Pea soup vomit. Mommy beating. A crucifix as a tool for, ahem, self abuse. Twenty seven years after it put the fear of God into moviegoers, ”The Exorcist” returns to the big screen (500 theaters, to be exact) replete with new stereo sound, added music, spanking new prints — and 11 minutes of new footage. And this time, according to director William Friedkin and author/ screenwriter William Peter Blatty, the movie that Entertainment Weekly called the scariest of all time is now a kinder, gentler demonic possession.
The now infamous story: As a Catholic undergraduate at Georgetown University in the late 1940s, Blatty read about a recent, documented case of exorcism, and years later wrote a book based oh so loosely on it. Blatty tells EW.com that the screenplay he adapted (and nabbed an Oscar for) was meant to teach a lesson in spirituality, not make audiences shiver with fear. ”’The Exorcist’ is widely perceived, especially by young people, as a horror movie. It is not,” Blatty insists. ”It’s really to teach us not to despair. If you think the grave is the end, I mean, God. You either have to be suicidal or a serial killer.”
Unfortunately for Blatty and Friedkin (if you can call a $160 million gross — a true phenomenon for its time — and 11 Oscar nominations a misfortune), 1973 audiences mostly missed that point. Instead, they threw up in theaters and fretted over Linda Blair’s blaspheming Regan MacNeil, the little girl with the devil inside. Sure, there was a run on churches for reassurance. But the message of God’s triumph over evil was a hushed one.
That, Blatty has maintained, was because Friedkin lopped off his original, blatantly hopeful ending — one that spelled out who the victor was. But Friedkin believed he had a good reason. ”I had just made ‘The French Connection,’ where everything was very ambiguous and understated, and I thought, that’s what I’ll do with this,” Friedkin says. ”It was the ’70s! Ambiguity ruled! You could let the audience decide how to feel about a movie.”
To the surprise of both Friedkin and Blatty, many people who saw the movie felt that Satan had won. Friedkin believes the misperception helped his film get nearly shut out of the Oscar race that year (of its 10 nominations, it won only for its screenplay and sound). ”There was an organized campaign that I was made aware of against ‘The Exorcist’ winning an Academy Award,” the director says. ”It was about certain things like a 12 year old masturbating with a crucifix and saying things like ‘F— me’ and ‘Let Jesus f— you,’ which was certainly no part of any mainstream movies back then.”
Over two decades, Blatty kept pushing for the original ending to be restored. Friedkin finally got impetus to head back into the editing room in 1998 when the film was released on DVD in the U.S., and rereleased, for its 25th anniversary, in movie theaters in Great Britain — where it became a No. 1 hit. Suddenly it made good business sense (as well as spiritual sense) to try a few changes. ”I think he was right all along, and I was wrong,” Friedkin admits. ”I hate to say it. This is the version that we both feel is the definitive version of the picture.”
One restored scene that has long intrigued fans is Regan’s ”spider walk” — a gymnastic feat performed by a stuntwoman that ends with a truly shocking close up of Blair’s mouth. Friedkin has nothing but praise for Blair’s on set behavior, but he admits he didn’t dote quite so much on the grown ups in the cast. He had a habit of firing a gun (loaded with blanks) to keep the actors unnerved, an idea he borrowed from George Stevens, who did the same thing when helming ”The Diary of Anne Frank.” ”People think I invented that and it’s a horrible thing to do, but it was done by a man who has the reputation for being one of the nicest men to ever direct a film,” says Friedkin. ”It’s almost impossible for actors to create those kinds of moments out of whole cloth at 8 a.m. You’re just out of the makeup chair and now you’ve got to go into a scene where the devil is in the room freaking out. So I would unsettle the actors.”
Those involved in ”The Exorcist” seem to be better settled now. Ellen Burstyn, who played Blair’s mom, is garnering Oscar talk for her performance in ”Requiem for a Dream” (due in theaters Oct. 6); Friedkin scored a hit this spring with ”Rules of Engagement”; Blair is about to launch her own website, TheAlternet.com; Blatty is warding off buzz about a long rumored ”Exorcist” prequel (”I’d fall on my knees and pray God it will never happen”) and enjoying the fruition of his original vision for ”The Exorcist.” ”Its intended effect was to bring about spirituality of reinforcement of religious belief,” he says. ”It was never meant to scare anybody along the way.”