It appears that 2017 has no intention of going easy on us in the celebrity death department. One of the year’s earliest victims is author and filmmaker William Peter Blatty, creator of ‘The Exorcist‘, who passed away late last week.
Although best known as a horror writer, Blatty actually got his start in comedy, first by penning a series of comedic novels in the 1960s. He broke into the film business by collaborating with director Blake Edwards on four movies, including the screenplays for his ‘Pink Panther’ sequel ‘A Shot in the Dark’ and a feature spinoff of the ‘Peter Gunn’ TV series. However, true success and name recognition eluded him until he returned to novel writing with a more serious subject. A Catholic who’d attended Jesuit school in his youth, Blatty was fascinated by stories he read about an alleged demonic possession and exorcism that had occurred in the 1940s. He used that as a springboard for ‘The Exorcist’, the tale of a young girl tormented by a demon, and the priests who attempt to save her.
The novel, published in 1971, was a hugely successful bestseller. Warner Bros. quickly picked up the film rights. Blatty himself wrote the screenplay, which was directed by William Friedkin. The resulting movie was released two years later in 1973 and created a huge cultural shockwave, the likes of which may seem almost inconceivable today. Trumpeted as the scariest movie ever made and denounced by blowhard religious types as a work of evil, audiences literally lined up around the block to see the picture. Such was the hysteria surrounding it, viewers in some theaters were reported to have fainted in terror at the images on screen. The film was both a massive blockbuster (briefly even the highest-grossing movie of all time) and a critical success, nominated for ten Oscars including Best Picture. While it lost out on that big prize (to ‘The Sting’), Blatty took home a statue for his script.
The studio was eager to turn ‘The Exorcist’ into a horror franchise, but those plans derailed with the failure of 1977’s ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, which neither Blatty nor Friedkin had any hand in. Nonetheless, Blatty returned to the property in 1983 with a spinoff novel called ‘Legion’ that followed some of the supporting characters from the original story. That book was also a bestseller, and Blatty, who made his filmmaking debut a few years earlier with the very weird comedic horror thriller ‘The Ninth Configuration‘, was tapped to direct a movie version.
Eventually released in 1990 as ‘The Exorcist III‘, production of the sequel was notoriously troubled by studio interference and reshoots. It was panned by critics and flopped at the box office, but found some re-appreciation as a cult item later on. Very different in tone from the original ‘Exoricst’, the film is flawed but has moments of brilliance (and surprising humor). It’s an idiosyncratic work and very underrated.
Despite its vast acclaim and success, Blatty was never entirely satisfied with the first ‘Exorcist’ film. He even refused to speak to William Friedkin for a number of years due to an argument they’d had over the director cutting some scenes the author felt were critical to his themes and the story. Eventually, in the year 2000, Warner Bros. pressured Friedkin into re-editing the movie for a theatrical re-release promoted as “The Version You’ve Never Seen.” Friedkin used the opportunity to patch up his relationship with Blatty by putting back in the scenes that the writer was so upset about losing. At first, the director claimed that he only did so as a favor for his friend and still preferred the original theatrical cut. In more recent years, he has said that he came around to Blatty’s way of thinking and now prefers the later version. The 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray released in 2013 relabeled that version as the “Director’s Cut.” (Most fans, myself included, will disagree with both the writer and the director. The 1973 theatrical cut is the far superior version.)
William Peter Blatty appears extensively in the bonus features on the Blu-ray releases of ‘The Exorcist’ and the recent Collector’s Edition reissue of ‘The Exorcist III’. His interviews and audio commentaries are all worth a fan’s attention. The writer died on Thursday, January 12th at the age of 89 after suffering a form of blood cancer.
[Source: Washington Post]