Just in time for Easter, we revisit The Exorcist and its unholy offspring

Just in time for Easter, we revisit The Exorcist and its unholy offspring

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

In many horror films, malevolent spirits are agnostic, born of some nondenominational hell that draws more from the filmmaker’s imagination than any Biblical text. In the Exorcist movies, on the other hand, the answer is more dogmatic: It’s the devil. Like, the literal devil. You know, Satan? King of hell? Him. And if the devil is real—and, in the universe of these films at least, the evidence is quite compelling—then God must be real, too. And if God is real, then most of us, the ones that never took Sunday school all that seriously, are in trouble.

That’s where the priests come in. Heroic priests doing battle with ancient evil are a signature of the Exorcist franchise, as are dream sequences, hypnotic states, and grim hospital settings. Modern medicine, and psychiatry in particular, serve as counterpoints to faith in these films; as such, the doctors are usually wrong. Some of the most horrifying scenes in The Exorcist show, in unblinking documentary detail, 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing extremely painful medical procedures made all the more upsetting because we, the audience, know they’re unnecessary.

Next to maybe The Omen, The Exorcist is the most Catholic of all horror franchises. At its heart, it’s a story of the struggle between faith and doubt, good and evil, based on a book by a believer who promotes his work on religious TV. Indeed, both the book and the movie seem to evoke a superstitious response in Catholics in particular: Comparing the book and film versions of The Exorcist, editor Tina Page recalls not only her devout mother calling the movie “evil,” but she confesses that the book had a similar effect on her as an adult: “I kept my copy of The Exorcist separate from all the rest of my books, in a drawer of art materials,” she writes. “This eventually would not do and the book was exiled to a drawer in a tool chest in the back of the house. This is not logical, and I can’t explain it, but I truly felt that the book was evil.”

And it’s not just Catholics who have a visceral reaction: News footage filmed at movie theaters during The Exorcist’s original theatrical run shows people, many of them women, leaving midway through the movie short of breath and clutching their chests. Some start crying. One has to go lay face down on a bench in the lobby. Those who make it all the way through are visibly shaken. Even now, more than 40 years later, the original film retains a taboo quality, with scenes of an innocent girl suffering hellish torments—many of them disturbingly sexual in nature—that still hold the power to shock.

That power comes from not only the content of the film, but the straightforward way in which director William Friedkin presents it. At the time, the horror market was dominated by stylish Hammer productions and campy B-movie fare, making a serious horror film aimed at adults a terrifying anomaly. Watching The Exorcist, it’s remarkable how not scary the traditional horror elements—the ouija board, the creepy attic—are early in the film. The tension builds so gradually that you barely even notice it, until Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is confronted with the undeniable fact of her daughter’s possession. From there, Dick Smith’s demonic makeup effects, developed over several months for maximum effectiveness, take over.

The Exorcist was a box-office smash when it debuted on December 26, 1973; tales of violent reactions from viewers at limited engagements fueled word-of-mouth buzz, leading to a staggering $193 million domestic gross. (The director’s cut, which notably adds a CGI-corrected version of the infamous “spider walk” scene, made $39 million when it was released in 2000.) Combined with a $208 million foreign gross when the film was released internationally in 1974, adjusted for inflation The Exorcist still stands as the No. 9 box-office hit of all time, and, adjusted for inflation, the No. 1 R-rated release. The Exorcist went on to be nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, the only horror film to receive that honor until 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs. (And whether the latter counts as a “horror” film is debatable.)

Everyone saw this movie, leading to a series of rip-offs like the Italian-produced Beyond The Door and Abby, a blaxploitation version of the story co-starring Blacula himself, William Marshall. There was the inevitable Mad Magazine parody, “The Ecchorcist,” and Saturday Night Live spoofed the movie in a skit starring Richard Pryor as a cowardly priest in its first season. That episode originally aired December 13, 1975, nearly two years after the movie’s theatrical run. (That’s nothing, though, compared to Repossessed, the Leslie Nielsen parody co-starring Blair and featuring an exorcism-themed rap, instantly dated Spiro Agnew references, and gallons upon gallons of pea soup. That one didn’t hit theaters until 1990, the same year as The Exorcist III.)

And any film with that kind of cultural impact is going to get a sequel, artistic considerations be damned. However, watching the original film, it’s not out of the question: Although The Exorcist stands on its own, the film focuses on young priest/psychiatrist Father Karras (Jason Miller), merely hinting at the backstory of several supporting characters. There are the Indiana Jones-meets-Van Helsing adventures of archaeologist/master exorcist Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), for example, whose confrontation with the demon implies an adversarial relationship that spans decades. Then there’s Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who could star in a case-of-the week detective series where he solves various religious-themed crimes.

Both of these plotlines would be developed eventually; the mythologizing of Merrin began immediately, in Exorcist II: The Heretic. The reputation of the original not yet sullied, Exorcist II attracted new A-list talent in the form of recent Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher (severe as ever) and Sir Richard Burton (drunk and devouring the scenery), who star alongside Linda Blair and a handful of supporting players from the original. It did not, however, attract Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn, writer William Peter Blatty, or director William Friedkin. (Friedkin said as recently as June 2015, “There were four sequels to The Exorcist and I’ve seen none of them, nor do I want to or intend to.”) Deliverance director John Boorman took the job instead, fresh off of another baffling yet oddly intriguing misstep, Zardoz. Ennio Morricone was hired to compose the score, presumably to make people forget about the lack of “Tubular Bells” on the soundtrack.

Each of these names presents an exciting opportunity on paper, but Boorman, who seems to have interpreted The Exorcist’s slow-burn approach as a mandate to drag out every scene as long as he possibly can, squanders each of them on a film that’s too boring to be classified as “horror.” Exorcist II is severely lacking in tension until its third act—late in the film, Fletcher tells Blair that she’s in “terrible danger,” but it’s kind of hard to get on board with that when you’ve been checking your watch for the past 20 minutes. (The lengthy hypnosis scenes do little to pep things up.) Boorman’s penchant for stylized sets, which worked so well in Point Blank, is simply distracting here; unlike those of his previous film, the settings don’t reflect the emotional tempo of the story, unless, of course, you’re frightened of mirrored ceilings. In that case, it’s horrifying.

The plot of Exorcist II: The Heretic is best described as “all over the place,” although it does try to tie it back to the original via flashbacks. Like The Exorcist, the story consists of two intersecting plot lines, one involving a priest (Burton’s Father Lamont), the other a possession (Blair as Regan, who still has a demon problem, obviously, or else there would be no sequel). Lamont has been tasked with investigating Father Merrin’s death in the first film; that investigation leads him to Africa, where, after getting kicked out of an Ethiopian cliffside church, he meets possession-victim-turned-entomologist Kokumo (James Earl Jones), who helps him name the demon who possessed Regan—Pazuzu—as well as identify its spirit animal, the locust. (And you know what that means: Locust-cam!) Meanwhile, Regan and her psychiatrist, Dr. Tuskin (Fletcher), are attempting to recover her repressed memories of the possession, which is obviously a bad idea. This all ties into some indigo children nonsense about Regan and Kokumo being specially evolved wunderkinds who the demon targets for their pure energy, as well as some uncomfortable romantic undertones in the relationship between Regan and Father Lamont. It’s not as entertaining as it sounds.

Fans, almost as a rule, hate Exorcist II: The Heretic. In his writeup of the film, Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey describes moviegoers throwing things at the screen during the film’s June 1977 run. The Exorcist III, on the other hand, is a fan favorite that, despite mixed reviews upon its initial release in August 1990, is now cited as “an underappreciated gem” of the genre. Originally titled simply Legion, the story further develops the character of Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) as he hunts a serial killer based on the real-life Zodiac Killer, except, because this is a William Peter Blatty story, this killer is fixated on Catholic imagery. (One of his signatures is decapitating his victims and replacing their heads with those stolen from statues of Christ.) The always-dynamic Scott takes over for Lee J. Cobb, who died in 1976, as Kinderman; and although Scott appears to have had some fun with the role, particularly in his witty banter with his old friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders)—one of his monologues, about a carp his mother-in-law keeps in the bathtub, is delightfully nutty—he’s also able to communicate the anxiety and dread that creep over the character as the case grows increasingly supernatural.

For his directorial debut, Blatty wanted to avoid exorcisms entirely, a decision he reportedly justified to the studio by citing how much people hated Exorcist II. But that logic didn’t work on studio heads, and after a test screening Blatty was forced to not only retitle the film, but reshoot the ending to satisfy the suits. The result was an insanely over-the-top ending to what is otherwise a chillingly understated occult horror movie; while the details of the killings in the film are Seven-level creative (and grisly), overall much more is described than is actually shown on screen. Remarkably for a first-time director like Blatty, The Exorcist III features several expertly staged, positively blood-chilling sequences, including one that The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd called “a bravura long take that ratchets up tension across several agonizing minutes before delivering a nerve-jangling jolt,” but declined to describe further so as to not ruin the surprise. We won’t ruin it here either, and instead share this also quite creepy scene from earlier in the film:

No such worries about ruining Exorcist: The Beginning, the splashy, lurid, clearly designed for maximum box-office returns prequel that no one asked for. To talk about Exorcist: The Beginning, you also have to talk about Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, which was released in theaters in 2005, a year after The Beginning’s bow. Exorcist: The Beginning was first announced in 2001, with director John Frankenheimer and star Liam Neeson attached; then Frankenheimer dropped out in June 2002 and Neeson went with him, beginning the movie’s troubles. Rumors of an “Exorcist curse” had been rumbling since the first film, and, to the conspiracy minded, Frankenheimer’s sudden death a month after exiting the production would seem to fit that theory. And his replacement, Paul Schrader, has been dogged by trouble with his producers ever since taking the job, including on his most recent film, 2014’s The Dying Of The Light. Whether that’s a supernatural occurrence or a byproduct of Schrader’s personality, however, is debatable. (Neeson and eventual star Stellan Skarsgård have emerged unscathed… so far.)

Schrader was almost finished shooting when, he says, the final cut was wrested from him by producers concerned—perhaps justifiably so, after the dull thud Exorcist II: The Heretic made at the box office—that his film wasn’t scary enough. Die Hard 2’s Renny Harlin was brought in to replace him, and the result, re-shot on the same sets with many of the same actors, over-compensates for the perceived lack. This is a horror movie with a capital “H,” boasting a shower scene, a spooky graveyard sequence, and plentiful callbacks to the original movie. Sometimes, as in a sequence toward the end of the movie where Skarsgård’s Father Merrin crawls through a series of pitch-black tunnels en route to confronting his demonic nemesis, the change of approach is effective. Mostly, though, the film is about as subtle as a blow from a sledgehammer, and equally painful.

Both films share the same basic plot: Father Merrin, the eponymous exorcist from the first film, experiences a crisis of faith during World War II that leads him to an archaeological dig in British East Africa in 1947, where he is confronted with indisputable evidence of the existence of evil (and, therefore, God) in the form of the demon Pazuzu. Beyond that, Harlin’s film fractures writers Caleb Carr and William Wisher Jr.’s straightforward storyline, re-writing some supporting characters and adding others, including a former archaeologist driven mad by his experiences with the beast who carves a swastika into his chest and commits suicide in rather spectacular fashion halfway through. Amid all this contrived shock value, Skarsgård’s performance is almost comical; he’s trying to convey a deep moral crisis in a movie that wants him to be Indiana Jones in a clerical collar.

Sadly, though, this isn’t quite a Manhunter/Red Dragon sort of situation, where one masterful film and one piece of Hollywood schlock are derived from the same source material. Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, finally released in 2005 after Harlin’s prequel flopped with both audiences and critics, is a slow-burn psychological horror story—plodding bore—that emphasizes Merrin’s crisis of faith over flashy production value, which makes it look shockingly cheap for a major studio production. It’s an improvement over Harlin’s film, especially in the acting department—Skarsgård’s performance makes a lot more sense here—but ultimately its gravitas is undermined by instantly dated CGI and a ridiculously over-the-top ending.

The difference between the two films is perhaps best illustrated in a scene where Merrin is faced with an impossible choice: Choose 10 members of his flock to serve as scapegoats for the stabbing death of a Nazi officer, or stand by as the entire town is massacred. In Schrader’s version, the scene opens the film, setting up the internal conflict that will haunt Merrin throughout the story. It’s shot in a series of static shots with an understated orchestral soundtrack, which is fine, if not very memorable. In Harlin’s film, on the other hand, the scene plays out in flashback as Merrin looks over sketches depicting his demonic nemesis, and shamelessly employs smash cuts, creepy children’s songs, that ubiquitous horror “woosh” sound effect, and dramatic close-ups that end with a sad-eyed little girl getting shot in the head.

And that’s where things began to go wrong with the Exorcist sequels: Where the original succeeded by balancing supernatural shocks with unblinking realism, its sequels tend to swing too far one way or the other. Exorcist II unsuccessfully tweaks the formula by relying on fantastic settings to compensate for its humdrum pacing, and Exorcist: The Beginning discards the realism mandate altogether while Dominion could use a little more uncanny flair. Even Exorcist III, the only other Exorcist movie to even approach William Friedkin’s 1973 original, is at its best when it keeps its religious themes grounded in events inspired by real life. Because most of us—the sane ones anyway—will never see a real demon, or hell opening up in a fiery pit beneath our feet. Instead, like Regan and her mother, we’ll continue to search for rational explanations for the creeping fears that keep human beings up at night. But what if science fails us? What then? According to William Peter Blatty’s book and the movies it inspired, that’s where God—and the devil—come in.

Final Ranking:

1. The Exorcist
2. Exorcist III
3. Exorcist II: The Heretic
4. Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist
5. Exorcist: The Beginning

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