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Tabula Rasa

Linda Blair

Little Girl Found

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994

Linda Blair has had a reasonably hard time in her chosen career. Media treatment of her and stereotyping are the main reasons given, that she became a horror icon at the age of fourteen, not to mention that she achieved a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination in the process. Not a bad start, but one that would ultimately lead to disappointment, as she would never attain those heights again.

Compared to her characters though, she's had it easy. She has been described as the perennial victim, and while The Exorcist may have been her best horror movie, it was not the last and she has remained, to varying degrees, a staple of the genre and related fields to the current day.

Not that she started that way. Born in Westport, Connecticut on the 22nd of January, 1959, she grew up as a child model with a love of horses (as a teenager she was riding in competitions in the Eastern seaboard of the US), but, without any formal dramatic training, she was on TV as early as 1968 in Hidden Faces. As with her debut movie The Way We Live Now in 1970, details are difficult to find, but in Larry Peerce's rather strange movie of the following year, The Sporting Club, she is on screen for a whole second, turning around in the corner of the screen at a party. No evil tendencies are displayed, and she looks somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Temple.

Then she did The Exorcist, and she remembers the audition well -- 'that was the filthiest piece of paper I have ever had to read!' she told her mother afterward. I suppose a reasonably natural comparison could be made with Jodie Foster, a child star who went diving for Robert de Niro's belt buckle in Taxi Driver, also earning herself an Academy Award nomination. But while Jodie has had a measured and varied career, appearing, for example, in a Disney movie (playing a reckless young girl who finds a home in Candleshoe), not to mention the animated Addam's Family, Linda has had no such diversity. Thanks to her inherent ability to appear cute on screen, and her willingness to betray that image, she was made a star, and her career was set on a pretty steady track.

In 1974 she appeared minus a kidney as the original dying girl in the Airport series, followed soon after by her portrayal of a runaway sent to a girl's penitentiary in Born Innocent (Donald Wrye). That was made for TV but, let me tell you, they don't make them like that any more. The scene where she is raped by her fellow in-mates with a sink plunger is very nasty. In fact it's a really good little movie, perhaps a bit slow for modern audiences, but the writing, direction and performances are all great (speaking of which, Jodie Foster might just have played the leader of the gang within the prison, though she would have had to have lost a lot of weight for her subsequent career, and without proper credits it is hard to be sure).

That was the start of a number of television movies. As her New York representative explained, 'When The Exorcist opened we were offered everything, Japanese horror movies, X-rated films, everything. But we were determined not to take the money and run. We wanted to build a career based on quality' [111]. Television was a good choice, a more stable medium where she could draw top billing and have the chance to show a lot of dramatic range (also, while her desires to be a comedy actress date from an early age, try telling that to the producers). In 1975 she played the lead in Sarah T. -- Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, followed by a more subdued role in Sweet Hostage opposite Martin Sheen. In 1976 she played a major role as a young Israeli hostage in Victory at Entebbe, among a field of big names (it has been described as 'the most star-studded, and easily most inept of all the catchpenny attempts to reconstruct the Air France Israeli hostage drama' [115], but I thought it was quite good -- maybe I shouldn't have fast-forwarded through the bits without Linda or Anthony Hopkins in them).

So far so good, and by 1977 she had given a range of quality performances in a number of dramas. It was almost inevitable, though, that she would return to the horror field that had made her name and, as was inevitable, somebody had to make a sequel to The Exorcist.

The best thing about Exorcist II: The Heretic was, in fact, Linda Blair's performance for the sheer naïvety she presents. It's a strange film, much reviled of course, but it always looks good, and it is always too silly for words. It even has some fans -- 'it's mildly shocking that virtually no one has stepped out to acknowledge the film's truly lofty intentions, its occasional success in conveying complex ideas, and its amazing technical achievement. Exorcist II: The Heretic is arguably the first $10 million-plus avant-garde film ever made on Hollywood sound stages' [113]. It was helmed by John Boorman, a British director whose credit's include 1974's Zardoz and 1981's Excalibur and, if nothing else, it contains one of the great moments in motion picture history -- yes, Linda Blair delivering the famous line "I was possessed by a demon. Oh, it's OK, he's gone".

One more TV movie was made the following year. Stranger in the House, (aka Summer of Fear, an even more nondescript title) is significant in that it was her first non-Exorcist horror project, directed by none other then Wes Craven himself, whose The Hills have Eyes was also out in 1978. It also fulfilled one of Linda's long-held ambitions -- to star in a movie that indulged her love of horses. Thus she plays a champion rider, and manages to look like she's never been in the saddle before in her life. The movie itself isn't too bad, though nothing special, and she overcomes any credibility problem with horses soon enough in Eric Till's Wild Horse Hank (1979, this is probably her most Disney-ish movie, though her character, whilst leading a group of wild horses across 150 miles of inhospitable terrain to avoid their slaughter, shows a trigger-happiness not indicative of Walt's saccharine little morality plays).

I'll also give a quick plug for Hell Night (Tom DeSimone, 1981). Basically a straight-out slasher movie with Linda playing a mechanic, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood (an Exorcist joke, maybe?) and spending a night in an old house with a maniac on the loose. It's great.

But in 1983 she appeared in a movie that changed her image and her career prospects somewhat. Linda Blair in the 80s was a very different figure to the aspiring actress of the 70s. The movie was Chained Heat (aka Cat in the Cage, Paul Nicholas) and it was perhaps the breaking point of a problem that had been building for some time.

Linda Blair has had a lot of trouble with the press. Never a body noted for sensitivity and restraint, they seem to have a particular desire to see child stars tumble, and the star of something like The Exorcist was given the works. In the early Seventies she was naturally caught up in the whole debate about the film, and whether someone of her age should have been anywhere near it, and had it warped her in any way. It was a crazy time (apparently, for example, she was banned from meeting the Queen Mother at a particular occasion). As she proved again and again that she hadn't been twisted by the process, they moved onto other matters. As she said at one point (about Hell Night) "I like that movie, although I don't like my weight: I was heavier then and most people in America like to knock me for how heavy I became at a certain point" [114]. In 1978 America had something else to talk about, as the young actress was arrested on suspicion of buying and selling cocaine. The charge was eventually dropped, though she agreed to spend time in drug rehabilitation. Once again, the press had a field day.

Chained Heat was something different. While there are reports of money-grubbing agents at various stages of her career, she was let down in a major way at a low point, when she was waiting for herself to grow up or, rather, grow out of her sixteen-year-old looks. She was offered a script she agreed to do, that changed radically during filming, becoming a T&A flick. She was contractually bound, her managers were not there to back her up, and Linda Blair, Exploitation Actress, was born.

' "I HATE that movie!" she says unequivocally. "It's just destroyed me. If I could take it away, I would" ' [114].

Keeping that in mind, I'll have to admit I thought Chained Heat was a reasonably watchable film. The comparison's between it and Born Innocent are interesting, as the two have pretty much the same general plot, though I think the former was trying to say a lot more about the justice system then the second one was (also, it didn't have Sybil Danning in it). Such things are in the eyes of the beholder, and if you look at Chained Heat as a example of an innocent corrupted by adversity it works well -- Linda is very good at that sort of role [1].

In fact, that may be the trouble. The actress seems to specialise in three attributes -- cute, traumatised and evil. It's a combination that makes her a natural for both exploitation flicks and those about possession (the quintessential moment of her career is, in my humble opinion, in none other than Exorcist II -- right at the end after the stunning mix and the line 'Pazuzu's Regan is the only Regan', she does something to her face -- you sort of had to be there), but she is less successful in other roles. She certainly got to try her hand at a variety during the Eighties -- 'Action Heroine' in Night Force (Lawrence D. Foldes, 1986) she did reasonably well, about the only sensible member of a group driving down to South America to rescue a friend taken hostage by terrorists. She plays a vengeful ex-prisoner, inserted into a Spanish/Italian film, Orinoco -- Prison of Sex, to make Banished Women (1985, aka Savage Island and Escape From Hell), not to mention Red Heat (Robert Collecter, 1985, not with Arnold Schwarzenegger) which looks like a Russian spy thriller but turns out to be a women's prison movie set in Germany that takes away the whole point by having a happy ending [2] (it does, though, have her second best really-good-scene-in-a-bad-movie -- the line was 'fuck you', and again, you had to be there). 'Loving, victimised wife' she did in Bad Blood, a pretty reasonable film from Chuck Vincent (1989 -- perhaps a little too obviously a Misery rip-off, but by no means limited by its source). And no surprises in her portrayal of 'possessed, pregnant daughter' in Martin Neulin's Ghosthouse II (1988, available in you local video shop as Witchcraft, and not a bad little flick it is either, with a cast that includes David Hasselhoff). Other films I haven't tracked down include SFX Retaliator (1987), which sounds a bit of a worry, Grotesque (1988) and The Chilling (1989) which sound quite good. She even achieved her wish to be a comedy actress -- in Up Your Alley (Bob Logan, 1988) -- a film where almost every single scene is cringe-worthy to the point it makes Zapped Again (Doug Campbell, 1989, an incoherent T&A flick she appears in for the sum total of one scene and one shot) look like The Princess Bride.

The best regarded film of this period is, however, one in which she was not in her element. In Danny Steinmann's Savage Streets (1984) she plays a street-smart punk revenging her gang-raped sister (played, strangely enough, by a young-looking Linnea Quigley). By revenge, I mean she dresses up in black leather and arms herself with bear traps and a crossbow. She's a good shot, too. Unfortunately, it never quite works -- Linda, and indeed most of the film, is just on the wrong side of credibility, (not helped at all by the fact that the 'uncensored approach' [33] doesn't reach our video screens -- the cutting is frequent and obvious). It's worth a look though, really (if nothing else, you'll be amused when you realise John Farnham did the soundtrack).

It was in 1990 that the tide seemed to turn for Linda, though I base this on little hard evidence. She seems to have a better hold on her career, has her own clothing line (Linda Blair's Wild West Collection) and is able to lend her support to animal rights causes. She has certainly not lost track of the genre that made her famous -- last year, for instance, she spent Hallowe'en at an amusement park called Spookyworld, signing autographs along with Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Gunnar Hansen. As she says about her past, 'maybe some other people would just refuse to talk about it, but I think it's kind of unfair to have a sniffy attitude when the audience is what gives us our career' [114]. But she gives the impression of not being as restricted by this past as she once was.

1990 is no random date, however, but the year she starred, along with Leslie Nielsen in a full-on spoof of The Exorcist, Bob Logan's Repossessed. And while it wasn't the greatest motion picture ever (not even the greatest spoof, for which Top Secret gets my vote), it had its moments, and if nothing else was a lot better than Up Your Alley. It would be fascinating to see the original cut, before the producers realised that not everybody had an intimate knowledge of the original movie and thus added a lot of 'shamelessly teen-orientated sight gags' for those not in on the joke. It also coincided with the filming of Peter Blatty's Legion, which proved the Exorcist legend could be continued without Regan MacNeil.

Linda Blair is a very talented actor, (if not quite up to the calibre of, say, Jodie Foster). She certainly had a knack for outclassing the rest of a production at one point, though in the 1992 Fatal Bond (Vincent Monton -- you know it's filmed in Australia because they drive past the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House) she gave a good performance in a good (if quiet) movie. I think it's an improvement.

But she's also a horror icon, the corrupted innocent, for which she will be fondly remembered -- even for the women's prison movies.

Bibliography

[111] She Has Another Date With the Devil, Peter Andrews, in The New York Times, New York, October 5th, 1975. All excited about Exorcist II they were, too.

[112] Drug Charge Dropped, in The New York Times, New York, April 18th, 1978. One of a number of articles covering the case. Of course the NY Times is one of the more balanced journals, and the only US source we currently have access to.

[113] Todd McCarthy in Film Comment. Quoted in Preview: Program Guide to the AFI Theatre and Member Events, The American Film Institute, Washington, August 1990.

* Repossessed After All These Years, Bill Warren, in Fangoria #94, Starlog Communications, New York, July 1990.

[114] Exorcised, Mark Kermode, in FEAR no, 24, Newsfield, Ludlow, 1990.

* The Repossession of Linda, Allan Bryce, in The Best of the Dark Side, Stray Cat Publishing, Plymouth, 1992. Guess what the main source of 'recent' Linda articles covers?

[115] Anthony Hopkins: The Authorised Biography, Quentin Falk, Virgin, London, 1992, c1989.

* Linda Blair's Latest Haunts, Sylvia Gimenez, in Fangoria #127, Starlog Communications, New York, October 1993.

[105] The Movie Database Server, maintained by Col Needham and others, The PC User Group, Harrow, UK.

Notes

[1] Strangely enough though, she didn't return for the sequel which recently found its way into the video shops.
[2] As well as their obvious exploitation, another criticism levelled against them is their violent portrayal of lesbianism. I'm not sure about this, however -- like all rape this is about exertion of power rather than sex. I suspect it's all in the interpretation. Still -- tell me that you're surprised the upcoming adaption of Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption has turned the male gang rape scene into a bashing. Hmmm? [Update: OK, I was surprised. The rape scene was intact. Good movie, too...]
 

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