It feels really stupid to say that there was a major religion “ghost” in William Peter Blatty’s classic screenplay for “The Exorcist,” the horror classic that was based on his own novel.
It would be hard to write a story that — R-rating and all — contained more in-your-face religious issues and references than this one. Blatty, who died last year, was super candid about his goal to create a tale that (all together now) scared the “hell” out of people. But hold that thought, because we will come back to it.
No, what I want to note in this post is that the entertainment desk at The Los Angeles Times managed to do a major story about the 40th anniversary of this classic while avoiding any of its haunting spiritual symbols and themes.
How do you do that? Well, you start with the business angles linked to this monster hit and stay there. Damn the supernatural and full speed ahead. Here’s the overture:
During the production of the masterpiece of horror “The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty enjoyed having fun with the suits at Warner Brothers. At one point, the two were going to shoot a mock scene from the movie with Groucho Marx and send the footage to the executives.
“We always put them on,” said Friedkin. “They were always concerned that we were both crazy and would eventually implode the movie. We even staged blowups in front of them.”
Of course, study executives had other worries about this film and its contents. But, again, hold that thought, because the Times has a Hollywood event to plug.
“The Exorcist,” the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, is being feted Monday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a 45th anniversary, sold-out screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. …
Based on the runaway 1971 best-seller by Blatty, “The Exorcist” scared — and still does scare — daylights out of audiences. [Ellen] Burstyn stars as actress Chris MacNeil who, much to her horror, discovers her sweet young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is possessed by the devil. The only way to get rid of the demon is to call in two priests, the tormented young Jesuit Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the elderly exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to cast out the devil.
Toward the very end of this long feature there is a hint — if you know what to look for — about the role that Blatty’s conservative Catholic faith played in this movie and the battles to get it on the screen.
But let me warn you: You’ll have to read carefully. It really helps to know something about Blatty, of course. But isn’t that the point?
The academy is screening Friedkin’s first version, which he cut and showed to Blatty in 1973. “I made that film for an audience of one — Bill Blatty. I wanted Bill to be happy with it. I showed him that cut, and he loved it.”
Then Friedkin showed it to then-WB studio chief John Calley, “whom I really trusted, who was the only guy I trusted at Warner Bros. He gave me some suggestions that I followed and took 12 minutes from what I had shown Blatty.”
Blatty wasn’t happy, telling Friedkin he had “taken out the heart of the film.” In 2000, Blatty called Friedkin and said, “Bill, would you at least look at the footage you cut out of the picture because if you like any of it and you put it back in, Warner’s will re-release it in theaters.”
That got his attention. “I brought Bill, who was living in Georgetown, out to Warner Brothers. We looked at the outtakes, and I really liked the stuff. I put it all back and we re-released it. Warner’s wanted to call it a director’s cut, and I said no way. And we agreed on “the version you’ve never seen.”’ (The Academy is showing this version for the Monday-night screening).
So what was in the missing 12 minutes?
Blatty said the studio had taken out the “heart of the film.” That sounds rather important, since we are dealing with a statement by the man who wrote the book and the Oscar-winning screenplay.
Might this be information worthy of inclusion in a feature about the 40th anniversary of one of the most important horror movies ever made?
To be blunt: It appears that the Times team edited this material out of the Blatty story — all over again. Or maybe no one asked the crucial questions?
During my years in Washington, D.C., I had a chance to sit down with Blatty in a lunch spot near Georgetown University. That’s a key setting in the movie, of course. It’s also where the young Blatty took a sobering theology class that changed his life. Yes, the class included information about a famous exorcism case.
So what did Blatty have to say about the “heart” of his novel and the movie ? This is long, but I hope the information is helpful.
Grief also helped shape the novel, in which a Jesuit psychiatrist tries to help a 12-year-old girl who is exhibiting the symptoms of demon possession, complete with fountains of green vomit and obscenities.
The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.
"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty. …
After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."
The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. There were lines around the block at theaters and reports that janitors — literally — had to clean up the mess left by moviegoers who regretted consuming snacks during such a head-spinning, stomach-churning nightmare. When box-office receipts are adjusted for inflation, it remains the most successful R-rated movie ever.
That's the Hollywood story, which is being marked with 40th anniversary celebrations. But for Blatty, it's just as important that his work had an impact on people in a radically different setting. As a Jesuit in Los Angeles once told him, there was a "thundering herd of people headed into the confessionals" at churches in the weeks after the movie opened.
Blatty described his work, in this case, as a ministry — his own "apostolate of the pen."
So what is missing from the Times piece?
Well, that would be the heart of William Peter Blatty and the story of this famous film. That’s all.