BBC Radio 4 Production
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, Adapted by Robert Frost
Starring: Robert Glenister, Ian McDiarmid, Lydia Wilson and Alexandra Mathie
In an unassuming town house in Georgetown, Washington D.C, a young girl is showing signs of being possessed by a demonic spirit. A man has been sent to help her. This man is The Exorcist.
Absolutely nothing is scarier than the infinite power of imagination. To have the terrifying images of a slowly rotating head or a bloody crucifix masturbation is one thing, but Robert Frost invites us to experience a truly heart-stopping prospect: What if you’d never seen ‘The Exorcist’ and were the completely blind witness to just the noise of dialogue lifted directly from the book, in all their horrifying glory?
Well ok, perhaps I set my hopes for what a retelling of a genuinely disturbing story could be too high as I have to confess, I found this adaptation to be slightly underwhelming. Even when given the full opportunity for scares of listening to it in the dead of night and all the lights off, it was never quite able to hit the heights of the terrifying visions that used to plague my dreams at even the mere sight of a picture from the film.
That is not to say that this is not a superbly valiant effort. Indeed, with some of the special effects of the film now drawing laughs rather than frights for being “out of date”, the radio adaptation goes down the solely audible route to devastatingly chilling effect. Helmed by the masterful Gary C Newman, the program begins with the most terrifying clock ticking and chiming you will have ever heard in your life! Borrowing a neat trick from the film of the clock suddenly stopping and using it as a cue for when something scary is about to go down, this instantly puts you on edge. Simple, yes but hugely effective.
There is also a tremendous amount of time that passes before we are even introduced to Regan as a character. It is clear that Frost’s masterful intention here was to tantalisingly keep the audience constantly ill at ease as to just when the hell we were going to walk up those steps, until the tension reached breaking point and then the shivers down the spine instantly set in as soon as we hear Karras open the door.
With such an assortment of hugely atmospheric sounds, you feel completely immersed in the narrative and if you were to dare close your eyes, you’d swear the characters were stood right next to you. By far and away the best example of this came in the form of Karras’ plagued dream about rats at the end of the first half of the program. With the demon’s haunting voice-over, the scrabbling and scratching sounds physically made you feel unclean as you listened and was truly a perfect example of the radio’s underused power to terrify and move audiences.
In a couple of cases, the radio adaptation is able to pick up and improve on elements that were important in the novel and yet were underplayed or ignored completely in the film. Most notably of all was the move to focus entirely on the developments in the wake of Burke Dennings’ mysterious (and grizzly) death, making the piece play out almost like a heightened true crime thriller. Not only does this mean a great deal more of the entertaining Detective Kinderman, but also the mysterious possible Nazi past of the MacNeils’ housekeeper Karl is brought into greater and intriguing focus.
For me personally, the most underrating scariest moment in this adaptation came from Karras’ interview with the psychiatrist who had attended Regan, when he confesses that after dealing with her, he’s never been able to look patients in the eye again. A beautifully under-played moment of genuine chills and you could brilliantly hear the fear in the voice as he recounted his experience with her.
The glowing red weak spot? The portrayal and dynamic of the ‘demon’/Regan. Initially the deceptively normal and sweet sounding voice that seamlessly gives way to the elderly woman’s is clever, only for the realisation to quickly set in that frankly, it’s just too normal. The delivery from Alexandra Mathie almost feels too casual, despite all the horrible things she is saying and it makes the haunting spectre of Mercedes McCambridge’s performance towering that much higher over it.
Mathie has to be hugely commended, however, for learning to speak the backwards lines of dialogue organically. It is sadly the only real moment were her clearly talented voice is put to great and terrifying use and it feels that much more hauntingly authentic as a result.
With a slightly limp and undercooked actual exorcism scene, the adaptation does end on somewhat of a whimper, but it should be remembered that the programs primary focus was on everything else around it rather than the possession itself. It may not linger in the mind or be as celebrated anywhere near as much as the film, but what this offered was a fascinating exploration into the disturbing psychology behind ‘The Exorcist’ and a at times, brutally frank character study on how it affected all the characters around it. Propped up by some fantastic vocal acting work, in particular from Robert Glenister as Karras, it would be fantastic if this were the start of a new trend of classic horror radio adaptations! ‘Jason X: The Radio Adaptation’ Anyone?
Verdict: A strong chiller that delves deep into the disturbing psychological fear factor of ‘The Exorcist’, only falling down at the crucial hurdle of the potential to make the demon properly terrifying 7/10