The Spook Who Sat By the Door The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Sunday, January 8, 2012

the truth about the exorerist

Like body-swiping demons, exorcism movies simply refuse to go away. The latest one to take possession of the multiplex is 'The Devil Inside,' which premieres this Friday, and which is just one of several that will open this year. You may think you know all about exorcism movies, since you've seen 'The Exorcist' (the 1973 classic by which all other exorcism movies are judged), as well as all the documentary-style possession-and-expulsion chillers of recent years. But you may not know about the forgotten Jewish exorcism tale that launched the genre, or the apparent curse that afflicted 'The Exorcist' both during production and after its release, or the truth behind the real-life exorcism stories that inspired many of these films. Read on, if you dare, for a history of the horror movies that will make your head spin.

1. One of the first movies about an exorcism, if not the first, was 1937's 'The Dybbuk,' filmed 36 years before 'The Exorcist. Based on the celebrated Yiddish play by S. Ansky, it's the one of the only exorcism movies that draws upon Jewish lore (including Kabbalah mysticism) rather than Catholic traditions. Shot in Poland, the Yiddish-language film tells the story of a bride possessed on her wedding day by the tormented spirit (the "dybbuk" of the title) of the man to whom she was betrothed before her current groom. As a folk tale, it was the product of an insular Jewish culture that was already vanishing in 1937; today, it seems especially haunted, as if by foreknowledge, of the Holocaust that was about to finish the job and destroy the world portrayed on screen altogether.

2. The genre as we know it starts with 'The Exorcist,' based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. The author was inspired the story of a real-life exorcism as performed on a 1940s child named Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim, depending on the account. Blatty borrowed several details from the Doe story, including the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area setting, the levitating furniture, the strange marks on the child's body, and the guttural voice emanating from his throat. Catholic priests performed the exorcism ritual on him 30 times before the strange events stopped happening. Today, it's still not clear what really took place, or whether the boy might have been faking his symptoms for attention.

3. During the filming of the 1973 movie version, an apparent curse seemed to plague the production. An increasingly serious set of unexplained mishaps led the filmmakers to call in a priest to bless the Washington, D.C. film set. A fire destroyed much of the set except for the bedroom of young Regan (Linda Blair), where most of the demonic action takes place. A scene where a demonic force throws Regan's mother Chris against a wall led to a permanent back injury for co-star Ellen Burstyn. Most eerily, actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, whose characters both die in the movie, died in real life before the film's release. (Read more little-known facts about 'The Exorcist' here.)

4. The curse seemed to continue once the film was released. 'The Exorcist' was one of the most successful R-rated movies ever made and is still regarded as one of the scariest -- so scary that one moviegoer fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. As a result, he sued distributor Warner Bros. and received an out-of-court settlement. He wasn't the only viewer who had a violent physical reaction, which is why some theaters started passing out 'Exorcist' barf bags.

Excerpt from 'The Exorcist'
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5. The movie did lead some Catholics to reaffirm their faith. Director William Friedkin says he met James Cagney shortly after the film's release, and that the screen legend complained to him that the movie made his longtime barber decide to quit cutting hair and enroll in a seminary, and that the actor felt he hadn't been able to find a decent barber ever since.

6. Also cursed: the relationship between Blatty and Friedkin, whose dispute over cut scenes ruptured their friendship for nearly a quarter of a century. Eventually, the two reconciled, and 12 minutes of footage that Blatty missed were restored for a 2000 re-release, including the notorious scene where a contorted Regan walks like a spider and another scene in which the two exorcists discuss the possible reason for Regan's possession.

7. 'The Exorcist' spawned a number of instant copycats in other countries. One of the most unusual was 1974's 'Seytan,' a Turkish version (the title means what you think it means) that puts an Islamic spin on the tale of a possessed girl.

8. There was also a German version, 1974's 'Magdalena: Possessed by the Devil,' and a Spanish version, 1975's 'Exorcismo.'

'The Exorcist'

9. The curse continued: A sequel starring Blair, 1977's 'The Exorcist II: The Heretic,' is generally regarded as one of the worst horror movies ever made. Blatty himself directed the third installment, 1990's 'The Exorcist III.'

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