William Peter Blatty is best known, of course, for writing the the sensational 1971 novel The Exorcist, and for winning an Academy Award for writing the film adaptation of it two years later.
Even if Blatty had never made any other contributions to the art, this novel/screenplay alone would be enough to leave a substantial mark on the culture. The Exorcist was one of the biggest hits of the 1970s, and remains not just a staple of horror, but one of the better films of all time. Inspired by a true story, Blatty told the tale of how a young girl in Georgetown became… altered… by an ineffable presence. The novel – even more than the film – is about doubt. The main characters faces his flagging faith, and we see, through Blatty’s aggressive prose, that ancient, perhaps-spiritual evil can still invade modern, secular homes. The Exorcist is not a work of philosophy, but its views of faith in the modern world can stand as a living essay on modern religion.
Before The Exorcist, however, Blatty was already an active screenwriter in Hollywood, and co-scripted A Shot in the Dark, the second of the Pink Panther movies, and easily one of the funniest films of the 1960s. Indeed, Blatty was behind the screenplays of several ribald 1960s film comedies, including Promise Her Anything, the charming musical Darling Lili, and the satirical What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? starring John Lennon. For a long while, he worked closely with Blake Edwards.
Following The Exorcist, Blatty seemed to shift focus. He moved away from rote thrillers and comedies, and began to look more seriously into matters of faith, life after death, and other ideas surrounding spirituality. His follow-up to The Exorcist was a 1983 novel called Legion, which continued The Exorcist story, following one of the novel’s supporting characters as he investigated another possession in a mental hospital many years after the fact. Legion was eventually adapted to the screen by Blatty himself, and released in 1990 as The Exorcist III, which is one of only two films that Blatty directed. The Exorcist III, while only a modest hit when it was released, has come to be celebrated as one of the best horror films of the 1990s.
Blatty also directed the 1980 psychedelic mental institution mystery The Ninth Configuration, based in his own 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!. The film, like the book, begins as a bizarro farce and Lewis Carroll-like play on sanity, but quickly evolves into something much more abstract and weird, asking big questions – once again – of faith and sanity. These were Blatty’s preoccupations.
Blatty never returned to film after The Exorcist III, other than to give interviews on his work. He wrote a few more books in the 2000s, mostly dealing with faith, and one of which, Dimiter, was begun about the time of The Exorcist, but only completed in 2010.
Blatty’s religious convictions were always a part of him, even as he explored the boundaries of faith, and of Roman Catholicism in particular. He began in frothy comedies, boldly stepped forth with a terrifying tale – and one of the best horror movies ever made – and stayed to explore.
Blatty died of multiple myeloma on the night of January 12th. His death was announced by William Friedkin. He was 89.
Top Photo: George Napolitano/Getty Images
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The New Beverly ‘Blog, and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.