“What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism”: the legacy of the late William Peter Blatty, 1928-2017

A gifted writer/director passed away last week; one who subtly changed my life, or at the very least, raised my cinematic fear threshold to an absurdly high level at a very young age.   That man was William Peter Blatty, former comedy screenwriter (1964’s “A Shot in the Dark”) who took a chance by writing a horror novel that became the horror movie of my generation, and I suspect for many generations afterward…”The Exorcist.”

I was all of 7 (!) when I first saw “The Exorcist” (1973).   WAY too young.   I’m not quite sure how differently I might’ve turned out had I not seen the movie; it was that profound and bone-shakingly terrifying for me.

To this day, I have never been so frightened by a film in my entire life; and that includes all the induced nightmares from multiple TV showings of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” (1963).

^ Some of the images that burned into my brain when I first saw “The Exorcist” at a ridiculously young age…

“The Exorcist”  was so intense that I remember my younger self cowering away from the screen.   I had nightmares for months afterward.   It was brutal.    We used to see horror films all the time when I was a kid (yes, I had a warped childhood), but THIS was different.  This was to an average B-horror film what a Maserati is to a skateboard.

Despite my near pants-wetting,  I was also fascinated.   Fascinated by the sheer, raw power of this film.   I kept revisiting it over and over in my life as I got older (and was better able to process it).

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^ Even the cover of the paperback scared the bejeezus out of me…

As a teen I’d read the book, and in my opinion Blatty’s original 1971 novel is a horror classic right up there with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1822),  Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” (1976) and Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” (1954).   I had multiple versions of the film on home video; from old VHS, CED and laserdiscs to my current collector’s edition blu ray set.   I even have a DVD autographed by “Regan” herself, Linda Blair.   I’d seen all of the sequels, good and bad.   I saw the original again a few more times in cinema with the 2000 rerelease, aka “The Exorcist: The Version You Never Saw.”  This version had small tweaks and added footage that made for a slightly deeper experience (it was also the version preferred by Blatty himself).  My wife and I also saw it in a digital 4K presentation around Halloween of 2015.  It loses none of its luster as either A-list horror or drama.   And I’m even watching the current Fox TV series spinoff as well (more on that later on).

^ All of this came from the typewriter of a soft-spoken former Georgetown seminary student-turned-Hollywood screenwriter who took a newspaper article he’d read in college about an alleged real-life possession of a young boy and adapted it into something that became a runaway phenomenon.   William Peter Blatty (1928-2017) was the diabolical genius behind the whole thing.

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^ My definitive home video presentation of the movie; worth it for the bonus content alone.

I won’t go into details of Blatty’s life in this essay, though I highly recommend the bonus features of “The Exorcist” 40th anniversary blu ray set if one is interested.  In those featurettes, Blatty himself gives personal tours of Georgetown and the Southern California bungalow where he holed himself up for months while writing the novel.   It’s as close as I’ve come to meeting the man, and it felt very personal and authentic.

As a fan, I’m only qualified to discuss my own personal feelings on his “Exorcist” legacy.   First, there is, of course, “The Exorcist” (1973):

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“In this house… on this street…”

 

I.    There is Only One…

“The Exorcist” succeeds not just because it’s scary; that would be too easy.  Anyone making a loud noise in a dark room can do that (see: the “Paranormal Activity” franchise).  Director William Friedkin (“French Connection” “Boys in the Band”) gave “The Exorcist” a quasi-documentary realism, which brought the horror of a demon inhabiting a 12 year old girl into our everyday world.   It isn’t set in Transylvania or a spooky laboratory; in fact, the only exotic location in the film is a pre-war, 1973 Iraq prologue sequence that establishes the titular character of Father Merrin (a dignified Max von Sydow).   Much of the movie is set is a nice, upscale home in Georgetown, only blocks away from the White House.   It’s the home of a Hollywood movie star named Chris MacNeil (played perfectly by Ellen Burstyn).   And into MacNeil’s fast paced, career-driven world comes a ghastly interloper; a demon that takes possession of her cherub-faced daughter Regan (a teenaged Linda Blair).  The agnostic actress endures increasingly escalating horrors (and a tragedy) that nearly break her, and drive her to ultimately seek help from a Jesuit priest named Damien Karras (Jason Miller).

This was 1973… exorcisms at that time belonged in medieval dungeons or Salem, Massachusetts of the 1600s.    The movie takes this archaic superstition and makes it as real, visceral and frightening as cancer or AIDS.  In fact, Regan’s possession seems more a metaphor for the true-life horrors of longterm wasting illness.

For the record, I am not a religious person, but the movie still works for me because the supernatural elements are presented with an unprecedented clinical reality.   It feels like something that could happen, even if my rational mind tells me it couldn’t.    For those two hours of running time I believe in the movie, despite my own lack of real-life faith.

It also helps that everyone in the supporting cast is so grounded in reality.   Lee J. Cobb’s detective Kinderman is something of a prototype for TV’s “Columbo”; his easygoing, jovial manner masks a shrewd analyst at work.  The tormented Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is dealing with the tragic loss of his frail mother.   Von Sydow’s Merrin returns (after the Iraq prologue) for the last 30 or so minutes of the film, as he and Karras are forced to combat the demon in the movie’s harrowing climax.

The actors, armed with Blatty’s concise/impactful dialogue, really make this movie.  You could put these same characters/actors in a straight drama sans horror and they’d work just as well.   “The Exorcist” is a terrific ensemble drama that just happens to scare the living s#!t out of you.

 

II. Committing Heresy…

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Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Louise Fletcher and an evil Regan doppelgänger star in “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977)

Sadly, Warner Bros. couldn’t leave horror perfection alone, and four years later in 1977 came “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”

William Peter Blatty and original director William Friedkin had nothing to do with its development, as far as I understand.  It’s directed and cowritten by the otherwise talented John Boorman (“Deliverance”), but it ends up being a waste of time & energy for everyone connected with this hot mess.

In the movie, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is now 17 and a budding performer just like her mother (though Ellen Burstyn is wisely absent from the movie).   Richard Burton is Father Lamont, a priest investigating the circumstances of Father Merrin’s death.  Burton’s overacting is near-legendary; it’s downright comical.   Oscar winner Louise Fletcher (the infamous Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) is atypically dull and utterly wasted as Regan’s therapist, Dr. Tuskin.   Max von Sydow reprises his Father Merrin role, both as the aged version seen in flashbacks, and without age makeup as a younger man performing an African exorcism decades earlier in what is clearly a tacky indoor soundstage (complete with an orange sky right out of 1960s Star Trek).

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Can’t look at it, can’t look away…

Kitty Wynn also returns as Chris MacNeil’s assistant Sharon, who (curiously) is now looking after Regan even though she clearly LEFT the MacNeil family at the end of the first movie.     The demon is also back, and now goes by the name “Pazuzu” (a name referenced in the original book but wisely ignored in the first movie’s screenplay).    James Earl Jones cameos as the grownup version of the African boy Merrin ‘cured’ decades earlier.  Apparently Jones’ character studies locusts now; this becomes important, I guess…?

Father Lamont and Regan (with Sharon and Dr. Tuskin in pursuit) arrive at the Georgetown house of the first movie and everything pretty much falls apart.   They enter ‘the room’ only to find a doppelgänger version of Regan waiting for them.  There is an attempted seduction between Regan’s doppelgänger and Burton’s Father Lamont that’s just painful to watch.   Meanwhile, the ‘good’ Regan suddenly develops the ability to whimper in Spanish (“Porque?”) and summon locusts (?!?).   So…locusts appear, the house is destroyed (don’t ask).   Lamont and Regan survive.  Fin.   Even the end title music sounds like some kind of bad, 1970s roller-boogie movie.

This is, quite possibly, the WORST sequel to an otherwise successful movie that I’ve ever seen.   Even the worst of the Star Wars prequels can barely touch it for sheer wrongheadedness.

III.  Side show

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William Peter Blatty’s wrote/directed the 1980 film, “The Ninth Configuration,” starring future Exorcist III supporting actor (and Walking Dead’s “Herschel”) Scott Wilson, along with star Stacey Keach. An interesting take on the ‘inmates running the asylum’ story.

 

During the time of the “Heretic” fiasco, William Peter Blatty was preparing to adapt his own 1978 book “The Ninth Configuration”into a movie.  The 1980 film version was also known as “Twinkle Twinkle, Killer Kane.”

The film version (I’ve not read the book) is an interesting twist on the old ‘inmates running the asylum’ idea.   Stacey Keach stars as Kane, the new ‘administrator’ of a gothic castle/fortress turned military asylum.   There’s lots of meaning-of-life dialogue and some riveting character moments (especially the big ‘reveal’ on which the movie hinges).  An interesting idea, if not as successful as Blatty’s “Exorcist” franchise, which he would return to in ten years.

 

IV: An Overlooked Gem(ini)

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That’s the hairs on the back of your neck you’re feeling right about now…   

Things got back on track somewhat when Blatty came back to the fold to adapt his own novel “Legion” (1983) into “Exorcist III” (1990), using the continuing characters of detective William Kinderman (now played by George C. Scott, taking over from the Lee J. Cobb) and Father Dyer (now played by St. Elsewhere’s Ed Flanders, taking over for real-life priest/actor William O’Malley in the original).   Blatty also directed the film, which was an allegedly troubled production, due to massive studio tampering.  The strongest evidence of this tampering is the hastily slapped together exorcism in the movie’s climax.

“Exorcist III” is radically different from the previous movies; and this was a wise move. Realizing that repeating the original would be a mistake, Blatty’s new movie jettisons ALL of the incoherent baggage of the 2nd movie and only references the original. Picking up in Georgetown 15 years later, a serial killer (or killers?) prowls the streets; using the exact modus operandi of the long-executed “Gemini Killer” James Venamun (Brad Dourif, in a chilling performance). None of the fingerprints left at any of the crime scenes match, and there is a mysterious, near-catatonic patient in maximum security at a nearby hospital’s mental wing.   The patient also bears a resemblance to the late Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, in a role shared with Dourif).

****SPOILER ALERT****

The body of Karras is now occupied by the Gemini killer, who has the ability to leave Karras’ body and possess elderly patients suffering various forms of dementia.   Venamun uses these elderly catatonics to continue his crime spree.   The story becomes a supernatural “Silence of the Lambs” (preceding that film by one year) with the original “Exorcist”‘s  theological gravitas and rich dialogue.

And once again, Blatty recalls the original’s possession-as-longterm-illness metaphor; this time using diminished mental capacity of near-catatonics to comment on the indignities of old age.   In fact, the Gemini killer’s leaping from body-to-body could be seen as a metaphor for infectious disease… a disease that leaps from patient to patient, leaving a swath of grisly deaths in its wake.

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^ One of Exorcist III’s best bladder-loosening moments…

“Exorcist III” doesn’t have too many ‘jump out’ scares, but the entire film is drenched in a foreboding mood that permeates each and every scene. There are one or two brief moments that may require an underwear change (see: above photo), but “Exorcist III” is more about getting under the viewer’s skin than rivaling the bombast of the first movie.

The most nagging nit of the film, aside from the tacked on climax, is wondering just how Kinderman and Father Karras became such close friends in the very short onscreen time they spent together in the first film.   It feels like Blatty was trying to shoehorn in some missing backstory that never existed in either the first movie or the original book.   It’s a minor head scratcher.

Nits aside, “Exorcist III” is perfectly enjoyable on its own merits. My wife, who is not into horror films, considers this one of her favorites. That’s probably the highest praise I can give it, as my wife is very discriminating.

Note:  There is a new blu ray release of the movie which came out last October; it contains both the 1990 theatrical release version and Blatty’s original cut of the film (known only as “Legion”) using existing VHS work print footage.  This is one of those rare occasions where the studio mandated cut is actually better than the writer/director’s original vision.   At any rate, it doesn’t matter.  “Exorcist III” (either version) is worlds better than the train wreck of “Heretic”, and works as a chilling horror movie on its own merits.   “Exorcist III” is both a redemption of the previous film and something very new; the best kind of sequel.

 

V:  Two Movies, One Story

In 2003 and 2004 two prequels to the original Exorcist were created; in each, the story follows a younger Father Merrin’s tribulations in an African mission where he first confronts the demon he is destined to encounter in the 1973 movie (Merrin is played in both versions by Stellan Skarsgard; a fellow Swede, like von Sydow).

merrinschrader

The 2003 version was shelved, though it was later released in 2005 on video as “Dominion: an Exorcist Prequel.”   “Dominion” is a sophisticated but glacially paced effort by director Paul Schrader, written by “Terminator 2” scribe William Wisher, along with Caleb Carr.  The movie tries to match the “The Exorcist”‘s slow burn feel, but lacks the original’s visceral punch and intriguing characters.  The climax features a possessed boy who, in a twist, goes from horribly deformed to physically ‘healed’ during the course of his possession (the opposite of young Regan MacNeil’s physical decay).   There is also some interesting commentary on racial conflict (the native tribe versus the intolerant missionaries) and a few other eerie moments here and there.  But as a prequel to the original it’s little more than a cake that fell in the oven… a flop.

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The second version was entirely re-filmed for director Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2” “Cutthroat Island”) with a third writer brought aboard (Alexi Hawley).   “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004) did succeed in getting a theatrical release, but in many ways it is actually worse than Schrader’s aborted version.   The final exorcism is by-the-numbers, and the possessed woman’s face looks like a cheap Halloween version of Dick Smith’s original classic makeup.   “Exorcist 4: The Beginning” is filled with lots of little jump scares, but nothing of any lasting power or genuine emotion attached.  I don’t think Rennie Harlin (an action director) really ‘got’ what made the original work so well.

Both versions are unsuccessful, and ignoring them (and Exorcist 2) is perfectly okay for the casual fan, though “Dominion” is an interesting curiosity for the diehards.

 

VI:  On With the Show

Which brings me to 2016 Comic Con.   Buzz about the upcoming Exorcist TV series is all over the convention, and there is a screening of the pilot scheduled with the cast in attendance (including star Geena Davis).   Naturally, I’m there.   I spend a few hours wading (or ‘squatting’) through a couple of other panels (including one for “Salem”) to get a good seat; that’s how we roll at Comic Con… (hehe).   Now on with the show…

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^  Q&A with producer Jeremy Slater, stars Geena Davis, Alfonso Herrera, Ben Daniels, Hannah Kasulka, and Brianne Howey before the screening of the pilot of the Fox TV series, “The Exorcist.” 

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“The Exorcist” TV series’ producer Jeremy Slater, stars Geena Davis and Alfonso Herrera 

The cast did a Q&A before we were shown the pilot, and I got the feeling that their comments were deliberately generic.   So be it.   Not an informative Q&A, but nice to see the cast and crew in person.  Geena Davis (“Angela”) looked terrific, and she joked about dying her hair blonde to better match her TV ‘daughters’ Hannah Kasulka (“Casey”) and Brianne Howey (“Kat”).    Alfonso Herrera (“Father Tomas”) reminded me of a young Antonio Banderas.   Ben Daniels (“Father Marcus”) had a bit of a Liam Neeson quality to him.  Producer Jeremy Slater talked about what Blatty’s original meant to him, and how he tried to keep that legacy in mind during the making of the new series.

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Then the pilot screened, and I was curious and interested.   I appreciated the dialogue-driven scenes, which reminded me of Blatty’s original.  More substantive than I initially expected.   I could see this series’ pilot existing in the same universe as the first and third movies.

Davis plays Chicago mother Angela Rance, who is worried that her withdrawn daughter Kat (who is home from college after a car accident) might be possessed.  Why Angela leaps to that conclusion is revealed later on during the course of the show.  Angela solicits help from a conflicted priest, Father Tomas, played by Alfonso Herrera.  Unlike Karras, Tomas is conflicted by his feelings for a married woman, not guilt over a dead mother.    Later at the Rance’s home, Tomas receives cryptic directions from Davis’ brain-damaged husband Henry (a sympathetic Alan Ruck).   Henry’s brain damage seems to echo Blatty’s previous neurological interests as seen in Exorcist I and III.

Henry’s cryptic directions help Tomas to seek out a disgraced exorcist, Father Marcus (played with piss and vinegar by “Rogue One” costar Ben Daniels).   Marcus is a dark-horse version of the original’s Father Merrin.   A take-no-prisoners exorcist who is much more confrontational and antiauthoritarian; a rebel.   So far, so good.

**** MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD ****

The major twist of the pilot is that it is the other daughter, Casey, who is actually possessed; not the sullen Kat.   This is revealed in a creepy scene with Tomas in the Rance house’s attic (also echoing Ellen Burstyn’s attic scene in the first movie).   Tomas believes something is amiss, but isn’t sure how to proceed.   We then hear Mike Oldfield’s iconic “Tubular Bells” playing before the end credits, as Casey looks out a window to Tomas below.   For a 40 odd minute pilot, this was promising, if not mind-blowing.   I was intrigued.

Then the series aired.  It seemed a bit humdrum for awhile, but I stayed with it.  Around mid-season, a major bomb drops; it turns out this series isn’t some unrelated event that mirrors the original.   “The Exorcist” TV series is a direct sequel to William Peter Blatty’s original.    “Angela Rance” is in fact, a 50-something Regan MacNeil.  And the demon that possessed her is now infecting her daughter Casey.   There are some truly gruesome scenes as Casey’s possession becomes more acute.   The demon is eventually driven from Casey in an exorcism that rivals the 1973 original at times.   Even the character of Chris MacNeil returns as well (now played by ex-“Cagney & Lacey” star Sharon Gless).

After the exorcism is where the series starts to go downhill a bit, as the demon leaves Casey to ‘repossess’ the adult Angela/Regan.  The possessed Angela struts around the house and torments her family like a PG-13 version of “Bewitched.”   Also disappointing was the church ‘conspiracy’ subplot that, to be honest, the show could do without.   With Angela turned ‘evil’, the “Exorcist” TV series began to feel a bit camp.   And camp was the very thing that Blatty’s original so smartly avoided.   Angela is eventually freed from the demon, after an impromptu exorcism from Tomas & Marcus.   In the end, Tomas and Marcus go onto new challenges and the Rance family is at peace… for now.

So “The Exorcist” season one ended on an uneven note.  I’m curious to see if this ship can be righted, since it still has a lot in its favor (mainly a solid cast).   We’ll see…

In any case, “The Exorcist” franchise is still going strong some 45 years after the book’s publication, and 43 years after the release of the original film. The late William Peter Blatty’s legacy lives on.

Not bad for a comedy screenwriter who wanted to ‘dabble’ in horror…

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. sanzbozo says:

    Chills!! The picture on the paperback IS creepy! Thanks for causing my hair to stand up, it does look fuller now, ha ha! Excellent observations.

    Liked by 1 person

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