I acquired The Exorcist by Mark Kermode, part of the BFI [British Film Institute] Modern Classics series as a Christmas present from my friend June in 1998. Its cover comes from a subliminal scene in the movie, one that has haunted me for decades, yet in my pursuit of finding the perfect image to accompany this review I have had to scan the cover and tweak it at least half a dozen times, so I consider my fear of that subliminal movie mask now cured.
The Exorcist is my second favourite movie of all time, and since the function of the BFI Modern Classics series is for authors to “write on a film of their choice, making the case for its elevation to the status of classic”, I could tell that Kermode was a big fan of this film too. He covered the movie from beginning to end, writing about tiny details that I had often wondered about and was so excited to see in a critique. The cover image alone I felt must be addressed within, as there was no other point in the movie that lasted so briefly yet affected me more than that haunting visage.
Director William Friedkin explained the origin of the subliminal mask:
“Those are frames from a make-up test that didn’t work which we did with Linda Blair’s double, Eileen Dietz. The make-up was intended for use on Linda Blair. I rejected it as having no organic validity as to what was happening with the girl in the film; it was just make-up. But it seemed to me that it had a power if used briefly like that, so I took these frames that were not meant to be in the original production and cut them in experimentally. It seemed to work.”
This book was published in 1997 and Kermode was delighted to have found a screen shot of the deleted “spider-walk” scene, where Regan descends a staircase on her back, crawling down on all fours head first. Only one year later the movie was rereleased in a special 25th anniversary box set edition and included this scene as bonus footage. I have this edition. The author also wrote about many more deleted scenes and an alternate ending, plus the major editing Friedkin made. In order to do so he had to banish the author and producer William Peter Blatty from the set. Blatty comments on the editing, and while much of the work was done without his approval, he does acknowledge that some scenes do in fact work better in that state.
Kermode made me aware of aural and visual motifs that seemed all the more obvious when he mentioned them. I was always riveted by the pneumoencephalogram scene, especially by the anvil-clanging that accompanies the skull images. The author linked all these particular sounds together, and reprised instances where such clanging was heard before, as in the opening Iraq sequence.
The book was enhanced by many stills from the film which illustrated whatever part the author was writing about. The read was as thrilling as the movie itself: it was exciting to turn the pages and learn more about the scenes I knew that were coming up. This weekend I am definitely watching this movie again.