ByCary Hill, writer at
Writer, Filmmaker, Keymaster @lostarkraider
Cary Hill

Napoleon. Aryan Papers. I Stole 16 Million Dollars. Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick had a number of unrealized projects, all of which could have been fascinating in their own right. In terms of sheer potential, the greatest 'could have been' would be The Exorcist, which Warner Brothers offered to the director in the early '70s.

Kubrick would ultimately pass on the project, stating (according to director William Friedkin) that he "preferred to develop his own stuff." Kubrick, of course, would go back on this by adapting Stephen King's The Shining in 1980. But what if Kubrick had taken on The Exorcist? The prospect alone is difficult to wrap your brain around, especially with this Kubrick quote from a 1963 interview:

“The whole idea of God is absurd. If anything, '2001' shows that what some people call 'God' is simply an acceptable term for their ignorance. What they don't understand, they call 'God'.

Religion as a whole is absent from Kubrick's films, except for a brief interlude in A Clockwork Orange with Alex spending time at mass and the library with the chaplain. In the story of The Exorcist, religion is front and center in a battle over a Regan's soul.

I don't think Kubrick would have dispensed with the Catholic church's role in the film. How could you? The titular character of the film is a Catholic priest. But Kubrick would have downplayed the idea of good versus evil, God against demons. Instead, he would have made the cause of Regan's condition ambiguous, generating a discussion as to whether the girl was merely psychotic or what we were witnessing was dream all along.

  The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)

The only reference we have on Kubrick and the supernatural (and horror) comes from his 1980 film The Shining. We see the ambiguity with Jack Torrence, who walks a balance between the psychological and the supernatural. His son Danny, with his 'shining' ability, represents the supernatural while his wife, Wendy, suffers psychologically at the hands of Jack, and remains insulated from the supernatural from most of the film. If we use this as a model for how Kubrick would approach The Exorcist, it would be told from the point of view of Father Karras who, like Jack, would walk a line between psychological and supernatural. This fits, as Karras is both a priest and a psychiatrist. His perspective would be the audience's - is this little girl captured by the supernatural, or merely psychotic and all is happening is the result of a human mind?

It becomes even more eerie with a comparison between Danny and Regan. Both have imaginary friends - Regan's "Captain Howdy" and Danny's little man that lives in his throat: "Tony." Both children are shy and quiet. Both are sheltered by their mothers.

If Kubrick focuses the story on is-this-happening-or-is-she-crazy, the first things to go would be the archaeological dig at the beginning and the finding of the Pazuzu idol outside the home at the end. Kubrick would dispense with possible explanations deriving from outside. For the duration of the film, the human mind must remain a suspect, as psychosis resides at the core of Kubrick's films. (Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. The AI computer HAL in 2001, and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket are obvious examples) So where does it play in The Exorcist? Is Regan really psychotic and her behavior is merely the result of her mind and detachment from reality? Or is Karras the one drifting into psychosis over the death of his mother (which caused him to lose his Faith) and his loss of reality is the basis of the film? I can only speculate, but I think the heart of Kubrick's Exorcist would be similar to The Shining. He would follow Tzvetan Todorov's theory of the fantastic:

…the reader finds himself obliged to chose between two solutions: either to reduce this phenomenon to known causes, to the natural order, describing the unwonted effects as imaginary, or else to admit the existence of the supernatural and thereby to effect a modification in all the representations which form his image of the world. The fantastic lasts as long as this uncertainty lasts…

The audience would then be challenged to make their own decisions on Regan and her actions. Was she possessed by a spirit or psychotic? Was it all Karras and his own psychosis? After all, Regan was free and "back to normal" once Karras called the 'demon' into himself and threw himself out the window. Maybe Kubrick would insinuate it was Karras all along.

One can guess or make assumptions indefinitely. Regardless, with Kubrick's penchant for camera work and production value, his version of The Exorcist would have been frightening and unnerving to audiences.

What do you think?


What's your favorite religious horror film?


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