Before I launch into yet another Exorcist article, the latest of several I’ve posted since HE’s launch nearly 20 years ago, please listen to this Nixon-era testimony from a senior National Theatre usher. It was recorded roughly 49 and 1/2 years ago.

And here we are nearly a half-century later with another Bluray re-issue and David Gordon Green‘s The Exorcist: Believer (10.13.23). I don’t want to know about this stuff. How many times can our faces be sprinkled with the same old holy water?

I own a superb-looking Bluray of The Exorcist (’73). I rewatched it last year on the Sony 65″ OLED, and it was pure heaven. So there’s really no need at all to own the upcoming 4K 50th anniversary Bluray (streeting on 9.19.23). None whatsoever.

Bygone Sensibilities,” posted on 5.26.15: A few days ago and for no timely reason at all A.V. Club‘s Mike Vanderbilt posted a piece about original reactions to William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist, which opened in December ’73. It reminds you how jaded and cynical the culture has since become. The Exorcist gobsmacked Average Joes like nothing that they’d seen before, but you couldn’t possibly “get” audiences today in the same way. Sensibilities have coarsened. The horror “bar” is so much higher.

But there’s one thing that 21st Century scary movies almost never do, and that’s laying the basic groundwork and hinting at what’s to come, step by step and measure by measure. Audiences are too impatient and ADD to tolerate slow build-ups these days, but Friedkin spent a good 50 to 60 minutes investing in the reality of the Exorcist characters, showing you their decency and values and moments of stress and occasional losses of temper, as well a serious investment in mood, milieu and portents.

In short, the first hour of The Exorcist is wrapped in the veneer of class — a genuinely eerie score, flush production values and the subdued, autumnal tones in Owen Roizman‘s cinematography. It’s only in the second hour that the brutal stuff begins.

The best parts of The Exorcist don’t involve spinning heads or pea-soup vomit. I’m talking about moments in which scary stuff is suggested rather than shown. The stuff you imagine might happen is always spookier.

Such as (1) that prologue moment in Iraq when Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is nearly run over by a galloping horse and carriage, and a glimpse of an older woman riding in the carriage suggests a demonic presence; (2) a moment three or four minutes later when Merrin watches two dogs snarling and fighting near an archeological dig; (3) that Washington, D.C. detective (Lee J. Cobb) telling Father Karras (Jason Miller) that the head of the recently deceased director Burke Dennings (Jack McGowran) “was turned completely around”; (4) Karras’s dream sequence about his mother calling for him, and then disappearing into a subway; (5) that moment when Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) mimics the voice and repeats the exact words of a bum that Karras has recently encountered — “Can you help an old altar boy, father?”

My favorite bit in the whole film is that eerie whoosh-slingshot sound coming from the attic.

Listen again to this senior usher at Westwood’s National Theatre talking about people fainting and having to be brought around by smelling salts, and also to another employee, Cathy Hewitt, talking about the resilience of audiences as they stood in line for hours on end, sometimes even in the rain. They’re describing a culture and a sensibility that seems as quaint and bygone as that opening narration in Orson WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons when he talks about how people used to get around by horse and buggy and took their time and never seemed to be in too much of a hurry.

Posted on 2.6.20: Last night I watched Alexandre O. Philippe‘s Leap of Faith, a 105-minute doc about William Friedkin and the making of The Exorcist. Assembled from a marathon six-day Friedkin interview, the 84 year-old director passes along fascinating story after story about the development, casting, filming and editing of his 1973 classic.

Leap of Faith is very good stuff. It held me tight and firm — I relaxed and felt great start to finish. As a longtime Exorcist fan (I’ve seen it 10 or 12 times, the last two or three on Bluray), I eat this shit right up.

Friedkin is a first-rate raconteur — always has been. He tells it and sells it. And man, what a story. He was between 37 and 38 during the shooting of The Exorcist in ’72 and early ’73, and it was the greatest time in the history of Hollywood to be a hotshot whirlwind helmer. All the signs were favoring.

I loved all the stories in which Friedkin told this and that Exorcist collaborator that their ideas or acting weren’t good enough. Saying “no” over and over again to this or that possibility is partly what strong directing is about. There are always hundreds of mediocre or underwhelming ideas thrown at a director, and he/she has a duty to say “no” to roughly 98% of them.

I especially loved Friedkin’s riff on a certain “grace note” portion in the film (the non-essential but haunting passage in which Ellen Burstyn walks through Georgetown on a crisp fall day as “Tubular Bells” plays on the soundtrack). And I was intrigued by Friedkin’s concluding thought, which keys off footage of Kyoto’s gardens, about the essential solitude and loneliness that we all have within.

But since Philippe is encouraging this kind of thing, I was amazed that Friedkin never even mentions, much less explores, the central social metaphor of The Exorcist.

As we all know the story of The Exorcist is about the young daughter of a famous and wealthy movie actress succumbing to demonic possession — some adjunct of the devil literally occupying and ravaging her body and soul. But in a broader social upheaval sense this kind of thing was happening a lot in the mid to late ’60s. Middle-aged parents of that era were contemplating the anti-traditional, in some cases shocking behavior of their teenage or college-age kids (longer hair, frank sexuality, pot and hallucinogens, anti-government protests) and wondering what had happened to them. Who is this person? What dark social forces have turned my son/daughter into someone I barely recognize, much less feel any rapport with?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel came out of this social earthquake, and anyone who says that late ’60s cultural convulsions weren’t a seminal influence in the creation of this horrific tale is either brain-cell deficient or lying. How could Friedkin not even mention this?