For the last four decades, William Peter Blatty’s demonic possession thriller, “The Exorcist,” has ranked as the ultimate in scare fare. His 1971 novel sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for more than four months, and director William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster film version, for which Blatty earned the adapted screenplay Oscar, is largely held as a masterpiece of the horror genre.
But in a recent phone conversation ahead of Tuesday’s 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of “The Exorcist,” Blatty noted that on its release the novel had actually been dead on arrival at bookstores.
His publishers, Harper & Row, had spent a “fortune” promoting his horror tale about a young girl possessed by the devil. “I got very nice reviews,” said Blatty, 85, who now lives in Bethesda, Md. “I did a 26-city tour with 12 to 13 interviews a day. But nobody was buying the book.”
It got so bleak that, at one point on the tour, he was met by a representative of the publishing house and was told that the May Co. department store, huge in the ‘70s, had returned all its copies of the book. “That is the way it was in city after city.”
Hollywood also initially turned a cold shoulder. “It was submitted to every studio in town,” Blatty said. “I could paper the walls of my bathroom with rejection slips.”
After doing a pre-interview for a possible guest appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” the interviewer told him not to hold his breath about getting a slot on the popular talk show because the host wasn’t keen on paranormal stories.
And then, new forces began to hold sway.
“I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere,” said Blatty, who prior to “The Exorcist” had co-written such Blake Edwards comedies as 1964’s “A Shot in the Dark” and penned the screenplays to several films, including the 1965 adaptation of his novel “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!”
Sometime after his dispiriting interview for the Cavett show, Blatty was having lunch at the Four Seasons with a woman from Harper & Row when she got a phone call. “She said to me, ‘Can you get over to the show, like, within minutes?’”
It seems a guest had suddenly dropped out of that night’s show and he was desperately needed. “I threw down my napkin and ran all the way,” he said, recalling the twist of fate. “I got into makeup and went into the green room.”
As he waited for his brief appearance scheduled for the final minutes of the show, that “divine hand” intervened further. Blatty doesn’t recall what exactly happened with the first guest, but he remembers that he was gone after the first commercial. Then the second guest spot, Robert Shaw, was truncated because, Blatty noted, he may have been a bit tipsy. So rather than his allocated five minutes, Blatty talked about “The Exorcist” for nearly 45 minutes on national TV.
It was the boost the book needed. “The Exorcist” rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and suddenly Hollywood took notice. The book found its way to then-Warner Bros. studio head John Calley, who read the novel and was duly terrified by it, luckily for future movie audiences.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray features the original theatrical version and the extended director’s cut of the film, which stars Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, the mother of young Regan (Linda Blair), who is possessed by the devil; Jason Miller as the conflicted Father Damien Karras, who is called in to see Regan; and Max von Sydow as the veteran priest Father Merrin, who ultimately exorcises the demon from Regan.
Blatty is also front and center in two new featurettes — “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’” and “Talk of the Devil.” “Beyond Comprehension” follows Blatty, who also wrote and directed the 1990 sequel “The Exorcist III,” to the cottage in Encino where he wrote the original novel and then to “The Exorcist” location in Georgetown University where, as a student, Blatty was told by a priest of an actual case of possession. “Talk of the Devil” features footage — which hasn’t been seen in decades — of several interviews the priest, Eugene Gallagher, gave after the release of “The Exorcist.”
“I am going to tell you something now that may stun you and you may think I’m making this up — but I’m not,” Blatty said suddenly. “When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones. To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone.”