The Exorcist is one of the most haunting and terrifying stories ever committed to celluloid and, despite the litany of possession films and advancements in computer graphics that now dominate the horror landscape, it has remained a classic because it manages to situate the fantastic in the realistic. Director William Friedkin's 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel continues to draw an audience because though it's a terrifying tale, it is also a deeply human story.
At the center of The Exorcist is a young girl, Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair, and it is her possession that sets the movie on its course, but the film itself is held to together by Blair's work. Though only 13 years old at the time of shooting, her performance has become one of the most iconic and celebrated in horror. As the film progresses, Regan changes from a sweet young girl into a terrifying demonic figure, creating shocking and challenging situations for the other characters as well as the audience. While the adults around her try to grapple with the reality of this, the possessed Regan gleefully creates mayhem and spreads a putrid air of malice, to Blair's credit, all while bound to her bed and virtually motionless.
Forty years after The Exorcist's initial theatrical release, U.S. cable network FEARnet is celebrating the anniversary with "The Complete Exorcist" marathon on Sunday, February 17, kicking off at 2 p.m. (ET). From Friedkin's original masterpiece to the two prequels, it's the way Pazuzu would want you to spend Sunday. Along with interactive giveaways, FEARnet also got hold of Friedkin, who taped a special introduction just for the occasion. There will also be an online poll to see which prequel the fans prefer, Paul Schrader's Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist or Exorcist: The Beginning, Dominion's studio-ordered reshoot helmed by Renny Harlin.
To celebrate the marathon, Linda Blair recently spoke about the myths, histories and importance of The Exorcist. "I was a working child actor in New York doing commercials and modeling," says Blair. "I wanted to be in Disney movies like Flipper and Lassie and I didn't get to be in any of 'em and Dad wouldn't let me go to California to work, so I figured I would just go on to be a veterinarian. We were saving my money from working for school, and after finishing a couple jobs I had, I figured I would quit forever when the novel [The Exorcist] became a huge hit around the world. Everyone was talking about it, but it wasn't anything I was reading."
It would be her interaction with director William Friedkin that piqued the director's interest. In Blair, he saw a young woman aware enough to understand the dark road the story traveled and one who could handle the weight of it. "One day, we got a call from the agency saying they wanted to send me in for an interview for this movie," recalls Blair. "And as I was raised Protestant, not Catholic, we didn't ask the controversial questions that come up in the Catholic aspects of the story. When they determined that they wanted to go to the next step to do the makeup test and so on it, was definitely an eye-opener. Then we got to rehearsals to see how directable I was. We never talked about religion because I never asked about it. Eventually, I got the job, and I would say the whole process was a year and a half that we worked on the film."
One of the elements that has added to The Exorcist mythos is the supposed cursed set. From injury and death to the occurrence of mysterious fires, it was widely believed that the Devil's hand was at play. However, Blair has always spoken out about the warm and inviting atmosphere that she experienced while on set. "Billy Friedkin, how he works is, each actor in his mind has a different mindset and a job to do," says Blair. "He knows that this person may not give [him] everything [he wants] to fulfill the character so he would find different tactics in order to unnerve them, take them out of their preparation, so to speak. He would work with each one of us in a different way. He would come to me and say, 'I might be yelling at so-and-so' or 'I'm going to shoot a gun.' I always knew because my character could never be unnerved. I saw the performances of a lifetime."
After The Exorcist opened to strong box office and mass hysteria, there were whispers of a sequel at a time when sequels were an anomaly, and eventually, one was made. The Exorcist II: The Heretic takes place four years after the events of the original film. Because Friedkin and William Peter Blatty refused to have any involvement in the sequel (this would change for Blatty, who wrote and directed the third film), the film was handed over to Academy Award-nominated director John Boorman and playwright William Goodhart.
Boorman, who turned down the original film, saw an opportunity to create a metaphysical thriller that dealt with perception and madness. "They kept wanting to do part two, and we said no," recalls Blair. "And eventually they said, 'Will you please read this script?' So we did and it was a phenomenal piece of work, but it wasn't the project they shot. John Boorman had just come off of a nomination for the academy award for Deliverance and of course [there was also] the great Richard Burton, and Louise Fletcher from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and if you put all those elements together it should have come out win-win. But . . . Warner Brothers Studio put a lot of pressure on John. And John brought in another director to help because he was questioning if he could bring justice to the film. So they re-wrote it about five times and it wasn't the script that any of us had signed on to do. Some people think it's a masterpiece, and others sit and like to dissect it and so on, but there was an enormous amount of pressure on the production team to make part two."
In the intervening years, Blair has continued to act and made her presence known in the horror genre with turns in flicks such as Hell Night (1981), Witchery (1988) and Sorceress (1995) as well as a cameo in Scream (1996). She still appears at conventions all over the world and founded the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation, a charity that that rescues and finds homes for abused animals. But with a new crop of possession films hitting theaters every few years, all must bear comparison to The Exorcist. Of course, this comparison is to be expected when a film so expertly catches the fear and paranoia surrounding subject.
"I think there are that many fans of The Exorcist and they want to find a different way to experience it," says Blair. "I think it's a tribute more than anything. There are an enormous amount of fans of this type of movie. CGI didn't exist years ago and . . . we had to do [the special effects] like a magic show, so to speak. Along with all the other things The Exorcist is, it's given me a platform to do charity work and bring attention to my foundation. A lot of horror fans joined us last year with Haunts Against Hunger, and all that work helps make America a better place. Without The Exorcist, I wouldn't be able to do that."
All great horror films work on more than one level, and The Exorcist is no different — it's not just a scary movie; it's filled with subtext and themes of theology and faith. It's a film that has transcended its own time and and genre, and gone on to become a modern classic.
With FEARnet's marathon, The Exorcist will be placed in context with the rest of the trilogy, which includes the creepy (The Exorcist III), the confounding (The Exorcist II: The Heretic) and the overwrought (both prequels). It's a fascinating look at a series that has defined the genre, anchored by Friedkin's original, a film that has never been surpassed.