Sunday, October 07, 2012

Making Monsters #6: The Exorcist

The Exorcist was perhaps the biggest step forward in horror being treated as a serious genre by critics and audiences, largely thanks to the verisimilitude director William Friedkin and his cast and crew brought to every aspect of the film. While it was and remains a very explicit film, its director clearly as eager to goose his audience as any disreputable B-movie director, even its most shocking moments are presented with a clear emphasis on credibility. This is evident in the approach that informed Dick Smith's design of the makeup appliances for the possessed Regan McNeil. Multiple makeup tests that skewed more towards the fantastic, giving actress Linda Blair a more witchlike appearance, were rejected because they looked ridiculous and unbelievable when juxtaposed against the realistic approach of her co-stars' performances. Smith's approach was ultimately informed by the early scenes in Blatty's script of Regan being compelled by the demon to mutilate her body; the majority of Blair's (and double Eileen Dietz's) character design is made up of scratches and wounds that Regan gave herself. Smith's iconic design fit in perfectly with the underlying source of the film's horror, which is not a horns-and-pitchfork devil as much as it is the idea of a sweet, innocent young girl suddenly and inexplicably turning into a vulgar, perverted monster.

After four decades, The Exorcist has barely dated in its ability to freak out audiences. The reasons why are evident in the famous head-turning effect that happens twice in the movie, most memorably during the infamous crucifix scene. It's over an hour into the movie, and the audience has already been assaulted by Regan's sudden profanity and the effects, particularly the thrashing bed that caused Blair real pain, that depict the girl's violent transformation. All hell has broken loose before Regan's head turns 180 degrees and asks her terrified mother, with Burke Dennings' voice, "Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?" And the sight itself is so frighteningly uncanny, aided immensely by sound effects artist Gonzalo Gavira (who Friedkin located and hired based on his sound design for El Topo), who added the sound of a cracked leather wallet being twisted over the image of Regan's head turning; the sound design is famously as important to the entire film's success as the makeup and special effects. So we barely register the cutaway, necessary in the pre-CGI days, to match Blair's performance with the dummy necessary to sell the effect. Friedkin and everyone else involved have persuaded us to believe in the reality of the film; we don't see the strings, because we're completely along for the ride.

No comments: