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THE EXORCIST Restored: William Peter Blatty, Part 2
A follow-up with the producer-writer of the 1973 classic, now a hit in re-release.
By Steve Fritz
September 28, 2000
The revised version of The Exorcist
will expand its release by over 400 screens on Friday, September 29. The film opened in 664 engagements on Friday, September 22nd (in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, and Baltimore), posting the highest per screen average of any film in release and taking the #2 position at the box office.
For William Peter Blatty, this re-release is the culmination of something that had been central to his life since his college days. That was when he learned that exorcism was a still active, although not actively encouraged, rite of Catholicism. What started him was reading a case study of just such a rite performed on a young boy in St. Louis in 1949.
'I not only read it, but I was told various details about it in my New Testament classes in Georgetown [University],' Blatty recalled. 'Like so many Catholics, I had little bouts of wavering faith, and I was going through one at that time. So when I heard about this case and its details, it was so compelling I thought that if someone was to investigate this, and authenticate it, what a tremendous boost to faith it would be. So I tried to do it. '
Over a decade later, the final result would be not a non-fiction book but a novel. Blatty was already an established screenwriter and author by the time it was on the racks, but this would be the title that would put him over the top.
One of the reasons the book was so frightening is the amount of research Blatty put into it. Utilizing his connections in Georgetown, he found out the name of the priest who performed the actual exorcism of the St. Louis boy. His pursuit of the truth would take him all the way up to the Cardinal's See for the region.
'In fact, I still have the letter from Father William Bowden, the Jesuit Exorcist who did the original rites,' Blatty admits. 'I contacted him originally because it was known he kept a dairy. I wasn't granted it originally. My request was presented to the Cardinal of Missouri in St. Louis, and he said no. The facts of the case were originally sworn to secrecy and confidentiality to the family of this boy. They strictly do not want any kind of publicity. This only furthered my belief that this could have been the real thing. So the letter from Father Bowden said sorry, he wanted to help me, but he couldn't help me with the diary. He then went on to say that he was sure the case he worked on was the real thing. He had no doubt about it then, and had no doubt about it now. Then he closed it off with 'Good Luck with your Apostolate.'
Then hardcover edition sold fairly well, but the book only became a best seller (13 million copies) after it was published in paperback by Bantam. According to the film's director, William Friedkin, the majority of those copies didn't sell until after the film came out, which may explain why Hollywood wasn't exactly racing to put the book into production.
'I put it out to every movie studio in town and they all turned it down,' Blatty acknowledges. 'The film got made because of a Warner Bros. executive's dog. The executive was John Calley, who was in charge of creative affairs at the time. John was reading the book at night in bed. John told me that as he read it, he got spooked. At one point he was alone in the house and reading something particularly creepy. He got so scared that he called his dog to jump on the bed and lay down beside him. The dog wouldn't go on the bed. It ended up in a titanic struggle between Calley and the dog. The dog was literally whining and digging its claws into the floor. To quote him, he realized at that moment that the book was hot.'
From there, Blatty was put in touch with Friedkin. The filmmaker was already a huge name, having just won an Oscar for The French Connection
. A better choice couldn't have been found as Friedkin's films always kept a gritty realism, an edge that still makes The Exorcist
a potent film. To top it, while Blatty was working on the script, the powers-that-be decided to give him one and Friedkin one incredibly brilliant gift.
'I was delaying writing the screenplay, which at the time I felt couldn't be done,' says Blatty. 'One day I get a big brown envelope with an accompanying letter. It was from a monk who was part of the Alexian Hospital in St. Louis that was part of the exorcism. The letter said 'This was found by the table of one of our brothers, who recently passed away. I looked this over and read your novel, and I thought you would be very interested in this.' It was a Xerox copy of the diary.'
As one can imagine, this gave both Blatty and Friedkin a lot more to work with. 'It did,' Blatty agrees. 'It especially gave Friedkin confidence that he was dealing with reality. About the only thing we added was the levitation. There was no levitation in the diary, but there was an incident. There was a professor at a university who was also on this case. His name was Bubb. He was permitted in the boy's room. One time, he was the only person there with the boy. No one else was present, not even the exorcist. He later told the exorcist that saw the bedside table float all the way up to the ceiling. He then made a comment about there was a lot about electro-magnetic forces that we don't understand.'
From there, casting only would bring one major hitch. Blatty had hoped to get his friend Shirley MacLaine to play the role of Kristy, mother of the possessed girl Regan. MacLaine turned it down. 'I modeled the part on her,' says Blatty. 'She was the first one to read it. It didn't happen. Later on, Jason Miller came up to me one day. Shirley had told him that the cover illustration on the book was her daughter Sachiko. So the next time I saw Shirley, I asked her how could I have gotten a photo of Sachiko. She told me that I had come into the house and took it. Well, I didn't do that. Someone at Harper & Row created that image. How, I have no idea. It was not Sachiko.'
Miller, of course, took on the role of Father Karras, the troubled priest who was the true center of the book. The illustrious actor Max von Sydow accepted the role of the exorcist himself, Father Merrin. Linda Blair was hired to be Regan. While MacLaine may have turned Blatty down, Ellen Burstyn was more than ready to portray Chris MacNeil. Burstyn would later win an Academy Award in Martin Scorcese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Preproduction of the movie was blessed with three months of rehearsal time. The shoot itself wasn't a very easy one. Friedkin has a reputation of being a highly demanding director, and doesn't think twice about putting his actors through all manners of torture to get what he wants. Still, when Blatty first saw what he thought would be the final product, he was more than satisfied. The problem was Friedkin wasn'tand Friedkin had final cut privileges.
'Friedkin's reservationsand he was very clear about itwas he wasn't sure the film would be a hit,' says Blatty. 'Therefore, he cut it down to two hours because he didn't think any audience was going to be able to take more than two hours of anything.'
Blatty found the final cut disappointing. A number of scenes, totaling nearly twenty minutes of screen time, were removed. 'There was no moral center without these scenes whatever,' Blatty states. 'It just went from shock to shock. The [cut] scenes [included] an incidental shot at the very beginning that was never in any version of the picture.
'The longest sequence added in was the first doctor scene, when Regan is being examined for the first time. It's really very important. You might not have noticed, but in the original movie, Regan is first seen jumpy, jolly and without a care in the world before the party. Next thing we know, she's urinating on the carpet and she's asking her mother what's wrong with her. Then her mother, Ellen Burstyn, is telling her 'Well honey, it's like the doctor said...' It leaves the audience asking what doctor? The next line is 'Keep taking those pills like the doctor ordered.' The missing scene informs you about those pills.'
The cut Blatty probably found the most heinous was done at the film's conclusion. 'Finally, one of the most subtle, yet spiritual, scenes that has been restored was at the end of the movie involving Father Karras' medal. In the version out before, Chris gives the medal back to Father Dyer, who was Karras' friend. In the new version, which is like the novel, she first hands the medal to Father Dyer and says 'Why don't you keep it.' Then he hands it back and she takes it, symbolizing that for this atheistic woman a door unto faith has at least been opened. She'll think about it.'
Not that Blatty found the Friedkin version of the film entirely objectionable. One of the most important scenes left intact was Regan's medical examination, a battery of medical tests more gruesome than anything that would eventually go down with the exorcism, and Friedkin would have a field day with one of them.
'I had the same response to the hospital scenes as you do,' Blatty admits. 'That procedure we filmed, the arteriogram, is real. We used real NYU medical technicians to simulate that procedure. It is that scene that caused the most people to cough, faint, vomit and all of that, and it's been talked and written about to prove it.
'I remember I was standing in the back of the theatre in New York at the first public press viewing of the film. I was too nervous to sit down. When that scene was shown, along came a woman from the sixth row, and she started walking slowly up the aisle. As she got closer to me I saw that she was holding her head murmuring 'Jesus, Jesus' in total horror. All I thought was if this was Pauline Kael, we're dead. The arteriogram scene got her. In fact, to this day I have never again looked at that scene. When it shows, even I look down to this day.'
It would be such sequences, not forgetting the levitation, vomiting and Blair's infamous 'crucifixion' scene that would turn THE EXORCIST into one of the biggest movies of 1973. As for Blatty, the film won him an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, and 'it made me a very comfortable man in my long life,' he acknowledges. 'Everyone told me it was a classic. That's fine.'
But that didn't mean the author was satisfied. He wouldn't be until that the film was restored and re-released, with eleven of its missing minutes restored, plus some additional subliminal enhancements and remixed sound. 'As I told Friedkin, and he now agrees, yes it was a classic, but this version is a masterpiece,' says Blatty. 'You have to understand, the version you see now is the original version that Friedkin showed me. I had been campaigning for this original version to be restored for 27 years since I first saw it in a screening room.'
Now you can see for yourself all that Blatty was adamant about. Just be ready for one of the still most bone-chilling films to ever be released...just the way William Peter Blatty wanted it to be.