By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Time will tell. A print of Harlin’s film was not made available for preview in connection with this article, though, speaking by phone from the film’s sound-mixing stage, Harlin assured me that “Like the original, this is a very adult horror film. It very seriously examines the issue of faith and God’s presence in people’s lives as deciding factors in whether or not justice takes place in the world.”
Even on a bright summer’s day, the house at 3600 Prospect Street exudes a cool, quiet menace, as does the adjacent flight of stairs, with its dramatic plummet down to M Street below. And here, on this particular day, stands William Peter Blatty, the man who was once one of the top comedy writers in Hollywood, before a certain novel and film immortalized this house and these stairs and, indeed, Blatty himself. In 1949, less than a mile away, Blatty was an undergraduate at Georgetown University. It was there that he followed, in the pages of the Washington Post, the account of a boy from Silver Spring, Maryland, who had supposedly been freed from the devil’s grip following a series of exorcisms conducted over a period of several months. The story stuck with Blatty, though it would be more than 20 years before he fictionalized it as The Exorcist. That, of course, was the real “beginning” — if one that has been subjected, for more than three decades, to countless revisions.
Published in 1971, Blatty’s novel was a phenomenon from the start, spending 55 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Released two years later on the day after Christmas, William Friedkin’s film version, produced and scripted by Blatty, was itself no slouch. According to The New York Times, at Manhattan’s Cinema 1 theater, “People stood like sheep in the rain, cold and sleet for up to four hours to see the chilling film,” while inside there were reports of nausea, fainting spells and heart attacks — a scene that would be repeated for months to come in cities all around the country. Despite pans from some major critics (including Pauline Kael), the R-rated film went on to gross $193 million (not including the 2000 reissue) and received 10 Oscar nominations, winning for its sound and for Blatty’s script. Though Rosemary’s Babyhad created a stir five years earlier, The Exorcisttapped deeper and more potently into the cultural nerve center than any horror story that had come before it or, quite possibly, has since. Not surprisingly, plans for a follow-up began almost immediately, even though both Blatty and Friedkin excused themselves from the negotiations.
“When they first came to me,” Blatty tells me as we duck out of the heat and into the neighborhood bar known as the Tombs, “I said, ‘What are you talking about? There’s no sequel here. That’s the end of the story.’ Then, they came back and said, ‘We have a story of our own, but we don’t have sequel rights.’ So I just named an utterly outlandish figure for those days. And they said, ‘Okay.’” The result would not arrive in theaters until 1977 — by which time several Exorcist knockoffs had already appeared, including the Italian Beyond the Door, an act of cinematic plagiarism so blatant that Warner Bros. sued its producers. But Warner had nobody to blame but itself for John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, a cosmic disaster on which no expense had been spared, save for the brainpower of the people responsible for making it. It too attempts to tell an origin story of sorts, about the young Father Merrin’s African adventures, but ends up being much more memorable for its gobs of New Agey telepathy, its disco-fabulous Ennio Morricone score and its recurrent image of James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust.
However, the true precedent for Exorcist: The Beginning may be the strange case of Blatty’s own Legion, his 1983 mystery novel that tells a story unrelated to the events of The Exorcist but involving two of the first novel’s peripheral characters: the movie-obsessed detective William Kinderman and the priest Father Joseph Dyer. In 1990, Blatty was approached to adapt and direct a screen version of Legion, though by the time the movie hit theaters, it would be called The Exorcist III and would feature changes — mandated by its producer — that saw the story rewritten to be more of a direct sequel. Those changes included the return of Father Damien Karras (the young priest-psychiatrist who falls to his death at the end of The Exorcist) and the addition of an exorcism scene at the end. The producer in question? None other than James G. Robinson. “Jim Robinson, armed with a copy of my screenplay and his secretary, had requested a meeting with me,” Blatty explains. “He began by turning to his secretary and saying, ‘You tell him.’ She then held up a copy of the screenplay, which I’m supposed to start shooting the next morning, and said, ‘I read this, and I really think it’s wonderful. But what does it have to do with The Exorcist?’ So, I tried to explain to them that The Exorcist was not Rocky— we’re not going to go after a new, one-armed demon every episode. But Robinson wouldn’t give it up. He just let me go my way until the very end, let me do my cut. Then I showed up on the Fox lot one day, and my parking space was gone and the editing-room door was locked.” In fact, Blatty has no shortage of other Robinson stories — unlike Schrader, he ultimately decided to tough 30 things out with Morgan Creek for the duration of postproduction — many of which doubtless informed the more lunatic episodes of Blatty’s 1996 satirical novel Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing. As for The Exorcist III, it rolled into cinemas on August 17, 1990, in a cut Blatty acknowledges was far from what he had intended, just one week after the release of another much-beleaguered sequel, the Chinatown follow-up The Two Jakes. Both films were gone before anyone had much of a chance to notice they were there.
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