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RIP William Peter Blatty, the Man Behind THE EXORCIST

RIP William Peter Blatty, the Man Behind THE EXORCIST

This morning I learned of the passing of author, Academy Award winning screenwriter, and director William Peter Blatty from probably the most fitting source for the millions of fans who knew him best for telling the story of Regan and Chris MacNeil, Father Damien Karras, Father Lankester Merrin, and Lieutenant William Kinderman: director William Friedkin. “William Peter Blatty,” he wrote, “dear friend and brother who created The Exorcist passed away yesterday.” Blatty was 89 years old.

Blatty had numerous accomplishments as an artist outside of creating The Exorcist: he co-wrote the screenplay for the classic Peter Sellers comedy A Shot in the Dark, and wrote and directed the film adaptation of his novel The Ninth Configuration, for which he won a Golden Globe for his screenplay. But for me, the world of The Exorcist proved to be one that I have not been able to get out of my head since I saw it at a sleepover when I was twelve years old and it scared me so badly that I couldn’t sleep for a year. The Exorcist and Wes Craven‘s Scream were probably the two movies that allowed me to understand as a fan and a student of film that horror could be something that was studied and often had something much deeper going on beneath the surface than the scares alone.

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I’ve read Blatty’s novel many times and seen the film adaptation more times than I can count. For those of you who perhaps have never picked up the book, but like the movie — or even if you don’t like the movie — I would recommend giving the novel a try. It’s an incredible piece of literature, so much so that upon hearing the news of Blatty’s passing, literary icon Stephen King Tweeted, “RIP William Peter Blatty, who wrote the great horror novel of our time. So long, Old Bill.” As I am currently finishing up King’s book It for the first time, I can say that is high praise.

But King is not wrong, The Exorcist is a remarkable piece of fiction. If you know anything about me then you know that I love horror movies both on an intellectual and visceral level while most people regard them as a genre one step above pornography. And yet, every now and again, there is a movie or book classified as horror that transcends genre prejudice and reaches people so deeply that it becomes a pop culture phenomenon. The Exorcist was both that book and that film. The movie was both critically acclaimed and a box office smash, nominated for ten Oscars and it grossed hundreds of millions of dollars world wide, producing a legacy that spawned sequels on film, on television, and even a follow up book written by Blatty himself called Legion that was adapted by the author into a screenplay and a film, The Exorcist III, re-released in director’s cut format just last year.

What’s so interesting about the novel The Exorcist as compared to the movie is that it is very much a mystery: is Regan MacNeil actually possessed or does she have some form of mental disorder? This is a question that, if you ask me, is stripped from the iconic film; there is no doubt that there is a demon inside Linda Blair’s Regan and only divine intervention will be able to save her. In the decades that have gone by since The Exorcist first horrified audiences around the world, the movie is still remembered by many to be the scariest movie of all time and most of that cultural impact could be attributed to the graphic nature of the imagery. Make no mistake, these horrific things were all present in Blatty’s novel, but once again, some form of mystery was also present: so much more was hinted at and alluded to that it was up to the reader to imagine what was going on inside that little girl’s bedroom. “Wait, does that line mean what I think it means?!” There was no such mystery in Friedkin’s film, a well-documented source of contention between the writer and director throughout the production of the movie.

Now, I want to be very clear, I love every minute of Friedkin’s classic. Forget “horror movies,” I think it is one of the greatest American dramas of all time, but there is no such mystery going on here, the violent terror is all up on the screen. And yet, underneath all of that, I believe that what allowed the imagery to be so affective, what I believe resonated with audiences the most over what’s now just shy of forty-five years, is the emotional horror lurking through the action. What must it be like for a mother to watch her daughter suffer and spin out of control, leaving her completely helpless? To feel like a failure and a “bad mom” for subjecting her daughter to a failed marriage and her desire to have a fully realized career? Meanwhile, Damien Karras must endure the agony of watching his beloved mother disintegrate before his very eyes and process the guilt of pondering, Could I have done more for her? Was I a good son? Is my faith as sound as it could be? These are beautifully haunting questions that every human being asks at one point or another in their life, and if you ask me, the themes that rise above the salacious images that have become synonymous and allowed generation after generation of readers and viewers to connect with the material, and will allow countless others to connect as time, technology, and special effects advance. Friedkin and Blatty, while they didn’t see eye to eye on everything, proved to be a perfect team.

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In 1990, Blatty’s adaptation of his novel Legion, a sequel to The Exorcist, made its way to the big screen. While upon its initial release the film wasn’t quite the critical or commercial success that Hollywood was looking for, it has won favor with fans over time. As I revisited the movie this morning, I noticed many things, specifically that Legion, as the film has come to be called in it’s director’s cut format, is all about the power of suggestion. Throughout the entire thing, the horrific acts that are taking place as a result of the Gemini Killer are mostly implied and it felt, at least to me, a fan who has probably read far more than any normal person should have about the legacy of The Exorcist, that Blatty finally got to make his own Exorcist movie. One that is subtle and has a creep factor that pulses through the entire thing, and puts the mystery that only Kinderman could solve that was mostly stripped from the 1973 film’s screenplay, front and center. Even the iconic scare that most people know, even if they haven’t seen the movie, circulated in GIF form since GIFs have become a thing, is so much more than that one and a half second climax. The sequence is long and it is deliberately paced. It makes use of the long and stationary hallway shots that Blatty has been using thorough the whole movie, and even throws a red herring scare in there before the big, scream-out-loud moment. But the key to it all working is patience.

Now that Blatty has passed, he leaves behind a legacy that will, without a doubt, live on for many lifetimes to come through film, television, and literature. He won accolades and admiration for a work that scared generations around the globe, one that was heavily researched and incredibly personal. And while The Exorcist is remembered for its unabashed terror, it also offered a complexity, a subtlety, and a humanity that is a one-in-a-million feat to accomplish. I can say with complete sincerity that Blatty’s work changed my life, encouraged me to ask questions and face fears that I may not have otherwise. I will forever be a grateful fan.

Featured Image: Warner Bros

Images: Warner Bros, Morgan Creek Productions


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