It started with a book. A book by William Peter Blatty that is just now due to be released once more with a bit of content you’ve never read, much like the original movie being released in “The Version You’ve Never Seen”. Blatty explains his decision in this article. The book, as those who have read it will know, is a solid horror with plenty of discussion and thought regarding the topic of faith and the very essence of good and evil. It’s what you might call a slow-burner. It’s called “The Exorcist”.
The film is similiar, in many ways, but who would have guessed just what an impact it would have on the horror genre over the years. It wasn’t actually banned in the UK, contrary to popular belief, but was in fact never put forward for certification due to Warner Bros. perhaps being scared of that horrid Video Recording Act 1984 (the act that essentially gave us the term “video nasty”). Passed uncut in 1999, British fans could finally see what all the fuss was about without trying to look past the snow-filled screen of some old Betamax tape. Was it worth the wait? The movie that so many people vote as “the greatest horror film of all time” has suffered at the hands of younger, impatient viewers who have been fed a diet of quick-cutting, excess gore and flashy CGI. Viewed as some kind of rite of passage, many finally see the film and dismiss it as “not that scary”, which is a great shame. Because it remains a truly terrifying experience and one that grows even more horrific as the viewer grows up. The pervading, insidious nature of evil and the ability to corrupt even the most innocent picture of youth – THAT’S what makes The Exorcist work so well and that’s the really scary part of the big picture. And that’s why I decided to visit all of the movies in this Horror Month special.
*NB – The following chronology shows the order in which the movies were made and not when they were released. I find this the best way to view the troubled prequels and would recommend anyone else checking out the series to do the same but, of course, it’s entirely up to each viewer.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is one of many movies that I have long dreaded writing up a review of. Why? Because it seems like everything that could be said about the movie HAS been said. There have been numerous books and documentaries about the making of the movie and the impact it had. And there’s also the fact that the movie, quite clearly and loudly, speaks for itself. It is a grown up horror for grown up people.
Running at over two hours in length, with an exorcism scene that takes up around ten minutes of that time, The Exorcist is not a movie for those after easy entertainment and a succession of jump scares. It’s a movie that looks at the very essence of evil and the insidious nature of it. It’s a movie that looks at things through the veil of religion but also doesn’t deny science a place in the plot development (in fact, many audience members remember a certain hospital scene as something more disturbing than any of the actual supernatural events).
The skeleton of the plot is as follows – young Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair, who will always be “that girl from The Exorcist”) is your average, happy young girl. Her mother, Chris (Ellen Byrstyn), is an actress and the two have a healthy and good relationship. Things begin to change, however, and what starts off as slightly worrying episodes soon develops into a full-blown crisis as Chris worries about what has become of her little girl and, in desperation, turns to a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller). If Father Karras decides that an exorcism is required then he will need help from a man of experience, the wise Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).
Picking apart individual elements of The Exorcist feels like dissecting a live animal to see just how it is breathing – it’s going to die and nobody will be any the wiser. The Exorcist works because everything comes together and is meticulously woven into a terrifying and disturbing whole.
William Friedkin gets a lot of due credit for directing, creating a number of effects that weren’t so easily faked back in the 70s, and William Peter Blatty deserves praise for his writing but they only provided the solid foundation.
The cast are almost all excellent. I was never a fan of the Burke Dennings character and so just tolerate Jack MacGowran’s performance but everyone else is practically perfect. Lee J. Cobb is superb as the detective investigating a death that brings him into contact with the MacNeil household, Ellen Burstyn is great as a mother at the end of her tether and Linda Blair (with the help of vocal work from Mercedes McCambridge) makes an unforgettable impression. Max von Sydow is dignified and wise while Jason Miller goes through a more complicated array of emotions and provides one of the best performances in horror movie history.
Throw in that memorable use of “Tubular Bells”, a few scenes that remain downright shocking to this day and a balanced view on things that can let the audience take away from the movie whatever they bring to it and you have just a few of the many reasons why The Exorcist is so often acknowledged as “the greatest horror movie ever made”.
DIRECTOR: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
WRITER: WILLIAM PETER BLATTY
STARS: LINDA BLAIR, MAX VON SYDOW, ELLEN BURSTYN, JASON MILLER, JACK MACGOWRAN
RUNTIME: 122 MINS APPROX/132 MINS APPROX (DIRECTOR’S CUT)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Oh, it’s not unusual for great films to lead to mediocre sequels but few movie franchises have seen such a dip in quality as that shown in this misfiring sequel to The Exorcist.
It is a number of years after the events of the first movie and Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is now a young woman trying to get on with her life with a mixture of therapy and her own good nature. Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) is responsible for the therapy but not really making much headway. Perhaps the synchroniser, a machine that uses lights and tone to join two minds and take them to the same mental space, will help. Meanwhile, Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is set the task of investigating past events and this means getting in touch with Regan and finding out just how much she can remember. But perhaps forgetting everything is the safest option.
Despite what you may have heard, there’s good stuff buried in this cinematic mess. But it’s buried so deep that you can easily miss it.
John Boorman gets a few creepy scenes right but then ruins the rest of the movie with special effects of varying quality, lethargic pacing and a developing plot that becomes quite preposterous. Of course, this is also made worse by the laughable script, written by William Goodhart and then heavily rewritten by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg. What could have been an interesting addition to the first movie becomes nothing more than a load of mumbo jumbo (involving locusts for reasons I really won’t go into here and now) interspersed with scenes that show Father Lamont becoming quite an obsessive stalker.
The cast all seem quite embarrassed to be there and if they’re not, well, they should be. Linda Blair comes out of things with most of her dignity intact but it’s a very close call. Louise Fletcher plays her character as written – blandly and with no real energy to the role. Kitty Winn doesn’t do too badly as Sharon Spencer, though it’s clear that her character is there simply as a link to the original movie (with many of the other major players refusing to take part in a sequel). Max von Sydow benefits from very limited screentime, James Earl Jones surely keeps this movie off his C.V. and Richard Burton has as good an excuse as any to want to keep sobriety at bay while he utters a number of truly risible lines.
The soundtrack is a bit of a muddle, as is the cinematography (though there are a number of good shots planned around mirrored scenery). Things start to look up in the few moments that recall the horror of the original, and especially with the first appearance of Pazuzu, but those barely amount to five minutes worth of decency in a movie that runs for just under two hours. A terrible film.
DIRECTOR: JOHN BOORMAN
WRITER: WILLIAM GOODHART, JOHN BOORMAN, ROSPO PALLENBERG
STARS: LINDA BLAIR, RICHARD BURTON, LOUISE FLETCHER, KITTY WINN, JAMES EARL JONES, NED BEATTY
RUNTIME: 118 MINS APPROX
The Exorcist III (1990)
The second sequel to the movie that cast a lengthy shadow over the horror genre, The Exorcist III is directed by William Peter Blatty and based on his own novel, “Legion”. It wisely ignores the events of the terrible second movie and presents viewers with a superb, intelligent horror that weaves in a few elements from the first movie (at the behest of the producers, it must be said) while very much retaining a unique identity.
George C. Scott plays Lieutenant Kinderman (taking over the role of the character played by Lee J. Cobb in the first movie), a troubled man who is trying to solve a series of strange and disturbing murders while also taking some personal time to join Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) in remembering a good man who has been dead for exactly fifteen years. Someone else who died some time ago is “The Gemini Killer”. Which makes it more puzzling when Kinderman realises that the latest batch of murders seems to be totally in line with the dead murderer’s m.o.
Despite the changes that William Peter Blatty was forced to make to get this film made and released, he has presented the horror genre with an exceptional movie that works as both an intelligent movie aimed squarely at adults and also as a worthy follow-up to the first movie.
George C. Scott does well in the role of Kinderman, though he’s also prone to some overacting in a few of his scenes, and he’s surrounded by a top notch cast. Ed Flanders is great as Father Dyer, Scott Wilson excels as Dr. Temple, Grand L. Bush doesn’t have too much to do but his character is one of the few who always seems to have Kinderman’s back. Then we have Jason Miller making an appearance and a show-stealing turn from the great Brad Dourif, relishing every venom-coated line that he gets to deliver.
A strong cast, a great script and an interesting plot that develops towards an intense finale. Don’t be mistaken though, The Exorcist III is not just about ideas and duelling intellects. No, this movie also has a number of genuinely scary moments throughout, including one of the biggest jump scares in the history of horror (as acknowledged by many who were shaken up by it). It satisfies all of the requirements of a great horror movie while also layering in plenty that helps it surpass standard, mainstream fare.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: WILLIAM PETER BLATTY
STARS: GEORGE C. SCOTT, BRAD DOURIF, SCOTT WILSON, ED FLANDERS, JASON MILLER
RUNTIME: 110 MINS APPROX
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (2005)
Few people were sitting around anxiously waiting for another movie in The Exorcist series (sequel OR prequel). The second film had almost put audiences into a coma while the third was a fantastic little horror movie, often ignored by those who were put off by that coma avoidance. So fans of the original film suddenly found the situation going from famine to a feast when 2004 and 2005 saw the release of two movies expanding on the backstory of Father Merrin (played this time by Stellan Skarsgard). It wasn’t a good sign, however, with this movie, directed by Paul Schrader, taken back by the studio and changed by about 90% for a movie that was directed by Renny Harlin and released to little acclaim, either critical or commercial. The underperformance of Exorcist: The Beginning (as the Harlin-helmed movie was titled) actually proved to be a mixed blessing, allowing audiences the chance to then view Schrader’s take on the material and decide for themselves just which movie was the better of the two. Yes, it was a difficult and complicated situation but the results have proved quite fascinating, giving fans two very different takes on the early life of a character who is, surely, the most famous priest in all of horror cinema.
Paul Schrader, working from a script by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, drags us into the movie with a disturbing prologue that shows Father Merrin put in an unwinnable situation by Nazi soldiers. This incident will haunt the man for the rest of his days and even leaves him questioning his faith and the impact he can have on others. But that is of no concern to the people who want him out in Africa to help with an archaeological dig (Father Merrin is quite the enthusiast) and to maintain good relations with the locals. Father Francis (played by Gabriel Mann) will also be helping out, he is a man who looks up to Father Merrin for his position in the church and also his interest in architecture. It turns out that the archaeological dig has unearthed a strange church, one in pristine condition almost as if it was buried as soon as it was built. With the icons all looking downwards, as opposed to the usual upward gaze, there is clearly something quite different about the place, beautiful as it may be. Things quickly get worse and worse in the area as locals clash with the army (led by Major Granville, played by Julian Wadham) and a young disabled boy named Cheche appears possessed by an entity that wants to test the faith of the priests around him.
Less of an outright horror movie and more of a look at the choices men (regardless of their chosen faith) have to make in a world full of impossible situations, this is a movie that strives to be something smart and scary while hindered by a number of limitations such as audience expectations and budgetary restraints. There are some good moments of tension here and there but then we have a scene full of terrible, crudely-animated, CGI hyenas which undoes a lot of the good work being built upon.
The acting is more consistent. Skarsgard does very well in his portrayal of Father Merrin, revealing more of the character while also keeping his performance in line with the man that viewers know he will become. Gabriel Mann is good as the young, more idealistic, priest and provides a nice counterpoint to the developed cynicism/realistic worldview that Father Merrin has. Julian Wadham is excellent, as is Ralph Brown and Clara Bellar isn’t too bad as Rachel Lesno, a nurse working in the area who can sense some of the history that Father Merrin seems to carry on his shoulders. Israel Aduramo and Andrew French, as well as many others, do a very good job portraying the local inhabitants while the biggest weak link comes from Billy Crawford and his portrayal of the vulnerable Cheche.
Schrader could have done a better job with the material, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s also no doubt that he makes something thought-provoking and unique within the remits of “an exorcist” movie. The script works for most of the movie but it’s in the final act, crucially, when things simply fall flat. What should have been a powerhouse of an ending, a gut punch following on from the build-up of darkness and misery, simply turns into nothing all that memorable. Which is a great shame.
More of an interesting failure than an unwatchable mess, fans should give this a watch and see what they make of the material before also checking out the spin it is given by Renny Harlin and co.
DIRECTOR: PAUL SCHRADER
WRITER: WILLIAM WISHER JR, CALEB CARR
STARS: STELLAN SKARSGARD, GABRIEL MANN, CLARA BELLAR, BILLY CRAWFORD, JULIAN WADHAM, RALPH BROWN, ISRAEL ADURAMO, ANDREW FRENCH
RUNTIME: 117 MINS APPROX
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
And so we come to the movie that was first out of the starting gate from the whole crazy debacle that became “that Exorcist prequel” situation. Renny Harlin was the director hired by the studio to provide them with a more marketable product and, despite what you may think of the man (I, personally, enjoy almost all of his movies as great entertainment), he did a good job with the agenda he was given.
Stellan Skarsgard returns to the role of the young Father Merrin and he is, in line with the plot of the other prequel, asked to go to Africa and investigate an archaeological dig. A church has been uncovered but no record of it exists at The Vatican. What mysteries lie within it’s walls? What evil may be dislodged by opening it’s doors?
Some roles are the same, though tweaked and/or played by different actors, and some roles are completely different in many ways (the nurse, Sarah, played by Izabella Scorupco being one of them) and that makes Exorcist: The Beginning quite an interesting watch. Skarsgard, consummate professional that he is, puts a slightly different spin on his portrayal of Father Merrin this time yet the essence of the man remains the same. James D’arcy plays the young and idealistic Father Francis this time around (Gabriel Mann was unable to return due to conflicting schedules) and does a very good job. Julian Wadham returns to play Major Granville and, like Skarsgard, finds a way of portraying the character that is “the same but different”.
And I guess that’s the most interesting thing about this movie. It’s the same but different.
Where Schrader went for something psychological and smart, Harlin (working from the original story that was then tweaked and adapted by Alexi Hawley) aims to provide more simple pleasures and streamlines the thing, moulding it into more of a traditional, mainstream horror. It may be frowned upon by those who preferred the intellectual stimulation of Schrader’s work but the movie, in it’s own way, is the equal of “Dominion” and equally fits in to the franchise with some occasional moments of greatness leading up to an ending that has some nice revelatory moments and a number of jump scares that are very well executed.
It helps that the cast are just as good here and, in fact, a number of changes actually improve the material. We have no young, disabled boy this time round (the weakest link in the chain, as mentioned above, of the other prequel), Izabella Scorupco makes more of an impression than Clara Bellar and Alan Ford portrays an unpleasant character who you secretly enjoy seeing put through no small amount of discomfort.
If I was a solid director (and, laugh if you like, Harlin certainly IS) and someone came to me and offered me this gig I would have run for the hills. The fact that Harlin stepped in and did his best to retool the concept deserves some grudging respect, as does the final product, which works surprisingly well to show a step in the journey that Father Merrin took to becoming . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Exorcist.
DIRECTOR: RENNY HARLIN
WRITER: ALEXI HAWLEY (FROM THE STORY BY WILLIAM WISHER JR AND CALEB CARR)
STARS: STELLAN SKARSGARD, IZABELLA SCORUPCO, JAMES D’ARCY, JULIAN WADHAM, REMY SWEENEY, ANDREW FRENCH
RUNTIME: 114 MINS APPROX
Fans may find that they have to own “The Version You’ve Never Seen” of The Exorcist but I encourage all shrewd shoppers to hastily grab any version of The Complete Anthology boxset that’s available to them (the R1 version has both cuts of The Exorcist while the R2 set simply has the original edit, which I personally prefer). As well as the movies reviewed above, the horror fan will also be able to listen to commentary tracks over the original movie and both of the prequels, take in the superb “Fear Of God” documentary and enjoy a few featurettes, still galleries and other devilishly good supplementary materials.
And there you have it. Those prequels signified a rather undignified end for the exploits of the devil and Pazuzu the demon. But maybe that’s what they deserve. The movies have to be uneven to compensate for the fact that the devil gets all the best tunes.
Remember these movies when Halloween comes around because October 31st is always “an excellent day for an exorcism”.