The Poppies of Terra #10 - Four Score and Seven Exorcisms Ago
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
It’s difficult for audiences who didn’t experience William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) during its original theatrical run to appreciate the visceral nature of the impact it had on folks back then. As Nat Segaloff describes firsthand in the Preface to his recently published book, The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear:
“In the Sack Theatres executive offices high atop the Savoy Theatre on downtown Washington Street, we began getting reports from Merrill Franks, Cinema 57’s manager, that people were running up the aisles and into the lobby, some of them making it out to the street before vomiting, while others did it en route.”
Over the last 50 years, movie watchers have become far more resilient. In fact, in at least one sense, the very next year would up the ante with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The Exorcist’s profanity, channeled through the apparently innocent Linda Blair, was also pretty distressing stuff at the time. Not so much in the age of online forums and social media.
This is not to say that the film has lost its luster, or even to suggest a dimming of its totemic appeal. In its various incarnations (original, “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” and the Extended Director’s Cut) The Exorcist continues to seduce, enthrall, and haunt. What it does less is shock, which may accidentally serve to highlight the movie’s more quiet merits, of which there are plenty.
Segaloff spends the first eight out of sixteen chapters tracing the genesis of The Exorcist, including the early lives of its chief architects, and exploring the immediate aftermath of its release. This is where his book is at its best. Of particular interest to me were some of his technical observations. For instance, eschewing the then-standard optical soundtrack, Friedkin instead opted for “a monaural magnetic track for select prints of The Exorcist,” which “permitted a wider frequency range of 50 Hz to 10−12 kHz and an increased dynamic range of some 15 decibels. This enabled the track to reproduce sounds from whispers to demonic thundering, not only in terms of clarity and low background noise but in sheer volume. It was still monaural, so audiences didn’t hear anything directional. Instead, they felt it.” In these sections we’re also treated to numerous quotes from the primary players, including some sourced from Segaloff’s own interviews.
The writing is mostly light-footed, often spruced up by anecdotes. One of my favorites involves Friedkin’s search for the right composer for The Exorcist. At one point he decides to fly the legendary Bernard Herrmann out from England, where Herrmann lived at the time, to Los Angeles to see a rough cut of the movie. “I want you to write me a better score than the one you wrote for Citizen Kane,” Friedkin is reputed to have said. “Then you should have made a better movie than Citizen Kane,” Herrmann supposedly replied, and headed back to London.
Beyond providing comprehensive, sometimes exhaustive, coverage of the original film, and to a lesser degree its sequels, Segaloff also offers a short discussion of the more recent television series and even throws in a few tidbits about the forthcoming trilogy helmed by David Gordon Green. Even chapters that focus on material that may be of lesser interest to most readers contain memorable moments, like this humdinger of contrarian evaluation: “Martin Scorsese, for one, regards The Heretic [Exorcist II] more highly than The Exorcist. ‘I like the first Exorcist,’ he has said, ‘because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me. But The Heretic surpasses it.’” Well, it does if you're going by how many times Pazuzu is mentioned: 27 to 0.
On the whole, fans and students of the original film and its development will likely find little new material here, but may appreciate having a lot of information culled from various sources conveniently available in one place. For those newly possessed by The Exorcist, or future readers whose appetite is stirred by the upcoming movies, this is an excellent (spoiler-laden) primer.
Will this be the franchise’s nonfiction “Amen”? Hell, no. For one, Segaloff can at times be somewhat dismissive of interpretations, as for instance when he calls Stephen King’s central idea of the movie as capturing social change “critical sophistry.” While the synopses of William Peter Blatty’s original novel and its film adaptation are justified, the same can't be said of the detailed recaps of the other movies and their variations, which only slow down the ritual.
Context is also often missing. For instance, there are no references to Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967) or Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971), books which along with Blatty’s led to a seismic shift in horror publishing (see Chapter One of Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell (2017)), nor is there an acknowledgment of subsequent enterprises like The Omen, or even comments about the filmmakers influenced by Friedkin’s body of work. And as fun as the Bernard Hermann and Lalo Schifrin episodes are during the production of the first movie, one might say it’s apostasy to omit any discussion of Ennio Morricone’s involvement in the sequel.
It’s worth remembering that, at heart, Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Blatty’s own The Exorcist III are supernatural murder mysteries. The narrative setups are as unorthodox as–ignore the respective directors’ numerous protestations to the contrary—their lack of a clear resolution. Involving as they do matters of faith, their codes cannot be truly deciphered. But we’ll never tire of trying.