October 31, 2006

3600 Prospect in 'Movie Makeup'

Compare the above screenshot (appears at time code 28:49 in the "Special Edition" version of The Exorcist) of the "McNeil House" with the actual structure as it appears today (below), minus the built-on mansard roof and side wing created for the film. While the screenshot is a bit vertically compressed, the core of the house and portions of the front gate are easily recognizable in both images.

If you've seen the actual house in Georgetown, you may wonder about the film's logistics regarding characters Burke Dennings and Damien Karras being flung from an upstairs bedroom window down the "Hitchcock Steps" - in reality, the windows are are a good 20 feet away from the fence surrounding the house! In addition, an early scene in the film is set in a full-height attic, which the actual building doesn't appear to be able to accomodate above its second floor.

That's where the made-for-the-movie side wing addition comes in. By extending the house closer towards the 'Steps,' and building a full attic height mansard roof, the film's creators built a visual setting faithful to the novel. [Top image © Warner Brothers Corp., lower image on Flickr under Creative Commons 2.5.]

The 'Exorcist House' in Georgetown, DC

October 30, 2006

Ellen Burstyn Halloween Booksigning in Chicago

Renowned actor Ellen Burstyn ("Chris McNeil" in "The Exorcist," "Requiem for a Dream," "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood") will be signing copies of her autobiography, "Lessons in Becoming Myself," at Chicago's Swedish American Museum Center (5211 N. Clark Street, in the Andersonville neghborhood) tonight at 7:30pm, and tomorrow (Halloween!) at 12:30pm at Borders, 150 N. State Street, Chicago. [via ChicagoIST]

Ellen Burstyn on IMDb

September 29, 2006

The Exorcist Steps, August 2006


On my recent visit to Washington, DC, I took some new photos in Georgetown; this one's a slightly different angle, taken through an amber polarizing filter. The full size version is available at Flickr. Zoom in on the 1280 x 960 size, and you'll see a local DC news crew camera and reporter at the base of the steps - not sure what the occasion was.

September 21, 2006

Healy Hall, Georgetown University


Note the distinctive clock tower - Wikipedia provides an interesting bit of trivia:
A tradition at Georgetown involves students stealing the clock hands from the tower and mailing them to the Vatican, where they are supposed to be simply stamped 'return to sender' and returned to the university. One such incident caused significant damage to the clock mechanism, however, and security has been increased as a result in recent years, decreasing the incidence of the theft.
More Healy Hall lore can be found at The Hoya, GU's campus paper archives.

September 20, 2006

Just Where Was That Exorcist Scene Shot?

In case you hadn't found it yourselves already, IMDb has a comprehensive list of the locations used in filming The Exorcist.

Here's what 3600 Prospect Street in Georgetown - the "McNeil House" - looks like today.

The 'Exorcist House' in Georgetown, DC

Dahlgren Chapel in August

Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University

Note, this new series of "Exorcist Revisited" photos is available on Flickr™ under a Creative Commons license.

August 12, 2006

New Photos of "Exorcist Georgetown" Coming Soon

I've just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. with fresh 2006 images of the locales used in the original Exorcist film, including the "Hitchcock Steps," Georgetown University, and a peek behind the black fence at the real "Exorcist House" at the corner of 36th and Prospect. Stay tuned!

August 25, 2005

The Exorcist: A Brief Manifesto

William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel captured our imaginations with its tale of ancient evil and demonic possession striking at the heart of a vulnerable newly divorced American family. But before we talk about the Exorcist phenomenon's cultural significance, let's begin with a quick synopsis of the story.

"Evil against evil"

The novel's opening scene is a sun baked archaeological dig in the desert near Mosul, Iraq. Father Lankester Merrin, a Jesuit scholar (whose character was reportedly based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), is taking part in the 'dig' when a worker rushes to tell him the local laborers have found something at the base of a mound.

Merrin is struck with deep fear when the artifact turns out to be an ancient clay figurine depicting the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, the "evil spirit of the southwest wind" - the entity he battled in an earlier African exorcism (this earlier storyline is the basis of the new Exorcist:Dominion prequel screenplay). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Georgetown, DC, actress Chris MacNeil is living with her charmingly innocent pre-teen daughter Regan, when strange things begin to happen at their rented Prospect Street home.

Captain Howdy

Regan shows her mother a Ouija board she had found in the attic and has been secretly using, and tells of a 'spirit' she has been 'conversing' with - "Captain Howdy". Chris brushes off the incident as a case of the 'imaginary friend' or Regan's longing for her absent father, whose name is Howard. But soon, frightening noises and poltergeist-type events start to occur, and Regan begins a startling psychological and physical change - acts of violence, obscene outbursts and precocious sexuality - for which neither doctors nor psychologists have any explanation.
Doctor: "Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance. Now, for example, say a 90 pound woman sees her child pinned under the wheel of a truck. Runs out and lifts the wheels a half a foot up off the ground - you've heard the story - same thing here. Same principle, I mean."
Chris: "So what's wrong with her?"
Doctor: "We still think the temporal lobe."
Chris: (hysterically) "Oh what are you talking about, for Christ's sakes. Did you see her or not? She's acting like she's f***ing out of her mind, psychotic, like a... split personality or ..."
Doctor: "There haven't been more than a hundred authentic cases of so-called split personality, Mrs. MacNeil. Now I know the temptation is to leap to psychiatry. But any reasonable psychiatrist would exhaust the somatic possibilities first. "
Chris: "So, what's next?"
Parallel to the MacNeil's troubles, Jesuit priest/psychologist Damien Karras is suffering a crisis of his own: he has lost his faith, and feels he can no longer minister to other troubled priests in the Order. He also blames himself for the recent death of his ailing Greek immigrant mother, who lived alone in New York. Meanwhile, ritual church desecrations and a bizarre witchcraft-style murder bring police Lieutenant William Kinderman into the picture, looking for a killer.
Doctor: "There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment - as I said, it's a very outside chance...Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it's a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest tries to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It's been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but uh, it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think, of course. It's purely a force of suggestion. The victim's belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear."
Chris: (uneasily) "You're telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?"
An atheist, Chris is at initially unwilling to turn to the Catholic Church for help. She eventually decides to approach Father Karras, whom she has seen at her film shoots at Georgetown. They meet surreptitiously at the C&O canal, but when she finally musters the courage to ask, Karras reveals he isn't a believer in exorcism himself.
Chris: "So, how do you go about getting an exorcism?"

Karras: "Well, the first thing - I'd have to get into a time machine and get back to the 16th century...Well, it just doesn't happen any more, Mrs. MacNeil...since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia...Since the day I joined the Jesuits, I've never met one priest who has performed an exorcism. Not one."
In desperation, Chris begs Karras to at least see her daughter, since "every shrink and doctor in the book has seen her, and can't find what's wrong." Karras agrees, and is shocked - the once lively girl has been reduced to a drugged, restrained invalid, tied to her bed and tube-fed. She has scars and open wounds on her livid face and body, and for a child, uses an unbelievably colorful range of obscenities. Eerily, she seems to know details of his private life, including his mother's recent death, and Regan - or the being within her - claims to be the Devil himself, which in Karras' words, is tantamount to a "mental patient claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte."

Being in a crisis of faith, he does not believe supernatural forces are at work. As a test, Karras sprinkles the girl with tap water from a holy water dispenser, to which she reacts by writhing and screaming in pain as if struck by a scalding object. Later, when he speaks privately with Chris, Karras reveals the 'tap water' trick and tells her that Regan's reactions don't support a case for exorcism.

Then, as a favor to Karras, a Georgetown University language researcher listens to a tape recording of Regan's bizarrely altered voice and makes a startling discovery.


With new-found evidence that falls under the Church's strict criteria for possession, Karras approaches his superiors and files a request to perform the exorcism himself. The officials reluctantly agree - under the condition that Father Merrin be summoned to lead the ritual, with Karras assisting. Everyone's lives converge and culminate in a terrifying exorcism that claims the lives of several of the characters, while it reinforces and renews the survivors' faith in the end.

Rather than being solely a heavy-handed "religious horror" book, The Exorcist is laced with poignant moments, humanistic observation, philosophical reflections and Blatty's trademark dry humor (most noticeable in the dialogue between Lt. Kinderman and Fathers Dyer and Karras).

It is a well-written, original and engrossing book; equal parts detective story, theological mystery and horror novel. But in many ways, I believe the spirit and events of the early 1970's era had much to do with the book's (and the film's) runaway success as its entertainment value. Something we'll discuss later in depth - but is worth mentioning right now - is that the book and the novel do not, as many people who have not read it assert - promote demon worship, Satanism, or what have you. In actuality, Good triumphs in the book, not Evil, and many sources have called The Exorcist one of the "best advertisements for [the] Catholic faith". To see just why Blatty's book struck such a nerve, it is important to look at the 'demons' our country was battling back then, as well.


The bogeymen of the 1970's seem far different from those inhabiting our collective, post-9/11 fears today. Back then we were facing the betrayals of Watergate afresh, and the country was spinning headlong into recession. Mores were changing rapidly, and cultural standards were shifting in ways we had never seen before. The sexual revolution had passed from ingenuous Sixties 'free love' into randy Disco-era adolescent excess, and drug use (and abuse) was at an all-time high.

We had seen chaos and death in the shocking riots of Watts and Chicago, and at Kent State. The Manson 'Family' cult brought icy fear to national headlines with a series of cold-blooded, occult-themed killings in California. Protest placards and magazine covers lamented, "Is God Dead?"

The 'Rights' movements unquestionably produced beneficial social progress, but they also stirred national tension at the time as we struggled to adjust to new ways of thinking and living in our communities. Neighborhoods around the country underwent a painful period of change, and values we held sacred in the 'postwar boom era' were melting into uncertainly. On a national level, divorce, crime and unemployment rates skyrocketed, and our children seemed to be "slipping out of our hands", almost as if they were - possessed by a malevolent force outside our control?

Perhaps there lies the key: The Exorcist effectively crystallized the anxiety many parents felt at the upsetting transformation their children's generation was undergoing. Think of exactly why we found the images of sweet, innocent Regan MacNeil lashing out with obscenities and abusing herself so shocking: they served as a gruesome nightmare vision of the times' spiraling social changes.

Many of the "shocker" scenes in the original novel and film seem almost tame or humorous today, considering the gory graphic visuals used in most current genre films - but today's horror movies owe a large debt to The Exorcist for breaking that barrier. Nonetheless, many of the most frightening aspects of The Exorcist are the things we don't see on-screen: this is where the novel can be said to be arguably superior.

May 04, 2005

Exorcist: Dominion - The Version We Should Have Seen

Father Merrin and the Demon in Paul Schrader's Exorcist: Dominion [image coutresy Warner Brothers]On May 20th, Paul Schrader's "shelved" original prequel to the Exorcist film series will hit theaters, and from what I've read so far, this version of the film may be every bit as good as Renny Harlin's eleventh-hour reshoot was awful. I honestly never expected this version of the film to see any big screen time at all, despite the franchise's fan base clamoring, so news of its 110-screen limited release was a pleasant surprise.

The series' two previous 'sequels' (as well as the Harlin prequel) withered in the long shadow cast by the gory and psychologically complex 1974 Exorcist; unfortunately producers of the subsequent films seemed to recall only the original's grue and profanity, but precious little of its depth. Schrader - best known for dark, intelligent movies like Taxi Driver, The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ - seemed like the ideal director for the "serious" opener to the series, examining young Father Merrin's (Stellan Skarsgard) post-World War II crisis of faith, and his first encounters with demonic possession in Africa. Roger Ebert says:
A milestone in movie history. Same premise, same hero, same leading actor, two directors, two completely different visions. Not a "director's cut" but a different director and a different film.

Schrader's "Exorcist Prequel" is not a conventional horror film, but does something risky and daring: It takes evil seriously. There really are dark Satanic forces in the Schrader version, which takes a character forever scarred by the Holocaust and asks if he can ever again believe in the power of God. The movie is drenched in atmosphere and dread, boldly confronting the possibility that Satan is active in the world. Instead of cheap thrills, Schrader gives us a frightening vision of a good priest (Stellan Skarsgard) who fears goodness may not be enough.

After Schrader delivered this version, the studio apparently found it too complex and intelligent, although those of course were not the words they used, and not scary enough. Well, it seems scary to me. They commissioned a different version by Renny Harlin, unseen by me because it was not screened for the press (never a good sign). He replaced three of the four key actors, although not Skarsgard, and produced a work that clanged in at 11 percent on the Tomatometer.

Then the studio decided to release this original version. Schrader, whose screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" and directorial achievements like "Hardcore" and "The Comfort of Strangers" reveal a deep obsession with the war between good and evil, was the right director, and this is a film that works. Those who have seen the earlier version, may find the two films instructive as an illustration of the gulf between a personal vision and a multiplex product.
The LA Times reveals the - how shall we say, unusual - marketing strategy of "The Exorcist v4.2" (if truth be told, Harlin's should have been the real v4.2):
"Dominion" will be distributed by Warner Bros. and hits theaters the same weekend as the hotly anticipated "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" — a risky but strategic counter-programming plan.

The strategy also poses an unusual marketing dilemma for Morgan Creek. In marketing two versions of the same movie, is it better to emphasize the films' shared lineage? Or their differences? "Therein lies the problem," said Brian Robinson. "How do you make them so they're related but show their differences in a 30-second TV spot?"

Morgan Creek's marketing campaign for the movie is still being finalized, but tentative plans exist to use a blurb from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert that pays tribute to the Schrader version while also distinguishing it from the Harlin version of the film.
Roger Ebert's preview of Paul Schrader's Exorcist: Dominion
Exorcist: Dominion preview on The Bloody News

August 12, 2004

Paul Schrader Speaks Out On Exorcist: The Beginning

The Independent and The Guardian have some very good interviews with Paul Schrader, discussing matters of film, esthetics and marketing...and yes, the Exorcist prequel:
With hindsight, Schrader likens the whole farrago to "a simple case of buyer's remorse. Somebody goes out and buys a Lexus and they come home and say: 'You know what? I should really have bought a Hummer.' So they go out and buy a Hummer. And then they've got a Lexus and a Hummer."

So what happens to the Lexus? "Well, that's where it gets interesting," he chortles. He's heard a rumour that his Exorcist may eventually be released on DVD, although he has yet to get this in writing. He hopes the backers might even go so far as to screen the two films side-by-side and let the audience decide which they like. "In the end it's a revenue stream," he says. "And all revenue streams eventually reach the sea."

August 03, 2004

E4 Slated to Open August 20 in Chicago Area

Father Merrin and Pazuzu from Exorcist: The Beginning, courtesy Warner Bros.If you haven't visited already, be sure to check out Warner Bros.' official Exorcist: The Beginning site. You'll find some snazzy interactive animation, wallpapers and screenshots in addition to the usual film website content. The local Century Theaters in Evanston lists August 20th as the opening date.

The curious can view the International Extended trailer on Apple.com [QuickTime™ required], for a far better taste of the new film's feel and content than the rather nondescript version available on the official website. A different cut of the trailer is available here, on LatinoReview.

My gut instinct after seeing both trailers tells me the movie will be much more contemporary action-driven Hollywood horror than an extension of the original (but then, we expected this) - the version with Renny Harlin's direction will likely be competent but lacking the psychological profundities of Paul Schrader's.

However, the original film drew much of its strength from its pedestrian American setting: how could the ultimate Evil lodge in a sweet little girl living in Georgetown, who loves pony rides? The first Exorcist established the foreign origins of the demon by its bright opening in the scorching sands of ancient Mosul, cutting abruptly to the dark, candlelit attic where Chris MacNeil [Ellen Burstyn] first hears the mysterious sounds she takes for rats. The jarring nature of the transition from light/old to dark/new gives the film's opening minutes a potent punch.

I expect fewer surprises in the new film. Here in E4, we are treated to an array of exotic, historical locales and film sets, and subconsciously viewers will be conditioned to expect the strange in strange lands, so to speak.

Reports say that both helmer's takes will likely be released to DVD, although it's uncertain if they will arrive in the same package. As always, you'll find fresh and detailed Exorcist IV news on CaptainHowdy.com.

Georgetown University: Inside Healy Hall

Stairs leading to second floor of Healy Hall, scene where Father Karras goes to meet with Church leaders to request the MacNeil exorcism.

Stairs leading to second floor of Healy Hall, which appear in the scene where Father Karras goes to meet with Church leaders to request permission for Regan MacNeil's exorcism. [Photo taken 2002]

Bill Blatty Doesn't Live Here Any More

William Peter Blatty's old residence during his early 'Exorcist' writing days

But he used to, or so I hear. This is 3618 Prospect Street, reportedly one of author William Peter Blatty's former residences during his Georgetown days.

Georgetown University: Healy Hall 2

A front view of Healy Hall, where the Chris MacNeil 'student protest' scene was shot

This is a front view of Healy Hall from the summer of 2002, showing the locale where the "film within a film" scene in the original Exorcist was filmed [below, image © Warner Brothers].

Georgetown University: Healy Hall

Georgetown University's Healy Hall

This is a view through the archway of Dahlgren Chapel, looking towards Healy Hall.

June 01, 2004

Better the devil you know

Mark Kermode ("The Fear of God") breaks the silence on Exorcist: The Beginning in a rare piece for the Guardian UK:
Even by the bedevilled standards of Exorcist movies, which have legendarily fallen foul of fires, deaths, bans, reshoots, jinxes and law-suits, the problems haunting Exorcist: The Beginning are hellish. No wonder the writer and director of the original 1973 classic, about the possession of a young girl in contemporary Washington DC, declined any involvement in this infernal affair.
More at CaptainHowdy.com

February 23, 2004

Exorcist 4 : The Updates

Setting aside any preconceptions about the Exorcist prequel, allow me to direct you to a few links that may be of cinephilic interest:Current conclusion: has potential; original Schrader cut probably should have been retained.

December 19, 2003

The Exorcist Steps, Part III

Another view of the Exorcist Steps taken August 2002, with three stairclimbers to provide a little scale.  These steep steps are quite the challenge on the calves.

Another view of the Exorcist Steps taken August 2002, with three stairclimbers to provide a little scale; and yes, in person they do look even creepier and more gothic that their age would suggest. As you can gather, these steep steps are quite the challenge on the calves.

December 12, 2003

The Long and Winding Road to E:4

Sad to say, but the latest series of developments in the Exorcist: The Beginning saga have made me give up on any sort of anticipation for the fourth film in the franchise. Quite honestly, it's expecting a bit much from fans and filmmakers alike to wait through the countless name, personnel, screenwriter and production company changes this project has seen to date. Though I'm not really one of those fans that insists "they'll never make another good Exorcist film," I am approaching that conclusion of late. The movie has been renamed, reconceived and rewritten (and is now being re-shot under the droll shoot-em-up eye of Renny Harlin) to the point of losing its entire identity and raison d'etre.
On IMDb E:4 Forum: "Let's hope that Schrader-helmed footage is in a nice safe place for an eventual Director's Cut - sounds like that will be a fanbase-driven project, because there probably won't be any initial direct financial incentive to create one. What it boils down to, I think, is that fans have been expecting introspective, intellectual horror from the "The Exorcist" sequels since the original, but E2:TH and E3 never delivered to any significant extent. Hollywood remembers the long box-office lines, and chalks that up to the pea-soup and crucifix scenes - while most long-term Exorcist fans remember the deep pit-of-your-stomach-and-base-of-your-brain-stem dread the original film stirred up. We're not going to get that with a Renny Harlin redo. But it's 2003, not 1973 - and pea soup vomit just ain't the audience draw it used to be. It's a shame we fans may never get the sequel we fans deserve. I'll wait for the rental; E4 will probably go straight to video after a week in the theaters, anyway. "
Sometimes I just don't get Hollywood. I know money is the driving factor behind 99% of all filmmaking decisions, but surely some company should be farsighted enough to know that a subtler, chillier, more critically acclaimed film stands to make more money in the long run than a dumbed-down cheap-thrills gorefest that slides direct-to-video after the first week of theatrical release? Rumors abound regarding the departure/firing of E:4 director du jour Paul Schrader, but numerous reports say the film he delivered was seen as "not containing enough action scenes" and "too cerebral" by the holders of the pursestrings - hence, the new director hurriedly reshooting the film for a purported 2005 release.

[Originally Posted August 2002]
"As of this writing, late August 2002, shooting was scheduled to begin on the fourth installment of the Exorcist film saga; however, the project has been plagued with an unbelievable number of snafus and false starts - not the least of which is deciding what the film will be called. Right now, the name has been re-re-re-changed (other tentative monikers have included Exorcist IV, Exorcist 4:1, E4(!) and Exorcist: The Beginning) back to its original working title, Exorcist: Dominion.

Stellan Skarsgård is the latest thespian in line to star in the role of young Father Merrin, since Liam Neeson recently bowed out. The story is set in Africa during the exorcism of a teenage boy that nearly cost Merrin his life - you may remember this event mentioned in passing in the original film and novel, and expanded upon, albeit indirectly - in the 1977 John Boorman film Exorcist II: The Heretic. However, I'm hesitant to list any other cast members, since they seem to come and go with amazing ease.

"I don't like people playing with one of my very central characters.
It does not have my blessing. Far from it."

- author William Peter Blatty on the prequel, in a Variety interview by Jonathan Dingman

Blatty may not appreciate people playing with one of his characters, but realistically, one of the burdens of creating a story that takes on a life of its own is that the audience will continually be 'hungry for more'. Thirty years later, The Exorcist remains a major cult phenomenon, and there will probably be a large fan base for decades to come. If the original creator can't - or won't - provide more, then someone will, especially if there's money to be made. However, there is a fine line between keeping an optimal level of 'product' and glutting the market: it's possible one of the reasons The Exorcist stayed so popular is that the sequels have been few and far between.

The prequel film has a great deal of potential to either succeed or tank miserably direct-to-video. Only time will tell. One of my hopes is that the creators won't get CGI-happy and fill the screen with tons of unnecessary special effects at the expense of a decent story (I haven't read the bootlegged screenplay, which was recently posted on the Web and subsequently pulled). After all, that's what made the original the classic it is. Most fans that I talk to love the multi-layered, primal theological horror aspect of the film far more than the pea soup. We don't need a Shrek In Hell.

If the three extant Exorcist movies have one thing in common, it's their amazing inconsistency. I'd like to be optimistic and hope that this 'prequel' will be more along the lines of Exorcist III, not II. Approaching the power of the original would seem like too much to ask for."