Last year it was announced that Morgan Creek Entertainment would indeed begin working on a reboot of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s landmark bestseller that spawned the 1973 movie of the same name which horrified audiences and had people walking out of theatres. The movie starred Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil and Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother, Chris. The Exorcist spawned two sequels’, the third of which was exceptionally good but often unappreciated, two prequel’s that characterized the early life of fictional priest Lankester Merrin, played convincingly by Max von Sydow in the original, and several knock-off movies, none of which came close to the unsettling and even disturbing quality of the original.
The question in Hollywood these days when it comes to remakes or reboots seems to be not ‘should we’ but ‘why don’t we?’ Therefore, it should come to us as no surprise that The Exorcist is now receiving the same treatment as Halloween, Friday the 13th and more as studios attempt to reimagine horror classics for a new generation of moviegoers.
With a history of campy exorcism scenes and a record of failed movie attempts within the exorcism genre, how can Morgan Creek come close to matching the brilliance and tone of the 1973 classic? Perhaps, a closer association with the chilling real-life story that spawned the book and movie may be in order.
It may be surprising to many that Blatty’s original written work, and the movie that followed, is based on the true to life exorcism of a 14-year-old boy and his family, who lived through the pain and anguish of demonic possession that we only experience vicariously on the screen. The year was 1949 and the place, Maryland. The exorcism lasted over three months.
They went into each room…straining to find the location of the persistent, rhythmic sound. They finally decided that the dripping came from Grandmother Wagner’s bedroom under the sloping ceiling of the second floor…while listening to the loud dripping, they saw a painting of Christ begin shaking, as if somebody were bumping the wall behind the painting. – The Possessed, p. 5
Let us take a quick peak at the story.
In October of 1978, just prior to its demolition, construction workers stumbled upon a locked room on the fifth floor of the Alexian Brothers Hospital that had served as the security room of the extremely mentally ill ward of the hospital. The room had been locked and forgotten about for decades due to the evil that had occurred there 30 years prior. Rumors of what had happened lasted for decades after the nightmare concluded and hospital administrators did everything they could to forget about what had happened there. In the locked room was found 24 hand- written pages that were later identified as a journal kept to document the entire harrowing ordeal of the poor young boy years earlier, penned by one of the many observers. The journal ended up in the hands of the priest who performed the original exorcism, Father William S. Bowdern who was assisted by his friend and academic, Father Walter Halloran. At the time of the exorcism, Father Bowdern was then pastor of the St. Francis Xavier Church of St. Louis while Halloran studied history at St. Louis University.
Many years later, Father Bowdern gave the journal to author Thomas B. Allen for his book, “The Possessed” which he wrote in 1993. A reprint later followed in 2000 where the entire journal was published along with his original work. The journal is distressing to read.
…Schulze decided that the safest place for Robbie was the floor…at about three o’clock Schulze awoke and saw Robbie and the blankets moving across the room…The boy and the blankets slid under the bed. Schulze stooped and saw Robbie bouncing up and down against the springs supporting the mattress. Stiff and seemingly again in a trance, Robbie did not flinch as his face hit the springs. – The Possessed, p. 22
…he heard Robbie speak Latin, although the boy had never learned the language. According to Hughes, Robbie said, “O sacerdos Christi, tu scis me esse diabolum. Cur me derogas?” – “O priest of Christ, you know that I am the devil. Why do you keep bothering me?” – The Possessed, p. 29
At first, the exorcism began in the home of relatives who lived in St. Louis, far removed from the Maryland home, but it didn’t go well from the beginning. According to accounts, the boy was suffering so much that the priests were concerned for his physical safety so the family moved him again, this time to the Alexian Brothers Hospital where the remainder of the exorcism would take place under strict medical care and observation.
On April 19, 1949 on the fifth floor of the Alexian Brothers Hospital, 95 days after it first began, Father Bowdern and Father Halloran were successful, and the tragic event finally came to an end. The young man remembered nothing of what had happened and that’s probably for the best. He went on to live a productive and happy life but never spoke of the experience to anyone.
In Hollywood, there seems to be this type of thinking that boundaries always need to be pushed and new heights need to be obtained to shock and interest audiences and this may be true in certain cases, but when it comes to the horror genre, more is not always better. If we step back and compare eerie and well-made classics such as The Omen, Halloween, The Changeling, and the Exorcist, then compare them to today’s horror movies, you know what I mean. More blood and violence do not make a movie. If we get great acting and well-written scripts, even popular tropes can feel fresh and engaging.
As a fan of the original, I hope Morgan Creek can stay closely aligned to the original story. Because in truth, exaggeration is unnecessary here if the true intent is to show moviegoers that evil exists in the world and how good is mobilized to defeat it. Didn’t Oscar Wilde once say, ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life?’ For our purposes here, unfortunately, I think Wilde is wrong. Life is sadly suitable for us for this occasion when this story comes to us through the art of cinema.
Yet the exorcist may not desist until he sees signs of deliverance. But what are those signs? Robbie had shouted, “He’s going!” and “There he goes!” Weren’t those signs? What are the signs? For the first time, Bowdern felt despair, the most dreadful sin, for it drained the soul of hope. – The Possessed, p. 125
It was recently announced that David Gordon Green was tasked with helming the project. His most recent work includes the 2018 Halloween sequel so there may be hope for us. Currently, The Exorcist reboot is slated for 2021 but no official date has been given and details of the project have thus far been minimal.
In closing let me say this, to prepare yourself for The Exorcist, and if you’re genuinely interested in horror, and I don’t mean Jason Vorhees horror, but real-life horror that may challenge your faith and make you think, pick up The Possessed by Thomas Allen and give it a read, you just might sleep with the lights on that night.