I was 14 the first time I saw The Exorcist. It was a Saturday night in the summer of 1979, down at the Eaton Centre Cineplex. I was with a good friend of mine, Mary, who thankfully loved horror movies as much as I did, and happily spent many a weekend night with me hunkered down in a dark theatre, where we would subject ourselves to as much slashing and gore as we could stand.And while, at the ripe old age of 14, I was still seriously underage for a seriously R-rated movie like The Exorcist, I figured that with the number of screamers under my belt, I was up for it. Several hours later, lying awake in my basement with Mary asleep beside me, I seriously doubted the wisdom of my decision.
I had heard stories about The Exorcist. It had come out several years earlier, in 1973, and now was being re-released for a limited run in 1979.
But nothing could prepare me for what would be splayed in larger-than-life Technicolor across the movie screen that night. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, it starts off rather innocently, at an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. Scary? No. But unsettling? Yes. The scorching heat, dusty earth, and deep trenches of unearthed millennia, all set against an aural backdrop of clinking hammers and the near-hypnotic Islamic call to prayer, combine to raise one’s hackles in degrees, so that by the time the dogs are fighting in the desert and clocks are stopping at the museum, you’re on edge. Something is up. Where it’s all going, you’re not quite sure, and how you’ll get from a dig in Iraq to a house in Washington, D.C. is anyone’s guess.
Eventually, all is revealed, and when it is, it’s f****** scary. Sliding ever lower in my seat at the Eaton Centre, hearing teenaged boys behind me curse and groan into their hands, I now knew what all the stink was about.
But what left its mark the most on me in The Exorcist, and what still to this day is, to my mind, the best non-special effect ever in a horror movie, is the voice of the demon. This is the demon Pazuzu that possesses 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair. If you haven’t seen the movie — or if you have and need your memory jogged — watch this short clip.
That voice makes the movie. And the person behind it was not a creepy, Gollum-like man with a hunched back and laryngitis; on the contrary, it was a rather demure woman — the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Born in 1916 in Joliet, Illinois — she died in March 2004 — she was referred to by Orson Welles as “the world’s greatest living radio actress”. For the movie, her already rich, throaty voice was apparently made more gravelly by raw eggs, cigarettes and booze, and in fact, at one point during the film, she was tied to a chair. McCambridge talks about it here.
That voice was the source of nightmares for millions of people who filled sold-out theatres to see the movie when it opened the day after Christmas in 1973. And for me, someone who has seen the movie many times — and seen many other movies about possession — there is no demon like that one. Mercedes McCambridge set the bar at a level that, in my opinion, no one else has reached.
But McCambridge is not the only woman lurking quietly (so to speak) behind the monster in The Exorcist.
You might recall the brief flashes of Pazuzu’s face — fleeting glimpses made all the more terrifying by their brevity. A man behind the makeup, you might assume — as I did. But no; once again, it’s a woman. Her name is Eileen Dietz. She seems a warm, lovely person. And why wouldn’t she be? We all know it’s makeup. It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the makeup artist on The Exorcist was Dick Smith, an Oscar-winner (for Amadeus, in 1984) and the only man in his field to win an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement. He died this past July.
The very fact that I was surprised to learn that the person behind the demon was a woman is a testament to Smith’s talent. And while I remind myself there’s a person behind that mask, it still scares the crap out of me. I echo the sentiments of one YouTuber who says, “So this is the person who did that infamous face. I never knew that till I watched this video. Scariest part of the movie is that face. I close my eyes still when I know it’s coming.”
Tonight, when the trick-or-treaters have all gone home, and the pumpkins have all gone out, I will settle down with what many horror buffs consider the scariest movie ever made. And, between my fingers, I will marvel once again at these two women. Kudos to both for being the “invisible” artists behind the movie — and for making its monsters so bloody good.