How will we exorcise this new horror? It was the head-spinning shocker that spawned a genre. Now get ready for the sequel to The Exorcist. But, as TOM LEONARD recalls, many of the original actors were apparently cursed
- The Exorcist has had a deeply unsettling effect on many of those who watched it
- And now it’s coming back for one more attempt to nail us to our seats in terror
- Or rather, three attempts – Universal Pictures and its sister streaming service, Peacock, have signed a £288m-plus deal to make a trilogy of new Exorcist films
Things didn’t exactly end well the first time around. Audiences emerged from cinemas ashen-faced, some people even fainted or vomited. Others insisted they had wanted to leave but had been too scared to move. Watching The Exorcist, the quintessential horror film, was blamed for heart attacks and miscarriages.
In Britain, local councils banned screenings, prompting travel companies to offer ‘Exorcist bus trips’ to cinemas where it was showing. In the U.S., some movie theatres reportedly proffered sick bags and offered paramedic assistance.
This was all part of the hype that made the 1973 chiller into a global box-office sensation: ‘The biggest thing to hit the industry since Mary Pickford, popcorn, pornography and The Godfather,’ as a New York Times critic put it at the time.
However, The Exorcist has had a deeply unsettling effect on many of those who watched it. Other 1970s horror classics such as The Amityville Horror and The Omen look very tame today, but that’s not true of the 1973 shocker about a 12-yearold girl who is demonically possessed and the priests who come to rescue her. The Exorcist is still routinely rated as one of the most disturbing films ever made.
And now it’s coming back for one more attempt to nail us to our seats in terror.
Or rather, three attempts. Universal Pictures and its sister streaming service, Peacock, have signed a £288million-plus deal to make a trilogy of new Exorcist films.
The Exorcist is still routinely rated as one of the most disturbing films ever made
It’s a huge sum (the original film cost £4.4 million) but there is an intense battle to steal subscribers from streaming giant Netflix, and horror films fared particularly well with viewers itching to be jolted out of their apathy during the pandemic.
Universal will not remake the original film — a wise decision, given the veneration in which it is held by both film and horror fans — but it is bringing in Ellen Burstyn, who was given an Oscar nomination as the confused but doughty mother of the possessed child. (Burstyn cannily didn’t appear in two best-forgotten Exorcist sequels and a prequel, released between 1977 and 2004.)
Now 88, but no doubt fortified by powers beyond our understanding, she will again do battle with evil, this time helping a father deal with his own possessed daughter.
Universal will not remake the original film — a wise decision, given the veneration in which it is held by both film and horror fans — but it is bringing in Ellen Burstyn (pictured), who was given an Oscar nomination as the confused but doughty mother of the possessed child
The news about Burstyn’s return has prompted excited speculation about whether Linda Blair, the actress who played her head-spinning, demonically occupied daughter, may also join her. Blair, now 62, says she hasn’t been approached.
And what of the rest of the gang? Well, that may be a little tricky because there aren’t many of them left. In addition to the many controversies that have plagued The Exorcist, some claim a series of fatal events associated with the film’s cast amounts to a ‘curse’.
Actors Vasiliki Maliaros and Jack MacGowran, whose characters perish or are already dead in the film, died in real life during the post-production stage.
Seven others associated with the cast and crew — including close family members of the stars — died of natural or unexplained causes before the film’s release.
Others, such as Lee J. Cobb, who played a police detective, passed away within a few years of the film’s release (Max von Sydow, who played the forbidding, Devil battling senior exorcist, died last year aged 90, having presumably dodged the curse).
In Britain, local councils banned screenings, prompting travel companies to offer ‘Exorcist bus trips’ to cinemas where it was showing. Pictured: Linda Blair in the Exorcist
The news about Burstyn’s return has prompted excited speculation about whether Linda Blair, the actress who played her head-spinning, demonically occupied daughter, may also join her. Blair, now 62, says she hasn’t been approached
There were several injuries on set, afflicting both Linda Blair (who reportedly developed a long term spinal injury after landing on her coccyx) and Ellen Burstyn. An unexplained fire at one point burnt down most of the set — delaying filming by six weeks — but curiously spared the bedroom where Blair’s character, Regan, endures her demonic possession.
After the film was finished, the odd events continued. Roman Catholicism features heavily in The Exorcist and is not treated kindly. The first time the movie was screened in Rome, lightning struck a cross on top of one of two churches on either side of the cinema and sent it crashing down into the middle of the piazza. Someone, it was speculated, wasn’t happy.
When audiences recoiled in horror following the film’s release, a psychiatric journal published a paper on ‘cinematic neurosis’ triggered by The Exorcist.
Medical experts attacked a hospital scene in which the possessed girl is given a carotid angiogram. A needle is pushed into her neck and blood spurts everywhere. A real-life radiographer who was given a role in the scene as a radiologist’s assistant went on to murder a film journalist six years later. He confessed to the crime but couldn’t explain to police why he did it.
In America, Warner Brothers, the film’s distributor, was accused of cynically browbeating film industry censors into giving it an R-rating rather than a more restrictive X-rating, thereby allowing children (accompanied by an adult) to see it. A film critic wrote darkly of how he had watched children leaving screenings ‘drained and drawn afterward; their eyes had a look I had never seen before’.
An unexplained fire at one point burnt down most of the set — delaying filming by six weeks — but curiously spared the bedroom where Blair’s character, Regan, endures her demonic possession
And in the UK, where the film was released in March 1974, a Christian group who campaigned against its potentially damaging effect, especially on children, handed out leaflets offering post cinema spiritual support to people queueing to see it.
British censors, anxious about its availability to underage viewers, had video copies of the film withdrawn in 1988. A ban on the sale of copies lasted until 1999.
The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, was accused of using subliminal imagery as special effects, including bedposts shaped to cast phallic shadows and a skull face supposedly superimposed into a priest’s cloud of breath as the temperature plummeted in the possessed child’s bedroom.
Adding more than a little hellfire to the controversy that raged around The Exorcist was the fact that it was based on a true story.
A 13-year-old boy from Baltimore, identified only as Roland Doe, who had experimented with a ouija board, was exorcised by two priests in the late 1940s.
Doe had an aversion to anything sacred, spoke in a guttural voice and was even able to curse priests in perfect Latin. They believed him to be demonically possessed.
The first attempt to banish the boy’s demons was abandoned after five nights when he slashed the senior priest down the arm with a bedspring coil, maiming him.
For years the Catholic Church banned the priests from speaking about the case, but author William Peter Blatty managed to unearth enough details about the story to write his 1971 book The Exorcist, on which the film was based.
He swapped Roland for a 12-year-old girl and invented such unforgettable touches as the child crawling along the ceiling and her head spinning full circle. Hideous, yes, but cinematically brilliant.
Some say The Exorcist is too perfect a horror film to emulate: the new trilogy can only hope to match it for diabolic mayhem.
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