The first half of today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema surveyed the history of The Exorcist on its fiftieth anniversary, examining its various sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.
The Exorcist is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who is possessed by a demon. Her mother turns to a Catholic priest for help. He and an older member of the clergy attempt to save the girl by performing an exorcism.
The Exorcist is a legendary motion picture and its mythical status has as much to do with the reputation and rumors surrounding the movie as it does with the actual content of the film. When it was released in 1973, rumors about strange or supernatural phenomena on the filmmaking set, reports of the deaths of people connected to the movie, and extreme reactions to the film by some audience members conspired to create an entire mythology around The Exorcist that was bigger than the motion picture itself. But setting aside the myth and legacy of The Exorcist (as best as that can be done), the film remains potent viewing fifty years after its release.
The Exorcist was ostensibly inspired by a true story. Writer William Peter Blatty became aware of an alleged case of possession and hoped to write a nonfiction book about it. When the family refused to cooperate, Blatty devised a fictional story with elements cobbled together from accounts of possession. The film was directed by William Friedkin who had just directed the award winning crime drama The French Connection. That film was one of the definitive New Hollywood era movies , a period of American cinema that was defined by gritty motion pictures whose stories often suggested disillusionment and moral ambiguity and concluded with downbeat endings. Friedkin brought that realistic approach to this story of possession.
Every aspect of The Exorcist is outstanding. The demonic makeup is now classic and many other practical effects, like the infamous head rotation, are cleverly executed. The soundtrack is also unusual. The film has few musical cues and instead of a score the soundtrack makes use of effects, percussion, and ambient sound. This is very unsettling and when it is combined with the film’s imagery, the effect puts the viewer on edge.
One of the most important strengths of The Exorcist is the performances. The titular character is Father Karras, played by Jason Miller. He is suffering a crisis of faith and wracked with guilt and self-doubt. This encounter with evil makes Karras rise to the occasion but Miller doesn’t allow for showy heroism. Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, the mother of the possessed girl. Burstyn plays Chris as a bewildered parent who just wants to help her sick daughter and that gives the film a lot of credibility. Regan, the possessed girl, is primarily played by Linda Blair with Mercedes McCambridge contributing the demonic voice and Eileen Dietz doubling in some of the stunts. The possessed Regan is among the most iconic monsters in horror cinema history and that’s a credit to Blair’s fearless performance and the contributions of McCambridge and the makeup effects artists.
The Exorcist is also a spiritual film and that is connected to its power as a horror picture. Chris first appeals to science, allowing Regan to suffer through a battery of tests. Although the possession scenes are tough, the medical sequences are some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film and the eventual realization that medicine and psychiatry are unequipped to deal with the reality of evil strikes at the heart of progressive, secular modernity. At the same time, The Exorcist includes a subplot of a young priest who is on the verge of losing his faith and must recover his conviction in order to face evil. When these stories converge in the exorcism ritual, the filmmakers have set up an allegorical confrontation in which the fight to free this young girl of her possession takes on cosmic symbolism of the struggle between good and evil.
The Exorcist is one of the essential horror pictures of American cinema. In the fifty years since its release The Exorcist has become a cultural institution that’s been imitated and parodied ad nauseam. But The Exorcist has retained an ability to get under the viewer’s skin, whatever their religious orientation. Its cinematic craftsmanship, bleak tone, and intellectual seriousness continue to distinguish this movie and make it a unique viewing experience.
There are two versions of The Exorcist: the original theatrical cut (running 122 minutes) and the extended cut (running 132 minutes), originally referred to as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and more recently called the “Extended Director’s Cut.” The longer version was created in 2000 largely at the prompting of Exorcist writer and producer William Peter Blatty. Director Willam Friedkin had cut the film down because he was concerned about the pacing and that the movie was overexplaining the ideas. Blatty felt that these scenes provided important context. The biggest additions to the extended cut were Regan’s first visit to the doctor’s office (completely omitted from the theatrical version) and an extended coda sequence that implies police lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer will become friends, which pays off in Exorcist III. Blatty was upset that some viewers came away from The Exorcist thinking that evil won. The extended ending was intended to disabuse viewers of that notion. Also added was the spider walk sequence which could not be done convincingly in 1973 but digital tools allowed the filmmakers to disguise the mechanics of the effect. The extended cut also added subliminal edits of the demon’s face appearing throughout the movie. Either version of The Exorcist is acceptable but the extended cut benefits overall from the added footage.
Exorcist II: The Heretic
1973’s The Exorcist was a huge hit. Not only was it the biggest movie of its year, The Exorcist was one of the most successful movies ever released. Adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist is still among the top grossing movies and until 2023’s Barbie, The Exorcist was the highest grossing film in Warner Bros history. Unusual for a horror picture, The Exorcist was nominated for Academy Awards and won two: Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The 1970s were the start of Hollywood’s interest in doing sequels. Fox had produced the Planet of the Apes series and Paramount released The Godfather Part II and toward the end of the decade studios started moving in that direction with Rocky II, Magnum Force, Jaws 2, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The French Connection II. Given the success of The Exorcist, it was perhaps inevitable that sequels would be green lit.
1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic went forward with almost no one from the original Exorcist involved. Director William Friedkin would have none of it and spent the rest of his life blasting every attempt to franchise his movie. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel The Exorcist, adapted his book into the screenplay, and produced the first film also declined involvement with The Heretic. Instead, John Boorman took on directorial duties, having previously helmed Deliverance, and playwright William Goodhart, who was best known for the play and movie adaptation of Generation, took on writing duties for Exorcist II. Linda Blair returned as Regan and Max von Sydow reprised his role as Father Merrin in flashback sequences.
Exorcist II is set four years after the events of the original picture and finds Regan on the verge of adulthood. There’s nothing apparently wrong with her at first but for some reason Regan is working with a therapist played by Louise Fletcher who uses a hypnosis machine to enter into Regan’s repressed memories. At the same time, Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is assigned to investigate the events of the original movie and he discovers a connection between Regan’s possession and exorcisms Father Merrin performed in Africa.
Exorcist II was a disaster. Boorman was allegedly unhappy with Goodhart script and it was constantly rewritten during the production which may account for why this film makes absolutely no sense. The hypnosis sequences are absurd, the performances are off, the philosophical themes are incoherent, and the story has nothing at stake. To their credit, the filmmakers did not just rehash the original Exorcist; they tried to do something new and ambitious with concepts of consciousness and good and evil. They just utterly failed at that and created one of the worst sequels to a major studio film. Allegedly, the audience at Exorcist II’s premiere laughed at it and the movie was pulled from cinemas and reedited in the midst of its theatrical run. The 2018 Blu-ray release by Shout! Factory included both cuts of Exorcist II.
While sitting out the first Exorcist sequel, William Peter Blatty continued to write books and make movies, among them his 1983 novel Legion. This story followed two supporting characters from the original Exorcist: Father Dyer and police lieutenant William Kinderman. The Georgetown community is plagued by a series of murders resembling the work of a dead serial killer and Kinderman later discovers connections to Father Karras of the original Exorcist.
Legion was adapted into the movie Exorcist III, which Blatty wrote and directed. This is the best sequel in the franchise. It’s also the only good sequel in the franchise. Actors George C. Scott and Ed Flanders take over the roles of Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer and the movie is a tense serial killer thriller with a supernatural angle that also deals thoughtfully with the problem of evil. Despite the heavy subject matter, Exorcist III is also surprisingly witty. Before The Exorcist, Blatty had a background in writing comedy and the humor is well placed, providing some levity and making the relationship between Kinderman and Dyer very agreeable.
Unfortunately, there was some behind the scenes drama during the making of Exorcist III. The story was more of a spinoff than a sequel and it wasn’t really about an exorcism. Studio executives were concerned that the movie would not give the audience what they were expecting and reshoots were required. The finished film was a compromise between Blatty’s original story and studio-mandated changes. In 2016, Shout! Factory released a Blu-ray of Exorcist III that included the theatrical cut and a reconstruction of Blatty’s original version. However, the deleted footage of Blatty’s cut was sourced from VHS tapes of the film’s dailies resulting in subpar picture and sound quality. Both versions of Exorcist III are acceptable but Blatty’s original cut is one of those “what-if” hypotheticals that continues to be speculated by fans and critics.
After Exorcist III the franchise was dormant as Morgan Creek Entertainment tried to figure out what to do with the property. At some point the studio settled on a prequel that would tell the backstory of Father Merrin, the elder priest who was played by Max von Sydow in the original film. This project resided in development hell for a long time and it would result in one of the strangest periods in the history of this franchise or any other.
Production on the prequel, then titled Exorcist: Dominion, went forward with Paul Schrader directing a script by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Schrader had a bit of a history with both religious and horror pictures, having written the script for The Last Temptation of Christ and directed the 1982 remake of Cat People. He would also later write and direct First Reformed. Dominion was set in Africa a few years after World War II. Father Merrin leads the excavation of an ancient church that contains mysteriously demonic art. Merrin eventually has a confrontation with the devil that leads to a renewal of faith.
Schrader completed an early draft of his film and the executives at Morgan Creek determined it was unreleasable not because it was violent or obscene but because it was boring and not commercial. And Schrader himself has conceded that he didn’t really make a horror film. Dominion is a spiritual drama with demonic elements but it’s not a scary movie. Schrader was more interested in philosophical and theological issues than in frightening anybody.
Morgan Creek’s response was to shelve Schrader’s movie and reshoot nearly the entire film, this time with Renny Harlin directing. Harlin had made A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, and Deep Blue Sea and it was hoped that he would make a more commercial project. Harlin’s version, titled Exorcist: The Beginning, repeated the basic premise of Schrader’s film and even retained several members of the cast including Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin, but everything was louder and stupider. The Beginning is interesting insofar as its shrill style anticipated a lot of the possession films that came later, namely The Conjuring series.
Exorcist: The Beginning was released in 2004 and it was a commercial and critical failure. At that point Morgan Creek decided to release Schrader’s version, sort of. It played in a few theaters in 2005 and was then issued on disc. The postproduction of Dominion was not properly funded as evidenced by the terrible digital effects. But as Roger Ebert observed, the Exorcist prequel affair is an interesting footnote in movie history with two versions of the same story starring much of the same cast produced back to back.
There are a few other films worth mentioning in the Exorcist oeuvre. Repossessed was released the same year as Exorcist III and it was a parody of possession films starring Leslie Nielsen and Ned Beatty with Linda Blair playing a woman who had been possessed by a demon when she was a girl and becomes possessed again as an adult. In addition to lampooning The Exorcist, Repossessed also poked fun at televangelists and the scandals of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. It’s not a great movie but Linda Blair’s presence makes this an interesting footnote in the history of the Exorcist franchise.
Although filmmaker William Friedkin had nothing to do with the Exorcist sequels – a fact that he would remind anyone of at any opportunity – he wasn’t quite done with the topic of possession. In 2017 Friedkin released The Devil and Father Amorth, a sixty-eight-minute documentary about Father Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome and one of the founders of the International Association of Exorcists. The Devil and Father Amorth is partly a biographical sketch of Amorth and a case study of a woman going through her ninth exorcism. It’s an interesting little documentary but it is cheaply made and doesn’t delve very deeply into its topics. If anything, the documentary comes across as a bit of legacy curation by both Amorth and Friedkin whose reputations are tied up in the subject of possession and exorcism and the public’s belief in them.
More recently some horror franchises have made the transition to television. Psycho was adapted into Bates Motel and Chucky continued the story of the evil doll from the Child’s Play movies. The Exorcist television show ran for two seasons between 2016 and 2018. The first season was a direct sequel to the original Exorcist and it revisited the characters Regan and Chris MacNeil, played in this version by Geena Davis and Sharon Gless. But the central focus of The Exorcist television show was two priests, played by Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels. Following the format of a police show, one of them is a renegade and the other is an institutionalist and the priests spend each season investigating a different case of possession. It wasn’t a great show but was entertaining.
Between 2018 and 2022 filmmaker David Gordon Green produced a Halloween trilogy that was a direct sequel to the original film, ignoring the other movies. The success of Green’s Halloween trilogy led Blumhouse and Universal to try the same approach with The Exorcist. Universal spent $400 million acquiring sequel rights to the franchise and preemptively announced plans to make three movies.
Unlike the other sequels, each of which took a new approach, Exorcist: Believer returned to the original conceit. Two girls disappear in the woods for three days and they reappear suffering from symptoms of possession. Their families and friends call upon religious and spiritual experts to expel the demons.
Exorcist: Believer has some very good performances. Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill play the possessed girls and their performances are carefully calibrated between moments of grotesque menace and youthful vulnerability. Leslie Odom Jr. is cast as the father of Jewett’s character and he’s given a complex backstory that gives the conflict some depth. Also impressive is Ann Dowd as a neighbor and nurse who assists with the exorcism.
This movie is intended to be uplifting as a story of people from different faith traditions and cultural milieus coming together in common cause. Believer doesn’t succeed in conveying that idea in part because most of the characterization is so superficial and there’s little sense of these people bonding. The spiritual aspect of the movie is milquetoast and the climactic exorcism is a cacophony of pseudo-spiritual babble with the movie regurgitating exorcism cliches that we’ve seen for the past fifty years. Nothing is really affirmed or fought for, resulting in a picture that is not very engaging.
Where the Exorcist series goes from here is unclear. Given Believer‘s tepid box office results, it is unlikely that whatever was planned for this Exorcist sequel trilogy will come to fruition. On the other hand, considering how much Universal spent on the rights and the fact that Believer will at least recoup its production cost means we’ll probably see future installments in some form.
Sequelizing The Exorcist was always an unnatural idea because the original film was a closed story. Yet, there is a path for more films but the focus should not be little girls possessed by demons. What only Exorcist III understood is that the original film is not really about possession but about dealing with the problem of evil and characters who face a cruel world. If filmmakers can understand that and find ways to dramatize it, there is a possibility of making Exorcist films that can be creative and touch the viewer in the simultaneously visceral and spiritual way that the original did.