A behind-the-scenes look from the set of 'The Exorcist'
(Credit: YouTube)

A behind-the-scenes look from the set of ‘The Exorcist’

The dawn of digital effects brought a more accessible, more limitless method of filmmaking. Suddenly the exact obscurities of the images in one’s imagination could materialise on-screen, albeit through the often unconvincing form of special effects. Although the limits of creativity were suddenly redefined, the impact of these images had been stifled. There’s nothing quite like the real thing…

From toxic spewing sick to the contortion of a head turning 360 degrees, there are few better examples of DIY cinema than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. As Regan, the unfortunate victim of the devil’s lure becomes more frail and unstable, her body and complexion shift, until she becomes entirely possessed and two priests come to help relieve her pain. Taking on a satanic atmosphere, Regan’s bedroom becomes a stage for the devil to boast and torment his victim as well as the priests that have come to her aid. 

Her slow descent into possession is made all the more disturbing by the visceral effects that accompany her downfall. Gashes, blood, pus and rot infest her body; relating to the priests’ horror is effortlessly easy. Though, as discussed in the extensive behind the scenes documentary looking into the making of the film, this is also due to the fact that the effects are entirely practical. 

One telling moment in the below documentary discusses the need for misted breath to come out of Regan’s mouth during the 360-degree head rotation, despite the fact that this shot was achieved with Regan as a dummy. Nowadays this would be a simple fix in post-production effects, though in 1973 this had to be done practically, and is all the more authentic as a result. Through the tactility of not just this effect, but of all of the effects throughout the film, create a tangible sense of dread and of filth. Whatever demonic spirit is inhabiting Regan’s bedroom, spills off the screen in a thick, dark fog.

Covering the camera in a polythene sheet to ensure that no synthetic vomit got onto the lens, is just one of the practical ways in which Friedkin and his team managed to shoot such a visceral film. For a film which toys with the supernatural and the theological questions that exist in the real world, it was crucial for the film itself to inhabit this reality. With a complete absence of digital effects, The Exorcist feels very much a part of reality, an unspeakable horror with cinematic effects that still resonate with contemporary audiences. 

To calm yourself down after a particularly horrific film, all you have to do is repeat to yourself “it’s not real, it’s not real”; though the true horror with The Exorcist is that for the most part, it very much is…

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