The Exorcist

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


You’ve just seen “The Exorcist: Believer,” the new sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, “The Exorcist.” Having been raised a Catholic, my wife refuses to see either of them. She has this aversion to demonic possession. Too close to home perhaps?

This resurgence of the original film is part of a tribute to William Friedkin. The director passed away in August, a victim of heart failure and pneumonia.

Friedkin was married to Sherry Lansing, the former chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures. She was his fourth wife. I met Sherry Lansing at the wedding of my friend Julie, who was entering into a short-lived married with a Hollywood producer. In Tinseltown, marriage is often a merry-go-round.

You’re familiar with many of Friedkin’s films – “The French Connection,” “The Boys in the Band,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and “Killer Joe,” to name a few.

However, William Friedkin is best remembered for “The Exorcist,” the supernatural horror film noted for Linda Blair’s swiveling head and expulsion of pea soup, not to mention Max von Sydow and Jason Miller as priests trying to expel a demon from the possessed girl and Ellen Burstyn as her concerned mother.

Was it scary? You bet.

“The Exorcist” has been described as a “blockbuster cultural phenomenon that traumatized a generation.” You can catch this special showing at Tropic Cinema.

It was based on the same-named book by William Peter Blatty (he won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay). I remember reading Blatty’s “If There Were Demons Then Perhaps There Were Angels: William Peter Blatty’s Own Story of the Exorcist,” his non-fiction account of how he came to write the book and movie. Blatty tells of questioning the existence of God and life everlasting. That led him to track down priests who had participated in exorcisms, gathering enough evidence to write a novel that incorporated many of his factual findings.

Should we be scared of demons? As Blatty wrote, “All I know is that things seem to happen. And, my dear, there are lunatic asylums all over the world filled with people who dabbled in the occult.”

William Friedkin said, “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil. And also the thin line that exists in each and every one of us.”

He added, “One of my themes is that there is good and evil in everyone … I really don’t believe in heroes. The best of people have a dark side and it’s a constant struggle for the better side to survive and to thrive.”

“The Exorcist” become the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Friedkin got a nod for Best Director. Blatty won for Best Screenplay and sound engineers won for Best Sound. It received 10 Oscar nominations in total.

Upon release, the film received mixed reviews. Film critic Stanley Kaufman proclaimed, “This is the scariest film I’ve seen in years.” Director Joe Dante said it was “destined to become at the very least a horror classic … there has never been anything like this on the screen before.” Roger Ebert concluded: “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one … Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”

As William Friedkin commented, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel pressed and tense almost every day of my life about something or other. And it’s the one thing, as I look into people’s eyes, that I think I share with almost everybody.”

In 2010, the Library of Congress selected “The Exorcist” for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

To this day, the film remains one of the scariest movies ever made.

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