The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear – Book Review

It’s been 50 years since The Exorcist burst into theatres and changed the way we looked at pea soup forever. The seminal horror film made over $60 million during its theatrical release, making it the second most popular film of 1973 (behind The Sting), and was nominated for a total of nine Oscars. Warner Brothers pushed for a sequel, other studios started financing high-budget horror films, and the genre was reinvented yet again.

How this film came to be, and the impact felt in the industry in its wake, is the story Nat Segaloff tells in The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear. Segaloff is a former journalist turned author, who has chronicled Hollywood history in books like Say Hello to My Little Friend: A Century of Scarface, and Shari Lewis & Lambchop: The Team That Changed Children’s Television. 

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The Exorcist is something that has seemingly sat with Segaloff for years, even before its theatrical release – working for a theatre in 1973, he helped organise a critic’s screening on Christmas Day (ahead of the Boxing Day release) and stood outside the theatre, listening and wondering if this move was going to be worth all the hype. When he finally saw it a few days later, he knew it was.

The Exorcist Legacy traces the history of the film and the two men behind its success: director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own novel for the screenplay. Segaloff starts in their respective childhoods before winding his way through their careers towards each other, and theorises how their upbringings (Blatty with religion, Friedkin without) would impact how they approached the material.

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The making of The Exorcist is the stuff of legend – particularly how the hard shoot got the “cursed set” label after the fact. Sets burned down, stunts went awry (leaving star Ellen Burstyn injured), and a future murderer was given a part bit in a scene. But Segaloff isn’t interested in the curse, and doesn’t rehash stories we already know (murderer Paul Bateson is only mentioned in a footnote). Instead, he digs into stories about the relationship between Friedkin and Blatty, their disagreements over the cut of the film, and the battles Friedkin would have with different collaborators and the studios as he worked to make The Exorcist into the film he wanted.

The book pulls in quotes and interviews from the cast and crew of the film, using historical interviews for those no longer with us (Blatty died in 2017, actor Max von Sydow in 2020) and sometimes comparing what was said publicly throughout the years as opinions change. The Friedkin of the 1970s was much harsher and resolute in his opinions, while his current self is kinder to Blatty in particular.

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The first Exorcist film is clearly the centre of Segaloff’s interest, as around half of the book is dedicated to it, and he also goes out of his way to deride the later director cuts and re-released versions, particularly the 2000 Version You’ve Never Seen Before. As someone who grew up with that version, it was shocking to see how blatant Segaloff was in his dismissal, but he appears to be a purist after all.

The second half of the book explores the post-Exorcist world, both in terms of Friedkin and Blatty’s careers as well as how The Exorcist entered the cultural zeitgeist and had diminishing returns in its sequels. Exorcist II: The Heretic was a critical and box office failure, Exorcist III, based on Blatty’s novel Legion, underperformed, then there was a pair of doomed prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) that audiences mostly skipped. Finally, there was the underrated TV series starring Geena Davis as a grown Regan, that never seemed to garner the attention it deserved before cancellation. Later this year, a new Exorcist film is coming from Halloween 2018 helmer David Gordon Green – we’ll have to wait and see on how this will fit into the Exorcist’s legacy. 

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Segaloff’s journalist background makes this a straightforward, factual read, with less conjecture or gossip than other Hollywood books. However there are times it feels like he’s only speaking to an audience of obsessives and devotees – he referenced Paul Bateson without giving much context to anyone who doesn’t already know the story, and includes long quotes from crew members about very technical aspects of filming that may cause unfamiliar eyes to glaze.

For horror fans and Exorcist fans in particular, The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear will sit nicely on the shelf, but casual fans may want to just stick with the movie.

The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear is out on 25th July from Citadel Press.

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