34 Things We Learned from ‘The Exorcist’ Commentary

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With Jeremy out of commission this week (possibly a victim of an diabolical ancient demon, or perhaps on vacation), I’m jumping in to highlight the commentary track on one of my favorite films.

For the most part nowadays, Hollywood stays out of religion. That is, of course, until it’s time to do a movie about demonic possession, and then the otherwise secular industry suddenly finds Jesus and starts spouting dogma like red-state Tea Party patriot at Chick-Fil-A. The gold standard of demonic possession movies is William Friedkin’s chilling masterpiece The Exorcist, which remains one of the scariest movies of all time. All demonic possession movies from 1973 on borrow (or outright steal) from it in some way.

This weekend, moviegoers will face demons once again in the cinemas, though The Possession taps into an older religion with a Dybbuk box from the Jewish faith. Still, odds are there are at least a few elements that owe a debt to the Catholic overtones in The Exorcist.

And on to the commentary…

The Exorcist (2000 Director’s Cut, originally released in 1973)

Commentators: William Friedkin (director)

  • The director’s cut features two new opening shots. One shows the exterior of the MacNeil house at the corner of 36th and Prospect in Georgetown. That dissolves to a shot of the virgin Mary in Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown campus, which is later desecrated. Friedkin chose these shots to set up who will come under attack: the people in the house and the people in the church.
  • The opening sequence with Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) was filmed in Mosul, Iraq. The daytime temperatures regularly rose to 130 degrees by 10:30 a.m., when the crew would stop shooting and return to cover. They would return to the set at 7 p.m. to shoot during the last four hours of daylight.
  • Friedkin says he is often questioned as to why this opening sequence is in the film, and those questions result from people noticing how different it is from the rest of the movie. It is included, of course, to show Father Merrin’s prior experience with the demon Pazuzu and to show he is having premonitions (a running theme through the film) that they will face off again.
  • The archeological site where Father Merrin is working was a real dig taking place in the ancient city of Hatra, which was sacked by the Sassanians in 37 B.C. During the attack on the population which numbered approximately 100,000, the Sassanians cut off the people’s heads. The raid was so devastating and complete that the Sassanians even cut the heads off all the statues. During the dig, archeologists were busy uncovering the heads of the statues.
  • Part of the agreement to allow the production (which was a British crew due to the fact that America had no diplomatic relations with Iraq) to film in Mosul was that they had to teach the Iraqis filmmaking techniques. In particular, the Iraqi government wanted them to learn how to make and photograph fake blood.
  • The blacksmith’s shop is across from the actual tomb of King Nebuchadnezzar, which was built upon the tomb of the prophet David. This is also located near the Walls of Nineveh.
  • The woman in the coach that almost runs over Father Merrin in the streets of Mosul was 109 years old (which means she was born in the early years of the American Civil War). They had to shoot the scene about six times. “She was pretty shook up when we got to the take we used there,” Friedkin says.
  • Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) walk home from the movie set through the streets of Georgetown was shot to look idyllic, peaceful, and beautiful. Friedkin meant it to be the only scene of its kind in the film before all hell breaks loose.
  • When Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is told she can’t have a horse, she steals cookies from the cookie jar. “Not many people have seen those cookies come out of that jar,” Friedkin says. “So I have to tell you what it is.” The friendly tussle that ensues with Regan and Chris is meant to mirror the later physical confrontation that Friedkin describes simply as “rather disturbing.”
  • Friedkin made a point to show Father Karras (Jason Miller) as “rising up” in many of his scenes. This accounts for how often he is seen walking up a hill or climbing stairs.
  • The picture of the blond woman on the bookcase in Father Karras’s room in his mother’s apartment is suggested to be his girlfriend, whom he gave up when he joined the priesthood.
  • The strange orange bird that Regan makes out of clay is meant to echo the image of Pazuzu. It is later prominently seen in the basement when Chris and Father Karras are debating whether Regan needs an exorcism.
  • William Peter Blatty’s original novel is based on a true story that happened in 1949 in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Georgetown. The case involved a 14-year-old boy who, like Regan, was completely innocent when he was possessed.
  • The consultation between Chris and Dr. Klein (Barton Heymen) was not in the original theatrical version. Friedkin included it in the director’s cut to show the little problems – such as the use of obscenities – that have suddenly started to happen. In the scene, Dr. Klein suggests a prescription of Ritalin for Regan, which was a new drug back in the early 1970s. There was no controversy about the drug at the time.
  • Friedkin points out that a lot of Regan’s behavior, including the premonitions and personality changes, are typical of a child in a classic demonic possession scenario.
  • Father Karras’s dream was not in Blatty’s original novel. Friedkin included them to show a connection to the events in Iraq as well as to establish images of descending (e.g., the falling medal and his mother entering the subway), which contrast the images of Father Karras rising up.
  • The scene in which Regan has an arteriogram is one that many consider to be the most disturbing scene in the entire film, more so than the actual demonic possession moments. Friedkin used actual doctors from the NYU Medical Center to depict the actual step-by-step procedure of an arteriogram, which is extremely painful and requires the patient to be sedated but conscious. Friedkin claims that for many years, this footage was used as training for radiologists who would be performing arteriograms.
  • Regarding the scene where Dr. Klein visits Regan at home, Friedkin says: “What you’re about to see are the first extreme manifestation of demonic possession, and these details are from actual cases where demonic possession has occurred. I’m going to quiet down for a minute while you watch this.” Later, he says: “This is demonic possession: superhuman physical ability, a stream of obscenities, being slapped around and controlled by an unseen force. This is what demonic possession is like.”
  • During the second X-ray procedure for Regan, Friedkin says, “This is one of the most disturbing soundtracks in the film as well. Over this loud sound of the X-ray machine, you can hear Regan screaming, then total silence.” He later refers to the machines used on Regan as “a torture chamber for a child.”
  • Sadly, Friedkin offers no specific commentary on the infamous “crab walk” sequence, which was deleted from the original theatrical release.
  • The first mention of an exorcism occurs at the 1:09:40 mark, and it is made as an off-hand remark by a doctor on the panel. It’s thrown out as an idea of last resort. Chris, who is an agnostic, initially doesn’t know how to react to the idea. “To her, exorcism is witchcraft,” Friedkin says.
  • Friedkin’s favorite scene in the film is when Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) visits Chris after the death of Burke Dennings. He describes it as “a cat and mouse scene, where they’re both talking away from the point.” Kinderman is basically telling a mother that her daughter might be responsible for the death of a friend, but he’s not actually saying that. Instead, he’s saying that this is impossible, but Chris sees what he’s getting at, and she fears it’s true but can’t face it.
  • At the end of this scene, Friedkin says, “I really wish Lee Cobb had lived on and could have played this part again.” We can assume he is talking about the character appearing again in The Exorcist III: Legion, which was released in 1990, 13 years after Cobb died.
  • During the infamous crucifix masturbation scene, Friedkin says, “Some of the details that I show here were told to me by the aunt of the boy in the actual case, the moving of the furniture. I don’t remember that being in the novel, but it was what the 14-year-old boy who was possessed, what his aunt who told me had happened in the house.”
  • During the scene in which Chris meets Father Karras to ask him about exorcisms, Friedkin describes the movie as “a parable of Christianity,” which features the constant struggle between good and evil.
  • The first scene in the language laboratory was no in the original theatrical release. Friedkin included it in the director’s cut because he wanted to show Karras comparing Regan’s true voice to that of the demon. Karras later returns to the language laboratory to have the recording of Regan speaking backwards analyzed.
  • The scene in which Chris brings Father Merrin a cup of coffee was not included in the theatrical cut. Friedkin put it back into the film to show Merrin’s humanity by accepting some brandy in his coffee because “his will is weak.”
  • During the beginning of the exorcism sequence, Friedkin discusses his research into case studies of real exorcisms. He says that inexplicable events, such as the raising of the bed, are typical. He suggests that these might be hallucinations due to the heightened state of emotion, but he also points out that many of those that witness them are members of the clergy or medical profession.
  • Fathers Merrin and Karras constantly repeating the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” comes from what happens in real exorcisms. Father John Nicola, who was a technical advisor on the film and an expert on exorcisms, told Friedkin that when priests find a phrase that appears to be disturbing to the demon, they use it over and over again, no matter where it falls in the ritual.
  • An exorcism can last hours, or days, or even weeks.
  • Throughout the exorcism and the interaction between Regan and Father Karras, Friedkin points out that what Karras sees – such as the image of his mother on the bed or the voice of the homeless man – might not actually be happening in the reality of the film. These may be manifestations of Karras’s guilt.
  • Although Friedkin and Blatty insist that this is a story in which goodness triumphs over evil, Friedkin acknowledges that people take away whatever they come to the movie with. If they have faith, this is reinforced. However, if they believe the world is a terrible place where evil prevails, they will tend to see that as the message of the film.
  • In the end, Regan doesn’t remember anything that happened during the exorcism. This is typical in cases of demonic possession.
  • In the original theatrical cut, Chris gives Father Dyer (William O’Malley) the St. Christopher medal that Regan ripped off of Father Karras before he died. In this version of the film, Dyer gives the medal back to the MacNeils as a sign of faith and because it’s theirs for protection.

Best in Commentary

  • “When you tell somebody something like that, that your daughter’s bed was shaking, they look at you like you’re crazy.”
  • “You don’t leap to the idea of demonic possession. Nobody does.”
  • “At this time, when we made this film, I think there were about three or four cases of demonic possession since the turn of the century in the United states that had been given any real credence by the Catholic church.”
  • “What’s interesting at this point visually, is that these two men in black – black color in the garment being sort of a symbol of evil whenever you see it in a film – these two men dressed in black are the good guys, and the little innocent child is the demon now.”
  • “We see Karras ascending with Merrin up to a real room in a real house on a real street in which the Devil has inhabited a twelve-year-old girl. This story is not set in Transylvania. It’s not set in Salem. It’s not set in the 17th Century or before .It is set today in a real room in a real house on a real street in Georgetown, Washington DC, where a twelve -year-old child has been possessed by a demon, and the two men who have come to do battle with the demon have only these objects as weapons: a bottle of holy water, a small crucifix, the Roman Ritual, and their own belief. Because what they’re doing is acting in the name of God. This ritual of exorcism, which still exists in the Catholic church and is still performed as recently as two weeks ago from when I recorded this. The Pope conducted an exorcism in the Vatican. This ritual of exorcism still goes on, rare as it is. And what is it? It’s simply asking and treating, summoning the power of Jesus Christ to drive out demons. This is the last resort. This is all that’s left between this innocent child and a possession that could destroy her life and the lives of others.”
  • “This is perhaps one of the most extraordinary battle scenes that anyone can witness. It’s not on a battlefield. It’s not ships at sea. It’s not in the air. It’s in a bedroom, a child’s bedroom in which evil spirits have manifested themselves.”

Final Thoughts

While The Exorcist is one of my favorite movies of all time, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by this commentary. There are some great tidbits in here, but too often Friedkin fell into the process of simply narrating what you see happening on the screen. Perhaps it was because he had already done a commentary track for the picture when it was originally released on DVD. That’s got more traditional trivia elements, such as how he came to use “Tubular Bells” in the soundtrack and how he juxtaposes symbols of good and evil during Chris MacNeil’s walk home from the set.

Still, when Friedkin digs deeper than the surface nature of his own film, things are pretty fascinating. He crams a lot of information into the first fifteen minutes of the film because there’s so much backstory to the footage in Iraq. He does get repetitive when it comes to the overall themes of the film, and he really throws down for Christianity in this commentary track. I don’t know what his personal religious beliefs are, but he definitely approaches this piece with a rock-hard pro-Catholic attitude.

There’s probably little need for any more commentary from Friedkin on this film, as he’s done two commentaries so far. Fortunately, though, the film never gets old for me to watch, with or without the director talking over it.

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