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The Devil Has Legs

New book explores why we still talk about The Exorcist

By Don Stradley


Despite the intriguing sub-title of Carlos Acevedo’s new book, The Devil Inside: The Dark Legacy of The Exorcist, there was less darkness than you might imagine in the aftermath of that famous movie. Sure, there were endless stories about the production being cursed, but the movie’s legacy is a basic show business tale, more about greed and broken careers than anything supernatural. Cursed or not, The Exorcist was a landmark in American cinema and deserves a full-scale assessment.  


Doggedly researched and smartly presented, Acevedo’s retelling of the film’s history comes during a flood of related product. Various reboots, commemorative Blu-rays, and other books have been dumped on our laps this season as the film celebrates the half-century mark. The problem with this deluge of Exorcistabilia is that little of it is new. Director William Friedkin and The Exorcist author, William Peter Blatty, are dead, but they left behind a mountain of interviews, memoirs, and commentary, from which the core of this book is drawn. Yet as Acevedo explains, the two were “charlatans” and “fabulists.” It’s not certain that this book reveals the essence of either guy, but sifting through their decades of verbiage must’ve been a daunting task. 


The Exorcist was a massive project requiring months of shooting and editing, with Friedkin creating a kind of overwrought masterpiece. It was an atonal assault on the senses, the sort of movie that left theater customers bludgeoned in their seats. Stories of people fainting and vomiting in the aisles were probably untrue, but the film was unsettling. There were moments where Friedkin nailed pure malevolence.  


The Exorcist shares something important with the period’s other dominant films – The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars – in that it was an old-fashioned genre story handled by a young director with modern sensibilities. It was also fitted with a good-sized budget, recognizable stars, and some promotion. This nasty little movie belonged in a grindhouse, but because it was based on a popular novel and came from Warner Bros., it was rolled out to the public with great expectations. 


Moreover, Friedkin had won an Oscar the previous year for directing The French Connection, a gritty cop drama, which says something about the movie climate of the early 1970s. Inspired by Welles, Hitchcock and foreign directors – the typical nourishment of young filmmakers of his era – Friedkin often said he was only interested in gut level entertainment. He also wasn’t above smacking an actor to get a good reaction on film, and proved to be as conniving and egocentric as anyone in the movie business. He’d approached The Exorcist as if he wanted to conquer the world with it. He nearly did, too. It is still among the top grossing R-rated films of all time. 


Friedkin’s post Exorcist output was less successful. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. Friedkin was always working, trying new styles, and challenging himself. He even directed operas in both Italy and L.A. (What an intriguing opera The Exorcist might’ve been!) Yet the impression was that he had mysteriously lost his mojo and was wandering from one failure to the next. Friedkin was frank about his fall from the A-list. “I had flown too close to the sun and my wings melted,” he wrote in a memoir. Some felt this was a reasonable denouement for an unpleasant, often cruel person. Acevedo calls Friedkin “boorish” twice in the introduction alone, and we sense the author shed no tears while chronicling Friedkin’s later life. 


Despite being a brisk 248 pages, The Devil Inside has a hefty agenda. It wants to relive the making of The Exorcist, put it into the context of its time, and also serve as a primer for people who have never seen a movie made before 2015. Readers who are savvy about film history may glance over the educational sections and jump to the backroom stuff, of which there is plenty. There’s the battle over casting. There’s the controversial trip to Iraq to shoot the movie’s prologue. There’s the abusive stunt that left Ellen Burstyn permanently injured. “It was way beyond what anyone needs to do to make a movie,” Burstyn said. Friedkin belittled her complaints for decades. “I hurt my back getting out of bed,” he said in 2013, mocking her.  (Well, I guess he was boorish…)


And, of course, there was the movie’s startling impact. Popular movies got into the public consciousness back then in a way that doesn’t quite happen today. The movie also lured other big stars into the horror genre. Would Oscar winners such as Gregory Peck and Rod Steiger appear in The Omen and The Amityville Horror if The Exorcist hadn’t been such a smash hit? Probably not, but The Exorcist put horror movies on the red carpet for a while.


The Exorcist continued to lurk at the edges of our consciousness. A 1998 rerelease of the film in England was a surprise box office success. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. and Friedkin couldn’t stop tampering with a good thing. There was a director’s cut, and an “extended” director’s cut, all with unreleased footage and new special effects, none of which improved on the original version. Fans of the film got to see the long-rumored scene where Linda Blair walks like a spider, but as Acevedo correctly points out, it just seemed silly. Long before this current 50th anniversary downpour, there were constant retrospectives and widely hyped VHS and DVD projects. The merchandising made money for Warners at a sad cost. The Exorcist became just another horror movie, something to peddle at Halloween time, until the possessed girl was no scarier than Count Chocula.


Blatty fares poorly in The Devil Inside. Acevedo is persuasive when he suggests the writer concocted his novel from other books and films, and is convincing when he portrays Blatty as a pompous ass. Yet in the end Blatty is unknowable. This is probably because he kept himself behind a smokescreen of supernatural gaga, religious rhetoric, and showbiz doubletalk. Acevedo can’t quite dig him out. It is enough for him to dismiss Blatty as a mediocre writer who had a good idea at the right moment. 


“At no other time would Blatty have been able to turn a story of demonic possession into a money-spinning novel and a record-breaking film,” Acevedo writes, citing the nation’s growing interest in the supernatural, and a jaded cinema culture ready to see a 12-year-old girl abuse herself with a crucifix.

Yet Blatty is a figure worth exploring. Like Friedkin, he was a haughty and unflagging self-promoter. And like Friedkin, Blatty spent the rest of his life trying to live up to The Exorcist. It was a hard act to follow.

There are fascinating parts of The Devil Inside. Among the best chapters is the one about Mercedes McCambridge, the eccentric actress hired to provide the demon’s voice. It is hard to believe her outrageous claim that the sound of vomit on the soundtrack was her own vomit, induced by a mix of raw eggs and apple chunks. There are also interesting chapters about Linda Blair’s stunt double, Eileen Dietz, who was prohibited from discussing her involvement in the movie, and composer Mike Oldfield, whose “Tubular Bells” became the film’s haunting theme.  

Regardless, it’s Blair who embodies the movie’s bizarre aftermath, looking back from late middle age across the unfortunate trajectory of her life and career. “How would you like it,” she once said, “if every day, everywhere you go, someone would ask: Spin your head or throw up?” I first saw The Exorcist in the 1980s at a New England drive-in. It was loud, the soundtrack so thudding that it vibrated our car windows. The opening scene in Iraq was stunning, the sound of those snarling dogs fighting in the desert made my pulse race. Evil was loose, and it was angry. The movie – which may have had less to do with our thoughts on God and Satan than with our subconscious fear of little girls – was powerful. It was made for adults, not giggling kids. When it was over, after more than two hours of tension, one of my friends insisted Linda Blair was a lesbian. He’d read it somewhere. The National Enquirer, no doubt.


The Exorcist created a lot of folklore. Carlos Acevedo wades through it all to give us a highly readable book. 


 

You can buy the book by Acevedo here.

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