Film series is having a devil of a time

Can it be that Lucifer is livid with the faltering franchise?
Spooky premonitions were reported. People succumbed under mysterious circumstances. Buildings spontaneously combusted.
And that was just behind the scenes on "The Exorcist," the 1973 Oscar-winner about a cherubic 12-year-old named Regan, who, seemingly possessed by the devil, starts to levitate and spit green bile.
Unduly nervous about how the adaptation of the William Peter Blatty best seller would fare in release (it earned a then-whopping $8 million its opening weekend), Warner Bros. was quick to capitalize on all the weird happenings, going so far as to proclaim the enterprise "cursed" and in need of a real priest to perform an actual exorcism.
Flash forward three decades to "Exorcist: The Beginning" (opening today), and -- if we're to believe the good folks in Warner publicity -- the guy downstairs is still making life hell for those who would exploit his name for fun and profit.
Among the carefully documented crises that have befallen the twice-shot, now $85 million prequel (actually No. 4 in the series, following sequels in 1977 and 1990):
UVeteran director John Frankenheimer quits the Morgan Creek production and shortly thereafter dies of a stroke during what should have been a routine back operation. He is replaced by Paul Schrader ("Affliction," "Auto Focus"), who says, "John's death was a complete surprise."
ULiam Neeson -- cast as the younger Father Merrin, originally played by Max von Sydow -- drops out of the project, telling Schrader, "I changed my mind." He is replaced by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, whose Merrin battles the devil during an archaeological dig in North Africa.
USchrader, who was never interested in "exploitation horror" with slamming doors and spinning heads, is fired during post-production because his material isn't scary or bloody enough. "Paul shot the script and turned it into a classy, elegant art film," reports Blatty, who has seen the Schrader film, which may go straight to DVD.
UNew director Renny Harlin, who insists on starting from scratch, is struck by a car while on location in Rome and hospitalized with a broken leg. He sees the film through to completion.
UWarner Bros. and Morgan Creek Productions announce there will be no critics' screenings for the prequel. This usually means a studio is bracing for across-the-board negative reviews.
Is this all part of an ongoing "Exorcist" curse, or just more bad luck tied to a franchise that really had nowhere to go?
Or, to quote von Sydow in a BBC documentary on the original "Exorcist," is this just show biz as usual and "good for publicity"?
'It's a crock'
"Curse? There is no curse, never was!" harrumphs author Blatty with a loud, dry laugh. "When you've been shooting over a year, it's always nice to have demons to blame."
"It's all a crock -- it was a crock when they tried to do it years ago, and it's a crock now," echoes Schrader from his New York apartment.
Blatty, who won an Oscar for adapting his own novel in '73, traces the "curse thing" back to a Newsweek interview on the Georgetown set. The reporter asked director William Friedkin if he saw any connection between production woes (a fire, a supporting actor's heart attack) and the supernatural. "Friedkin must have answered in the affirmative because that's how the whole thing started," he recalls. "It made for good press."
Though he acknowledges he hasn't worked since being axed by Morgan Creek, Schrader isn't blaming Lucifer: "It's tabloid kind of promotion. Do you really think that anybody takes this seriously? Do you think it brings anybody into the theater? It's a mutually acknowledged stack of hooey."

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