1973, and a new kind of horror was about to hit the screens in Cinema’s all over the world and it is true to say that the Horror genre would never be the same again. THE EXORCIST was at the time of its release controversial to say the least, it told the story of a twelve-year-old girl who is possessed by demons, and even now writing about it I have shivers all over. Maybe by writing about the movie I will be able to shake off my own demons that have stayed with me since that Saturday night in the Astoria cinema when I went to see the movie, a movie I might hasten to add I never did see all the way through, and still have not to this day.(yes I was one of the ones who left) The movie has since its release attained a notoriety and an infamous persona that has earned it the title of being the best horror film of all time, according to many lists of best horror films that is. Based on the book by William Peter Blatty which we are assured was based on true events, director William Friedkin helmed the production, which still freaks many out when they see it for the first time. It is considered buy fans and critics the ultimate horror and one which spawned two sequels, neither of which caused anywhere so much fuss as the original. The film was a pre-cursor also to many productions that attempted to imitate it, but these often were inferior and paled in the graphic scenes and terror filled moments of THE EXORCIST. Even when spoke of people sit up and take notice and because it is without any doubt an iconic movie, the mention of its title sparks discussion and debate. The film not only affected audiences and the way in which horror films would be made after its release but it also made an impact on the use of music within films. Director Friedkin opting to ditch an original score that had been composed by Lalo Schifrin and go for classical music of sorts by modernistic composers and of course it was partly due to the film utilizing a brief section of Mike Oldfield’s TUBULAR BELLS that catapulted that recording into the stratosphere.
The soundtrack as visualized by Friedkin is itself a terrifying experience without any images to unsettle you. Many people were up until a few years ago unaware that Shcifrin had originally been hired to write the score, and the original work turned up on a compact disc that came as part of a video box set which was released. The story is that the director threw a tantrum over something to do with the trailer that the composer had scored and literally tossed the tapes of the music out of a studio window, whether this is how it happened I can’t say, but let us just say the score was rejected. The trailer that had been put together was shown to audiences with the composer’s music and because the audience had such a violent reaction to it, ie; vomiting or running out of the cinema screaming, it was decided that it was the music that was to blame, even though Friedkin had said ok to it previously. Warner Brothers demanded a new score, which the composer has often said was not a problem, but Friedkin did not pass the studios request onto the composer who carried on writing the remainder of the music in the same style, thus Friedkin rejected it, and replaced it with tracks of his own choosing. Listening to Schifrin’s music today does make me understand why the studio would want a softer approach, as we know films of extreme horror or violence often benefit from having a soundtrack that is shall we say soothing.
Having lighter more calming music often elevates the moments of horror making them have a greater impact. Lalo Schifrin spoke of the Exorcist assignment and what happened about the music.
What happened is that the director, William Friedkin, hired me to write the music for the trailer, six minutes were recorded for the Warner’s edition of the trailer. The people who saw the trailer reacted against the film, because the scenes were heavy and frightening, so most of them went to the toilet to vomit. The trailer was terrific, but the mix of those frightening scenes and my music, which was also a very difficult and heavy score, scared the audiences away.
So, the Warner Brothers executives said Friedkin to tell me that I must write less dramatic and softer score. I could easily and perfectly do what they wanted because it was way too simple in relevance to what I have previously written, but Friedkin didn’t tell me what they said. I´m sure he did it deliberately. In the past we had an incident, caused by other reasons, and I think he wanted vengeance. This is my theory.
So strong stuff from the composer, the soundtrack that was issued on Warner’s at the time of the films release was one that you did not see around that much, I can remember it being on an import LP but is was not something I actually purchased at the time, the music did not register for me in the movie, yes I knew their was a score but it was not one that you walked out of the cinema whistling or humming. In fact, the only piece of music that stuck with me was TUBULAR BELLS and that was an album I already owned, (did’nt everyone?). The actual album of the soundtrack as issued by Warner’s I suppose you could say was a classical album or compilation conducted by Leonard Slatkin, on listening to it now I have to say it is a rather sinister sounding collection, dark and unsettling, ominous and fretful, but is that because one is aware that the music was used to track this particular movie, and is it the memories of the movie rather than the atmospherics and moods created by the music that makes it so, if you understand what I am saying?
If Friedkin or Warner’s believed Schifrin’s score was too frightening, then why did Warner’s then allow the director to track the film with the music he did? Because in my opinion it is equally as harrowing as the original score that Schifrin penned. Maybe the composer’s thoughts and comments on the whole episode about the score are well founded, who knows, not me or any of us mere mortals.
The soundtrack as compiled by Friedkin included the piece entitled, POLYMORPHIA, which is a composition for forty-eight stringed instruments, Violins, Cello, Viola and Basses feature within the piece, it was composed by Krzysztof Penderecki in the latter part of 1961, he was commissioned to write it by a German radio station and it was premiered in 1962 under the baton of Andrezej Markowski. POLYMORPHIA was one of the first compositions that the composer worked on whilst he was experimenting with his own graphic notation which had been inspired by Electroencephalograms, POLYMORPHIA is from the Greek which means MANY SHAPES OR FORMS. The sharp and brooding dissonant sounds being perfect for conjuring up a mood that is virulent or foreboding. NIGHT OF THE ELECTRIC INSECT also features on the soundtrack, written by George Crumb who was a well known avant garde composer, it is part of the BLACK ANGELS, which is referred to as an electric string quintet, and subtitled THIRTEEN IMAGES FROM A DARK LAND composed between 1969 and 1970. It is something of a mystery as to why Friedkin decided against using Schifrin’s score, but as I have already said we are mere mortals and are not privy to this, why did Kubrick not use Alex North’s superb music for 2001 A SPACE ODDYSSEY? I guess because he did not like it. The actual score written by Schifrin is a complex and highly disturbing one, When, listening to it as just music it does have the ability to make one feel uneasy and unsettled. It is said that the composer re-used some of the music in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR which was released in 1979 another shocking horror for which the composer received an Oscar nomination for best original score. So lets look at the Schifrin score and whilst we are re-visiting it also let us delve into the abyss that is the EXORCIST. Lalo Schifrin was already a well-established film music composer when he was hired to score The Exorcist, he had already big movie scores to his credit which included, BULLIT, COOL HAND LUKE and was well known because of his infectious theme for the TV series MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. From what we hear on the CD of the score that was made available there is a theme entitled ROCK BALLAD, which is something of a misleading title, because it is anything but rock orientated or led. The theme instead could be something that is used as source music in any number of movies.
I think it does not even have the normal Schifrin sound or style, and it is to be fair more easy listening than music for a horror movie, but remember what I said earlier about scoring a horror with a lighter or softer sounding score, it lulls the watching audience into a false sense of security, soothes them and calms them then BANG the film opens up and hits them square between the eyes and they had no idea it was even coming. But this is the only piece within Schifrin’s score that remotely resembles anything that is calm, the remainder is complex and hard hitting, the composer utilizing dark and shifting piano, underlined by swirling strings that sound as if they are creating a maelstrom that will pull you down and down deeper into darkness and the unknown. The strings create a grating and scratchy sound, and these are underlined and punctuated by lower sounding strings as in basses and maybe cello.
It is a harrowing and tense listening experience, but at the same time one must realize the amount of work and just how original and innovative the score is, especially at this period in the history of cinema. Many movies contained scores that were a collection of catchy little tunes, rather than being actual film music, movie studios were opting to use more songs and the original score was beginning to fade slightly, it was the era in which the so-called music supervisor began to get a credit on screen and directors and producers played at being composers by tracking their movies with already recorded material. Schifrin however, remained busy as did composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry and Jerry Fielding, Schifrin scored two other movies in the same year as working on the EXORCIST. ENTER THE DRAGON and MAGNUM FORCE were both big box office hits. Schifrin’s rejected work probably would have served the movie better, but Friedkin obviously had other ideas. The production itself was beset by various difficulties and was edited on many occasions on instruction from the film censor and also by Friedkin. But, despite the warnings from various organizations which included none other than the Catholic Church it still attracted the audiences, most of whom managed to stay and watch the entire movie.
What ever your opinion of the film, it is without a doubt, an iconic production and one that will in my opinion will have a notoriety for ever within Cinema history and will also maintain the tag of being the scariest horror movie of all time, no matter what else Hollywood serves up for consideration. Does it still scare you? It does me.