Horror fans can be obsessive about the films we love, re-watching our favorites until we know every line of dialog and every member of the cast and crew. Certain films are so captivating, so visually arresting and/or packed with subtext that they practically demand repeat viewings. And while plenty of films tell a compelling story, some have a behind-the-scenes history that’s just as interesting as the fiction.
Sometimes knowing too much about what happened during a film’s production can ruin the magic, making future suspension of disbelief difficult or impossible. But other times, knowing the trials and tribulations that went into making our favorites only enhances our appreciation of the final product; one such film is The Exorcist.
Stories of events that transpired during the filming of The Exorcist are as numerous as they are well documented, in non-fiction films, books, interviews, and fan-sites. It can actually be a bit overwhelming. So I’ve taken it upon myself to scan the most reputable sources to bring you 10 of the choicest morsels of Exorcist trivia. Enjoy!
It could have been Jamie Leigh.
It’s nearly impossible (and almost sacrilegious) to imagine anyone besides Linda Blair playing Regan MacNeil, but landing the role took no small amount of tenacity and fortuitousness; director William Friedkin was so taxed by the process, he actually considered auditioning a female dwarf before he found a young woman talented and brave enough to carry the complicated and difficult role.
As an accomplished child actress, Blair already had representation, yet was somehow completely overlooked by her agency which sent at least 30 other young women to audition. Jamie Leigh Curtis was considered but eventually forbidden to participate by her mother, horror icon Janet Leigh (obviously, this didn’t prevent JLC from establishing herself as an A-1 Scream Queen). Others contenders included: Brooke Shields (who was deemed too young), Carrie Fisher (who thankfully found immortality as the Princess of Alderaan); and Dana Plato (although that one’s probably just a rumor—most likely started by Dana Plato).
Blair’s mother finally circumvented her daughters agency altogether, bringing her to audition herself—and thank Heaven (or Hail Satan) that she did, because it clearly took a young actress with talent beyond her years to pull off such an arduous and terrifying role. Linda Blair has achieved cinematic immortality—but at what cost? Due to death threats from religious fanatics, Warner Brothers paid for a bodyguard detail for the young actress for 6 months after the film’s release. An Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress was derailed by voice artists and body doubles who insisted on majority credit for Blair’s powerhouse achievement. Decades later, she has never shaken the role that made her famous—and certainly never will.
The Belgian Surrealist Connection
The most iconic image from this iconic film, the silhouette of Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow) stepping out of a taxi, suitcase in hand, where he is bathed in a disturbingly eerie glow emanating from a window in the house before him, was actually inspired by the paintings of Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte, specifically a piece called “L’Empire des lumieres”, which means “Dominion of Light”. When compared to the source, it’s easy to understand why this image from The Exorcist is so arresting; deceptively soothing, it’s as though there’s a primal war being waged between the forces of Light and Darkness. This image distills the very essence of The Exorcists into a single moment in time, an effect achieved by careful design.
Filming: On set with William Friedkin
The supposed “Curse” of The Exorcist may be the granddaddy of all haunted movie urban legends, but it’s not difficult to see why people entertained the idea that working on the film was potentially dangerous. The most infamous stories of sinister events connected to the year-long shoot include the deaths of nine people associated with the film (including Jack MacGowran and Vasilik Maliaros who died before it was released) and a mysterious fire that nearly tanked the entire production. Linda Blair was injured during a scene where her bed was shaking, and Ellen Burstyn suffered a permanent injury to her spine and tailbone after being roughly heaved in a body harness. Fears became so intense Friedkin asked technical advisor Rev. Thomas Bermingham to exercise the set; this request was denied on the grounds that such action would only stoke anxieties. Nonetheless, Rev. Bermingham was compelled to perform a blessing. Christian Evangelist Billy Graham would later claim that an actual demon lived within the reels of celluloid that compose The Exorcist. While it’s easy to dismiss a lot of this as paranoia and coincidence, it is a testament to that impactful power of the film: That it somehow contained an evil with a life beyond fiction and the ability to exert control over actual physical events. Bone chilling, isn’t it?
While undeniably talented, Jason Miller was not a film actor before he shot to horror prominence as the conflicted Father Damian Karras; his previous experience was all in stage acting. Other heavyweights considered included Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, but this was before Friedkin saw Miller in a play and knew he had found his Karrass. The Broadway veteran may have regretted his fortuitousness, as tales exist of Friedkin pulling extreme antics to induce real shock and fear in his actors (by firing guns, for example, and slapping faces). In the infamous vomiting scene, the explosively projectile mess was supposed to hit the actor in the chest, so that look of utter disgust as he wiped green gobs from his face and hair is genuine.
It could have been Brando.
Initially Warner Brothers was gunning to sign Marlon Brando to the role of Father Merrin, but Friedkin believed (rightly so, in my opinion) that it would doom The Exorcist to forever being known as a “Brando Film” as opposed to being judged on its other merits and overall presentation. The jokes practically write themselves, like; Brando standing over the bed screaming, “REE-GAANN… REE-GAANN!” a-la Streetcar, or “The horror!” Apocalypse Now style. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Sydow playing the elusive, demon-busting Priest whose past with Pazuzu made him especially qualified to battle for Regan’s soul.
What if Kubrick had directed The Exorcist?
Stanley Kubrick wanted to direct The Exorcist on the condition he could use his own production company, but Warner Brothers feared he’d go off schedule and over budget. While no one can deny that Friedkin did an incredible job directing, staying very true to Blatty’s novel & script, I find myself fascinated by postulations of how a Kubrick-directed Exorcist might have turned out? As we know from his presentation of The Shining, Kubrick seems very willing to stray far from source material, producing films with a nightmarish surrealism. Would The Exorcist have been as effective, terrifying, or historically relevant had it been helmed by Kubrick? While we’ll never know for certain, I’d love to visit an alternate universe where such a film actually exists.
Other directors that Warner had approached included Arthur Penn (who was teaching at Yale), Peter Bogdanovich (who wanted to pursue other projects, subsequently regretting the decision) and Mike Nichols (who didn’t want to shoot a film so dependent on a child’s performance). The studio actually hired Mark Rydell but William Peter Blatty insisted on William Friedkin.
Pazuza: The Face of Evil has roots in Japanese cinema.
Friedkin’s inspiration for the infamous white-faced demon Pazuzu in the “subliminal shots” came from the mask used in the 1964 Japanese historical drama Onibaba; this cursed object stolen from a murdered samurai, turns those who wear it into hideous, deformed demons.
An Exorcist by any other name?
While exorcists have existed for centuries, we can most likely thank the film for bringing this occupation, as well as exorcisms themselves, into popular mainstream consciousness. According to William Peter Blatty, Warner Brothers wanted to change the title of the film after an audience survey found that none of the participants knew what an exorcist was.
A voice actor’s terrifying commitment.
According to IMDB:
Actress Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the voice of the demon, insisted on swallowing raw eggs and chain smoking to alter her vocalizations. Furthermore, the actress who had problems with alcohol abuse in the past, wanted to drink whiskey as she knew alcohol would distort her voice even more, and create the crazed state of mind of the character. As she was giving up sobriety, she insisted that her priest be present to counsel her during the recording process. At William Friedkin’s direction, McCambridge was also bound to a chair with pieces of a torn sheet at her neck, arms, wrists, legs and feet to get a more realistic sound of the demon struggling against its restraints. McCambridge later recalled the experience as one of horrific rage, while Friedkin admitted that her performance–as well as the extremes which the actress put herself through to gain authenticity–terrifies the director to this day.
“The power of Christ compels you…” or does it?
Ask any Exorcist fan what the most famous line in the film is (that doesn’t contain profanity) and you’ll get the same answer. It’s the chant uttered by Father Merrin and Father Karras in unison during the climax of the exorcism: “The power of Christ compels you”. The Priests deliver this refrain a total of fourteen time, as Pazuza pushes Regan’s body to the brink of death in his attempt to retain his evil grip; it’s a completely catalyzing moment.
But unlike the majority of the film’s dialog which is pulled directly from the novel, this powerful line is never once spoken in Blatty’s tomb.
Did any of these facts about The Exorcist surprise you? What’s your favorite piece of Exorcist trivia? Sound off in the comments section!
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