17. The Exorcist: “The demon is a liar”

A smart man I knew many years ago once explained to me very patiently what he saw as the structural and genre-busting brilliance of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in its film adaptation by William Friedkin. As my friend saw it, the film sought purposely to frustrate that (significant) share of its audience who had bought the ticket just for the sake of a hellish spectacle – this, by giving them instead a vision of a gloomy bourgeois Washington DC, and dwelling on the discontents of a divorcee/single-mom and a morose priest with the burden of an aging mother. Even now you look at the movie and you just know from the funk coming off the screen – it’s 1973, Watergate, OPEC crisis, crime, poverty, homelessness – this is clearly a moment for Satan to seek an intervention in human affairs.
Of course, eventually, frightening and visually fascinating things do start to happen as Chris MacNeil’s little Regan (Linda Blair) behaves most alarmingly and improperly. But even then the film takes us through Regan’s treatments, the psychiatric evaluations, the painful EEGs and arteriograms – after which her throat is still swelling up like a bullfrog’s, and the audience are more or less screaming at the screen, ‘For the love of God, you fools, can’t you see she’s possessed by the Devil…?’
I still think this is a splendid effect to seek to achieve in a story. I must have been 10 or 11 when some schoolmates and I first discovered Blatty’s bestselling shocker of a novel: we passed it round, taking gleeful turns to read aloud the grossest, most horrendous bits (not all of which I quite ‘understood.’) Friedkin’s extremely frightening movie wasn’t nearly so accessible at that time, but I had definitely seen it by the late 1980s, when my brother was studying at Georgetown University and, in the course of a stroll through the neighbourhood, pointed out to me those infamous ‘Exorcist steps.’
Ten years later, in an editorial capacity at Faber and Faber, I prepared an edition of Blatty’s screenplay for publication and had a number of nice chats with ‘Bill’ Blatty himself, a highly affable and courteous man who always addressed me as ‘Rich’ and seemed very pleased that I was interested in the fortunes of the Georgetown Hoyas college teams.
A few years after that, I oversaw a revised edition of Kevin Jackson’s marvellous, indispensable book of interviews with Paul Schrader, at the point where Paul was putting the final touches on Exorcist: The Beginning, the third official sequel (actually a prequel) to Friedkin’s movie. You may know what happened next: Schrader was removed from his post after screening the film for his studio financier, and Renny Harlin was hired to shoot from scratch a less cerebral, tackier and more effects-heavy version. I confess I still haven’t managed to see Paul’s cut, though it looks terrific, but I have seen Harlin’s, the low-grade calculation of which was up on screen for all to see. That said… it’s hard to blame ‘the suits’ for finally trying to do what some Exorcist sequel surely had to do if it was seriously looking for a place in the market: namely, to resurrect the Linda Blair model of the foul-looking, foul-mouthed female demon: as I call her in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, ‘a vile goblin who masturbates with a crucifix, knows all your dirty secrets, vomits forth obscene insults like bile, and also vomits forth a good deal of bile.’
The other obvious move was to get more of that Captain Howdy stuff going. Howdy is of course the name Regan gives to her ‘imaginary friend’ in the early stages of her possession, and the name Exorcist fans gave cheerfully to the demonic face glimpsed in subliminal flashes during the movie. Warners certainly didn’t stint on Howdy in the trailer (below) for Friedkin’s 1973 original, one that apparently had to be suppressed for being too disturbing, to which one could fairly say, ‘Too bloody right’.

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