I’ve had a hell of a week. On Tuesday I attended a press day for the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, which is due out through Warner Home Video next week. Present at the event were director William Friedkin, star Linda Blair, cinematographer Owen Roizman, sound man Chris Newman and, to my pleasant surprise, author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty. I was able to privately interview Friedkin for an hour, Blair for 20 minutes and Blatty for 35 minutes, and the experience was certainly exciting and illuminating.
While The Exorcist has been billed as the scariest movie of all-time, none of the key players originally considered what they were making to be a horror film. Friedkin, Blair and Blatty have called it a theological thriller, while Blatty has also stated that he set out to write a supernatural detective story. They now understand why it’s considered a horror film and a milestone of the genre, but their perspective emphasizes why the film has endured.
Watching the film for the third time in two months at the Museum of Modern Art last night, and for the first time on a big screen with souped up sound in ten years, I realized why I did not feel burned out by such repeated exposure. The filmmakers took their time in developing the characters, unraveling the story and creating a sinister atmosphere, and the careful consideration paid off because the movie contains psychological and emotional underpinnings that are hard to shake off. (Blatty and Newman won Oscars and Blair a Golden Globe (and Oscar nomination) for their work on The Exorcist, while Roizman and Friedkin were Oscar nominated, the latter having won previously for The French Connection.)
Having seen it numerous times now, I’m not really scared by The Exorcist in the way I was when I was younger; but it still creeps me out and sticks with me for hours after I’ve seen it. Watching it with the sound cranked a bit loud, I heard new things in the deep layers of audio that I had not heard before. I wondered how an audience must have felt watching this movie back in 1973 (I was four at the time, so I didn’t see it until the early Eighties), and I also contemplated how cut sequences restored in the 2000 reissue, like the ever-freaky spider walk sequence, would have generated massive heart palpitations throughout an audience.
Modern horror movies tend to rely on shock and awe tactics of jarring sound, fast-paced editing and extreme effects, but most cannot capture the ambiance of something like The Exorcist. I am still a die-hard horror fan and can always find something good to watch. Finding something great to watch is another matter. And this is one of those rare films, like The Changeling, Suspiria and The Ring, that falls into the latter category. During the post-screening panel discussion with Friedkin, Blair, Blatty, Newman and Roizman, Friedkin joked about how Billy Wilder once told him that their movies would become known as entertainment and to never expect to see a movie he made in the Museum of Modern Art. Friedkin then thanked MoMA for proving Wilder wrong for the only time in his life. From my perspective as a horror fan, it was nice to see the genre (and a more modern release) acknowledged in a highly respected museum.
Story links from my interviews will emerge in the coming days. For now, I have posted the following photos from the press day on Tuesday and the MoMA screening and 100-minute panel discussion last night.