Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Exorcist, or Learning to Live With the Devil

Contrary to what occurred this past summer with a seminal film from the 70s, I don’t think she-who-must-be-obeyed will ever give her permission for me to show one particular movie from that same era to her children. Not now, or in the future. Seemingly, this was another of those ‘event’ films so tied to this turbulent period in American history that it somehow became bound with my own personal one. I don’t doubt, though, both of my kids are well aware I have this in my collection (they sneak into there from time-to-time) or already know what it’s about.

Again, it all goes back to that dreaded time… of high school.

“Dad, why do have so many horror films?” ~ my daughter at age 10


The summer of 1971 was where it all began. The same month of June I’d finished my most turbulent year in the cauldron, the first creaks in the attic showed up. My junior year was almost Hell itself. Besides being the one where most of your college prep courses needed to be completed (with kinda decent grades so you could skate somewhat in your senior year… good luck there), my personal life was taking hits. Literally. The girl I crushed on since a sophomore was in her senior year (any hopes of the heart were to die an ugly death surely as some priest taking a header out of a window), and I’d have my broken lower jaw wired that Spring (c/o auto accident).

By the time my grillwork came off, and school had finished, The Exorcist novel was released.

One of my aunts bought the hardcover, devoured it, and lent the novel to all her friends and sisters in the family. Mom included. It was all they as a group talked about that warm season. I could not have cared less. Getting through the last six weeks of the summer high school session had all of my concentration. My reading list at this point wasn’t recreational. Besides, I wondered what a certain girl who graduated was doing. Hopeless, I know.

The phenomenal success of the William Peter Blatty’s novel guaranteed a film adaptation would occur. By late that same year, reports of its filming rose to the surface like an unweighted corpse. And of course, that got my grandmother’s family all a flutter once more. I did my utmost to ignore it. Go figure — I had a new girlfriend by my twelfth-grade. Happy days were here again.

Flash forward to December 1973. Per Nick Cull and HistoryToday.com:

“The manifestations of the demon hit hard. In a guttural voice (dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge) the girl barked a stream of obscenity such as had never before been heard in a Hollywood film; she vomited; she levitated; she twisted her head through a hundred and eighty degrees and she masturbated with a crucifix.”

Everyone and their mother had this film on their lips. The few theaters in L.A. that initially had it playing, were lined around the block with ticket holders. This was how it was in Westwood Village (the business/entertainment district on the outskirts of UCLA’s campus), in point of fact.

Now, it had my attention.

Of course, my aunts, and their husbands, all went to see this. A few, made the sign of the cross when they spoke of it later (even if most were ex-Catholics). By the time The Exorcist made wide-release in early 1974, a number of us youngsters in the family were eager to take it in. Hold that thought. Only three of us qualified (who were at least 17 and could legitimately go and see this rated-R movie extravaganza without adult escort). My cousin (the same young woman who I took to see Jaws the day after I first saw the flick in ’75), my brother, and I.

Typical, my brother and I are totally different personalities. Back then, most family members thought my younger sibling favored my father’s temperament. I guess it was the I-don’t-give-a -sh*t vibe he gave off during his teens. What am I saying? It’s never left. Me? My aunt’s judged I took after Mom. Sensitive. Again, go figure. I swear on a stack of Bibles, one of my mother’s sisters and grandmother, actually worried about my sanity, if I’d see this film. They never gave my brother a second thought in this regard.

As I’ve noted, I went to a nearby drive-in to see The Exorcist. I never did find out which movie theater my brother saw it in. He didn’t talk about it. Mom later told me he’d seen the film, somewhere. She quietly pulled me aside one day, weeks afterward, and mentioned my sib had slept with the lights on in his room each night since the screening. She’d turned the lights off more than once in his room (say around 2 o’clock in the morning). They’d snap back on shortly thereafter, Mom admitted. I think this went on for a couple of months.

What about me, you ask? I slept fine. The movie never bothered me, at least that way. In fact, it only spurred me to finally get the paperback (the hardcover that once circulated somehow disappeared by this time) and read Blatty’s novel. That I did, usually while I waited in the gas lines of the period (Oil Crisis I). I had even-numbered plates, btw.

Incidentally, in Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction treatise published the next decade over, Danse Macabre, he found the original novel by William Peter Blatty less-than-stellar, and William Friedkin’s film wanting (primarily for its lack of levity amongst the horror). It’s the only time I’ve vehemently disagreed with King, on both counts. Still do. I’ve since made it a point to read every book WPB ever published (Dimiter is currently in my TBR stack).

Yet, the film would not be done with either of us. And I’m not talking about the release of later revisions (the ‘extended cut’ in 1998 for its 25th anniversary, or the “Version You’ve Never Seen” two years later). Like Jaws, it’d come back to my time as a projectionist at the Huntington Park Warner Theatre. As I chronicled years ago but since moved here, my duties there left an imprint when it came to motion pictures. It’d come a couple of months after that experience, actually. Another where my brother would return here to catch it for free, just like he did with the Spielberg film. This time, though, with no resulting nightmares I ever heard of.

As I recorded some years ago:

“Near the end of 1976, the owner booked the best horror picture we ever showed during my tour of duty in the booth. We ran The Exorcist for four very successful weeks. The second longest run during my term, and only behind Jaws for concession stand profit. And just like that film, the projectionists learned it quite well. In my case, that fact alone saved me and another worker. You see, in its final week with us, there was this accident. No, it didn’t occur on one of my shifts. It happened with the second guy, on an evening shift. Around that time, there were only two of us working the booth (since the third and newest guy had quit the week before). So, both of us were putting in more hours to cover the loss until the owner could hire another slub person that I could train up for the third slot.

While I was home in the evening, the 2nd guy called me to describe the problem he was having with one of the projectors. It seems that in the lower housing (where the take-up sprocket resides) of that unit, it was collecting the film that should have been going to the lower take-up reel. This was quite bad, in fact, as that housing of the projector is not very large. And it was being filled at a rate of 24 frames a second with 35mm film! I think I blew two street lights getting there… As bad as this was (and it was definitely bad), we had to consider ourselves lucky, too. This was the first reel of The Exorcist, and not the second movie (one I can’t even recall now, and a film we didn’t know nearly as well). Once the call came in, I had him changeover early to the next reel so we could stop that projector and halt the damage that was going on (packed film like that breaks).

But, harm there was. We were left with a whole bunch of separate, broken strips of 35mm film after we unpacked that projector. A lot of them no more than 4 – 6 inches in length, and some so damaged they were useless. This was the kind of wrecked print that the owner would have to pay the distributor for costs in replacement/repair. So even if this was a mechanical failure, it was the kind of accident that would get that second projectionist fired (since he was the last one with the farmer’s daughter, so do speak). Which would leave me to cover all shifts until new people could be found and trained. And I wasn’t about to let that happen.”

I still cannot forget that section of the film — most of it either ruined or broken up, out of sequence, and in a pile of small film strips which sat on the projection booth work bench that night. And I had to somehow find a way of putting the movie back together. If you’ve seen the film, it covered the sequence of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) at the outdoor Iraqi café, traversing the shadowed-filled streets (where the old priest is almost run over by that speeding horse carriage), and in the office where the clock chillingly came to a stop.

A few scant minutes total on the first reel. And I had to splice those scenes back together with anything salvageable from the print, but only after putting them back into some semblance of order. Plus, it had to look good enough so the distributor (or the theater owners after us) wouldn’t notice, or complain too much, when it went back into circulation. There was chance since older prints like this always had film splices and breaks in them from regular wear and tear by movie theaters.

This was where knowing that film as well as I did actually helped to save me (and especially the other guy). Two hours later, Humpty Dumpty was put back together again… sort of. Although, we did lose a good portion of the footage to damage. That 4:14 stretch in The Exorcist ultimately was reduced down (with a only-heaven-knows number of film splices) by almost two minutes! It was the only time in my whole life I ever came close to editing a film. Nobody was more surprised than me when it worked, or more happy when it left.

23 Responses to “The Exorcist, or Learning to Live With the Devil”

  1. John DuMond

    Sadly, this is one I never got to see on the big screen (I was too young when it was released). While the opportunity might arise some day, I suppose it would lose some of its impact for me, having seen it so many times on the small screen.

    BTW, these days I find the thought of those gas lines scarier than demonic possession. ;)

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    • le0pard13

      I think it would be worth it, though. Sitting in a darkened theater, with hopefully a group that included some who’ve never seen it, it just might surprise you. Thanks, John.

      p.s., I got a lot of reading done back in those gas lines ;-).

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    • le0pard13

      Yep. We were lucky that it was the last few days of its four-week run. I’m still amazed, with all those splices, that reel stilled worked. Thanks, Elizabeth.

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  2. Fogs' Movie Reviews

    “The movie never bothered me… at least in that way” Oh wow man, the Exorcist never scared you? Geez. Nerves of steel!

    I’m a bad example, I saw it way too young. LOL I was like 10 or 11. Freaked ME out!

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    • le0pard13

      It did involve and scare me during the showing. I had a Hell of a good time, if one can say that about a scary film. Of course, I literally jumped in the car when you-know-who sent pea soup green puke toward me ;-). It just never got to me to the point I slept with the lights off on (or jumped when the house creaked) afterwards. I only wanted to read the book to see what else was there.

      You saw this at 10 or 11?!? Who took you to this? I wonder if there a statue of limitations for movie-child abuse? ;-) It’d would have freak me too at that age.

      Thanks so much for the comment, Fogs.

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  3. Joe

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Michael. I saw “The Exorcist” in the theater when the extended cut was released in the late 1990s… It looked and sounded incredible. I have also seen it dozens of times on video/DVD, and yet it remains one of the scariest films I’ve ever encountered.

    Tom McLoughlin is also a huge fan. When I interviewed him for NIRWAB, we talked at length about his experience of seeing the film in the theater for the first time. He said that Friedkin and Blatty actually delivered coffee to people standing in line for tickets. He also said that one of his friends was so terrified that they couldn’t sleep alone for months.

    Years later, Tom was hired to direct The Exorcist 4… but, after nearly 2 years of unpaid development work, he bowed out because he didn’t like the studio-approved script. (He took the project so seriously that he wasn’t willing to make anything unworthy of the original.) I would have loved to have seen his version… I know he would have delivered something amazing. One reason I’m so confident is that he funneled a lot of his thoughts and ideas for Exorcist 4 into an excellent episode of Steven Spielberg’s short-lived TV series “The Others.” If you can track down “Theta,” you’ll see what I mean.

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    • le0pard13

      I remember that re-release. Took it in again when it came out (and read the various news articles talking about the changes, and the final agreement Blatty and Friedkin reached with it). And I agree, “It looked and sounded incredible.”

      Oh, that is very interesting about Tom McLoughlin and the fourth film. I only heard about Schrader’s and Harlin’s misadventures with the studio and the production(s). I really wish TM could have given that a proper treatment (see tomorrow’s and Thursday’s posts as I get into what followed this next).

      You’ve also got me intrigued about that ‘Theta’ episode. Is it available somewhere? Thanks so much for adding to this, Joe. I appreciate it.

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      • Joe

        Someone has kindly posted the entire “Others” series on youtube. Here’s the episode I was referring to…

        Picture quality is terrible, but there aren’t any alternatives that I know of. Watch it with headphones.

        Another bit of trivia: There was a fourth director attached to Exorcist 4, in between McLoughlin and Schrader…. John Frankenheimer! He passed away during pre-production.

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        • le0pard13

          Thanks for posting these, Joe! I’ll certainly take a gander. Oh, John Frankenheimer was the other director in this? Now that makes it another eerie coincidence with this entire franchise.

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  4. CMrok93

    Nice post Michael. I watched this movie last year and I still have to say, it’s a freaky movie. I don’t know if it deserved to win Best Picture that year, but it was definitely a lot better than The Sting. Then again, two completely different movies in their own rights.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks very much, CM. I appreciate both ‘The Sting’ and ‘The Exorcist’, and I think the latter would have been a brave and worthy choice as Best Picture. The vaunted Academy thought otherwise, though ;-).

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  5. Marcus Clearspring

    I’ve never actually seen The Exorcist…although unbelievably I have seen The Exorcist II in a cinema. Yeah, I know…I’ll comment on that in your other post.

    Anyway, I have been interested in seeing “Requiem”, a German movie with a realistic documentary style on the original case which inspired the Exorcist novel and movie, AFAIK. Have you seen it?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454931/

    The director is interesting. Made another one I haven’t seen called “23” about one of the first computer “hackers”. A young guy who got mixed up in cold war espionage.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Marcus. That is quite the achievement ;-). To see that sequel, especially, but not the original film. Well, I can only recommend catching Friedkin’s film at some time near in the future. It’s well worth the screening.

      I’ve not heard of ‘Requiem’ or ’23’, but both sound intriguing. Thanks for the heads up and for stopping by and reading this.

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  6. Morgan R. Lewis

    Fun sharing of memories, Michael. I’m amazed you were able to splice that mess back into some semblance of coherence… I can think of only a few films that I would know that well, and that’s assuming I had the know-how to do the splicing to begin with.

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    • le0pard13

      The only thing that saved us was that after three and a half weeks you knew the movie fairly well by that time. Also, a process of elimination occurred. Accordioned film was tossed in the trash right off the bat as it was utterly useless. Cut the pile right down to almost manageable ;-). It’s just one of those memories that got seared into memory. Stress will do that ;-). Thanks, Morgan.

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