The Exorcist Legacy: The Story of Hollywood’s Strangest Horror Franchise
William Friedkin won an Oscar for The French Connection and put bums on the edge of seats with Sorcerer, but he will be most remembered for The Exorcist, the controversial box office sensation that earned him a second Best Director nomination.
The film was followed by numerous idiosyncratic sequels and prequels and the latest entry in the series, The Exorcist: Believer, arrives in October. So, in honour of Friedkin and his groundbreaking original, let’s take a look at how his classic has spawned Hollywood’s strangest horror franchise.
The Exorcist (1973)
In 1949, a 14-year-old boy identified as Roland Doe and his family began experiencing strange phenomena. They heard weird noises in the house and things moved around on their own, before Doe started displaying unusual behaviour. Attending priests reported that he spoke in a guttural voice and used Latin phrases, and was tormented by the sight of sacred objects. When they decided an exorcism was in order, marks appeared on Doe’s skin and he grew violent during the rituals, even breaking one priest’s nose. Whatever the original cause (the story has since been debunked) Doe was cured, and the case passed into lore as one of the most well-known incidences of demonic possession and exorcism in the United States.
The story captured the imagination of novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, who flipped the gender of the victim and used the case as the basis for his 1971 book, The Exorcist. It didn’t make much of an impact until Blatty talked about it on The Dick Cavett Show, which sparked intense public interest that shot the novel to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 17 consecutive weeks.
The time was ripe for The Exorcist in the early ‘70s. A few years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby, itself based on a bestselling horror novel, became a hit, and there was a burgeoning public interest in witchcraft and the supernatural, a side-product of the counterculture ‘60s that also gave rise to folk horror on the other side of the pond.
Blatty, who had written mostly comedy movies up to that point, adapted his novel for the screen and produced the upcoming adaptation of The Exorcist. Several directors, including Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman (more on him later), were considered to helm the film, but Blatty’s pick was William Friedkin. The writer was impressed by Friedkin’s realistic approach on The French Connection and felt that he could bring a documentary-like feel to the story. When the crime thriller scooped the Best Picture award and Friedkin won Best Director at the 1972 Oscars, the studio agreed with him.
Blatty and Friedkin assembled an interesting cast to tell the tale of Regan MacNeil, a cheerful tween who becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu; her despairing mother, Chris; and two selfless priests who give up their lives to save her. Friedkin was doubtful that a young girl could carry the movie until he met 12-year-old Linda Blair, who impressed him with her frank and mature attitude to the book. Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda were all approached to play Chris, but turned it down before Ellen Burstyn convinced the director that she was right for the part.
For the title role, the studio wanted Marlon Brando to play the ageing and weary Father Merrin, but Friedkin wanted Max von Sydow. The Swedish actor was a heavyweight of European arthouse cinema with a long association with Ingmar Bergman and also bore a passing resemblance to the globetrotting Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who had been one of Blatty’s original inspirations for the character. Von Sydow, then in his forties, was considerably younger than the elderly Father Merrin, and it took almost as much time to apply his old man makeup as it did Linda Blair’s hideous scars and contusions.
While Regan’s possession is centre stage in The Exorcist, the film is as much the story of Father Karras, a streetwise priest wracked with a loss of faith. For this key role, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller, who had never acted in a movie before, beat out competition from Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, and Stacy Keach. Blatty signed up the latter actor, but the studio bought out his contract after Friedkin saw Miller’s screen test. It was a good choice, too, because Miller’s haunted performance is the heart and soul of the movie.
Two smaller but important roles, which became more significant in the subsequent Director’s Cut, were taken by Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William Kinderman, the genial detective on the case, and real-life priest William O’Malley as Father Dyer, a friend of the tragic Father Karras. Both characters would return in The Exorcist III, emphasising their importance to Blatty’s themes and outlook.
The original Theatrical Cut ended with Dyer standing outside the house, looking bleakly down the steps where Father Karras perished. The Director’s Cut, however, ended on an unexpectedly amiable note of friendship. Lieutenant Kinderman also shows up at the house and, after a little banter, offers to take Dyer to the movies, and they walk away arm in arm.
That’s the thing about The Exorcist for me: I came for the scares but returned again and again for its human touch. For despite its diabolical reputation, it isn’t the Devil’s movie. Instead, it’s a film about a group of decent people who group together to defeat evil, often at great personal sacrifice.
Another key contributor who originally didn’t receive a mention in the film’s credits was Mercedes McCambridge, a former Oscar-winner who had struggled with alcoholism through the ‘60s. Friedkin originally planned to electronically alter Linda Blair’s voice for Pazuzu, but decided it needed a proper voice actor to give it some oomph. McCambridge chain-smoked and gargled raw eggs to rough up her voice and make it sound like there was “plenty of junk” in her throat for the role. The movie definitely wouldn’t be the same without her amazing work, yet she had to fight to get her name included in the credits.
Filming began in August 1972 on location in Washington D.C. with interiors shot in New York. Friedkin’s uncompromising directorial approach became infamous: he reportedly fired a gun randomly on set to keep his actors on edge, chilled Regan’s bedroom set to 20 degrees below zero so the actors’ breath would be visible on film, and slapped William O’Malley to get a genuinely shaken reaction from him as he delivers the last rites to Father Karras.
Friedkin and his team also conjured up some striking special effects that look a bit creaky today but have passed into horror lore, such as the often-parodied head-spinning, projectile pea-green puke, and the spider walk scene, which was originally cut. The moment that disturbed many viewers the most, however, was based on a very real medical procedure, as Regan undergoes an angiography to determine the cause of her ailments.
Hoping to use a Christmas release date to stoke a little controversy, Warner Bros. released The Exorcist on Boxing Day 1973. The holiday slot helped drive box office sales and the film was an instant critical and commercial success, with reports of people queuing around the block. Stories of the screenings are now legendary, with tales of viewers passing out and vomiting in the theatres. Given its subject matter, it naturally attracted heavy criticism from religious organisations and prominent figures: Christian Century described it as “hardcore pornography” while evangelist Billy Graham said “there is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself.”
Their harsh words were in vain, and the controversies and word-of-mouth only drove more people to go see what all the fuss was about. The Exorcist was a box office sensation and its critical and commercial success was reflected come awards season. The film received 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, becoming the first horror movie in Academy Award history to receive a nod for the big prize. Unfortunately, it lost out to George Roy Hill’s charming but inconsequential The Sting.
It is still regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made and is still remarkably powerful half a century later, in large part because it treats its subject of humble good versus age-old evil completely seriously. It would also spawn a series of follow-ups marked by name directors who took vastly different approaches to the material and varying degrees of studio interference. Following The Exorcist movies is a wild ride, even by the usual chaotic standards of horror franchises.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
There are plenty of terrible sequels in the history of horror, but Exorcist II: The Heretic is one of the weirdest and most widely derided of all time. If the original movie had audiences puking in the aisles, John Boorman’s trippy follow-up had people rolling in them.
William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty weren’t exactly supportive, perhaps bitter after a series of disputes with each other and the studio left them unwilling to get involved with a sequel. Friedkin enjoyed telling the story of how producers attending the first public performance were chased down the street by angry viewers, while Blatty claimed he was the first to start laughing at the screening he attended.
Exorcist II: The Heretic was originally conceived as a cheap rehash to cash in on the success of Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated hit, but what we got was something very different indeed.
William Goodhart’s screenplay is a baffling mess of metaphysical ideas, mashing together new-age concepts with the esoteric theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Blatty’s inspiration for Father Merrin) whose trailblazing attempts to reconcile science and religion landed him in hot water with the Catholic church. As such, there is some interesting stuff in the movie, but the writing is so dense and jumbled that the story defies easy synopsis.
As simply as I can put it, Linda Blair returns as Regan, who has blocked out the events of the first film and is now a seemingly well-adjusted teenager living in New York. A panicky-looking Richard Burton plays Father Lamont, another doubting priest assigned by the Cardinal to investigate the death of Father Merrin, who is now being labelled a heretic by factions within the church for his controversial theories about Satan.
Regan seems possessed by nothing more scary than a passion for tap dance, but her therapist Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) thinks otherwise. She believes that she has dangerously suppressed memories of the Washington D.C. incident and wants to use her revolutionary “Synchronizer” device to have a poke around inside the Regan’s head and investigate matters further.
Lamont arrives at Tuskin’s institute wanting to ask Regan questions and, with the help of the Synchronizer, goes on a brain-tethering trip inside the girl’s mind to see what really happened to Merrin. Both Tuskin and Lamont are well-meaning, but the clash of science and religion is about to unleash the demon Pazuzu once more.
There is a lot going on in Exorcist II, and that brief setup is all before we get astral journeys to Merrin’s adventures in Africa, plagues of locusts, Regan’s evolution into a saintly figure capable of warding off the demon, James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust, and a totally batshit final showdown where Lamont battles a a sexy evil clone of Regan.
Despite the film’s more risible moments, some of the ideas are more pertinent now than when the film was released. Much of the talk of noospheres and world minds, achieved with the help of scientific advancements, must have sounded like mumbo-jumbo back in 1977. Now, with the internet connecting all of us all of the time and advancements in neurotechnology, the possibility that we will become a world mind via the internet in the not-so-distant future doesn’t sound all that far-fetched. The trouble is, it isn’t very easy to access these concepts just from the information presented in the movie.
Much of the blame must lie with John Boorman, who was originally in the frame to helm The Exorcist but passed because he found the story repulsive. Prior to Exorcist II, he made the Oscar-nominated Deliverance and followed up with the bizarre sci-fi thriller Zardoz, the one with giant floating heads and Sean Connery in thigh high leather boots, bandoliers, and a red nappy.
Boorman is a competent but idiosyncratic director, and his visual approach to the sequel is so radically different to Friedkin’s calculated style that it comes as a violent shock to the system. Boorman conjures up a hallucinatory atmosphere with some striking imagery, aided by Ennio Morricone’s hypnotic score, but he seems to have little interest in crafting a coherent narrative. No wonder people reacted so badly at the time and have continued dunking on the film ever since.
The Golden Raspberry Awards weren’t around yet but Boorman’s film quickly developed a reputation as a stinker of epic proportions. In 1980, film critics Michael and Harry Medved published The Golden Turkey Awards, which became a key text in the growing appreciation of bad movies. It included a poll where Exorcist II was voted second only to Plan 9 From Outer Space as the worst film ever made. It has largely retained that reputation over the past four decades, although there are a few masochistic weirdos (like myself) who find it a fascinating if severely flawed movie.
The cast of Exorcist II had mixed fortunes afterwards. The film emphasised Linda Blair’s limitations as an actor and hastened her descent into B-movie and exploitation flick hell, starring in trash like Chained Heat and Savage Streets. Louise Fletcher, who had won an Oscar for her unforgettable turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just a few years earlier, was dreadfully mis-cast as a kindly doctor while Nurse Ratched was still fresh in everyone’s memory. Her career followed a similar trajectory to Blair’s, just with less gratuitous nudity.
Poor old Richard Burton was nearing the end when he played Father Lamont. He still had a few half-decent movies in him before he passed away in 1984 but his health was clearly suffering from the ill-effects of long-term alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. His stricken performance as Lamont made him look like he was dealing with demons not found in the screenplay. James Earl Jones came through it okay, though. Part of that might be to do with a little sci-fi movie that dropped a few months before Exorcist II stank out theatres. When you’re the voice of Darth Vader, nobody is going to remember the bug costume.
The Exorcist III (1990)
Exorcist II: The Beginning was a catastrophe, but the strength of the original movie meant it still made money at the box office. If it hadn’t, it might have completely killed off the possibility of a third film in the series.
William Peter Blatty still wasn’t done with his story yet, either. A few years after the Exorcist II debacle, he adapted his ‘60s novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane for his directorial debut, The Ninth Configuration. It was a stupendously odd film that some fans regard as the true spiritual successor to The Exorcist.
Next, he came up with a concept for a story centred around Lieutenant Kinderman, the genial detective from Friedkin’s classic. It was called Legion, and he pitched it as another Exorcist movie with Friedkin at the helm. It didn’t work out, so Blatty wrote it as a novel instead, chalking up another bestseller.
He hadn’t given up on the idea of making Legion into a feature film and adapted it into a screenplay, and John Carpenter was briefly in the frame to direct. Carpenter felt that Blatty really wanted to helm the film himself and walked away. Carpenter’s similarly-themed Prince of Darkness gives some indication of how it might have turned out with him behind the bullhorn of an Exorcist movie.
Thanks to his deal with Morgan Creek, Blatty got the chance to direct the movie himself. He’d already proven with The Ninth Configuration that he was a singular filmmaker in his own right, and showed it once again with Exorcist III. The big problem was, Legion didn’t feature any exorcisms. Blatty claimed that he had implored the studio not to call the movie anything with “Exorcist” in the title, worried that any connection with Exorcist II could spell doom. But the studio wanted to maintain brand awareness, so Legion became The Exorcist III. And the title was just the start of interference from Morgan Creek executives.
Totally ignoring the events of John Boorman’s sequel, the story picks up 15 years after the events of the first film. Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott) and his buddy Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) are trying to cheer themselves up on the anniversary of the death of Father Karras. Meanwhile, a prowling evil force desecrates a church, kills a priest, and brutally murders a young black man.
Kinderman is perplexed because fingerprints indicate that more than one person is behind the grisly murders, and the M.O. matches that of James Venamun (Brad Dourif), a serial killer who was executed on the night of Karras’s death.
After Father Dyer is also murdered, Kinderman begins to interrogate Patient X (Jason Miller), a man found wandering the streets with insomnia 15 years earlier. The mysterious man is the spitting image of Father Karras. Could the spirit of Venamun really be in possession of his old friend’s body? It seems crazy, but Patient X knows far more about the murders than has been made public…
Blatty does a great job recapturing the original film’s brooding sense of supernatural malevolence while also throwing in some of his own leftfield touches, such as a campy “Heaven’s Station” dream sequence with basketball star Patrick Ewing and fashion model Fabio Lanzoni as angels. He also pulled off one of the most unique and frightening jump scares I’ve ever seen. Some fans of the series even rank the threequel over Friedkin’s classic, but I’m not sure I’d go that far!
Nevertheless, The Exorcist III was a considerable feat of course-correction after the first sequel but studio interference muddled matters, making Kinderman’s confrontation with Venamun/Karras unnecessarily confusing and bolting on an exorcism scene that feels like it comes from another movie. The problem is that Patient X is alternately played by Jason Miller and Brad Dourif, which makes it unclear about what or who Kinderman is actually encountering. And not in a good way.
The exorcism itself was a studio-imposed reshoot of Blatty’s original ending, shoehorned into the third act to satisfy the “exorcist” part of the title. It is good fun if totally at odds with the atmosphere of dread that Blatty successfully builds up. Nicol Williamson, who only plays a minor character up to that point, is parachuted into the finale with his Slim Shady haircut to perform a flashy rite, which is pulled off with some decent special effects for the time.
Spoiler alert for The Exorcist III: Williamson’s character is killed during the ceremony and it also looks like curtains for Kinderman, who is only saved when Karras manages to wrestle control of his body from the serial killer and his demon pals, giving the detective enough time to shoot him dead and release Karras’s spirit from torment.
In 2011, a fan cut of Legion emerged on the internet, cutting the exorcism scenes in an attempt to capture Blatty’s original story arc, which eventually led to an official Director’s Cut restoring some grainy VHS footage from the original shoot’s dailies. The video scenes are poor quality but the film is far more satisfying. Brad Dourif solely plays Patient X, making it more obvious that he is supposed to look just like Karras - this scans better because we totally accept the changes of actor in the Kinderman and Dyer roles in the first place.
Without the exorcism as a church-sanctioned alibi, Kinderman gunning down the patient to save his friend’s soul is an act of sacrifice and love that no doubt ends his career and lands him in jail. It’s a bleaker but more humane ending that gives a tantalising glimpse of what The Exorcist III could have been without the studio’s interference.
Despite Blatty’s misgivings about the title, the film still did okay at the box office. By strange coincidence, it was released within a few months of Repossessed, a dire spoof of The Exorcist starring Leslie Nielsen and Linda Blair. Blair accused Morgan Creek of rushing The Exorcist III into theatres to hijack her movie’s publicity, causing it to flop at the box office. If you’ve seen Repossessed, you’ll probably agree it needed no help in that respect.
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) & Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
This is where things get tricky following the Exorcist franchise timeline, because here we have a situation previously unheard of in the history of cinema: Two versions of the same movie shot back-to-back, with the same lead actor but two different directors, and the first version was only released after the second was a total flop.
Morgan Creek boss James Robinson, the man behind the big changes to The Exorcist III, one-upped himself with a series of alterations that made his tinkering on the earlier film seem minor by comparison.
Robinson had put an Exorcist prequel in motion as early as 1997 and two directors left the project before he made what seemed like an inspired choice: he hired Paul Schrader. Some of the writer and director’s most powerful films have focused on matters of the soul, religion, and tortured priests - just take the outstanding First Reformed. Much to Robinson’s dismay, however, Schrader went ahead and made a Paul Schrader film.
Deciding that Schrader’s movie wasn’t exciting or gory enough for the target audience, Robinson fired the Taxi Driver scribe and hired Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) to punch it up a bit. Handed a substantial budget on top of what Schrader already spent, Harlin had the screenplay rewritten, most of the actors recast, and re-shot the whole film. The CGI-stuffed Exorcist: The Beginning was the result, something more akin to The Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser than the original trilogy.
The film was a critical and commercial disappointment and Morgan Creek belatedly shuffled out Schrader’s original vision on limited release a year later under the awkward title Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist.
Both versions follow the same basic story. Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) has lost his faith after he was forced to make an agonising decision by the Nazis during World War II. He is asked to oversee an archaeological dig in British controlled Kenya, where a 5th century Byzantine church has been unearthed. The church shouldn’t exist in that location because Christianity hadn’t reached that far south in Africa at the time of its construction. Naturally, the church is a source of ancient evil that affects everyone involved, and threatens to cause bloodshed between the locals and colonial troops.
Events play out far differently in Harlin and Schrader’s competing versions. Harlin turns it into an action horror with plenty of jump scares and gnarly gore, plus several callbacks to the original, such as the famous statue of the demon Pazuzu. By comparison, it almost seems as if Schrader wasn’t interested in making a horror movie at all, concerning himself with a sombre examination of the nature of evil lurking behind mankind’s worst impulses. The one unifying factor is Skarsgård, who deserves kudos for sticking with the project and giving two subtly different takes on the same performance.
Neither film is very good. If you care what Rotten Tomatoes has to say, Exorcist: The Beginning is only marginally better than Exorcist II, but at least John Boorman’s much-maligned sequel has some interesting ideas. Harlin directs as if a single original thought never entered his mind during the whole process, displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the original film so powerful.
Dominion is an improvement over Harlin’s popcorn version, but not by much. It’s a stolid and unexciting film, but at least follows the same kind of theological and philosophical underpinnings as the original trilogy. That just about makes it a worthy entry to the Exorcist canon although, like Blatty’s Legion adaptation, might have benefited without the expectations demanded by the “exorcist” in the title.
One good thing has come out of the Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist debacle. It’s such a unique phenomenon of the same story told by two different filmmakers at the same time, and it’s hard to think of a better example to demonstrate what exactly a director can bring to a production. No doubt both movies will find their way into more imaginative film studies curricula in the future for this reason alone.
The Exorcist: Believer (2023)
Sadly William Friedkin, ever the entertaining raconteur, won’t be around to tell us what he thinks when the next chapter in the Exorcist story arrives in October. With two possessed girls this time, 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn reprises her role as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist: Believer, co-written and directed by David Gordon Green, the man who brought us the most recent Halloween trilogy.
The new film is supposedly a direct sequel to the original and is intended as the first installment of a new Exorcist trilogy, but I guess we’ll see how that goes. I’d like to think Burstyn’s presence indicates that there is some quality in the screenplay, but I’m always a bit dubious when I see the Blumhouse Productions logo come up. They’ve made some decent movies in the past but, with the Insidious franchise under their belt, I worry that the film might rely on loud noises and jarring jump scares to provide the horror.
Having said that, the Exorcist series has a peculiar knack of producing interesting movies no matter how bad they are. So, despite my reservations, I’m in for another round of demonic possession come October!
So there you have it, a brief history of the fascinating but incredibly uneven Exorcist franchise. What is your favourite? Do you have any sympathy for Exorcist II? Does The Exorcist III trump the original in your book? Let us know!