There was a time in the 90s where it was quite difficult to see The Exorcist if you lived in the UK – at least, not legitimately. It might seem strange, in today’s era of high-speed internet, that such a major horror film would be so tantalisingly out of reach; yet thanks to a ruling by the BBFC in 1988, The Exorcist was deemed too intense for younger viewers, and the VHS was withdrawn from sale.
It says a great deal about the power of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film that, even 15 years after its release, it was considered too strong to be sold freely as a videotape. Sure, there were still old copies of The Exorcist knocking around in people’s homes, but the 1988 withdrawal gave the film an almost mythical status; among the generation of young, British horror fans who were just getting into the genre in the 1990s, The Exorcist was the subject of fascination – the movie so corrupting that the British Film Board thought that people shouldn’t be allowed to own a copy.
By 1998, The Exorcist’s 25th anniversary, the movie was a decade out of print – and so when Warner Bros decided to give it a theatrical re-release, the news sparked considerable interest. The anticipation was stoked further by The Fear Of God: 25 Years Of The Exorcist, Mark Kermode and Nick Freand Jones’ superb documentary about the movie and the sometimes extreme lengths Friedkin went to make it.
All of this explains why, on Halloween night that year, your humble writer went to the local multiplex to watch The Exorcist. Nor was I alone; the entire screening room was full of people waiting to be thrilled and horrified by a much-vaunted classic. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
It’s almost 20 years since that fateful night, and my memory of certain details is hazy. It wasn’t quite a midnight screening, exactly, but there are two things I do know: one, it was a Friday or Saturday night, and two, the film started after the pubs closed. These are important points to observe, because they explain why seemingly everyone in the room was roaring drunk.
As soon as the opening credits ran, I knew this was going to be a long evening. Some people were still holding the half-full pint glasses they’d taken with them from the pub. Others were just tittering into their hands at odd things like Max Von Sydow’s face, or the mere sight of the name “William Peter Blatty.”
And then came the true turning point: only a few minutes in, Max von Sydow’s character faces the pale statue of Pazuzu, the ancient demon of Mesopotamian origin. The statue has a supernaturally huge, punishing erection.
For the crowd jammed into the cinema, this was the horror equivalent of Del Boy falling through the bar: cue peals of loud, uninterrupted laughter.
Pazuzu’s erection proved to be the breakpoint. Thereafter, this particular screening of The Exorcist turned into the kind of participatory experience that would make your average Rocky Horror Picture Show sing-along screening look subdued. The sight of 70s clothing (flares, dungarees and so forth) prompted shouts of derision. Every time Linda Blair swore (which is a lot): laughter, and later thunderous cheers.
The jeering, boozing and hollering also caused chaos in some audience members’ digestive systems. About half an hour into the movie, people began to fart loudly and with enthusiasm. Afterwards, they would laugh at their own farts. All this, coupled with the stuffy heat generated by all those jostling bodies and half-consumed pints, resulted in an unholy aroma worthy of Pazuzu himself.
It’s possible that The Exorcist’s fearsome reputation may have been its undoing in this particular instance. Once billed by some critics as the scariest film ever made, The Exorcist is really more of a creeping, cerebral kind of scary than a pulse-pounding bloodbath; it’s a film about the nature of evil and the corruption of an innocent. It was never part of the early-80s wave of ultra-violent Video Nasties that were banned in the UK, and in any case, comedies like Repossessed had long since parodied any moments that once seemed shocking.
Once the Halloween audience realised all this, they rounded on it, like a class full of kids who’ve realised that their new supply teacher isn’t quite as authoritarian as they’d feared. And once the laughter and the heckling began, there was no going back. Linda Blair spewing forth pea-green vomit wasn’t horrifying – it was a punch-the-air moment, like Luke taking down the Death Star.
In retrospect, it was a funny experience. At the time, it was nightmarish: I’d gone with the naive hope of being swept away by a film I’d wanted to see for years. Instead, I found myself in the midst of a social event that was like the bit in Gremlins where all the monsters go and watch Snow White. Indeed, the experience was so scarring that, in the 20 years since, I’ve never dared go to a midnight screening of a major new film.
Every time I’m tempted to rush to the cinema to see the first possible showing of a movie I’m excited about, I remember that hooting, flatulent screening in 1998, and shudder.
And now it’s over to you. Feel free to leave your own story of film screenings that went very wrong in the comments below…!