Marcel Vercoutere: Oct. 28, 1925-April 13, 2013 

Special effects artist made heads spin

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY SHAN STUMPF
  • Illustration by Shan Stumpf

[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]

Perhaps only the most engaged fans of horror and special effects noticed when movie wizard Marcel Vercoutere died this April in Burbank, Calif. Born a few nights before Halloween in Detroit in 1925, Marcel Vercoutere seems to have grown up quickly. The son of immigrant parents (his father from France, his mother from Belgium), he tried enlisting in the Navy at 16 and wound up spending three years in the Pacific theater before he even finished high school. Back stateside, working as a welder and carpenter for movie studios after the war, he found a niche as a stunt coordinator, designing car crashes, firefights and other special effects. In early 1973, he was an accomplished veteran in the field, having devised special effects for such major films as Deliverance. That year, he faced his most ambitious assignment yet: The Exorcist.

The film shocked audiences with its story of a child possessed by the devil, but especially given Vercoutere’s surprising special effects, which involved levitation, demonic transformations, flying objects, streams of vomit, demonic voices, protruding tongues, bulging eyes and violent contortions, including a girl’s head rotating 360 degrees to the sound of cracking bones.

This work was done over several strenuous months at studios on West 54th Street in New York, where the production crew re-created the Georgetown bedroom for the exorcism scenes. Director William Friedkin kept reporters away from the shooting, demanding total secrecy. The film itself was behind schedule and way over budget, while a streak of accidents and sicknesses on the set seemed evidence of the devil’s handiwork to some. The first set was unsatisfactory and had to be torn apart and replaced. The second one burned down in a freak fire in the middle of the night.

An expensive air conditioning system to keep the set chilly for the exorcism scenes often broke down, caused water damage and left actors with colds that delayed shooting.

Months behind schedule and $6 million over budget, the film was a smash hit when it opened 40 years ago. Though many of the mechanical effects of Vercoutere’s day are now achieved through computer-generated imagery, the film has aged well. That chilling moment where the mechanical head, crafted from casts of Linda Blair’s face, turns around is somehow more chilling, more real, than any of today’s gaudy digital effects. Certainly, Vercoutere’s masterwork is still deeply unsettling in an age of CGI and Imax 3-D.

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