William Peter Blatty may have created a comparatively small body of work, but he played a major role in the evolution of American horror.
By Peg Aloi
William Peter Blatty’s death at the age of 89 this week has had many filmgoers thinking about the nature of the novelist, screenwriter, and film director’s legacy. Some obituaries (like this one in the Guardian) describe Blatty’s work in his early career as being focused on comedy, a genre he felt unable to fully return to after being pigeon-holed as “that horror novelist who wrote The Exorcist.” And his instinct was right: it has become clearer over the years that it is for creating horror, both in collaboration with other artists and via his own projects, that this great visionary will be remembered.
The Exorcist, Blatty’s third novel, was published in 1971, and while it enjoyed critical acclaim, the publisher (Harper & Row) deemed it a commercial failure: bookstores returned copies unsold. But the volume enjoyed renewed interest and success after the powerhouse film adaptation, directed by William Friedkin (already popular among American audiences for The Boys in the Band and The French Connection), took America by storm in 1973. The film contained some shockingly graphic (for the time) scenes; this content was hyped heavily, and it lived up to the hoopla. There were eyewitness accounts of grown men (I make this distinction because in an interview Friedkin said it was mainly male viewers who had the most extreme physical reactions) fainting in the aisles, vomiting, and screaming. These and other visceral responses generated controversy, helped by the film’s occult content and ironic portrayal of the Catholic Church.
Still, ask different people what the most terrifying or graphic scene was in the film, and you may get different answers. As a kid I heard some film director (all I remember is that he sounded Italian) say during a TV talk show interview that he did not like The Exorcist; his response was “How much pea soup can a guy throw up?” Indeed, that vomit scene may well have been the most disturbing for some filmgoers; theatres started handing out barf bags with tickets once word got out (perhaps galvanized by complaints from overworked ushers and custodial staff).
But it was the iconic “crucifix masturbation” scene that is rumored to have caused the most extreme reactions in grown men (and others, of course). The film was shown on Home Box Office when I was a kid, and my aunt and uncle let me watch it. But they insisted I cover up my eyes during certain scenes, and that was one of them: “This part is too scary and will give you nightmares.” I didn’t actually see that scene until I was in my thirties, attending a screening of the film at the Brattle Theatre in honor of a new director’s cut. (I interviewed Linda Blair at the time, who thanked me for not asking a single question about The Exorcist! I focused on the made-for-TV films she made afterwards.)
Seeing it for the first time on the big screen, even for someone like me, a horror buff who is pretty much inured to onscreen violence, it was a shock. I had read the novel when I was a teenager and remember the description of the scene vividly: Blatty and Friedkin recreated it to the letter. The iconoclastic implications are layered and guaranteed to disturb a wide range of filmgoers: child rape, exploitation of a minor actress, the incestuous contact between mother and daughter, the desecration of the crucifix, etc.
What that scene did, vividly and viciously, was to use imagery to assault so many taboos at once that the audacity of the attack irrevocably altered what was acceptable in horror cinema. It normalized the unthinkable. The genre’s treatment of women and their bodies, and its portrayal of the modern occult movement, was transformed. Three years earlier, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, although it contained no explicit scenes of violence, bequeathed us a trope that still looms large: the “horrors” created by women’s bodies, triggered by normal biological processes (such as pregnancy or puberty). That film also alluded to the insidiousness of the contemporary world of witchcraft and Satan worship; the opening and closing scenes, zooming in and out on the Dakota building, suggest that these evil people live “right next door.” Despite interludes set in faraway places, The Exorcist‘s most significant action occurs in a young girl’s bedroom. The devil slipped in as easily as a wayward bird might enter through a window. We are all vulnerable, was the chilling message, but females in particular, and maybe sexually ineffectual men (priests).
The film holds its own decades later as an artful and suspenseful story; there is very little that is frightening in the first half, but the slow accumulation of tension is exquisite, largely thanks to Ellen Burstyn’s outstanding performance. As this maternal figure becomes more emotionally distraught and, finally, desperate, a kind of haggard peace sinks into her face, an acceptance that her life had entered the realm of the religious supernatural.
Blatty’s achievements in horror continued, in somewhat less notorious terms, with two more films. He reworked his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane into a more occult-tinged work, publishing it under the title of The Ninth Configuration in 1978. Blatty wrote, produced, and directed the 1980 film version (after multiple attempts to find studio backing, Blatty raised the $4 million budget himself). The movie features a character only briefly seen in The Exorcist (the astronaut who attends Regan’s mother’s party). The figure is played by Scott Wilson (in a role originally slated for British actor Nicol Williamson, who starred as Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur that same year) in a cast that includes Ed Flanders, Scott Wilson, and Jason Miller (who played Damien Karras in The Exorcist). The action takes place mostly in an insane asylum; the film has been called a masterwork in the horror genre, though its occult underpinnings are fairly subtle. Blatty considered it to be a surreally philosophical narrative. Jason Miller is very fine in it and, though it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen it, I recall enjoying its complexity and odd humor.
One can see the film’s influence on the next installment in Blatty’s Exorcist franchise, Exorcist III: Legion (the title refers to the answer the demon inhabiting Regan gives when asked how many of him there are — “We are legion.”). Blatty directed the film and cast Miller, Flanders, Wilson, and Williamson. It is a movie that many horror buffs, myself included, have celebrated as satisfyingly scary, the second best film in the franchise. The centerpiece is the conceit that, somehow, Damien Karras survived his fall and has been locked up for many years in an insane asylum, his body inhabited by the spirit of a serial killer (Brad Dourif).
It is Blatty’s impressive versatility, as well as his risky vision, that makes him such a distinctive and influential figure. He broke boundaries in terms of sacrilegious imagery and unconventional ideas. Few fiction writers adapted their work for the screen and then went on to direct powerful films of their own. Blatty may have created a comparatively small body of work, but he played a major role in the evolution of American horror.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour