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Tabula Rasa

The Exorcist Files

Compiled by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#1, 1994

Go to timeline entry

Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Linda Blair. Executive Producer Noel Marshall. Written from his novel and Produced by William Peter Blatty. Directed by William Friedkin. The film was released by Warner Bros on 26th December, 1973.

Everyone's Reading It, Billy's Filming It


It's the first shot of the first scene of the first day's shooting in New York on "The Exorcist". The place is a hospital corridor on Welfare Island. Rubber-tiled floor, green ceramic walls, sealed up windows, extras sitting on benches, lying on stretchers. A woman with a swollen body in a weary cotton nightgown, an old gray-haired bathrobed man with a cane Wheel chairs, oxygen tanks. It looks so real you can almost smell carbolic, feel that clutch of fear and sadness you get in a hospital, and you think of the Dostoevsky line about how the only thing the well can say to the sick is "Forgive us and let us pass."

Suddenly the doors at the head of the corridor fly open, two people crash through: Jason Miller, playing Father Damien Karras, Titos Vandis, playing his uncle. They stride down the hall and director William Friedkin, riding a camera mounted on a rolling platform, retreats before them like General Patton in a tank, or a jubilant kid on a fire truck. Billy Friedkin's a happy man. He's a moviemaker and this is where he wants to be.

"If they suddenly said all the rules are changed, you gotta pay money to direct a movie, I'd be first in line," he says. "I love it."

At 33 he's slender, tanned, soft brown hair, soft brown eyes behind gray-toned silver rimmed specs and everybody calls him Billy. The cast, the crew, his secretary, probably the cleaning lady. The illusion of boyishness is enhanced by his life style; if he didn't work seven days a week you might call him a drifter. He doesn't have a home--"I live wherever I'm making a picture"--a family--"My dad died about 15 years ago, my mother died just after I finished shooting 'Boys in the Band'"--a commitment to a woman. Ask him about a photographer whose name has been linked with his and he says yes, they dated but at the moment he's without a girl. He gestures around the set--"This is my girl."

He came out of Chicago, where he started in the mail room of a television station when he was 16, fresh from high school. He lived all over the city, northside, westside, worked himself up to director, and after nine years and 2,000 TV shows, was hired by (Continued on Page 9)

The New York Times -- August 27, 1972

They Wait Hours--to be Shocked


That New York phenomenon, the longlonglonglonglong movie line, was carried to new lengths in recent weeks after William Friedkin's Christmas offering, "The Exorcist" opened on Dec. 26 at Cinema 1. This time, people stood like sheep in the rain, cold and sleet for up to four hours to see the chilling film about a 12-year-old girl going to the devil.

They lighted bonfires at their waiting post on Second Avenue, between 59th and 60th Streets, to keep warm, littered the streets with food wrappings, got into fist fights, and annoyed shop owners and apartment dwellers who didn't like their entry-ways blocked by a great wall of humans. Once, on a Friday night, they even stormed Cinema 1 when it looked like they weren't going to make it inside after a four-hour wait.

It was like a riot," said Ralph Bailey, one of six night-time uniformed security guards at the theater. "We had to cancel the showing." Mr. Bailey, by the way, said he had been offered bribes as high as $110 to let people jump to the head of the line. Scalpers were getting $50 for a pair of tickets.

It's been reported that once inside the theater, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage, he said.

The crowd situation was eased on Jan. 18, when the film moved to three other theaters also owned by the Rugoff chain--the Paris, the Beekman and the Paramount. Cinema 1 was left with a lot of trash on its floors, the stale odor of vomit, and many shattered box-office records. The first week's gross alone was a record $94,903.50: the attendance was 28,183. On the single highest day, Saturday, Dec. 29, 4,658 people jammed into the theater, paying $16,222.50.

The main question is, "Why?" Why are people standing in those longlonglonglonglong lines, when the reviews weren't all that great? (They were, as they say in the trade, "mixed," with resounding "no's" from such heavyweight critics as Vincent Canby of The Times, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, Jay Cocks of Time and Paul Zimmerman of Newsweek.) And why is "The Exorcist" causing ecstatic Warner Brothers executives to predict that it will be the highest grossing film in their company's history, surpassing even "My Fair Lady," which grossed $34-million?

To find out, I went to the heart of the matter--The Line. I stood in, or hung around, a Cinema 1 line on a Saturday afternoon, a Tuesday night and a Thursday morning to find out what kind of people were going to the movie, and why.

Nine out of 10 people were young--the long haired high school and college crowd in blue jeans and casual jackets. But here and there I saw matrons in mink coats, and prosperous looking silver-haired men in their Bloomingdale's suedes. Anywhere from a fourth to a third of the crowd was black, generally a high figure for an East Side theater. one black Manhattan secretary explained it to me this way:

"A lot of blacks relate to voodoo and witchcraft and that devil stuff. Many still believe in black magic, especially those from Haiti or the Deep South."

Approximately one third of the people I talked to said they wanted to see the movie because they had read the best-selling novel, "The Exorcist," by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay.

"I read the book twice and I wanted to compare it with the movie," Rick Monday, 28, of Secaucus, N.J., a manager for the Exxon Corporation, said as he stood behind gray police barricades. "I sort of believe in all that stuff--Satan worship, E.S.P., cosmic traveling."

The pea-jacketed Mr. Monday took the long wait in line stoically, reasoning that it would probably be four to six months before he could see "The Exorcist" without having to stand in line. "I waited two hours to see 'The Godfather,'" he recalled. "The waiting isn't so bad. You just have to know how to do it. You come to the theater early to buy your tickets, you get something to eat, do a little shopping, and then come back." Robert McClendon, 20, of Brooklyn, who works in the mail department of a Chase Manhattan bank, and his girlfriend, Deborah Hall, 19, of Queens, a clerk-typist, said they came because they couldn't imagine how a director could capture on film those parts of the book dealing with the exorcism.

"I wanted to see the bedroom scenes, like when the furniture is flying around and everything," Robert said. Added Deborah: "And I wanted to see the part (Continued on Page12)

* * *

Will the Real Devil Speak Up? Yes!


Perhaps the most horrifying feature of "The Exorcist" is its soundtrack: director Friedkin and his experts used the cries of pigs being driven to slaughter to produce the scream of the Demon when it is exorcised from the 12-year old Regan's body. Although Warner Brothers has not made the fact public, Mercedes McCambridge, the Lady Macbeth of Orson Welle's Mercury Theatre of the Air and Oscar-winning actress of "All the King's Men," hair-raisingly spoke the aural role of the Demon itself.

Millions of parents may find it especially chilling that Linda Blair, the horse-loving teeny-bopper who played Regan, actually spoke all of the brutal obscenities and blasphemies heard in the movie so that Miss McCambridge could dub the words to Linda's lip movement later.

Mercedes sounds demonically furious when I call her in Los Angeles: she feels Warners soft-pedalled her contribution to the film (the fact was leaked in variety and Time) because they did not want to affect Linda Blair's Oscar chances: "Maybe," Mercedes snaps angrily, "people will simply think the sound-effects people simply fixed her voice up--that it was her vocal performance. But her vocal performance was laughable.

* * *

Reached by phone at her home in Connecticut, a now entirely self-possessed Linda Blair gives an adult, confidential chuckle. "I really enjoyed recording the dialogue. Of course, some things were a little difficult. I had all that tubing in my mouth, connected to a bulb on my back, and when they turned a switch, it made all the pea soup in my mouth, representing the devil's vomit, spit out into people's faces.

"As for speaking with the voice of the devil for the run-throughs," says the 15-year-old actress, "that didn't worry me too much. I believed in it. I believe in devils. At first, when Billy Friedkin showed me the script, I thought, "That's going to be embarrassing!" But I managed to speak all the lines without giggling. I'd heard all the words before, either in my home town or at school. Not one of the them was unfamiliar, not even the blasphemous phrases. Well, maybe one or two seemed a bit weird.

"I never gave a second thought to the effect all this would have later--my school friends would never hear me saying those things. I knew Mercedes would dub them. And I haven't had any emotional problems afterward, as people kept saying I would. Next time I want to do something that combines acting with a love of horses."

A remake of "National Velvet," perhaps?

"Oh, that would be lovely!"

All three from
The New York Times -- January 27, 1974

Priest in 'Exorcist' Loses Post

The Rev. Edmund G. Ryan, executive vice president of Georgetown University and an expert on exorcism, temporarily accepted dismissal from the university yesterday and vacated his office, as ordered, but said he intended to fight his ouster.

Father Ryan, who became a minor celebrity after he served as consultant for the movie "The Exorcist," in which he also has a bit part, was described by the university newspaper as "the single most popular administrator on campus." He has also appeared on television and participated in debates on the subject.

His dismissal by Georgetown's president, the Rev. Robert Henle, came in a brief statement in which Father Henle said, "This action was taken with the deepest regret that the differences between us were irreconcilable."

Father Ryan, who said he was shocked by the dismissal, has a contract with Georgetown that run until June 30, 1975. "I have sought the advice of my Jesuit superiors and of counsel," he said yesterday. "They have advised me to comply in every detail with orders and to employ established procedures to seek redress. I have initiated such an appeal."

The New York Times -- April 16, 1974

The Devil's disciple

The Exorcist has created box-office records and set people talking throughout America, though why this should be so is a matter I would rather leave for discussion with your parish priest or neighbourhood sociologist. For, contrary to the large claims made for it and the weighty charges laid against it, the movie that author-producer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin have concocted is a crude slice of Grand Guignol, seriously deficient in both artistic imagination and spiritual feeling. The plot revolves (and revolves) around the random demonic possession of a movie actress's young daughter near the campus of Georgetown University, a Catholic institution outside Washington DC. The symptoms include levitation, self-propelled bedroom furniture, grotesque physical transformation, cascades of vomit, obscenities and blasphemies uttered in an alien voice. Following an unsuccessful series of grisly medical probes and the mysterious violent death of a family friend, the church is called in. And in the process of conducting an exorcism, the doddering old demonologist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) has a fatal heart attack and a young psychiatrist-priest (Jason Miller) regains his faith and loses his life in one, quite literal, fell swoop.

The portentous glumness that hangs over the picture like a Los Angeles smog suggests that the makers think they are saying something profound about the human condition. Yet The Exorcist lacks any kind of resonance and shows little sense of the way in which good and evil might be seen to function in our society. In consequence this basically frivolous film never transcends the superficial gut-jabbing shock level to become even a lively lightweight fable like Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. True, the special effects are often impressive and the acting is more than passable, but the whole affair struck me as about as morally edifying and aesthetically satisfying as watching the Gaderene swine plunge into the sea in slow motion, or seeing Going My Way possessed by the spirit of Ken Russell.

The Times -- March 15, 1974

...In the process he takes on some of the pathos of Frankenstein's monster as we see the world through his stylized computed vision. Westworld is at turns funny, sad and chilling. There is a certain falling off towards the end, but nevertheless any five minutes of this richly suggestive film have more to say about life in advanced Western societies than the whole of The Exorcist.

The Times (same review page as previous quote)

Youth tells of 'possession' after seeing film

From our Correspondent -- York.

Nicholas bell, aged 17, told the police that he had been possessed by evil after seeing The Exorcist film and had killed a girl aged nine, York Crown Court was told yesterday.

Bell, of Eastfield, Scarborough, said that after seeing the film he began dabbling in black magic and experimented with a ouija board, Mr Clifford Lauriston, QC, told the jury. Bell pleaded not guilty to murdering the girl.

Mr Lauriston said the girl's savagely beaten body was found by her stepfather after she had failed to return home in Scarborough for tea.

The Crown had only Bell's version of what happened. He had said the girl "had not died easily" and told how he had tried to choke her and then batter her. He had said "It was not really me that did it, you know. There was something inside me. I want to see a priest. It is ever since I saw that film The Exorcist. I felt something take possession of me. It has been in me ever since." Turning to the attack on the girl he had said: "I don't know why I killed her. It was this spirit inside me." In a later alleged statement he continued: "One night I was alone at home playing with the board and while doing so felt something bad was happening. I kept having nightmares about Satan and Mendoss, the prince of darkness. I felt mean and nasty towards people and was taking delight in mutilating birds."

He was alleged to have told how he had seen the young girl "and just went wild and crazy". He ended his account by saying: "She stopped twitching and I knew she was dead. That is all I can say, except I am sorry. I think that inside it wasn't really me that was doing this terrible thing."

Mr Lauriston said the killing was a senseless and motiveless murder which occurred shortly after Bell had seen the film and since that time he had been seriously disturbed.

The case continues today.

[The Times -- October 30, 1975. Later the boy was found guilty and claimed 'he made up the story about being possessed by the devil in the hope that the police would let him go' -- The Times, 1/11/75.]

Death after ' Exorcist' film was natural

[The Times -- October 30, 1974. The death in question was caused by epilepsy some hours after a student had seen the movie.]

'Exorcist' ban sought

Mr Rhodes Boyson, Conservative MP for Brent, North, is to ask Mr Jenkins, Home Secretary, to ban public showing of The Exorcist, the film about a child possessed by a devil.
The Times -- March 11, 1974

'The Exorcist' banned

Tunis, Feb 24.--The Government censorship board today banned the American film The Exorcist on the ground that it presents "unjustified" propaganda in favour of Christianity.
The Times -- February 25, 1975

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