Writer Nat Segaloff’s insights provided in his new book, The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, are not only the product of meticulous research and interviews, Segaloff was also the man working the door at a secret critics screening before the film was released to the public on December 26, 1973.
Segaloff’s brings these type of personal experiences with The Exorcist phenomenon, along with personal relationships with director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty to craft a comprehensive look at not only the original shocker, but all of the successful and unsuccessful attempts to add to the legacy of the film that continues to send viewers into hysterics.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Segaloff about his history with the film and his new book in this exclusive interview.
Where did the idea for a look back at The Exorcist originate?
Nat Segaloff: Like everyone, I had a lot of time to write in 2020, and I was speaking to my new agent about potential books. The book companies, like the DVD companies, look for anniversaries and ways to celebrate them. The Exorcist’s 50th was coming up and made a lot of sense to write about it.
You have some personal history with the film as well, stretching all the way back to the film’s debut in 1973. Did you have a feeling that it was going to be such as huge hit at the time?
Segaloff: No one knew it was going to happen until it happened. All anyone in the public knew about the film was the 30 second trailer that consisted of one image and a very sedate narrator explaining what was happening to a little girl who was possessed by the devil. That was all anyone saw.
My personal experience with The Exorcist goes back to Christmas of 1973. I was working as the publicity director for Boston’s Sack Theater chain and we were given permission by William Friedkin to hold a press screening one day before the film was going to released to the public on December 26.
That meant that the screening would be held on Christmas Day, allowing the critics to be torn away from the bosom of family, although I don’t think they minded. We didn’t know we were supposed to throw up or run down the aisle because no crowd had seen it yet. My job was to guard the door and not let anyone but the 20 critics in to see it, so I only caught glimpses of the film when I was able to open the door.
When the screening ended, the critics walked out silently, which I later learned had nothing to do with the quality of the film, the critics just wanted to save all of the reactions for their reviews.
I later got to know Friedkin though an incident where a mother who brought her underage daughter to a screening filed a complaint with the attorney general of Massachusets, which led to the theater owners being indicted. After news of this hit the papers, the phone rang at the office and one of the secretaries said to me “The director of The Exorcist is on line one!”. He was calling to offer his support over the indictment, which was the start of our friendship.
You never know when a movie is going to become a happening. For every Star Wars there is a Saturn 3. The Exorcist was minimally advertised, but the people somehow knew to come and see it.
What do you attribute the success of The Exorcist to after all of these years?
Segaloff: It was the legitimacy of the production. Friedkin used documentarian techniques that made the scenes look real and the legendary special effects artist Dick Smith made it come to life as well. Today, most effects are done with CGI, but people know the difference between computer graphics and in-camera effects.
The story is relatively simple and can be broken down into four plot elements. It is a story about a detective working a case, a priest who loses his faith who eventually sacrifices his life for someone he doesn’t even know, the exorcist Father Merrin’s quest, and a mother trying everything she can do to protect her daughter. We relate to the film because it is essentially about people who are faced with real problems.
As you say in the book, “The first rule of Exorcist III is: You don’t talk about Exorcist II.” Why was the inevitable sequel such a disaster?
Segaloff: There is that Mark Twain quote about a classic being a book that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read, which also also applies to Exorcist II: The Heretic. It just doesn’t work as a film. It is not about faith, it is about good vs. evil, which shows that the director misunderstood the first film. The first film isn’t about Reagan; she’s just the pawn to get to Father Merrin. Martin Scorsese says that he prefers John Boorman’s film to the original, and it is interesting for a stylistic point of view, but overall it misses the point.
Unlike The Heretic, The Exorcist III has been embraced by many fans after its initial release.
Segaloff: Yes, that film also had a lot of problems, with Friedkin originally set up to direct it. Instead, William Peter Blatty, the original author of The Exorcist and the sequel entitled Legion, came in to direct and based it on Legion. They tried to get Jason Miller back to portray Father Karras, but they instead went with Brad Dourif. The director’s cut uses some footage of Miller as Karras, who came back late in the shoot, but it does get confusing.
It is a real statement by Blatty, who was a Jesuit scholar, about belief and the fact that if there is a Devil, there must also be God.
You also delve into some of the other sequels and the recent Fox TV series in the book as well. How well did they perform?
Segaloff: The Exorcist prequel from 2005, Dominion, had a chance. It was directed by Paul Schrader, but the studio didn’t like it and it didn’t have an exorcism scene. I give Morgan Creek a lot of credit, as they reshot 90% of the film with Renny Harlin behind the camera. It was commendable of them. In the end, Schrader made a film, and Harlin made a movie.
The TV series from 2016 was produced by Jeremy Slater and they had a hard time with the content with standards and practices. It was a prime time standard television show at a time before the change to more cable-ready shows. The series couldn’t play out the story they were telling because it wasn’t on cable.
The Exorcist Legacy arrives not only for the film’s 50th Anniversary, but also right before another re-release of the original film and a brand new film by David Gordon Green. What are your thoughts on the new film?
Segaloff: About a year and a half ago, I had a very frank conversation with Green about his new film. He was very gracious and I hope it is good.
In terms of the book, you not only go over each aspect of the original film and the content that would follow it, but you also offer many “sidebars” where you comment on and add to the narrative.
Segaloff: Yes, they read like really long footnotes. I come from the world of journalism, but you can’t put a boxed area on the page of a book like you can on a newspaper page. The sidebars are appended to each chapter and cover everything from the sound recording to the Roman ritual of exorcism.
Why do you think The Exorcist still holds up so well in terms of its ability to terrify viewers?
Segaloff: The only jump scare in the film is when the candle flames up in the attic. It is one of the most tense films ever made. The Exorcist is about the mystery of faith and the monsters in are brought to life by 2,000 years of religious indoctrination.
When you go to see a slasher movie, you aren’t afraid that the character may have followed you home. After you see The Exorcist, you aren’t sure that the Devil isn’t waiting for you in the closet.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work with Stan Lee as the director of his A&E Biography from 1996.
Segaloff: He was a wonderful man. When I made that documentary, Stan and I were walking around Comic-Con and few people even recognized him. It’s hard to comprehend now that he was practically forgotten. I went to a panel with him and it drew about 50 people. I love the man. He is one of the five greatest people that have shaped pop culture in the United States.
The kids always knew he was important; it was the adults that forgot, so it was rewarding for me to see his rebirth over the last twenty years.
You quickly move from one iconic film to the next in your upcoming book Say Hello to My Little Friend: A Century of Scarface.
Segaloff: The book examines the impact of both the original film from 1932 by Howard Hawks and Brian DePalma’s from 1983. The book delves into our infatuation with mobsters and how DePalma’s film found an entirely new, unexpected audience in the Hip Hop crowd.
I also got to work with Steven Bauer who starred opposite Al Pacino in the 1983 film and he was a great resource, and great to work with, on the book. He also wrote the foreword for the book. Having lived it, he was a great help.
The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear is currently available in finer book stores everywhere.
Say Hello to My Little Friend: A Century of Scarface will be released on October 24, and is currently available for pre-orders.
Both books are published by Citadel Press, a division on Kensington Publishing Corp.