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posted: 12/26/2013 6:00 AM

'Exorcist': The scary movie that opened the eyes of a future film critic

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  • Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin poses in the iconic scene from William Friedkin's "The Exorcist," inspired by "Citizen Kane" cinematographer Gregg Toland, a native of Charleston, Ill., just like Dann Gire.

      Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin poses in the iconic scene from William Friedkin's "The Exorcist," inspired by "Citizen Kane" cinematographer Gregg Toland, a native of Charleston, Ill., just like Dann Gire.

  • Young Linda Blair portrays a possessed Regan MacNeil in "The Exorcist," the scary movie that changed Dann Gire's life.

      Young Linda Blair portrays a possessed Regan MacNeil in "The Exorcist," the scary movie that changed Dann Gire's life.

  • Video: EXORCIST trailer


William Friedkin's "The Exorcist," the scariest movie ever made, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week.

It originally invaded theaters Dec. 26, 1973, as sort of a bizarre, belated Christmas present to horror fans and Catholics.

The Church reported that after "The Exorcist" premiered, hundreds of thousands of Catholics -- especially the lapsed kind -- flooded into the pews, making it the first movie to actually scare the bejesus into people.

I have a special affection for "The Exorcist," with its spinning heads, projectile pea-soup hurling, crucifix abuse and tinkling on the living room carpet.

Up until "The Exorcist," I thought of movies as simple entertainment vehicles, disposable weekend activities to talk about on Monday mornings and forget about.

When I observed Friedkin's movie, I saw within it the possibility of serious art. Of literary symbolism. Of style. Of craft. Of something magical.

Father Karris' religious medallion falls in slow motion to the pavement, just as the priest's faith begins to fall. The arrival of Father Merrin at the Georgetown home of little Regan is shot with the same stark source lighting as scenes from the classic "Citizen Kane" (which Friedkin emulated).

Today, these are obvious connections. Back then, they were revelations for a student whose eyes were being slowly pried open like Malcolm McDowell's ocular orbs in "A Clockwork Orange."

In 1973, multiplexes didn't exist. Warner Bros. released "The Exorcist" in only 30 theaters, without showing it to the press, because studio executives had no idea they had a huge hit on their hands.

I, like most of America, didn't see "The Exorcist" until well into 1974 when it expanded outside of the bigger markets. It opened in Chicago theaters long before it came to the Orpheum Theater in downstate Champaign where I eventually saw it.

In 1974, my girlfriend (and future wife) Peggy Burke and I were students at Eastern Illinois University, where we spent a lot of time in the theater department, along with theater major John Malkovich.

One weekend, he traveled to Chicago to see "The Exorcist." He returned to campus and told his friends how he had waited in long, long cold lines outside a theater to catch the next showing.

Then the doors suddenly swung open and the air filled with heat and the fetid odor of mass regurgitation.

Malkovich described how shocked and frightened the moviegoers appeared. Some were crying. Others had to be helped out into the parking lot. Some had foreign matter splattered in their hair and on their coats.

One dazed man, his eyes spinning like a pinwheel in a tornado, rush up to Malkovich and grabbed him.

"Whatever you do," the man shouted, "for God's sake! Don't go in there!"

But Malkovich did, as did I much later.

I watched "The Exorcist" seven times in the theater, each time noticing how Friedkin structured the story, based on a 1949 case study of a possessed boy that novelist William Peter Blatty used as the catalyst for his best-seller.

When the movie finally arrived in my hometown of downstate Charleston, I pleaded with the manager of the Will Rogers Theater to give me the giant 60-by-60-inch "Exorcist" poster in the lobby when the movie finished its run.

He did.

I wrote several pieces about the "The Exorcist" in the campus newspaper, the Daily Eastern News. I was just a fledgling film student in a time before film schools came into vogue.

I had no clue that in a few years, I would actually meet and speak to "Exorcist" stars Max von Sydow (he came to Chicago promoting "Flash Gordon," in which he played Ming the Merciless), Ellen Burstyn (she came promoting "Same Time, Next Year") and Linda Blair (whom I ran into at the grand opening of Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando).

I have also interviewed the Chicago-born director a couple of times, first when he came to the Windy City to promote "To Live and Die in L.A."

Weirdly enough, we met on Oct. 10, 1985, the same day that Orson Welles died. Welles, whose cinematic vision served as the inspiration for Friedkin's horror epic.

Somehow, Friedkin had obtained an original Associated Press Teletype bulletin announcing Welles' death. (Friedkin worked at WGN TV news before he ventured into the movies. Hmmm.) Friedkin showed me the bulletin, noting a spelling error that read, "Welles was 70 years odd."

Earlier this year. the Chicago Film Critics Association launched its first film festival at the Muvico Rosemont 18 Theaters. We invited Friedkin to come and show a 35 mm. restoration of his 1977 thriller "Sorcerer." And he accepted.

On Saturday night of the festival, several critics and I had dinner with Friedkin. At his request, we brought in Giordano's pizza, his favorite.

I brought something else, too: my original "Exorcist" poster I snared from the Will Rogers Theater 40 years ago.

Friedkin signed it and dated it.

The poster remains the only piece of signed movie memorabilia I possess.

Someday, I must get it framed.


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