"The Power of Christ Compels You": An 'Exorcist' Retrospective

It has been called "The Scariest Movie of All Time," and for many, it still is. The Exorcist continues to live up to its reputation now forty years after its initial release, striking terror into the hearts of Horror fans the world over. The demon, Pazuzu, would return in several sequels and prequels, though none could ever match the shock and awe of the original. I Like Horror Movies dons the sacred stole and holy water as we take a look back at The Exorcist series!

The Exorcist (1973)

In 1968, a young Frenchman changed the face of Horror by taking the devil out of the Gothic landscape of Medieval Europe and placing him in a small apartment building in New York City. ROSEMARY'S BABY was born, bringing supernatural terror into a real-world setting. Five year's later, another talented director by the name of William Friedkin would shock audiences the world over with THE EXORCIST, which many consider to be the scariest movie of all time! Adapted from William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, THE EXORCIST follows 12-year-old Regan McNeil, who becomes possessed by an ancient demon, leaving it up to a pair of Catholic priests to rid the girl of the unclean spirit in order to save her everlasting soul. Regardless of one's religious affiliations, the shocking images and daring implications that THE EXORCIST represents are enough to shake one's belief (or disbelief) in God and the devil. Thanks to an incredibly talented special effects crew, Friedkin has created something so horrible, so truly terrifying, that it would stand to prove the existence of demons on screen. The sweet and sincere Linda Blair is slowly transformed into a foul monster that curses and defiles all that is holy. There is perhaps nothing more profane than watching a young girl stab into herself with a crucifix while shouting "Let Jesus fuck you!" Add to that the spinning heads, levitation, reverse crab-walk, and vomit-spewing, and the film becomes unbearably scary! Even the sound design is enough to make the skin crawl, most notably in the scenes where Regan begs for help by imprinting the words on her flesh and in the tape recorded sessions that Father Karras reviews at the monastery.

While the possessed Regan remains at the center of the action, the story is rather one of faith and redemption; it is the story of Father Karras. We learn very early on that Karras has lost his faith in a godless world, but that faith is restored in his personal encounter with the devil. It is almost as if the demon is used as a means of restoring him to the church, rather than he being the tool used to drive it out. Karras is brilliantly played by the late Jason Miller, who is dark, beaten, and completely unbelieving until the very end. Despite all of the alarming visuals, it is Father Karras' journey that we find the most captivating. The demon taunts him and tempts him, and at times, is able to defeat the wayward priest. If it were not for his reinstalled faith in God, the demon surely would have consumed Regan.

THE EXORCIST is often criticized as being an effects-driven spook show, but this is not the case. As mentioned previously, the performances of Linda Blair and Jason Miller, alone, lend legitimacy to the terrifying theme. In addition, they are met with equally powerful performances by Ellen Burstyn as the struggling mother Chris McNeil and the legendary Max von Sydow as the aged Father Merrin. Burstyn portrays a loving mother, but one that is having difficulty balancing her career and home life, while also dealing with the frustration of her daughter's uncaring father. She presents a character with whom the audience can relate, and she is very good in the role. THE EXORCIST is shot as if the camera is simply a fly on the wall as each of the frightening events take place. We feel intrusive, unwelcome. The camera takes us to places that we dare not go, and once there, it is unflinching as it barrages us with unspeakable horrors. Blatty's script can be often dry, however it is brought to life by the talented cast. The sinister special effects only work to elevate the already-chilling mood and captivating story. This is best demonstrated, again, in the monastery, where we jump out of surprise when the phone rings as Karras is listening to Regan's tapes. There is nothing frightening on screen. We are absorbed in the characters' plight, and we are scared.

THE EXORCIST is, in every way, a Horror classic. It is frightfully shocking, terrifying, and revolting; everything that the genre looks to be. But, it is also built on an excellent story, mood, and characters for whom we care deeply. For that, it must be considered amongst the best that the genre has to offer.

Rating: 10/10.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Coming off of 'The Scariest Movie of All Time,' it would seem that a sequel to THE EXORCIST would be rather straightforward -- a new demon, a new child, another exorcism -- but somewhere, somehow, things went horribly, horribly wrong. Screenwriter William Goodhart and director John Boorman instead decide take us on their own confusing journey of faith, discovery, and sacrifice.

Regan MacNeil has grown up to become a normal teenager, with no recollection of the terrible possession that befell her just four years earlier. Her psychologist is convinced that Regan is repressing the memories of the events, and that she could easily fall under the influence of the demon once again. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has sent a priest out to investigate the death of Father Merrin, which leads him to Regan. Using a hypnotic "synchronizer" that links his mind with hers, Father Lamont comes in contact with the demon Pazuzu, who takes him on a trip through time and space to meet another boy he had once possessed. Lamont seeks out Kokumo in Africa and learns that he, too, had rejected the demon, only to become the savior of his people. Now armed with the knowledge needed to save Regan's soul, Father Lamont returns to Georgetown for a final showdown with Pazuzu!

EXORCIST II really is a test of faith, but one taken by the audience. Disbelief must be suspended from the highest peak in order for anyone to accept the preposterous plot, which blends pseudo-science with religious mumbo jumbo. Richard Burton, a seven-time Oscar-nominee, is made to look like a fool as the deranged Father Lamont, who quickly becomes fascinated by the demon he looks to destroy. He often rambles like a psychotic, and makes for a terrible lead when he cannot be trusted by the audience. It is impossible to take Linda Blair seriously, either, when she is forced to go cross-eyed and act brain-dead during the ridiculous "synchronization" experiments. Thankfully, the special effects, cinematography, and incredible locations far outweigh the strength of the script, but EXORCIST II is still widely criticized as being one of the worst sequels in the genre.

Rating: 5/10.

Exorcist III: Legion (1990)

Detective Kinderman is faced with the ghosts of the past when he encounters a man who claims to be the Gemini Killer, but who has taken the appearance of the slain Father Karras. Despite being locked away in the bowels of the local hospital, the Gemini continues to kill, and it is up to Detective Kinderman to stop his supernatural murder spree! EXORCIST III comes as an unexpected surprise after the first disappointing sequel, combining the gripping suspense of a tightly-wrought thriller with the otherworldly terror of the original. William Peter Blatty directs this time around from his own screenplay and novel, and while his style lacks refinement, it is never-the-less effective in setting a frightening mood and delivering a strong, character-driven story. The main faults lie in his artificial language and jarring edits, but these are mostly overcome by the enjoyable performances that come as a result. George C. Scott takes a commanding lead as the boisterous Detective Kinderman, and Jason Miller excels in the role of the villain as the Gemini's earthly vessel. The real treat, however, comes from genre vet Brad Dourif in an electrifying performance as the Gemini, himself. Dourif explores a range of terrifying emotions, from calculated cruelty to raging hatred. He is at his best here. Although the majority of the film plays out like a murder mystery, EXORCIST III packs a fiery finale that delivers on the series' name. It has also gained a cult following for creating one of the scariest moments in all of Horror, but for that, you will just have to wait and see!

Rating: 8/10.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Set in the years following the Second World War, DOMINION tells the tale of Father Merrin, a wayward priest who has turned to archaeology after his faith is shaken by the war. When Merrin uncovers an ancient church buried beneath the sands of East Africa, he will share his first encounter with the devil, who has possessed the body of a poor crippled boy. Despite being shelved immediately after production, Paul Schrader's prequel to THE EXORCIST was simply too good to be released to the general public. Instead of spinning heads and spewing soup, DOMINION takes a much more cerebral approach to evil. Interestingly, Schrader creates a complete reversal from the original film: the demon possesses the body of a sickly boy, it strengthens and repairs him rather than destroying him, and it uses its wicked tongue to rattle the nerve rather than shock the senses. Pazuzu taunts Merrin and attempts to destroy him both mentally and spiritually. Like the fallen angel Lucifer, it appears as the perfect being, an intellectual tempter with a sculpted body and androgynous beauty unlike the foul monster that Merrin would encounter years late. Pazuzu's evil spreads like a plague in the small African village, and turns man against man while the fallen priest works to regain his robes. The corruptive power of evil is felt in full force here, although Schrader takes slow but decisive steps to reach his final goal.

While DOMINION has often been criticized for its unfinished effects, it is rarely hailed for its superior setting. The ancient Byzantine tomb is finely decorated, and serves as an ominous stage for the spiritual warfare. Given the studio's complete lack of faith and resources, the garish computerization must be overlooked in place of the stronger story elements. Stellan Skarsgård is very good as the younger counterpart to Max von Sydow's character, with an introspective approach to the character that is reserved without being underplayed. He gives us cracks in his otherwise stern performance that humanize him and allow us to empathize with his internal struggle. Like Skarsgård, Schrader pulls back as well, refusing to rely on simple shocks in this psychological thriller. His unwillingness to compromise in creating a "studio" picture may have hurt the returns, but in the end, he delivers a much stronger film.

Renny Harlin would be brought on to re-write and re-shoot the entire picture after Morgan Creek decided to pull the project for its lack of marketability, but between the two versions, DOMINION is the preferrable prequel to THE EXORCIST.

Rating: 8/10.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

Leslie Nielson entertained audiences with the comical REPOSSESSED in 1990, but if ever there was a spoof on THE EXORCIST, it is in Renny Harlin's prequel THE BEGINNING. After Morgan Creek decided to pull the plug on Paul Schrader's version for putting matter before splatter, they brought on a director who was sure to deliver more action and scares. To that extend, it succeeds, but at what cost?

In THE BEGINNING, Lancaster Merrin, a former priest, is hired to recover an ancient artifact that is believed to be resting in a newly-discovered church buried beneath the sands of East Africa. As the seal to the temple is broken, an evil falls upon the land, and a young boy begins to experience symptoms of demonic possession. With his faith in God restored, Merrin will come face to face with the devil in a final conflict!

THE BEGINNING encompasses everything that is wrong with Hollywood, and demonstrates just how little studio executives know about their audiences. Harlin's version has all of the trademarks of a major studio flopbuster: jump scares, forced sentimentality, over-the-top make-up and effects, and most notorious of all, the twist ending. While it is certainly more fast-paced and unexpected than DOMINION, it fails on almost every other level. Stellan Skarsgård has become tired of his role as Father Merrin, having already acted out the entire script in the earlier version. The pathetic use of sound design to force audience reactions proves how unscary the film really is. Rather than try anything new, Harlin attempts to recreate the bedroom scene from the original EXORCIST within the confines of the church, only this time, he uses a ridiculous villain that brings only laughs instead of chills. This origin story was better left untold, but in the end, Morgan Creek got exactly what they wanted: a bland, bloody shocker that they could market to the masses.

Rating: 6/10.

See Also: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Requiem, The Antichrist, Repossessed!

1 comment:

  1. jervaise brooke hamsterMay 16, 2013 at 3:08 PM

    The power of Linda Blair compels me to rip all her clothes off and bugger her senseless.