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An experiment. Get a group of people together, lock them in a room and tell them they can't come out until they've reached a consensus on what is THE SCARIEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.
I predict two things. One, they'll die if they stay in there too long without food and water. Two, assuming you have a wide sample set, there's a very high probability they'll pick The Exorcist. (If you have a bunch of sixteen-year-olds yet to expand their horizons they may say something Paranormal Activity-ish. If you have only hardcore Badass Digest-style cinephiles they may come away with some obscure Italian film that is illegal to show in Britain.)
The point is this: The Exorcist freaks the hell out of everybody, and I think it isn't entirely due to the subject matter, the writing, the acting or even what you see on the screen. A lot of it has to do with what you hear.
I grew up in a secular Jewish household and while I had (and, frankly, still have) a list of phobias three cubits long, eternal damnation and demonic possession aren't among them. Hell, even in New Jersey, where kids spoke of “The Jersey Devil,” I was somehow able to shrug this off as make-believe. (Did I stay up nights convinced that if I dared to close my eyes even for a moment a flying saucer would come down and abduct me? Yes. Yes, I did. Frequently.)
I distinctly remember when one of my Italian-American friends told me he'd been up all night because he was sure the Devil was coming into his bed like “in that movie.” He hadn't even seen The Exorcist, but he knew the plot points and knew that “this stuff happens” and he was terrified.
Father Karras sez “Ay, tough guy! Think you won't get scared?”
When I eventually saw the film (young, but not a kid) I came to it with a shield of skepticism more powerful than Father Merrins' Holy Water. But I could barely handle it. What got me were the sounds.
First, of course, the music.
There isn't a lot of original music in The Exorcist, and what you do hear isn't sustained for long. But what's there really makes a mark.
There are evocative adhans, the Muslim call to prayer, in the film's Iraqi prologue. There are the near-shrieking strings of George Crumb's “Night of the Electric Insects” and there are the creepy pizzicato strings (they sound like spiders creeping all over the place) taken from Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's “Polymorphia.” (This one can be heard in both The Exorcist and The Shining.) Also, the bordering on atonal brass explosion that is Anton Webern's “Five Pieces for Orchestra.”
Most memorable, of course, is the quick sprinkling we get from Mike Oldfield's “Tubular Bells.” (It's the few notes at least one kid would know how to play on piano to freak out band practice.) Some fun facts about “Tubular Bells.”
First, this was the first album Richard Branson's Virgin Records put out back in 1973. Deal with the Devil, eh Richie?
Second, polymath Mike Oldfield was 19 freaking years old when he wrote, recorded and performed 17 of the 25 instruments you hear on it. (If you've heard it, you know he wasn't shy about taking a victory lap and letting each of the those instruments get name-checked. For whatever reason, my college roommate and I used to get wasted and shout “Man-Do-LIN!” at one another in reference to this.)
Satanic never looked so sexy.
Third, and this is the one that may most surprise people who haven't heard the full album - after the opening it isn't scary at all! William Friedkin knew just when to edit. Get a few minutes into “Tubular Bells” and it becomes a pretty standard prog rock freakout album – and one not nearly as good as, say, Yes' “Close to the Edge.” In fact, for the big finish, Oldfield goes into a cover of the traditional tune “The Sailor's Hornpipe,” better known to you as the leitmotif of the “Theme From Popeye.”
Pazuzu sez: eat yr Spinach. Augh-gug-gugh-gug-gug.
But it wasn't just the music.
Friedkin was part of the generation that wanted to push the envelope in every aspect of filmmaking. As such, during post-production he tried a real kitchen sink approach. You probably know about the controversial flash-frames of the Demon's face, which actually led to a lawsuit when one dude passed out during the film and bashed his face on the chair in front of him. Maybe he had low blood sugar, maybe he was just a wuss, or maybe (as he contended) the subliminal images of the film were beyond the normal movie-going social contract and he was right to demand recompense. (Warner Bros. lamely settled out of court.)
When Regan MacNeil is thrashing about in her bed, it wasn't enough to rustle sheets. There needed to be sounds to represent the very toils of hell. Sound designer Ron Nagle went out and recorded swarms of angry bees as well as pigs being led to slaughter, which were later manipulated and blended into the final mix.
For a little extra oomph he did what every great artist does: he stole!
Well, that's overstating it, but he did go see Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, still very much an underground thing, and said “woah – whoever did the sound effects on this, let's call him in!”
Enter Gonzalo Gavira, who spoke not a word of English and was later described by Friedkin as a “barefoot Mexican peasant.” He came to the studio, watched the film (through a translator he said to have “gotten it”) and then went to work making sounds with whatever was around. Empty cans, his own body and, most memorably, an old leather wallet filled with credit cards he borrowed from someone. The twist of this wallet is what you hear when Regan's head turns 360 degrees.
Gee, you couldn't come up with something a little more high-tech? Also, your mother sucks cocks in hell.
Something you don't hear a lot of in The Exorcist are jump scare BLAMs. Indeed, there's something much more effective. Total silence. Think of when the clocks stop ticking when Father Merrin says “there's something I have to do” in the Iraq prologue. I just popped in the Blu-ray and cranked my stereo up to 10. There is a tiny bit of “tone” (some faintly chirping birds) but this is as close to dropping all audio out of a scene as you can come without someone thinking there's a projection malfunction.
All of this, of course, merely works as a complement to the greatest use of sound in The Exorcist, the voice performance of Mercedes McCambridge as Satan via young Regan MacNeil.
You can poke around special features to find footage of young Linda Blair saying some of the nastier lines in The Exorcist, but Friedkin knew that he needed to dub in a supernatural voice. This other voice is an aspect that's in the book – though not necessarily a giveaway that Regan is actually possessed. I mean, if this were all a psychological episode, it's possible that the sweet girt from the beginning of the film could be doing her extreme version of the bat growl.
McCambridge, while a celebrated film actress (see Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar or her Academy Award-winning supporting role in Robert Rossen's All The King's Men), made her bones as an actress on radio. In fact, Orson Welles called her “the world's greatest living radio actress.” (It's right there on the top of her Wikipedia page.)
Friedkin was attracted to her because of her low register, and her ability to make the Demon sound androgynous. There was a lot of squawk between the two of them after the film was made concerning credits, but the sessions to record the dialogue were pretty intense. According to Friedkin she chain smoked and ate raw eggs. (Not sure what eating raw eggs does to change your voice, but that's why I'm not a genius sound engineer.) She allowed herself to be tied to chairs and wheezed and caterwauled and made breaking sounds in her throat similar to overtone singing where sound resonates in the larynx to create a harmonic with the underlying vibration.
It makes for a startling disconnect when you hear THAT voice coming from THAT girl's face – even with the makeup. The scene where things first really start going bananas – the crucifix masturbation scene* where she's shouting “Let Jesus fuck you!” is probably the most transgressive thing to happen in a movie that everybody has seen. There's the shock of the blood and the violent penetration and the foul language and the ickyness of her being underage and, whether you are a believer or not, the overall taboo of the blasphemy. It's a lot to take in!
When Ellen Burstyn starts struggling with Regan, The Exorcist doubles down. Regan grabs the back of her mother's neck and pulls her toward her bleeding crotch. Even for a movie pushing the envelope like this the camera stays on Regan's face, so we're really using our ears right now and we hear Mercedes McCambridge growl “Lick me! Lick me! Lick me!”
I'm hardly one to clutch at pearls (and was less likely to do so as a teen) but I had a physical reaction of shock and fear at this moment. The voice is just so awful, so repugnant. This is what happens when a team of artists and craftsmen get together to try and bottle the essence of pure evil.
I got no joke here. This image freaks me out.
It's a neat trick, because, as the myriad Exorcist parodies show, the spell is so easily broken. It could have easily been a little girl making boogeyman faces and a voice-over going “blaggidy-balggidy-blag-grrrrr.”
Recently, I had the good fortune to see The Exorcist in the basement of a Roman Catholic church in Queens, New York. We sat in pews and there was an intro by a very Damien Karras-like working class priest. Afterwards he introduced one of his mentors, a theologian who came in all the way from St. John's University. (While this is really not that far away, there are certain neighborhoods in New York, still, where anything more than around the corner is considered a great distance to the hardcore locals.) During his fascinating Q&A he talked film theory, but he also talked about how it was up to all of us to work to prevent a non-metaphorical possession from happening to us.
Many members of the audience experienced the story of The Exorcist on a far different level than I. They were true believers and this may as well have been a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Yet while the movie was running in that echoey basement (a room to the side cluttered with cardboard boxes, a pallet of Vitamin Water and a busted up Madonna-on-the-Half-Shell), I was gripped just as much as they were. That, indeed, is some sort of devilish work.
*Is it really a masturbation scene? I mean, I know boys and girls are made differently, but that really looks more like angry stabbing to me. I never even knew this was supposed to be a masturbation scene until I started reading about movies and saw this moment referred to as such. Oh, as if I wasn't already confused about things...
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