Friday, February 17, 2017

WHAT SCARED ME: MR. BLATTY AND HIS EXORCIST


"It seems hard to imagine that it's been 40 years since I stood in a line that snaked around the block, waiting for the movie at a Westwood, CA theater that would later become known as "The Scariest Movie Ever Made". After all these years, just thinking about some of the scenes from that film evoke a time-diluted, but nevertheless still-present frisson of dread. I think you would agree that very few other films from that long ago or longer -- if any -- still have that kind of power. Consequently, I do not hesitate when I say that THE EXORCIST (1973) is, for me, the most frightening movie I've ever seen."

I made the above quote in a MMW post in 2012. I had been scared plenty of times with plenty of monster movies when I was a kid. But THE EXORCIST was different. This one scared me as an adult, and I'm not ashamed to say it. For me, that in itself is enough to validate the fear factor in this, still the best horror movie since its release in 1973.

Shall I tell you of my "Exorcist" film-going experience?

It had grown dark by the time my buddies and I arrived in Westwood. Driving by the Westwood Theater in search of a parking place (which wasn't easy on any night of the week in this SoCal college town) we were aghast at the line of people. It seemed to go on forever.

Well, we finally found a parking spot and queued up along with the multitude of humanity, all of us a little jumpy with anticipation after the realization that we were actually here, waiting to see what promised to be the scariest movie ever.

So who was responsible for this, "The Scariest Movie Ever Made"?


William Peter Blatty, born in New York on 7 January 1926, and of Lebanese decent, was firmly established as a comedic writer when he got his idea for his novel of spiritual redemption and demonic possession when after reading about the real-life exorcism of a 14-year old boy in Mt. Rainer, Maryland in the August, 1949 issue of the Washington Post. Years later, in 1967 at a New Year's Eve party, he mentioned possession and piqued the interest of another guest, Marc Jaffe, editorial director of Bantam Books. He asked Blatty to "send me an outline" of a book that could be written about the subject.

Jaffe shopped the idea around to different publishing houses, but no one was interested. He finally convinced Bantam to take sole control and, in early 1969, advanced Blatty a year's salary to write the book. Blatty finished up a couple of screenplay assignments that he had and began his research. It was finished by the summer of 1970 and eventually published by Bantam.

After lubricating his courage with large quantities of wine, he took a copy of the manuscript to his neighbor, Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine liked it well enough and Blatty suggested producing it as a film with her as partner and star (Blatty had envisioned MacLaine as Regan's mother, Chris). MacLaine's financial partner, Lew Grade, bid low on the production rights and Blatty folded up his tent and removed himself from the deal.
 
THE EXORCIST was finally made with William Friedkin as director and distributed by Warner Brothers. It premiered on December 26, 1973.


 Two days later, on Friday, December 28, we were in line, waiting for the next showing. As I mentioned, the queue stretched along the sidewalk for blocks. It was a warm December evening and a touch of the famous SoCal Santa Ana wind added a dryness to the air. This was a big deal for people and sense of anticipation and anxiety was almost palpable. Then, hysteria broke loose when a plain white van with a loudspeaker mounted on the roof drove through the streets, blaring its message to the crowd: "DO NOT go to see this movie! It is the Devil's work!" Most people -- including us -- thought it was an amusing touch and wondered if this was a stunt pulled off by the theater or the studio. Still, it added more to the anticipation.
 
After waiting for well over an hour we made it in to the next showing ... barely. The theater was already packed and there was no way we were going to find three seats together. We ended up sitting in the aisle along the wall! You couldn't get away with that these days.
 
The movie started and the Iraq prologue rolled to a soundtrack that was cranked up to eleven. It was crazy. By the time Regan began her shenanigans a few people had gotten up and walked out, terrified and sickened by the infamous "pea soup" scene. We were loving it!
 
At one point, a person in the seats to our left got up and came back a few minutes later with a box of popcorn. He made the big mistake of tapping his lady friend on the shoulder to sit back down -- because she literally jumped out of her seat! I mean she went airborne! We needed the comedy relief.
 
When the movie was over we walked back the car. It was late and we were tired and worn out from the expenditure of adrenaline. We were all in agreement, however, that THE EXORCIST had delivered.
 
We drove back to my friend's house in Westchester and he dropped me off at my '65 Chevy Super Sport. Now, at the west end of town is a long, lonely stretch of road, lined on either side by oil derricks. Anyone who has seen these will know what I'm talking about when I say it doesn't take much imagination to see these machines as giant ants or beetle heads bobbing up and down.
 
It was warm out so I had my window cracked open. The wind kicked up and debris blew across the road here and there. My headlights shown an eerie glow on the ant/derricks. As I drove along, I was thinking about the movie and, despite the joking around, I ultimately was a little spooked by the movie and its concept.

So, I was driving along this stretch of road at about one in the morning, not another car in sight, nervously puffing away at a Camel, when, BANG! a tree branch about 3 or 4 feet long blew against my windshield! I tell you, if there was ever a time I would have done you know what in my Levi's it would have been then. After catching my breath, I composed myself and realized how ironic that was to have happened with the movie I had just seen and the particular mood I was in.
 
Thank you, William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin, for almost scaring the pants off me!
 
And to Mr. Blatty, who passed away just recently: Rest in Peace and God Bless.

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