brighter than Rudolph’s nose, and Santa’s grossly overloaded sleigh is actually my Visa, I prefer Halloween. Rather than the occasionally strained goodwill that’s demanded of us over Christmas, Halloween gives us license to let our freak flags fly. So, after a long absence that will forever remain as mysteriously unexplained as life’s other great mysteries – including timeless questions like how the alien in Alien 3 could burst out of a dog one-third its size; who thought it would be okay to put aliens (sorry, “interdimensional beings”) in an Indiana Jones movie; and how, even in a pre-9/11 world, Crocodile Dundee could possibly get away with using dynamite to fish in NYC’s Central Park – I’m back!

(Spoiler alert! Although I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case….)

From humor to horror

Let’s start off with a classic. Still seen as one of the scariest movies of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a masterpiece of horror cinema. But it might not have been made if Friedkin hadn’t overcome his initial skepticism of the source material, William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name. Friedkin first heard about The Exorcist while on tour for The French Connection. He put off reading it for a few days partly because he was busy, but also, he says, because Blatty “was best known as a humourist at that time” and Friedkin “had no reason to think he [Blatty] could pull off something like the psychological thriller that The Exorcist was supposed to have been.” But once he picked up the book, he couldn’t put it down…literally. He read the whole thing in five or six hours (00:12:52).

The Exorcist, front cover

The Exorcist, front cover

That did not, however, mean that Friedkin thought Blatty could do no wrong. “After I was signed to directed the picture,” he says, “Bill [Blatty] said, ‘I have a surprise for you,’ and he handed me a complete screenplay of The Exorcist that he had written. I didn’t know he had undertaken this, because I was about to start work with him on developing the script. So I read his script and low-and-behold I felt [chuckles] that it was just not very good. I thought he had departed significantly from the novel, I thought that everything had been pumped up, and I thought that what he emphasized in that first draft screenplay was the horror film aspects of the story rather than the deep spiritual content that was there…. I told Bill then I thought his script was not very good and I wanted to start over and stay right with the novel” (00:18:08).

A test of faith

It is this content that prevents the film from becoming what could have been just another haunted house or malevolent ghost story. “The fact is that nothing is meant to suggest that there’s anything inherently evil in the house itself, there’s nothing inherently evil in little Regan [Linda Blair], or in her mother [Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn],” explains Friedkin. “The idea is that the devil chooses his victims at random in order to influence some of the rest of us” (00:31:18). He later adds, “If there is any rhyme or reason to Regan’s possession, it’s to test Karras’s [Jason Miller] faith. It’s after all Karras who has to become convinced that Regan is possessed by a demon before he can seek church approval. There is the sense that the demonic possession of Regan is a way of testing Karras, and if the demon wins, then Karras will be pushed out of the church. And every time God loses a faithful follower, the devil wins” (01:25:05).

The Exorcist, back cover

The Exorcist, back cover

Friedkin has no shortage of things to say about The Exorcist and the state of horror films in general. Next time we’ll listen to his thoughts on how the demon puts Karras to the test and how Friedkin himself tested the limits of Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon, as well as the influences on the film’s style and how it differs from so many other horror films.

To be continued!

What do you think? Do you think Friedkin’s film is a faithful adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book? Do Friedkin’s comments differ from your own interpretation of the film? How did you react when you watched The Exorcist for the first time? Leave some comments below and let us know!

The Exorcist (1973) | Directed by William Friedkin | Written by William Peter Blatty | Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty | Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow | DVD release date: 2006 | Commentary by William Friedkin

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5 thoughts on “What an Excellent Day for ‘The Exorcist’: William Friedkin on the Making of his Horror Masterpiece (Part 1)

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