Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty delivers a horror sequel in earnest
Demonic spirits being expelled from young bodies is now a genre in its own right, though it’s a beige swathe of mostly pale imitators.
As they pile up, the impact of that first film, released in the US on Boxing Day 1973, begins to feel more and more like history: the audience faintings, the priests outside cinemas helping people come to terms with what they’d experienced, the decade-long banning by British censors. It’s a legacy that detractors of The Exorcist say the film fails to live up to, pointing at religious dogma and dated special effects. I saw it recently at a small cinema in Pittsburgh: at the back was a group of intoxicated students who laughed for the first half hour, but when the horrifying stuff started happening, they went silent, and you could feel the film’s power to terrify coursing through the room. Partly it’s the performances: Linda Blair’s innocence morphing into monstrosity, Ellen Burstyn’s motherly anguish. Partly it’s the brutality, the music and editing. But somewhere there’s also an evil that feels real, like a cold hand reaching out from the screen to clutch our hearts.
It’s never surprising to see The Exorcist crowning countdowns of all-time scariest films. But it’s easy to forget that the two official sequels – released in 1978 and 1990 – have also topped lists: Exorcist II: The Heretic is regularly touted as the worst film ever made, while The Exorcist III is said by some to feature the scariest scene of all time (more on that later). Several of the original actors were unfortunate enough to sign up for the John Boorman-directed II. It’s a disaster, teeming with paper-thin characters and pointless exotic locations, new age spiritualism, and racist and ableist stereotypes. Not a single moment of anything resembling tension, let alone terror. Audiences laughed and walked out, while William Friedkin, who directed the original, described it as ‘the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen… a fucking mess’.
That a film as respected as The Exorcist III managed to rise from the ruins is thanks to William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel on which the 1973 original was based. A devout Catholic, Blatty became fascinated by exorcism while a student at Washington’s Georgetown University in the late 1940s, where he read reports of a 14-year-old Maryland boy the press referred to as Roland Doe, possessed by evil spirits that were cast out by Jesuit priests. The story – later widely debunked – featured Doe speaking in Latin and screaming in guttural voices; witnesses described him tearing off restraints and attacking the priests, one of whom was said to have been so traumatised that he went into hiding.
The Gemini Killer : Catatonics are so easy to possess…
During his 30s, Blatty made his name writing comedy novels and screenplays, including the Peter Sellers vehicle A Shot In The Dark (1964). By the late 1960s the work had dried up, and he retreated to a cabin near Lake Tahoe with a word processor and the bones of an idea about the battle for a child’s soul. His novel The Exorcist caused a sensation on its release in 1971, but it was the film – for which Blatty wrote the screenplay – that put an end to his comedy days, and ensured that his name would forever be associated with one of cinema’s darkest places.
Blatty wanted nothing to do with Exorcist II, but when the scale of the failure became apparent, he set to work on a follow-up screenplay in an attempt to restore some dignity to the franchise. William Friedkin was pegged to direct, but left, and the film looked destined to languish in purgatory. In 1983 Blatty released it as a novel called Legion. A few years later Morgan Creek bought the rights, and put Blatty himself in the director’s chair – a second turn after his bizarre spiritual comedy The Ninth Configuration (1983).
The Exorcist III understandably pretends that II never happened. It describes events taking place 17 years after the horror in Regan’s room, and focuses on Lieutenant Kinderman: a Shakespeare-quoting homicide detective played by growling George C Scott, and a minor character in the first film. There’s a series of gruesome murders that have the hallmarks of the infamous Gemini Killer, only the Gemini was executed on the night of Regan’s exorcism. A man in an isolation ward for the mentally disturbed begins claiming that he is the Gemini. When Kinderman looks in on him, he finds that he has the face of Damien Karras, the Jesuit who took Regan’s demon into his own body and then leapt to his death. It transpires that the man is a sort of unholy trinity: part Gemini, part Karras, part demon, and it is up to Kinderman to figure out how he is orchestrating the killings from his cell.
It sounds like nonsense, but Blatty manages to make it work, at least for a while. There’s poetry to the film’s depiction of the supernatural, from the elegant prelude that opens the movie, to the extended dream sequence in which dead souls mingle in a Lynchian antechamber. Blatty’s prints are all over the depictions of his beloved Washington, and on the characters, ordinary people struggling to retain their humanity against the shadow of the inhuman. Kinderman’s grumpy-old-man relationship with Father Dyer (also from the first film) is genuinely moving. Most of all, Blatty is there in the dialogue, which is jagged and theatrical and very funny in places. At one point Kinderman delivers a speech about a live carp that his mother-in-law is keeping in their bath in preparation for a big dinner: ‘For three days it’s been swimming up and down in my bathtub. Up and down. And I hate it. I can’t stand the sight of it. Moving its gills. Now, you’re standing very close to me, Father. Have you noticed? Yes. I haven’t had a bath in three days. I can’t go home until the carp is asleep.’
It’s also through dialogue that much of the horror unfolds: Blatty knows how to manipulate his viewers’ imaginations, and his characters’ descriptions of killings and dismemberings are more unsettling than any graphic depiction. And there are conventional scares, including the scene sometimes described as the most frightening of all time. Blatty masterfully builds tension with glacial slowness, before delivering a shock to the stop the heart. I won’t go into detail, because if you’ve read this far you might as well watch the film. If you must watch it out of context, where its power will be eviscerated, search for ‘Exorcist III nurse scene’. It scared the hell out of my friends and I as kids.
I like plays. The good ones… Shakespeare… I like Titus Andronicus the best, it’s sweet. Incidentally, did you know that you are talking to an artist? I sometimes do special things to my victims, things that are creative. Of course, it takes knowledge, pride in your work. For example, a decapitated head can continue to see for approximately twenty seconds. So when I have one that’s gawking, I always hold it up so that it can see its body. It’s a little extra I throw in for no added charge. I must admit it makes me chuckle every time.
Sadly, the film falls apart. Mainly it’s the studio’s fault: at the last minute they demanded the movie end with an exorcism, which required painful re-shoots and tacked-on scenes that are incongruous at best, outright bad at worst. Blatty’s original ending is lost, but in 2016 Shout Factory released an edit featuring scenes lifted from recently discovered VHS rushes, assembling a rough cut closer to his vision. But the dramatic deterioration is also partly down to Blatty. The second half of the film is largely taken up with a discussion between Kinderman and the killer, in whose cell the pair sit, artfully lit, exploring ideas of morality and religion. It’s as though Blatty can’t resist using the ending to thrash out his own personal theology.
But if Blatty’s beliefs hamstrung him as a director, they’re also what made The Exorcist III so effective. The film isn’t a group of suits sitting around a table trying to cash in on the latest horror trend; it’s a man exploring a demonic force capable of reaching out to us from hell, and dragging us towards eternal damnation. Blatty believed this stuff, and his belief is infectious. As with the first film, evil has a black gravity. Again there is that cold hand.
Blatty died in 2017, aged 89. He wrote more books, but made no more films. His religious beliefs remained strong: in 2013 he made headlines for attempting to sue his alma mater, Georgetown University, for having strayed from its Catholic origins. Blatty had been watching what he saw as the institution’s moral decline for some time, but when the university invited a pro-birth-control health secretary to speak on campus, a line was crossed. In a memorable interview with the Washington Post, over dinner in a hip restaurant, Blatty said of abortion: ‘that’s demonic’. He described certain procedures over his plate, and got so worked up that his voice trembled and his hands shook. It wasn’t the William Peter Blatty many of his fans wanted to imagine, but with hindsight, it kind of made sense.