What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism: The Work of William Peter Blatty

“Ah. Well… I attended Juilliard… I’m a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I’ve seen the Exorcist about a hundred and sixty-seven times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it.”

-Beetlejuice (1988)

While I cannot claim to have seen The Exorcist as many times as the “ghost with the most”, I have seen it a number of times in the double digits, and three of those were in the course of my academic studies.  I have seen it make a fellow student feint, watched it as a hail storm broke out of a clear sky, and even had the film break on me when I went to see the 25th anniversary theatrical re-release.

I offer these incidents, merely as an example of the power that The Exorcist holds over audiences today.  It has permeated our pop culture, to the point that people who have probably never seen the movie recognize the image of a scratchy voiced little girl or pea soup vomit.  But before it was the movie that terrified audiences right back to the confessional, it was the literary phenomenon that rocketed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list in 1971.  And it came from the mind of one man:  William Peter Blatty.

William Peter Blatty

Blatty, born 1928, earned a Master’s degree in English literature form Georgetown University, and worked as a salesman as well as in the field of public relations before entering the United States Air Force.  While with the Air Force he worked for the Psychological Warfare Division and began writing novels.  Upon leaving the Air Force he began wiring screenplays, collaborating with the director Blake Edwards on several of the latter’s hit films.  In 1971 he published The Exorcist, which went on to spend fifty-seven weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The Book

The novel tells the tale of Regan MacNeil, the daughter of Chris MacNeil, a Hollywood actress filming a movie in Georgetown, Washington D.C.  When Regan starts suffering a mysterious illness and undergoes bizarre behavioral episodes her mother and friends turn to the medical establishment to find out what is wrong.  However, when medical science is unable to offer any solutions, they are led to believe that Regan’s problems may require a more spiritual solution.  To this end  Farther Lankester Merrin, a Roman Catholic exorcist trained as an archeologist, and Father Damon Kerras, a young priest questioning his faith, enter battle for Regan’s soul with an ancient evil that Father Merrin has encounter once before:   The demon Pazuzu (traditionally held to be an Assyrian god associated with air, darkness, disease, and insects (especially locusts).

The Film

In 1973, William Peter Blatty adapted a screenplay for an Exorcist film from his source novel.  Directed by William Freidkin, and starring Max Von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair, the film was released by Warner Brothers on December 26, 1973.  It became an immediate smash hit, and earned 10 Academy Award nominations.  It won two of the awards in two of the nominated categories, (Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay).

The Exorcist is one of the must see films in the history of horror, and may be the best horror film of the 1970s, in my opinion.  Friedkin and Blatty have created a work that uses subtle visual techniques, subliminal hints, and creepy sound design, that produces an unnerving atmosphere that unsettles the viewer and heightens the tension.  Well-acted, quick paced, and with several iconic scenes, The Exorcist is well worth the time it takes to watch.

The Exorcist Saga

Like most successful horror novels or films, The Exorcist’s popularity led to it becoming a franchise:

Sequel Novels:  Legion (1983)

The direct sequel to The Exorcist and written by Blatty, Legion focuses on the character of Lieutenant William F. Kinderman, who was involved in the events of The Exorcist, and his investigation into the satanically motivated Gemini Killer.  Evidence begins to suggest that the current murders may be connected to the aftermath of the Regan MacNeil exorcism.

Film Sequels

There are four sequel films which have a rather tangled continuity and relationship to each other:

The Exorcist II:  The Heretic (1977):  Directed by John Boorman, and Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, and Lousie Fletcher.

Father Philip Lamont, a priest who questions his faith and his abilities as an exorcist, is drawn into a battle with the demon that is still interfering with now teenaged Regan MacNeil’s life. Featuring strange visuals, Richard Burton overacting, locusts, and cameos from Ned Beatty and James Earl Jones. it turns the understated and creepy nature of the first movie into an overtly supernatural showdown with special effect psychic powers and plane crashes.

The Exorcist III:  Legion (1990):  Directed by William Peter Blatty, from a script adapted from his novel, starring George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, and Brad Dourif.

Fifteen years after the events of The Exorcist, Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott taking over the role from Lee J. Cobb) investigates the satanically themed murder spree of The Gemini Killer.  He finds that old demonic forces may be behind recent events.  The film was not distributed theatrically, and had a troubled production, which included the studio reshooting elements of the ending.  It ignores the events of The Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Exorcist the Beginning (2004): Directed by Renny Harlin, and starring Stellan Skarsgard, Isabella Scoupio, and James D’arcy.

A prequel to the original film, Exorcist the Beginning finds Father Lankester Merrin working as archeologist while facing a crisis of faith over his actions during World War II.  When a mysterious, 15th century Byzantine Church is discovered in Kenya, Father Merrin travels there to lend his expertise. The excavation unleashes something terrible, and Father Merrin finds himself locked in combat with an ancient demonic force named Pazuzu.  This film is actually the second Exorcist prequel.  The original film, directed by Paul Scharader, was feared to not be commercial enough by its producers, so Renny Harlin was brought in to shoot an entirely new version, using some of the same actors and sets.  Harlin created a more action oriented tone to his film, relying more on special effects shocks and gore effects the psychological creepiness and subdued tone of the other Exorcist works.  The events of this film also complete invalidate the events that are depicted in Exorcist II.

Dominion: A Prequel to the exorcist (2005): Directed by Paul Schrader, and starring Stellan Skarsgard and Gabriel Mann.

Deciding that since they had already paid for a mostly completed film and they might as well earn some profit off it, Morgan Creek Productions allowed Paul Scharader to finish his Exorcist prequel and released it several months after Harlin’s film.  Featuring the same storyline as the Harlin movie (Merrin comes to Kenya to excavate a 15th century Byzantine church, and evil is released) as well as some of the same actors and sets, this movie emphasizes  psychological horror, questions of faith and redemption, and strained relations between the British military and the native people of Kenya.  All of this serves as backdrop to Father Merrin’s struggle against Pazuzu.

These two films are worth watching together as they provide the rare opportunity to see how two different directors approach the same storyline.  Scharader and Harlin have wildly different directing styles and the movies provide an argument for illustrating how much of a film truly belongs to a director.  Since Stellan Skarsgard plays Father Merrin in both movies, the viewer chance observes how an actor characterizes the same role under two different director’s interpretations.

Further Recommendations:

The 1970s saw a flowering of demon possessed child horror movies, and two of these films (The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby) are often mentioned alongside The Exorcist.

The Omen (1976) reveals the childhood of Damien Thorne, a young man with complicated parentage, a tragic life, and a great destiny.  It is followed by two direct sequels (Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Omen III:  Final Conflict (1981); a made for television movie featuring a mysterious young girl (The Omen IV:  The Awakening), and a remake (The Omen (2006) which probably owes its existence to the marketing potential of opening an Omen film on the date of 06/06/06).

Rosemary’s Baby (1967), book by Ira Levin, spawned a movie and television franchise of its own, and will be discussed more in our next column.

There are plenty of horror movies that have chosen to use exorcism or exorcists as a plot device, and one can be found to suit almost any taste.  There are exorcism films for Anthony Hopkins fans (The Rite – 2011), Heath Ledger fans (The Order – 2003), scientific investigations of exorcists (The Reaping – 2007), exorcism films where the producers seem unclear on basic Catholic doctrine (Stigmata – 1999), movies based on real cases of clergy put on trial when a death occurs as part of an exorcism (The Exorcism of Emily Rose – 2005/Requiem – 2006), and direct parodies of The Exorcist starring Linda Blair (Repossessed – 1990).

In my opinion the best exorcist film, aside from The Exorcist, is The Last Exorcism.  This 2010 found footage horror film focuses on an exorcist revealing how he scams people into thinking they are subject to demonic possession, and then finding that he may be in for a very real battle against the forces of darkness.  The movie builds subtly and leaves open questions about what is really going on.  It was followed by a sequel, The Last Exorcism Part II in 2013.  Skip this movie, as it is terrible and destroys any credibility the first film had built.


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