In our initial post about the DVD commentary on WIlliam Friedkin’s The Exorcist, we learned that Friedkin can be just about as blunt and direct in his collaborations as the demon in it’s exchanges with Fathers Karras and Merrin, as well as the reason (or lack thereof) behind Regan’s possession. In this continuation, Friedkin explains how he emphasized the demon’s influence on Karras.
(Spoiler alert! Although I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case….)
A test of faith
In putting him to the test, the demon doesn’t hesitate to hit Karras where it hurts, and it was up to Friedkin to make sure the audience felt the full force of each blow. For example, in the scene in which Karras visits his mother, Friedkin wanted to convey Karras’ “frustration for having neglected his own mother, which is one of the weaknesses that the demon plays upon later during the exorcism…” (00:35:37). Friedkin explains that the similarities between the composition of this scene and Karras’ visits with Regan are no coincidence. “The fact that Karras’ mother is strapped into a hospital bed does prefigure his initial meetings with Regan when she too is strapped into her own bed,” he says. “Karras, on seeing his mother in this condition, his guilt becomes much more profound and pronounced and he realizes that by not being there for his mother he has let her down, and what good is it for a priest to minister to the world if he can’t take care of his own family” (00:35:37).
The sights and sounds of horror
Friedkin himself, however, doesn’t appear to feel guilty about the conditions to which he submitted Mercedes McCambridge, who seems to have gone through hell to voice the demon. Without a trace of hesitation or apology, he says that she acted out the voice “for 8 hours a day over a period of about three weeks, and I really tortured her I must say to bring about this sound. I had her strapped to a chair with the straps real tight. She was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day after she had quit smoking, in order to affect her sound, and in addition to the cigarettes she was swallowing raw eggs and drinking straight whiskey” (01:29:14). Grueling as it sounds, it achieved the desired effect. That shredded, gravelly voice gives me chills every time I see the film.
The film’s strong visuals are another source of its impact, and Friedkin found inspiration wherever he could. When Karras meets Father Dyer (William O’Malley) in a dark pub – their pale skin emerging from black shadows that trace each line of their worn, angular faces – Friedkin and director of photograph Owen Roizman were consciously modeling the lighting of a collection of Rembrandt portraits at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (00:28:22). Likewise, the film’s most iconic image – Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) standing on the street, briefcase in hand, silhouetted by light pouring through Regan’s window – was inspired by René Magritte’s Empire of Light, II (01:36:34).
Friedkin used these rich sources of inspiration to give The Exorcist a unique style that set it apart from the typical horror movie and encourage the audience to get absorbed in the film. “Almost every other horror film that has ever been made has a distance between the viewer and the filmmakers,” he says. “You know you’re watching a horror film. You know it by the way it’s lit, by the way the angles are chosen, by the performances, by the outrageous nature of the action line. The Exorcist I wanted to be completely believable in every frame, and so a lot of care and attention was given to make all of the details as good as we possibly could, and as plausible as we could possibly make them” (00:52:57).
Friedkin could just as easily be speaking about Kubrick’s The Shining when he says that The Exorcist “is probably very slow for today’s audience in terms of what they’re used to seeing. Today’s audience is not used to seeing so much characterization before anything happens. They usually want the spills and chills in the first reel. We don’t give them that. What we give them instead is a very slow development with an extremely creepy atmosphere leading up to the potentiality that something astounding is gonna happen, and then it does. I would hope that this style can return, and that the story becomes more important. I’m not sure that it has or that it will. I think there’s been a significant lowering of the standards of film storytelling…” (00:57:50).
When it comes to horror films, I’d have to agree. Too many recent horror films, when not falling back on torture-porn, tend to blend horror with action (the Dawn of the Dead remake) or sci-fi (Daybreakers) in order to get their thrills. As good as such films can be, they’re more often after quick scares. It’s rare to find a well-crafted horror movie with a strong dramatic core these days. The most recent examples that come to mind are Let Me In (2010) and Devil’s Advocate (1997). But we can’t lose faith that such movies can and will be made more often, else the devil wins.
What do you think? Do you think that modern horror films are up to the same standards as The Exorcist and its kind? How do you think they’ve changed, for better or for worse, since the ’70s? Do any horror movies in the last 10 or 15 years hit you as hard as The Exorcist? What horror films would you put in the same class as The Exorcist? 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