The 'Exorcist' Series Is Confusing As, Well, Hell
Almost 50 years later, The Exorcist is still a pretty damn terrifying movie. Sure it may not cause audiences to pass out from sheer fright anymore, but it will at least put you off of Campbell's Chunky Split Pea soup for a while. But The Exorcist isn't just one film; it's a sprawling, surprisingly dense series. As we've done before, from time to time, we're going to try and chart the course of the Exorcist movies, a franchise so convoluted, it will make your head spin.
Why now, you might ask? Well, it was recently announced that The Exorcist is getting the Halloween treatment, with a reboot from Halloween producer Jason Blum and Halloween director David Gordon Green. They're also bringing back a legendary actress from the original … kind of like Halloween. Yes, Ellen Burstyn will reprise her role as Chris MacNeil in the new movie that we're guessing is going to simply be called (sigh) The Exorcist. And it's not just one film, they're planning a whole new cinematic universe of sorts, with Universal reportedly investing $400 million in the franchise.
But it all started with the original 1973 movie, based on the novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and directed by Academy Award-winner/loveable maniac William Friedkin. Of course, we all know that it's about a young girl named Regan who gets possessed by the demon Pazuzu and is eventually saved by two priests. It's both an absolute horror masterpiece and basically a Chick tract about how single motherhood and Oujia boards could lead to eternal damnation.
Famously Friedkin employed some pretty unusual tactics to get what he wanted while filming, including refrigerating the set as if it were Mr. Freeze's bachelor pad and, to get appropriately freaked-out reactions from the actors, he would occasionally fire the odd gun -- an idea that he got, strangely enough, from the production of the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Of course, The Exorcist was a blockbuster smash-hit, eliciting some pretty intense reactions from the viewing public and also a crapload of lawsuits. Naturally, the studio wanted to follow up the film's success with a sequel -- which wasn't easy. Friedkin and Blatty wanted no part of the project, so the task fell to John Boorman, the director of Deliverance, and Sean Connery's Future Thong Leaves Nothing to the Imagination, AKA Zardoz.
The result, 1977's The Exorcist II: The Heretic, was … not good. Reportedly, Boorman was offered the original Exorcist film but turned it down because he found the story "repulsive." For some reason, despite his distaste for the original, he was handed The Heretic, a film that is both balls-to-the-wall bonkers and incredibly boring. It's more or less a straightforward continuation of the story of Regan, but this time she's living at a psychiatric institute where the creepy nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest hooks her up to some kind of telepathic hypnosis gizmo in order to recover her exorcism memories -- which all kind of feels like a backdoor commercial for Scientology in retrospect. Also, James Earl Jones shows up in a giant locust costume at one point. So there's that.
Friedkin alleged that one early preview screening of The Exorcist II abruptly ended after 10 minutes when the audience turned on the Warner Bros. executives and chased them out of the theatre with threats of violence. At the time, The Washington Post speculated that Exorcist II's crappiness could potentially "cause a major scandal in the movie business" comparing early screenings to the opening of Springtime for Hitler in The Producers -- except that play at least became an ironic hit.
Then in 1980, William Peter Blatty wrote and directed a movie that wasn't obviously connected to The Exorcist at all: The Ninth Configuration. It doesn't involve Regan, her mother, or even Pazuzu, the foul-mouthed demon, but it does have .. this random dinner party guest?
Yeah, Captain Billy Cutshaw, the astronaut who Regan freaked out at her mom's soiree, shows up in The Ninth Configuration, a bizarre movie about an experimental military mental health facility run out of what looks like Dracula's castle. It was based on a novel that Blatty actually penned before The Exorcist, but he later rewrote and republished the book, changing the name of his astronaut character to retroactively connect it to the Exorcist-verse. Which is kind of like if George Lucas re-released American Graffiti but changed Harrison Ford's character's name to Han Solo.
Interestingly, The Ninth Configuration movie features Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist (in a different role), and stars Stacy Keach, who was originally supposed to play Father Karras in the first movie. Keach was hired, and even paid, for the gig, but Friedkin recast the part of Karras after randomly seeing Miller in a play.
Forming a sort of a trilogy of movies that pretty much just ignore Exorcist II: The Heretic like its that cousin you still won't add on Facebook, Blatty made the underrated The Exorcist III, based on his bestselling book Legion, which was itself based on an unproduced screenplay. Sure, the bar for an Exorcist sequel was, at that point, so low it would maim even a competitive limbo champion, but it's still a good movie, featuring both one of the greatest jump-scares of all time …
… and a cameo by Fabio as a literal angel -- which basically acts as a jump-scare.
The movie follows Lt. Kinderman from The Exorcist in a crazy plot that involves a Zodiac-like serial killer whose soul was transported to the body of the dying Father Karras immediately following his execution, thanks to an assist from Pazuzu. And the "Gemini Killer" is played by Brad Douriff, who is also the voice of Chucky in Child's Play. Apparently, he's just the go-to actor for playing the disembodied souls of murderers who show up in odd places.
Despite the fact that it was a modest financial success, reviews of The Exorcist III weren't kind. And it probably didn't help that Blatty was forced by the studio to shoehorn an exorcism scene into the end of the finished movie just to placate any sticklers in the audience. The franchise lay dormant for fourteen long years until they decided to make a prequel about Father Merrin's first exorcism in Africa, briefly mentioned in the first movie. Yeah, it didn't go too well ...
The studio hired Paul Schrader, the acclaimed screenwriter of Taxi Driver and future director of the Lindsay Lohan classic The Canyons after the original director, John Frankenheimer, dropped out for health reasons. Deep into filming, Schrader was fired for making a movie "without any of the bloody violence the backers had wanted" and was replaced by Cliffhanger director Renny Harlin, whose previous horror credentials consisted of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master -- a movie so '80s, Freddy Kruger literally kills a guy by hiding in a goddamn waterbed.
When Exorcist: The Beginning tanked, Schrader convinced the studio to let him finish his cut of the movie, despite the fact that there was no #ReleaseTheSchraderCut movement. So bizarrely, the following year, Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist opened in theatres opposite Revenge of the Sith. It was literally a different version of the same exact movie, using the same script, the same sets, and the same actors -- it just had a different director. The New York Times called Harlin's movie "a crude heavy-metal demolition of Mr. Schrader's sensitive singer-songwriter album."
While The Exorcist III tactfully avoided blatantly contradicting The Exorcist II, both versions of the prequel totally upend Merrin's backstory that was fleshed out in part two, seemingly severing The Heretic from The Exorcist franchise's continuity.
Making matters even more confusing, in 2016, The Exorcist became a critically-acclaimed Fox TV series starring Geena Davis. At first, it just seemed like a modern reboot following a similar story, but then five episodes into the first season, it was revealed that Davis' character was actually an adult Regan living under a new name, presumably to fool any demons who tried Googling her.
The now-canceled series just had the rights to the original novel, making it essentially a sequel to the first film that doesn't contain any references to the Gemini Killer or Nurse Ratched's Hypno-Tron 3000. As for the upcoming reboot, it definitely won't include the TV series in its continuity, considering that Regan's mom, who is seemingly going to be the centerpiece of this new film series, dies in the show. But unlike with the recent Halloween reboot, director David Gordon Green reportedly won't be tossing out the previous sequels like day-old, non-canonical bagels. Green has claimed that the new movie will be a direct sequel to the original, but also, all of the movies "fall into the acceptable mythology for what I'm doing." He even specifically stated that he's not going to say, "pretend that The Exorcist II never happened."
So the Exorcist TV show is out, but Exorcist II: The Heretic is back in baby! Although since it specifically contradicts the two prequels, they presumably now have to be scrubbed from the timeline.
But maybe if these new Exorcist movies take off, the crappy prequels will be re-released under the banner of Exorcist: Legends.
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Top Image: Warner Bros.