Saturday, October 31, 2009

'We are Lucifer': A Halloween Tribute (Sorta) to William Peter Blatty

"... two novels of the Humorless, Thudding Tract School of horror writing are Damon, by C. Terry Cline, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty - Cline has since improved as a writer, and Blatty has fallen silent... forever, if we are lucky."
-Stephen King, Dance Macabre

"It's a shame that people perceive Catholicism as Mel Gibson and not more often as Will Pete Blatty....He's the smartest Catholic in the media. When he goes who are we going to have?"
-Commenter on the Internet Movie Database

Say what you will about The Exorcist - book or film - for King to single out William Peter Blatty as humorless is like claiming Julia Child wasn't into cooking. A black Roman Catholic theologian-vaudevillian-playwright-author-filmmaker, Blatty's first moment of fame was as a contestant who won ten grand while impersonating a polygamous Arab sheik on You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. (So the story goes: "When Blatty revealed it was a hoax....he told Groucho he did it because [announcer/straight man] George Fenneman had said that Groucho was an expert at spotting phonies. Groucho replied, 'That is incorrect, because I've had Fenneman in my employ now for 14 years.'") Later, Blatty co-wrote the screenplay to Blake Edwards' A Shot in the Dark, the best and funniest of the Inspector Clouseau movies, featuring a memorable sequence where Clouseau goes undercover at a nudist colony. He wrote the novel that became one of two films he directed, The Ninth Configuration, an odd amalgam of long stretches of broad slapstick mixed with deep theological ruminations. His literary sequel to The Exorcist, titled Legion, offers more of the same blend of humor and profound insight. (Blatty also directed the screen adaptation, known as Exorcist III.) William Peter Blatty has often brought the funny. And, as the IMDb commenter noted, he is, at nearly 82 years old, one of the few remaining American Catholic hardcore thinkers to have received his formal education before Vatican II. Stephen King finds Blatty drearily serious. I'd counter that he's just serious enough to know when to laugh.

But, yes, he is less known for this - 

- than he is for this:

It is also true that the latter isn't exactly choc-a-bloc with laughs. (Those would be reserved, largely unintentionally, for John Boorman's loopy Exorcist II: The Heretic.) But my mother, who introduced me to Blatty, adored the novel's prose style, namely the opening prologue where Father Merrin encounters some ominous foreshadowing in the Middle East. Blatty wrote the script for the movie directed by William Friedkin, and the collision between Blatty's grace and reflection with Friedkin's feverish technique is what makes the film compelling. Friedkin bashing is a popular sport these days (and was originally with Pauline Kael, who mocked both him and Blatty in her review), but I'm with Harlan Ellison that "there is a subterranean river of dark passion running wildly in the subtext of all his films - both successful and disastrous - that clearly marks him as an artist almost manic to rearrange the received universe in a personal, newly-folded way." I had a sense of this the first time I saw The Exorcist; and I felt it again even at a rowdy midnight Halloween showing during my freshman year at a Jesuit university. (The movie played in the cavernous theater where many of us attended the loathed and feared Father Donnelly's core Western Civilization course, and when the exorcism sequence began the audience started chanting, "Donnelly! Donnelly! Donnelly!") By the time Father Karras (a riveting performance by Jason Miller) makes the ultimate sacrifice, the theater had gone eerily silent. Later that night, drifting off in our bunk bed, my roommate interrupted the silence by muttering, "I don't want to think about that movie."

Despite Kael's claim that Blatty's work is "Shallowness that demands to be taken seriously," William Peter Blatty is a heady thinker, at least by cinematic standards. I would also argue, based on the only two movies he has directed, that he is a rare writer who understands the visual medium. His rhythms are odd and original; his eye attentive, at times ravishing. Both films, The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III, are incredibly uneven, but the best passages in them are breathtaking to watch.

The Ninth Configuration tells the story of an army psychiatrist (Stacy Keach) who arrives at a mental institution (a foreboding castle in the Pacific northwest) and engages in an escalating series of debates with an astronaut (Scott Wilson) who cracked up prior to launch. Leonard Maltin, a huge fan of the film, has marveled at its "eminently quotable dialogue," which recalls the nutball logic of Catch-22. ("I know my rights! I demand to see my urologist.") I recently saw The Ninth Configuration again for the first time in years, and the bizarreness of the enterprise came rushing back. What can be said about a movie that begins with a montage of the lush Oregon wilderness set to the country ballad "San-An-tone," or that stages its climax with a deadly brawl in what appears to be a gay biker bar, other than David Lynch owes an obvious debt?

Exorcist III pretends the first sequel never existed and makes a supporting character in the original movie and novel the central protagonist. Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) hunts a serial killer in Washington, D.C., an investigation that starts as a standard police procedural and concludes with elements of the supernatural. (Jason Miller's now-deceased Father Karras makes a demonic reappearance.) Blatty's movie ultimately bottoms out: Scott, who would have been ideal for the part about a decade earlier, has a sluggish, distracted air. But he achieves a couple of jolting shocks (watch out for one in a hospital) and astonishing images like a police helicopter flying over a church. As a filmmaker, Blatty is fascinated by conflicting imagery that intersects the spiritual with the secular.

What the movie lacks is the novel's collusion of ideas. Legion ends with Kinderman linking the theory of evolution with the Biblical Fall: "We are Lucifer," he posits - the shattered dark matter of the universe struggling to become whole again. I don't share the bulk of Blatty's beliefs. At his worst, his work is awkward and more than a little nutty. But he's an artist who has spent his career exploring, indulging and challenging his own obsessions, and that's no joke.


Hokahey said...

An interesting post!

I was brought up strict Catholic so I took Blatty's The Exorcist dead seriously when I read when I was at college in 1974 and woke up sweating in fear when I heard strange noises in my apartment. A couple of years ago, I re-read it and then watched the movie to sort of maturely exorcise (so to speak) the fears of my younger days - and I slept better. I'm not sure Blatty is a great prose writer, but he sure penned a powerful, memorable book. I also read The Ninth Configuration in my college days when I picked up a copy in a used bookstore, and I still remember parts of it.

As for Friedkin, he kind of tapped into elements of The Exorcist for Sorcerer, his remake of Wages of Fear. I love the latter, but I also love Friedkin's version a lot and I'm dying to find it on DVD. Have you ever seen Sorcerer? (Critics cut it to pieces; I think it's amazing - especially its parallel editing of the episodes that cause the main characters to run away South America where they end up driving the nitro shipments.)

Craig said...

Hokahey - I'm glad you mentioned "Sorcerer." I had wanted to in my post but couldn't fit it in. I'm a big fan of it, too. It was panned because the original was considered Holy Writ, and because a backlash had been building against Friedkin for some time. Something similar happened a few years later to Michael Cimino with the overly maligned "Heaven's Gate," though I think "Sorcerer" is much better than "Heaven's Gate." Definitely an underrated movie.

I find Blatty fascinating. He's a link between science and theology, vaudeville and horror, the old church and the new. He's written books, screenplays, theatrical productions, and directed movies, and done interesting work in all those categories. How many people can say that?

"The Ninth Configuration" is a weird movie, but the dialogue is off-the-wall funny, the atmosphere moody, and some of the images startling. If you're in the mood for something kind of nuts you could do a lot worse.

Hokahey said...

Glad you like Sorcerer and glad you consider Heaven's Gate overly maligned - I love Heaven's Gate even though acknowledge all its faults.

Will Errickson said...

I saw Exorcsist III on its release but haven't since, but the scene you reference *in the hospital* sticks with me to this day.

Glad to hear some appreciation of Sorcerer and 9th Configuration, two of the more interesting and vastly underrated movies I've seen in the past year (thanks Netflix!). The former is out only on pan-and-scan DVD, which is a crime. I recently bought the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for cheap; it's really good.

Craig said...

Will, thanks for weighing in. Yes, that scene in the hospital corridor is so genuinely shocking it's a textbook example of how to lull an audience into complacency before lowering the boom. I wish the rest of the movie were up to that level, but it still has its moments.

Thanks for the "Sorcerer" info. Along with "King of the Hill," another film I hope gets a major DVD release soon.