William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist, was a landmark in horror cinema, a cultural phenomenon, and (if adjusting for inflation) the ninth highest-grossing film of all time.
The film makes minimal use of music—a stylistic choice which gives the film an air of stark realism despite the supernatural events depicted onscreen. Of the minimal music used in the film, most famous is Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” which went on to become a smash so huge that it essentially birthed the Virgin empire.
Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” used as the main theme for ‘The Exorcist.’
Before Friedkin settled on Oldfield’s prog masterpiece, he had originally commissioned a score from Lalo Schifrin, who had famously done soundtrack work for Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, and the instantly recognizable Mission Impossible TV show theme.
Composer/conductor, Lalo Schifrin
Schifrin’s atonal Exorcist score was very much in the vein of Krzysztof Penderecki (whose “Cello Concerto No. 1” of Polymorphia was used in the film’s final edit) with the addition of Bernard Herrmann-esque “fright stabs.”
This score was used in an advanced trailer which some have called the “banned trailer.” As the stories go, this trailer literally made audiences sick when it was shown. It’s unclear if the sounds and images were simply upsetting or if the flashing images actually caused seizures in some viewers.
Schifrin, speaking to Score Magazine revealed some of the history of his work and Friedkin’s reaction:
The truth is that it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life, but I have recently read that in order to triumph in your life, you may previously have some fails. 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. This is the first time I speak of this matter, my attorney recommended me not to talk about it, but I think this is a good time to reveal the truth.
Finally, I wrote the music for the film in the same vein as that of the trailer. In fact, when I wrote the trailer I was in the studio with Friedkin and he congratulated me for it. So, I thought i was in the right way… but the truth was very different.
According to Neil Lerner’s Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, Friedkin had asked Schifrin for a score that “did not sound like music” and which was “tonal and moody.”
Reportedly, Friedkin was so displeased with the partial score that Schifrin had submitted that he literally threw it out of the studio window—mirroring the second story window ejections of Burke Dennings and Father Karras in the film. It’s no wonder Schifrin called it one of the “most unpleasant experiences” of his life.
Here is the full terrifying and rejected Schifrin score for The Exorcist:
Here is the trailer that, according to Schifrin, sent people “to the toilet to vomit”:
And, finally, this is a great short film showing audiences reactions to The Exorcist upon its release. It’s fascinating to see what a cultural impact this film had at the time. Audiences were genuinely fainting and throwing up and crying. One wonders if a movie could ever be made again that would have that sort of impact.