You know, back in the day, we didn’t have this fancy computer graphics technology stuff. We had to do our special effects the old fashioned way: by doing it for real. We also had to walk 20 miles to school in the snow while bleeding from multiple wounds.
Rather than reminiscing on the hardships of childhood, let’s go back to early ’70s Hollywood, when director William Friedkin had the considerable challenge of bringing William Peter Blatty’s acclaimed horror novel, The Exorcist, to the big screen. How the hell was he going to pull off some of the crazy crap that’s in the novel, like making the bed levitate and making the room cold enough to see the actors’ breath and making poor Regan vomit pea soup to the point where the audience really believes it’s happening for real?
Here’s a look at some movie magic, ’70s style.
Today you can just add visible “breath” via CGI, and wham, you’re somewhere cold! Back in the early ’70s, you had to… well, actually make it cold. To achieve the effect of the demon taking a more powerful hold on Regan, William Friedkin had her bedroom turned into a freezer.
The effects team “cocooned” the set with eight inches of fiberglass insulation, isolating the space that was 40 feet square by 20 feet high. Four meat packing cooling fan units were then positioned above the area and effectively froze the set. Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller are visibly freezing in those scenes, and that’s because, well, they actually are. Linda Blair isn’t freezing, though — demons don’t get cold.
Regan’s bed was made out of steel tubing, as the effects team knew from the start that it was going to take some heavy damage being thrashed about throughout the film. The levitating bed was done with a beam that went from the back of the headboard and through the wall behind it and counter weights on either side. The bed was then lifted up and pulled back down simultaneously on either side, causing it to rock violently.
So, essentially, the effect was done “in reverse” — the bed was already up and the effects team was trying to pull it back down to the floor. Presto! Instant demonic goings-on.
Regan’s Pea Soup
There are many memorable images in The Exorcist, though the most iconic might be the one that always inspires the… well, noisiest audience response. We speak, of course, of poor Father Karras (Jason Miller) getting a face full of pea soup, vomited up by the Regan-demon. Special effects artist Dick Smith actually considered this to be the most difficult effect to achieve in the entire film.
The contraption the effects team assembled to pull off this gross-out gag was rather elaborate, sounding like the kind of thing you’d see in a Saw movie. Flattened tubes were fitted across Linda Blair’s cheeks that were connected to a tube with a nozzle that went across her mouth like a horse’s bridle. The rear part of the device went back below her ears and was connected to rubber hoses that went down her back.
The biggest challenge was actually keeping the pea soup at the proper temperature and properly seasoned. Pea soup was chosen without thinking it would become so iconic an image — it was used simply because it was relatively cheap and had a color close to the idea of bile-like vomit. Little did the effects team know such an innocuous food item would become synonymous with the idea of pure evil!
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