Director of photography Owen Roizman, ASCs realistic rendering of a supernatural nightmare made THE EXORCIST an immediate horror classic.
On the evening of April 3, 1998, a special screening of The Exorcist took place at Manns Chinese Theater in Hollywood as part of Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary Celebration festivities. Before the house lights dimmed and the notorious 1973 motion picture unspooled for the packed audience, director William Friedkin warmly introduced members of the films creative team: assistant director Terence A. Donnelly, film editor Bud Smith, writer/producer William Peter Blatty, and director of photography Owen Roizman, ASC. All of the men were welcomed with roaring applause as they made their way to the front of the theater, with Friedkin extolling the virtues of their individual contributions.
Following a standing ovation, the five filmmakers rejoined the audience and sat back to re-experience what they had wrought 25 years earlier. For Roizman, accompanied by his wife Mona and son Eric, it was the first time he had seen the film with an audience in many years. "Billy and I timed the print that was screened that night," says the cameraman, who was recently profiled in the February 97 issue of AC after being selected to receive the ASCs Lifetime Achievement Award. "I thought the screening went really well. The film truly holds up."
It was while Blattys 1971 novel was still creating a stir on the bestseller charts ultimately selling some 13 million copies that Roizman had his first encounter with the material. The cinematographer was in San Francisco at the time, busily shooting the comedy Play It Again, Sam for director Herbert Ross. It was the New York natives second film since shooting his feature debut, The French Connection, which was also directed by Friedkin and later earned the cameraman an Academy Award nomination. Roizman remembers, "Id come home after working long days, and every night Mona would be reading this book completely engrossed in it. I asked her what it was about and she said, This young girl has been possessed by the devil and two priests are going to exorcise her. It sounded scary as hell and I had no desire to read it.
"After I finished that picture, we returned back East, and Billy [Friedkin] called me up. He said, Ive got a great story for us to do, The Exorcist. Billy is a fantastic storyteller and he described it in such a way that I said, That sounds great! I told Mona about it and she said, Thats the same story I told you about when we were in San Francisco! I read the book right away and loved it."
Blattys bestseller was loosely based on a supposedly real case of possession that occurred in Mt. Rainier, Maryland in 1949, during which three Jesuit priests deposed a sinister spirit said to inhabit a teenage boy. While different from his novel, the authors screenplay accurately captures the books sense of unrelenting terror. The film opens at an archeological dig in the wastelands of Iraq, where Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) finds a demonic figurine of ancient origin. The elderly scholar later travels to the remains of a ruined city and confronts a statue of Pazuzu, a winged devil reminiscent of the figurine.
A world away, in the tony Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown, 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) lives with her movie-star mother, Chris (Ellen Berstyn), who is working on a new film there. A poltergeist infestation plagues the house, focusing on Regan, who exhibits violent multiple personalities. Extensive, painful medical tests reveal nothing. Desperate, a doctor explains the practice of exorcism, suggesting to Chris that the ritual may psychologically help Regan.
Meanwhile, the director of Chriss film, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), is found dead at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs located near the MacNeil house. He had last been seen in Regans room. Down the road, a Catholic church is obscenely desecrated. Theorizing that the two crimes may be witchcraft-related, crusty police lieutenant William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) pays a visit to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), an intense young priest from the nearby Jesuit university. Karras is struggling with a loss of faith and the death of his mother. Kinderman also meets with Chris, who suspects that Regan may have had a hand in Dennings fate.
Frightened, Chris asks Karras to perform an exorcism on her daughter. Though skeptical, the priest agrees to see Regan and finds that the girl has undergone a hideous transformation. He makes a case to his superiors in the church that an exorcism should be performed. In turn, they summon Father Lankester Merrin.
The two priests enter Regans bedroom and valiantly attempt to cast the spirit from her body. Merrin dies during the ceremony and Karras loses control, pummeling the fiendish creature Regan has become and demanding, "Come into me!"
The spirit does so, freeing Regan to take hold of the priest, who uses his final bit of free will to leap through the bedroom window and plunge to his death on the same spot where Dennings had been found. As he lies dying, he is given last rites by his friend, Father Dyer (Rev. William OMalley, SJ). Karras has defeated the Devil by sacrificing himself.
To better understand the story and events that take place in The Exorcist, Roizman also read the primary source material that inspired Blattys novel: a diary account of the Mt. Rainier case written by one of the priests involved. "It seemed so real," the cinematographer remembers, "and for me it was scarier than the book. I always research a picture as much as possible, and on The Exorcist, it helped to know that there were cases like this and to experience the fright that I felt when I read about all of these odd things that supposedly occurred. Blatty also lent me an audio tape of an exorcism that was performed on a boy in Italy. The whole thing was in Italian, so I didnt understand any of the words, but the sounds that came out of the boys mouth were unbelievable. After that, I was prepared psychologically to get into this picture."
This connection to the real world played directly into Roizmans photographic style. He and Friedkin wanted to tackle The Exorcist with what the cameraman describes as "a very naturalistic look. Billy didnt want it to look like one of these clichéd Hollywood horror films. He felt the story would be best presented if the audience felt it had a realistic setting, and that this situation could actually happen. I agreed, because if we could make the audience unaware of the lighting and the presence of the camera, then they would really believe. This feeling also came from my reading Blattys research material and listening to that tape, which made me picture in my mind the reality of those situations. But Billy said that hed like to keep the visual style a step above what wed done on The French Connection, and not go for such a raw documentary feeling. This film was to be a bit slicker and have a more controlled look, so thats what we attempted to get."
This plan was rigidly adhered to throughout the production, though it sometimes made Roizmans job more complicated, and necessitated a pervasive use of indirect lighting since sources were often limited. However, to avoid any semblance of flatness, this soft illumination was often brought in from extreme high or low angles, contradicting the nature of the given environment to create a general air of unease. As an example, the cinematographer offers, "We would sometimes use heavily diffused light from directly above the actors, which would not be normal in a room where the primary sources were table and floor lamps. But the effect was very subtle, and we avoided the extreme use of shadows."
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