The Power of Blatty Compels You

by Arthur B

The quality of the films in The Exorcist series correlates exactly with the extent of William Peter Blatty's approval of them.
Let me share something personal: I’m an atheist. I try not to be a dick about it, I try not to judge other people based on their beliefs. But at the same time, there are limits. Some beliefs are, frankly, so ridiculous that I just can’t respect them, and I consider people who embrace them to be kind of foolish. Young Earth Creationism - the idea that the world we live on is only a few thousand years old and was made more or less in the way the book of Genesis describes it - is one of those beliefs; it flies so directly in the face of myriad well-established scientific facts that I can’t, as much as I try, see it as a legitimate religious belief - to me, it’s more like a wildly counterfactual crank theory.

Another one of those ideas is demonic possession. I just can’t credit it with being real. It’s all too clearly a product of an inability of early societies to comprehend certain forms of mental illness and physical disorders. That isn’t a judgement on the sophistication of those societies or the intelligence of our ancestors - we physically didn’t have the instrumentation to even detect the EEG symptoms characteristic of epileptic fits until comparatively recently, for example, and we still have only fuzzy and possibly incorrect ideas about what causes schizophrenia. Read even one or two Oliver Sacks books and you’ll soon conclude that the human brain is a bizarre and horrifying instrument with an infinite capacity to torture and meddle with its owner if it even gets slightly out of whack.

I can completely see why people even today can conclude that an unknown force is responsible for a drastic change in the personality of their loved ones. But I can’t bring myself to respect that belief, especially when it discourages believers to not look for the real source of a sufferer’s problems and instead try to make them go away with a religious ritual.

That said, although I think exorcism is a completely terrible idea in real life, I also think it’s kind of fun as a subject for horror stories. The idea of losing control to an external force is terrifying regardless of what you believe. So, when I saw a boxed set of the five Exorcist movies for £10 I grabbed it to see if the original is as good as I remember it being, and to see if the sequels and prequels were as horrible as the rumours suggest.

The Exorcist

The worst thing about this 25th anniversary edition of The Exorcist is Friedkin’s decision to tack on a little introductory monologue from himself at the start, in which he pompously monologues about how he and the other filmmakers were trying to make a spiritually conscious film about the good and evil forces which he believes are real and active in the world, and claims that it was based on a true story. It doesn’t help that the little introduction is just a bit too much like one of the intros to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

But putting the ideas of the director aside, The Exorcist really is something special. It’s from that odd period in the 1970s when big-league Hollywood films were trying to be serious and artsy and left cheesy trash to independent filmmakers, before that particular pecking order got inverted, and I think that helps. More than any other horror film I can think of, it goes the extra mile in establishing the characters as living and breathing human beings before inflicting its terrors on them.

Well, before that there’s a barely-relevant part at the beginning set in Iraq in which Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), who ends up being the senior exorcist in the climactic sequence of the film, discovers an old stone head and a more modern saint’s medal in an archaeological dig in Iraq, takes his heart medicine, wonders around being a bit scared by the local culture, and then looks at a statue whilst the wind blows. To be honest, if you haven’t actually read the novel by William Peter Blatty (who also did the screenplay), this sequence is going to mean less than nothing to you, beyond establishing that a bound evil has been unleashed and it’s going to fly away to roost somewhere in the world. I’m frankly torn over whether it’s necessary. It’s somewhat foreboding and prevents the appearance of the demon seem random and abrupt, although at the same time it’s still somewhat arbitrary that the demon inhabits a little girl in Georgetown, a pretty suburb of Washington DC.

After the prologue we get the first phase of the film, in which Friedkin has barely anything horrific happen and concentrates on setting up the characters. We have, of course, the star of the show, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), whose mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous actress. We see how much Chris and Regan love each other, and how Chris spends more time at work away from her daughter than she’d really like, and how Regan gets on well with the various household staff Chris hires, and Regan’s distress over the estrangement between Chris and her father.

Oh, and there’s something bumping about making noises in the attic and Regan’s been playing by herself with a ouija board, talking to someone called Captain Howdy, but that can’t be relevant, right?

Likewise, we’re also introduced to Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest who’s struggling with the loss of his faith and the decline and death of his elderly mother. Between the family scenes of the MacNeil’s and Karras’s torment we’re lulled into a false sense of security - we know (because we are watching a horror film) that something bad is coming, but because these opening parts are quite slow and we expect the terror to mount and develop gradually, like in other films of its sort, we don’t expect Regan to deteriorate quite as rapidly as she does. So when it very suddenly and brutally becomes apparent that there is something extremely wrong with Regan, it’s a gut-punch to the audience which we should have been prepared for but weren’t.

As Regan’s behaviour becomes more and more psychotic, as her voice vanishes and is replaced by that of the demon (Mercedes McCambridge), as the manifestations become more and more blatantly paranormal, the medical and psychiatric options soon run out. The film does, in fact, show a strange mistrust of the medical establishment, and goes out of its way to make sure the various tests performed on Regan look as horrific as possible, though of course the agonies Regan (or rather the demon in Regan) suffers during the exorcism itself are far worse.

What truly astonishes me about The Exorcist is about how more or less every participant in the film was clearly firing on all cylinders during the process. Friedkin’s direction brings it all together, of course, and he deserves praise for evoking the best in all the participants. The actors are all clearly taking their jobs seriously and giving it their all, which is crucial to the film’s atmosphere - it wouldn’t be nearly so effective if the actors even gave a hint that they didn’t believe in the endeavour. Linda Blair, having been given the most fun role by far, really throws herself into it. I was surprised to learn that she was 14 when the film was made; she looks significantly younger, but I suppose that’s why they cast her - they needed someone who looked young enough to be sweet and innocent before the possession, but at the same time was old enough to thrash about like a mad thing when the script required it of her. (That said, clever direction means that Regan seems to be doing far more extreme things than she’s actually doing - and of course the dubbing means Friedkin can put absolutely foul things in her mouth without actually requiring her to say them herself.)

Likewise, Blatty’s script (despite the questionable inclusion of the Iraq bit) is an excellent condensation of his novel. I especially liked the implications that the evil in Regan was not confining itself to tormenting a young girl and messing up her bedroom; it’s strongly hinted that she murders someone partway through the film (though we don’t actually see it happen), and it’s possible that the demon is somehow responsible for desecrating a nearby church. It’s tempting to wonder whether the exorcism isn’t solely for Regan’s sake - whether if, had the thing inside Regan been allowed to do its work unchallenged, there wouldn’t have been wider consequences to the outside world as a whole.

And despite what Friedkin says, it’s difficult to reconcile the decidedly mixed ending and the fate of Karras with the presence of a force for good in the world. It is not, in the end, the theologically approved and Church-sanctioned ritual of exorcism that frees Regan, but a desperate and horrifying act on the part of Karras that calls not on the intervention of God but relies on a crude trick. To the Biblically-literate, this might suggest that the only way Karras could help Regan was to reduce himself to the status of a disposable pig. That isn’t exactly spiritually comforting.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

John Boorman’s directoral output between 1972 and 1981 is a rollercoaster. Of the four films he made in the period, two were absolute classics, easily the best of his career - Deliverance and Excalibur. The other two were awful and completely unworthy of his talent - those being Zardoz, which features Sean Connery in a red nappy worshipping a giant flying stone head that preaches that penises are evil... and Exorcist II: The Heretic, which not only has Boorman directing instead of Friedkin but also loses the involvement of William Blatty, the script being written by William Goodhart with uncredited contributions by Rospo Pallenberg and Boorman himself.

We open with Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton), a former student of Father Merrin’s, performing an exorcism in South America - you know, because South America doesn’t have enough Catholic priests of its own to do it and they have to import them to get the job done. He botches it thoroughly. So, there’s our priest with faith issues accounted for. Pretty much as soon as we’re introduced to him we’re snatched away to catch up with Regan, who’s in high school, practicing tap dancing for some theatre club, and attending therapy in a weird institution with big windows everywhere so everyone can see everyone else’s private and personal therapy sessions.

The whole childhood psychotic episode thing is on the therapist’s mind, but Regan doesn’t remember anything - despite her therapist, Dr Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) insisting that she confront the issue and suggesting they use a silly little hypnotherapy device - literally a pair of flashy lights on a stick - to put them both in a hypnotic trance so they can explore her suppressed memories together.

Somehow, I get the impression that this will not be as subtle a film as The Exorcist.

Anyway, Lamont’s superiors in the Church send him to investigate the death of Father Merrin. The film does, actually, give a good explanation as to why he’s been sent along years after the fact - high-level figures in the Vatican suspect Merrin of having been a heretic, perhaps even a Satanist, and as a result of their efforts the Church has impounded his writings. Lamont’s job is to look into what happened to Merrin, in the hope that what he discovers will exonerate him and his theories. So that part’s been quite well thought-through.

What’s less well thought-through is the willingness of Regan’s therapist to essentially let Father Lamont take over the hypnotherapy sessions in order to interrogate Regan about the consequences of Merrin’s death. Or Father Lamont’s willingness to jump in and use the hypnotherapy equipment himself to retrieve Tuskin from being lost in Regan’s memories - or, for that matter, to condone such a dodgy experiment in the first place. Or the attendant nurse’s willingness to let Father Lamont hijack the experiment, and then put himself under, and then to let Regan herself take over the experiment to bring them out.

In fact, the first hypnosis experiment seems like an enormous mess. Granted, it’s sort of meant to crash and burn horribly, but it’s almost as though nobody present thought through what they’d do if there were even a minor problem. What’s worse is that it drags on for far too long. Where Friedkin chose to spent the early part of the first movie, after the prologue, concentrating on character development, Boorman insists on a long scene involving characters talking slowly and staring at lightbulbs, interspersed with lame flashbacks to the original possession, which consist of new footage superficially resembling the original film except lacking all of its artistry.

The worst part is that this isn’t the only slow and tedious hypnosis sequence in the film - there’s three of the buggers.

Father Merrin’s work as a missionary in Generic Africa and an infamous exorcism he performed there, which the first film makes a fleeting reference to and the novel doesn’t really get into, gives Boorman an opportunity to make the most of Max von Sydow’s willingness to rejoin the cast (something which most of the first film’s cast aside from Linda Blair turned down). It also gives him the opportunity to create a really fake-looking and horrifyingly, cartoonishly stereotypical African village in an indoor soundstage and have a bunch of extras run around without many clothes on doing generic African stuff and being hassled by locusts during dream sequences and hypnosis flashabcks. Aside from the obnoxious way these sequences use “Africa” as a shorthand for “alien and exotic and scary and Not Like Us”, they also clutter the film up even more with slow and not especially coherent tripe, as though the hypnosis sequence weren’t enough, and lead ultimately to Father Lamont rushing off on a full blown epic quest to seek the wisdom of hidden African elders to use against Pazuzu.

By the way, John Boorman, I’m sure you’ve been corrected on this already, but just in case: cities in 20th century Africa don’t look like rejected sets from sword and sorcery epics. I hear some of them even have electricity these days. And if you’ve got James Earl Jones to hand, for goodness’ sake show some fucking respect and don’t make him dress like a big locust. (To be fair to Boorman, I think even he realises this looks stupid, and so he cuts the bit with Jones as the locust shaman short and transforms him into a completely different character with some actual dignity - a scientist working in a modern laboratory working on methods to control locust populations, to be precise.)

If there is one upside to the African sequences, they introduce (in the form of James Earl Jones’s character) the idea that Pazuzu specifically seeks out children with particular healing powers - and subsequent interactions between Regan and the other children at the therapy centre suggest that she might have powers of her own (there’s even a hint of there being some sort of psychic link between her and Lamont following their hypnosis sessions together). This is completely new to The Heretic and not implied in the original movie at all, but it’s a nice way to give a new dimension to Regan’s character rather than having her be the child victim yet again. Even so, I’m sure there were other ways the idea could have been introduced without the use of the muddled African sequences, and Boorman finds a way to botch even this - what might have been quite effective if handled in a careful and low-key manner leads to Regan becoming a sort of New Age sorceress, holding forth atop her wizard’s tower on the potential of the hypnosis process.

The demonic presence in this film seems less threatening too. Whereas in The Exorcist the demon chose to announce its presence by desecrating a church and making Regan prophesise people’s deaths, this time around it chooses to celebrate its return by drawing a really bad picture of Father Lamont and setting fire to a box full of dolls. There is none of the cussing, none of the killing, none of the strange manifestations or the brutal provocation that the demon displayed in the first film. In fact, aside from setting a box of dolls on fire and sabotaging the hypnosis experiments the demon really doesn’t do very much that’s threatening, making Burton’s determination to drive it out of Regan once again seem pointless. Likewise, the great makeup effects and special effects work in the first film are essentially nowhere to be seen this time around. Things don’t get even slightly nasty until towards the climax, in which good and light win the day, the supernatural manifestations are ridiculously over-the-top, and the only character who gets killed is actually the one we care about the least.

The acting in The Heretic is - especially compared to the fantastic job the cast did in The Exorcist - uninspiring. Despite assembling a reasonably competent cast, it’s clear that Boorman couldn’t quite convince them to buy into the film in the same way that Friedkin managed to for the first movie. Even Burton can’t quite hack it - he speaks his lines with a tone suggesting not only that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, but he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying.

I can sympathise, because Boorman doesn’t really seem keen to help us follow the plot. Why, for example, does merely seeing a bad picture of himself with something which might be flames or might just be odd red plants in the background make Lamont assume that there’s a fire in the basement? Why does he converse with the demon and accept favours from him (in the form of visions) when he’s supposedly a follower of Merrin, who made it very clear in the first film that you absolutely do not engage devils in conversation? Don’t even let me get started on Lamont getting seduced by the demon when it takes the form of a sexified - but still juvenile-looking - Regan, which isn’t even slightly foreshad... actually, never mind, he is a Catholic priest.

Hilarious anti-clerical stereotypes aside, Father Lamont is far away the character most inclined to do stupid shit for the sake of advancing the plot, which is especially damaging since he’s just as central to the story as Regan is, if not more so. We understood Father Karras in The Exorcist because we saw how he was suffering after the death of his mother, but we just don’t have the same understanding of Lamont.

The Heretic, ultimately, is aptly named, relying as it does on pseudoscientific New Age theories, the ideas of eccentric theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin, and more than a few elements (such as secret mountaintop temples and nebulous prophecies ascribed to Father Merrin) which in their delivery are more reminiscent of high fantasy than occult horror. What is entirely absent is any engagement with actual Catholic doctrine and ritual of the sort which gave so much flavour to the original film and novel.

The fact is, John Boorman wasn’t interested in the original Exorcist - he was, in fact, in the running to direct the first film, but turned it down because he found it distasteful. Nor was he interested in making a film that even slightly resembled it - he’s said as much in interviews. In fact, he had no intention of producing a horror movie whatsoever, which meant that The Heretic was more or less doomed to fail miserably as a sequel to The Exorcist. Worse than this, the film shows a complete lack of understanding of the original film; if the demon is still in Regan after Father Karras’s sacrifice, then said sacrifice - and the first film in general - becomes utterly pointless.

I can’t think of any respect in which The Heretic does not show disinterest, hostility, or contempt for everything the original film was trying to achieve. It is also completely worthless as a standalone film in its own right - it’s a tedious expression of nonsensical 70s self-help bullshit, a hodge-podge of fringe beliefs cobbled together to form a whole far lesser than the sum of its parts. In fact - especially in its contention that certain special children amongst us today are the harbingers of a New Age-style paradigm shift in human evolution - it has more in common with the Radix tetrad than it does with anything in the horror genre.

The Exorcist III

The Exorcist III (sometimes known as Legion, after the Blatty novel it’s based on) takes the wise decision - as does the two prequels - of pretending The Heretic doesn’t exist, a drastic but completely appropriate decision which no sensible person could possibly disagree with. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty himself, it brings us back to Georgetown, to the vertigo-inducingly steep steps outside Regan’s house where the last film ended.

We open with signs of the return of evil to Georgetown - bizarre manifestations in an empty church, dreams of blood and roses, and the butchered corpse of a twelve year old boy, discovered at the side of the river. The film chooses to focus not on Regan or her family, but brings to the fore two minor characters from the first film - Father Dyer, who was Regan’s family priest and introduced Father Karras to the family (played by Ed Flanders this time, and by Father William O’Malley in the first film) and Lt. William Kinderman, the detective who was investigating the deaths Regan caused whilst possessed (played by George Scott in this outing and Lee Cobb in the original).

Dyer and Kinderman became friends after the troubling events of the original exorcism, and make a point of meeting up to keep each other company on the anniversaries of the events, which still trouble them. Kinderman’s in charge of investigating the murdered boy, and is troubled by parallels between this killing and the modus operandi of the Gemini Killer, a serial murderer who was executed well over a decade ago. After the killing of a priest in a confessional, and the subsequent murder of Father Dyer, Kinderman becomes convinced that something is seriously amiss - especially when the forensic evidence suggests that more than one person is mimicing the Gemini Killer’s style.

Much of the rest of the film focuses on the sinister happenings around the local hospital, since Dyer died there and the fingerprints in the confessional belonged to a patient. The doctors, nurses and patients seem to be under some sort of baleful influence, but because the hospital has an extensive psychiatric wing it’s tough to say whether some of the patients are simply suffering from delerium when they claim to speak to the dead on their invisible radio, or are being manipulated by the demon at work on the wards. And then things get really strange when a man (played by Jason Miller) in the intensive wing of the psychiatric ward claims to be the Gemini Killer - a man who’s been catatonic for over a decade, and looks exactly like Father Karras...

Blatty’s script is a true gem once again, as it was in the previous film - once again giving plenty of space early on to establish character, especially in the wonderful grumpy old man banter between Dyer and Kinderman. Mixing in a few murders and police procedural segments into the early phases of the film helps build up the momentum, so once Dyer dies and things get really serious we’re already expecting a wild ride. Blatty also slips in a dream sequence in which Purgatory manifests as a cross between a hospital, a cathedral, and an airport terminal. It’s kind of cheesy but far more effective than the trippy sequences from The Heretic; Blatty has a great handle on how collections of ridiculous and mundane elements in a dream can, in combination, end up appearing far more menacing than they really should do.

Although the acting is, by and large, a good few notches down from that in the first film, Miller’s performance as the psychopath who might be Karras and might be possessed is great fun, actually. The deliciously mad interviews between him and Kinderman are a sheer joy, and Miller clearly has an awful lot of one being the mad screamy one for a change. Brad Dourif, the voice of Chucky from the Child’s Play films, comes in to play the role of the Gemini Killer when he completely overshadows Patient X’s personality (he actually physically changes from one person to the other), and his rants as the Gemini Killer are subject to all sorts of subtle and less-than-subtle treatments, as though the Gemini’s voice is being transmitted on a weak signal that’s drifting and out of clear reception.

Unfortunately, the studio insisted on an exorcism sequence being tacked on to the climax of the film - Blatty had originally planned a different ending, but I suppose the studio felt that the lack of an exorcism similar to the first film’s in The Heretic contributed to its lack of success. A new character, Father Morning (Nicol Williamson), is shoehorned into the film to perform the ritual, and though he does have a few scenes sprinkled in earlier on they are almost entirely sealed off from the rest of the action (because they weren’t added in until later). Naturally, this makes them feel odd and out of place (because they are), and in turn this throws the pacing of the earlier parts of the film right off. When the actual exorcism sequence comes in it completely wrecks the end of the film - the action shuts off abruptly towards the end of what should have been a fairly climactic scene, and we cut to Father Morning showing up on the ward and starting the process. The special effects bonanza Blatty lays on ranges from the silly to the excessively gruesom, and doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film at all. When Kinderman comes in and is pressed against the wall, gurning and ranting ridiculously, it’s as though you can see the last shreds of the movie’s dignity being dragged down into hell.

The Exorcist III is, prior to the tacked-on exorcism, a very different film from the original, explores different ideas, and is focused on a very different type of horror, absent of the level of gore and makeup and special effects that the first film indulged in. The problem that The Exorcist posed, both for Blatty and Boorman, was that the scenario it explored - vulnerable person gets possessed, acts horrible, needs to be tied to a bed and shouted at by priests - was specific enough to be limiting and powerful enough to set the tone. A sequel in which another child gets possessed and some other priests risk life, limb, and soul to save them would be too much of a retread of old ground to be interesting, whereas a sequel which abandons the crazy kid in spooky makeup motif can’t help but have a somewhat different tone.

At the end of the day, I think Boorman and Blatty both had the right idea that an Exorcist sequel needed to strike a different note from The Exorcist itself, but whereas The Heretic is discordant and mismatched when placed next to The Exorcist, The Exorcist III had the potential to be a much more appropriate followup, a hint at what the demon might have achieved had it not been thwarted in the first movie as well as - in the intended climax - a secular counterpoint to it. Sadly, because the studio butchered the ending, they also muddled the film so drastically that it can’t quite meet that potential. It has a damn good go, however.

Dominion: the Prequel

The history of the two Exorcist prequels gave me a real headache when I came to choose which order to do the reviews in. You see, originally Dominion was filmed first, with Paul Schrader directing using a screenplay by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. However, Morgan Creek Productions (whose interference butchered the conclusion to Exorcist III) didn’t like the result and shelved it, had Alexi Hawley redo the script, and brought in Renny Harlin to essentially shoot the film all over again, making Dominion the first film to be remade before it was actually released. When the reshot film, Exorcist: the Beginning, sank like a stone in the face of horrible reviews and utter commercial failure, Morgan Creek tried to salvage the mess by giving Paul Shrader $50,000 to put the finishing touches to Dominion.

So, on the one hand Dominion was more or less finished first and Exorcist: the Beginning was filmed second, even though The Beginning was released first. But at the same time, the final touches were made to Dominion after Exorcist: the Beginning failed horribly. How am I to know whether Schrader remained true to his original vision for Dominion when assembling the final cut, or whether he was reacting in part to Exorcist: the Beginning? Ultimately, I don’t know, but I’m going to assume for the sake of coming up with a coherent order to review the films in that he more or less stuck to his guns (quite likely feeling that the failure of the remake exonerated his artistic decisions), and the studio were happy for him to do that because they recognised that they’d really messed up with the remake. And for what it’s worth, the box itself lists Dominion before The Beginning.

Like Exorcist III, Dominion chooses to ignore The Heretic - however, it does actually take a cue from it by latching onto the brief allusions in the original novel and film to Father Merrin’s work in Africa and his original run-in with demonic forces.

We are introduced to Father Merrin (played this time by Stellen Skarsgard) as the priest of a community in occupied Holland during World War II, as he tries - and ultimately fails - to remain resolute in the face of an SS commander attempting to bully him into nominating people to die in reprisal for a partisan attack. Having slapped a heavy dollop of guilt onto his backstory, the film takes us forward to 1947, to find Merrin on sabbatical helping out at an archaeological dig in British East Africa of an ancient religious site, where a Christian church is buried - a Church in the Byzantine style, despite the fact that the Eastern Empire never expanded that far south. The first hints that something is amiss come when the Church is discovered to be incredibly well-preserve - almost as though it was buried as soon as it was built.

Though the central mystery surrounds the buried church, Merrin’s interactions with other characters adds depth to the film. Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar), the dig’s doctor, has a good rapport with Merrin, but her status as a concentration camp survivor tugs at Merrin’s guilt, and she herself is haunted by her memories of what she had to do to survive. Cheche (Billy Crawford), a disabled local boy who seems to be something of a pariah provides a means for both Merrin and Rachel to do some good and alleviate their survivor’s guilt. Naive missionary Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) comes along to oversee the dig on behalf of the Church and the British authorities, despite Merrin’s reservations, and when the magnitude of the find becomes clear he summons British troops to guard it.

The British troops are, of course, horrifyingly racist and colonial, don’t exactly do a great job of guarding the church, and naturally when the shit hits the fan they blame the locals rather than Satan. In fact, when some of the soldiers are killed, their commanding officer Major Granville (Julian Wadham) blames the locals and demands that the elders hand over the guilty parties or face reprisals - leading to a situation directly paralleling Merrin’s wartime experience.

Actually, let me address racism for a moment. After the despicable job Boorman did with The Heretic, I was glad to see a more nuanced treatment of colonial Africa, with the locals ranging from rural tribesmen following their traditional ways of life to highly educated professionals to middle-class hoteliers who actually quite keen to embrace the ways of their colonial rulers, and a whole range of people in between. It does, in short, get across the idea that British East Africa was home to a complex, nuanced, and heterogeneous society, as well as a huge problem in the form of colonialism in its terminal stages - so it’s got the taste of realism to it whether or not it is in fact an accurate depiction of the era.

There is an acknowledgement - in the form of a particularly heinous act by a grief-maddened man - that the end of British rule in Kenya was not without violence on both sides, but Schrader makes sure to have the first blow be struck by the colonising power, so the subsequent violence is very clearly made out to be a symptom of colonialism, just as it is a reaction to colonial atrocities. It’s hinted, in fact, that part of the demon’s work is exacerbating the tension, hatred, and violence between the colonisers and the colonised, leading to the implication that colonialism, at its worst, was both as bad as Nazism and the work of the devil himself.

Of course, there’s no getting around the mild difficulty that it’s a Christian ritual that exorcises the demon, not a ritual of the local tribal religion, but on the other hand the locals never get an opportunity to try it out - it might have worked, but we’ll never know. What’s more, there’s the impication that attempting said rituals does more harm than good - Francis just has to try and baptise Cheche in the buried church - and it’s always been mildly doubtful in the Exorcist series whether the Chrisitan rituals of exorcism are actually as effective in protecting against the demon as, theologically speaking, they’re meant to be.

The director and writers even make sure, when it is revealed that the Church is built over an ancient pagan temple, to underline - from statements made by the local guides - that whatever it is has nothing to do with the culture of the local people, except perhaps as a source of fear and dread for them. It would have been extremely unfortunate if the film had equated the local religious practices with Satanism, but by making sure the dark god of the underground temple is demonised as much in the local faith as it is in Christianity, Schrader and the screenwriters avoid this.

It’s also nice to see that Schrader has a decent grasp of producing a good dream sequence, Merrin’s troubled visions being less goofy and more surreal and creepy than Kinderman’s dreams in Exorcist III. Unfortunately, a few of the animal effects rely too much on over-cheap CGI, so that some of the scenes look extremely dated - and worse, are so obviously animated and fake that they fail to scare in the way they could do, disrupting immersion when they should be promoting it. Thankfully, the use of CGI is sparse, even though it is inept.

Despite being about twenty minutes too long and having a somewhat over-the-top climax, Dominion is probably overall the best Exorcist sequel to date. It’s a bit slow, a bit contemplative, and a bit character-focused, like the original, and its scares never quite manage to be completely scary, but as a character study of Father Merrin and a look at the dying days of colonialism it really isn’t that bad. The main flaw is that it’s not really scary enough if you want a horror film, but at the same time has a little too much in the way of supernatural shenanigans and Satanic scenery-chewing in the final conflict if you want a dead serious movie about issues - it’s the sort of film you really need to be in just the right mood to enjoy, and I’m not entirely sure what that mood is.

Exorcist: the Beginning

Exorcist: the Beginning opens with a scene of a confused-looking Byzantine priest staggering across a corpse-strewn battlefield covered in people crucified upside-down, and finding the stone head of the idol (as discovered in the opening of the first film). We then jump to a badly-CGI’d version of Cairo in 1949 and a bar stolen wholesale from Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which we find Merrin - shorn of his faith and stripped of all but shreds of his backstory, but still played by Stellen Skarsgard - being hired by a mysterious Evil Guy who wants him to go down and join the dig at a mysterious buried church that has just been uncovered and retrieve the head of the demon.

At this point, the movie becomes really startlingly strange for anyone who’s seen the other prequel, because having established that we’re dealing with exactly the same scenario as Dominion, it quickly becomes apparent that we’re going to be dealing with three types of scene. Firstly, there are scenes which were in Dominion, reshot using the same scenery and a somewhat jumbled-up cast. For example, we have Major Grenville, still played by Julian Wadham, introducing Merrin to Father Francis - who this time is played by James D’Arcy. Then, there's a very few blink-and-you'll-miss-'em scenes recycled directly from Dominion - these are more or less all scenery shots where the fact that half the characters are played by different actors isn’t apparent. Third, there's scenes that are completely new to this version, like the one where Merrin meets dig foreman Jeffries (Alan Cross), a completely new character, and Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), who fits in exactly the same niche as Rachel in Dominion but for some reason has a different name.

It’s also obvious from the start that Harlin’s main concern this time around is to produce a much more traditionally scary horror film than Dominion. His desire to produce something more mainstream sometimes has positive results - the hyaena attack in the middle of the village is nastier and more shocking than just about anything in Dominion, for example, and the pace of the film is a bit faster. However, it’s also frequently unhelpful, and sometimes is downright damaging. The nuanced treatment of colonial Africa from the first film is gone, and Harlin is a bit too inclined towards cheap shots - he takes out the character of Cheche, for example, and replaces him with Joseph (Remy Sweeney), a much younger and more adorable prey for the demon, he makes sure to shoot all the scenes inside the buried church in darkness to make them look scarier, and - most cartoonishly - he adds an enormous inverted crucifix (complete with a statue of Jesis which is obviously made of plaster of paris) inside the buried church to make it more blatantly spooky. The makeup job at the climax is a blatant ripoff of Linda Blair’s makeup in the original, and the final exorcism culminates in the possessed victim running really hard into an invisible wall.

The characterisation also lacks subtlety. Most galling is the way the relationship between Merrin and Sarah is handled. In Dominion, there was clearly a tension, but Merrin hadn’t explicitly given up his vows - he was only on sabbatical - so whilst there was some sexual tension between him and Rachel it was tempered by Merrin’s status. In The Beginning there is no such reason why Merrin and Sarah shouldn’t have a romantic relationship, and they do - but their first kiss is accompanied by a sudden burst of activity from the demon, so this (and later plot developments) brings an unwelcome “wicked temptress opens the way to Satan” angle to the story. The character of Jeffries, meanwhile, seems to exist to get really, really, ugly, drink a lot, and threaten to rape Sarah.

Oh, and Sarah gets significantly more naked in this one than Rachel ever got in Dominion.

The depiction of the local tribespeople this time around is deeply troubling, especially in thr way that, at one point, they basically gang up to murder a young boy to get rid of the evil haunting the valley. Not only does this make the locals look like stone age psychopaths, but the ease with which the demon brushes aside their chants and protections makes it clear that, as far as this movie’s cosmology is concerned, their religion is mumbo-jumbo fakery whereas Catholic rituals totally work. (Dominion, on the other hand, carefully stage-managed things so the efficacy of local beliefs and Catholicism were never directly compared.)

What really leaves a horrible taste in the mouth is the way the tensions between the locals and the British troops spills over into an outright battle. It threatens to do this in Dominion, of course, but the point is that Merrin’s successful exorcism stops - his failure to do so this time around makes what little victory he is able to achieve seem hollow, and in a “what exactly was the point of all that?” way rather than a “oh what a tragically pyrrhic victory” sort of a way. The demon does, once the battle begins, prompt the troops and the tribal warriors to kill people on their own side too, but we’re still treated to a disturbingly colonial sequence in which a gang of spear-wielding natives charge a line of soldiers at machine gun emplacements.

Although Skarsgard does his best once more as Merrin, the cast in general seem to lack a willingness to engage with the remake. The atmosphere onset must have been absolutely poisonous, with half the cast annoyed that their work on Dominion was simply tossed aside, and the other half fully aware of the shenanigans which had killed the previous version of the movie.

On balance, I have to say that I’m with Blatty on this one: whilst Dominion manages to be interesting and thoughtful, though only a little scary - a bit like a version of The Heretic which is in fact as smart as it thinks it is, and hasn’t completely forgotten that it’s meant to be a horror film - The Beginning manages to be scarier in parts but botches the rest of the package so horribly that there’s really no contest. Out of the two different versions of Father Merrin’s backstory, this is by far the worst - if it weren’t for the spectacular failure of The Heretic, it would be the worst film in the series.

The Bottom Line

When you are considering The Exorcist series, the first thing you should look for is the Blatty seal of approval. He’s given the thumbs-up to the original, most of the third one (with the exception of the exorcism sequence, which he admits was botched), and Dominion. He has denounced The Heretic (see what I did there?) and has no time for Exorcist: the Beginning either. He’s more or less completely right in his assessment.

That said, there is a huge leap in quality between the classic first film and Exorcist III and Dominion. The latter two are quite good, but not great, whereas the first is an absolute classic. If you like the first film, get the collection if it's really cheap and treat the lesser films as bonus discs. If you already have the first one, there's really nothing here you need to go out of the way to pick up.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 21:11 on 2010-05-22
Tiny nitpick at the beginning: Georgetown isn't a suburb of DC, it's a neighborhood pretty close to the city center.
Arthur B at 21:22 on 2010-05-22
My mistake. They do pick the shots to try to make it look as peaceful and middle-class and minimally built-up as possible, hence the confusion. ;)
Rami at 21:24 on 2010-05-22
Oh it is quite peaceful and upper-middle-class -- Georgetown's the richest residential neighborhood in the city :-)
Sister Magpie at 03:07 on 2010-05-23
I've come to really like the Iraq sequence. I remember once reading someone say that while The Exorcist was a horror movie it was also really a Western where the old enemy comes back to menace a town and the retired gunslinger has to strap on the six shooter once again when the bad guy calls him out. So it's probably a good thing that we meet the gunslinger--err, Exorcist--first. There's also some nice visual images hinting at what's to come, like the man with the milky eye and the crone behind the black veil, both of whom are a bit reminiscent of Regan when possessed.

One of the things I hated about The Heretic--besides everything--was the attempt to claim the demon went after Regan for a reason. She's just so obviously ordinary and Linda Blair can't make me believe in her having any powers in the second film. (That movie also has the strangest sets in the world--not only the all-glass therapy center, but what's with that strange metallic apartment with the rooftop garden where you can walk right off the edge of the building?) My favorite moment in it is when Sharon, another refugee from the first movie, goes running to Regan's room when she calls out for help, then totally hesitates at the door, afraid to go in because experience taught her that nothing good ever comes from opening the door to Regan's bedroom when she's screaming inside it!

Anyway, one thing William Friedkin has always said about horror that's true is that if you explain too much it's not scary, and I think that's yet another problem with The Heretic. It saddles the movie with this complicated New Age fantasy plot about healer children and it's far less scary than the demon picking this girl for unknown reasons to torment those two priests.

Btw, I'm also an atheist but demonic possession is totally scary to me. This might be a perk (or a drawback?) to being raised Catholic.

Oh, also w/regards to possession, it's really fascinating to read about possession in societies because I don't even think it's always mental illness. Sometimes it's just an expression of emotion or mental stress that isn't even illness, imo. I was reading about a possession in Puritan New England, for instance, and it was interesting just how much it followed The Exorcist pattern (though that film adds the pornography). People from the village all came to see the possessed, often calling out taunts to the demon against the advice of the ministers. (And no doubt telling everybody for the rest of their lives how they rebuked the demon.)
Arthur B at 03:58 on 2010-05-23
There's also some nice visual images hinting at what's to come, like the man with the milky eye and the crone behind the black veil, both of whom are a bit reminiscent of Regan when possessed.

I get the point, but the problem I had with those two in particular is that Merrin is clearly spooked by them but it's not really clear why, and the upshot is that it looks like he's afraid of them simply because they're different from him. We don't know, yet, that Merrin has met this demon before, and the only indication that he's ever met the demon before is a brief throwaway line. So I think that's an interpretation which only really works if you've either seen the sequels (or maybe read the book, but I don't remember whether in the book it was clear that the demon Merrin exorcised in Africa was Pazuzu). Forcing the viewer to rely on extratextual sources to understand a part of the film = kind of a failure on Friedkin's part.
Sister Magpie at 04:12 on 2010-05-23
I can't believe I never even made that connection--I mean, that it looks like he's afraid of the culture around them. I think because it seemed clear in the scene that he's been there for a while and this isn't really different from him. He speaks the language, seems comfortable in the cafe, his friend seems sad for him to be going. So I think I just took it as him feeling a sense of foreboding. I figured it would have been the same if he'd been walking in his hometown--sort of like when Merrin is in New York and seeing the homeless man with his face glowing in the light of the train for that moment.

But of course, the first time I saw the sequence I just plain didn't get it at all, even though I think I'd read the book (I was only something like 11 so I probably didn't get it all there either!) So most of the details I noticed I noticed on second viewings.
Georgetown has always been a very wealthy and conservative neighborhood. It always surprised me that groovy people like the MacNeil family rented house there. I would have thought they would have gravitated toward a more bohemian side of town. Then again Chris was a mother so she was probably thinking more in the line of good schools for Regan.

I'm an atheist as well and it led to a distinct change in the way I viewed this film. As a Catholic, it terrified me. Now I can enjoy it as a fantasy film but the premise of possession is laughable. I laughed all the way through the recent "Paranormal Activity".

I also enjoyed that the first film really spent time getting to know the characters. So when the bad things start, everyone can really feel empathy for Regan, Chris, Sharon and Father Karras. Father Merrick was something of a mystery figure. What I took from the beginning sequence was that Merrick and his fellow scientists released something from a prison. The sequence of Merrick staring at the demon statue was his Archeologist side fighting with his Catholic training. Much like the way Karras was experiencing an internal fight between his Psychiatrist training and his Jesuit calling. The MacNeils were always atheists so the possession attack completely baffles them. They go to Father Karras and Father Merrick as a last resort not out of belief. So perhaps that is why the film shows Karras taking such drastic measures at the end.

I don't remember The Heretic. And I've seen one of the last films with Skarsgard. But I don't know exactly which one. I did enjoy Exorcist III. But the best will always be the first film.
Arthur B at 21:17 on 2010-05-24
They go to Father Karras and Father Merrick as a last resort not out of belief. So perhaps that is why the film shows Karras taking such drastic measures at the end.

Possibly, but I think the MacNeils very much aren't atheists by the time they bring in Karras and Merrin. Once you actually believe your daughter is possessed - and it's fairly clear Chris believes this by the time she starts asking around about exorcists - you've sort of left atheism behind.

And I've seen one of the last films with Skarsgard. But I don't know exactly which one.

If it had a particular character shooting himself in the head whilst standing next to a rock outdoors, it's Dominion. If it includes that character shooting himself whilst sitting inside a tent with a demon butterfly in his mouth, it's Exorcist: the Beginning. ;)
Sister Magpie at 21:55 on 2010-05-24
Georgetown has always been a very wealthy and conservative neighborhood. It always surprised me that groovy people like the MacNeil family rented house there. I would have thought they would have gravitated toward a more bohemian side of town. Then again Chris was a mother so she was probably thinking more in the line of good schools for Regan.

I assumed they were in Georgetown because Chris was shooting at the University. She could walk home from the set from the house on Prospect Street.

Personally, I still find possession scary as anything. I loved Paranormal Activity--kept me up a few nights! Though really I prefer the lead up to the actual possession. The first act of The Exorcist is my favorite, and PA is basically the first act of The Exorcist made into the whole movie.
"Possibly, but I think the MacNeils very much aren't atheists by the time they bring in Karras and Merrin. Once you actually believe your daughter is possessed - and it's fairly clear Chris believes this by the time she starts asking around about exorcists - you've sort of left atheism behind."

Yes, it could be that Chris changed her mind in the process. But remember in the film, she was desperate and the Doctors knew none of their medical tests helped Regan. They urged her to find a priest who could perform an exorcism. Chris replied that they wanted her to go to a Witch doctor. That was when she sought out Karras because she exhausted every other possibility. Many religions have a form of exorcism in their tenets, I always found it fascinating the creators chose the Catholic kind.

"I assumed they were in Georgetown because Chris was shooting at the University. She could walk home from the set from the house on Prospect Street."

Yes, but I always thought that Chris had enough clout that if she wanted to move further away, she would have been given a car to drive her to and from the set. It could have easily been a write off on the film's expenses.
Viorica at 02:43 on 2010-05-25
People from the village all came to see the possessed, often calling out taunts to the demon against the advice of the ministers

Well they weren't allowed much excitement or emotion back then. My own theory about the Puritan witch trials (Salem et all) is that the "posessed-" usually young girls- were lashing out against their restraints in a way that allowed them total freedom, not to mention attention from everyone. Same with the people who came to see them, and to shout at the supposed demons- how often did they get to raise their voices or insult people?
Sister Magpie at 04:35 on 2010-05-25
Many religions have a form of exorcism in their tenets, I always found it fascinating the creators chose the Catholic kind.

Blatty is Catholic and was educated by Jesuits growing up. (Also he was writing about an actual incident that allegedly happened in Mount Rainier while he was at Georgetown.) That was a no brainer for him! He definitely took the presence of the demon as proof of God. I think also that that was supposed to be the main point of the scene with the crucifix. He needed the demon to do something so horrible that it would drive this woman to check out a priest.

Well they weren't allowed much excitement or emotion back then. My own theory about the Puritan witch trials (Salem et all) is that the "posessed-" usually young girls- were lashing out against their restraints in a way that allowed them total freedom, not to mention attention from everyone. Same with the people who came to see them, and to shout at the supposed demons- how often did they get to raise their voices or insult people?

Definitely. I think even at the time they suspected people of enjoying the attention. It's practically the only time you hear about young girls in New England, really. They're invisible except when they're possessed!
Melissa G. at 06:34 on 2010-05-25
I think even at the time they suspected people of enjoying the attention. It's practically the only time you hear about young girls in New England, really. They're invisible except when they're possessed!

Just to throw in another interesting tidbit: I saw a documentary once that linked these possessions/witchcraft phenomena to wormwood getting into the crops people were eating. So what was really happening was just a really bad psychodelic high. I always found that theory rather fascinating.
Arthur B at 08:44 on 2010-05-25
Many religions have a form of exorcism in their tenets, I always found it fascinating the creators chose the Catholic kind.

Sister Magpie's covered the reasons Blatty picked Catholicism. Looking at the text, it does seem significant that Chris turns to a Catholic priest to find an exorcist. (She doesn't know about Karras or Merrin at that point and has to ask Dyer whether he knows any exorcists.)

I think it's also significant that Chris socialises with at least one priest (Dyer) on a regular basis - he's at the party which Regan interrupts. Maybe she turns to Dyer because he happens to be the only priest of any flavour she knows, or maybe she's actually just a quite liberal Catholic who doesn't believe in the whole Satan thing.

Either way, I would say that a dyed-in-the-wool atheist wouldn't have been quite so ready to go to a priest when the shrink suggests it - if Chris didn't at least partially believe that something was deeply spiritually wrong with Regan, she'd have just gone to a different shrink.

I think Magpie is correct in saying that Blatty sees the demon as the sort of thing which forces doubters to believe in spiritual evil - and thus seek out spiritual good to combat it. It's much more clearly (and heavy-handedly) stated in Exorcist III but I think it's definitely there in the first film.
Sister Magpie at 17:20 on 2010-05-25
I think it's also significant that Chris socialises with at least one priest (Dyer) on a regular basis - he's at the party which Regan interrupts. Maybe she turns to Dyer because he happens to be the only priest of any flavour she knows, or maybe she's actually just a quite liberal Catholic who doesn't believe in the whole Satan thing.

I forget if this is explained in the book, but I've often wondered about that in the movie. Again, I assume it's because of the movie that's being shot at Georgetown, where Dyer and Karras both are. I think she met Dyer that way and he's just a nice guy so she invited him to the party. Chris goes to a priest because the psychiatrists specifically tell her that Catholics are the one with the ritual. In some versions of the "true" story a similar thing happens to that family, who were Lutheran.

Just to throw in another interesting tidbit: I saw a documentary once that linked these possessions/witchcraft phenomena to wormwood getting into the crops people were eating. So what was really happening was just a really bad psychodelic high. I always found that theory rather fascinating.

I've heard that too. Though the more I've read about it, the more I think that most modern explanations for bewitching and witchcraft trials in general are totally off. I mean, we tend to take stuff that we understand and assume that's what was "really" going on, but in fact it's more just something you had to be part of the society to understand.

For instance, half the reasons I grew up being told got people targetted as witches are completely off and are more about modern obsessions than ones in the past, at least as relates to New England.
Melissa G. at 17:32 on 2010-05-25
I've heard that too. Though the more I've read about it, the more I think that most modern explanations for bewitching and witchcraft trials in general are totally off.

If I remember the documentary correctly, it was only making the wormwood claim for a very specific area of the US where there was evidence that wormwood had grown there at that time where they were planting, etc. So I thought it actually held water. But I do think you're right that in most cases, it was a symptom of the Puritanical society (I guess The Crucible would be a good literary example of that?).
Sister Magpie at 18:52 on 2010-05-25
Oh, I think it totally could be correct. If you're talking about a sudden rash of bewitchments especially.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 21:08 on 2010-05-25
Regarding chemical explanations for demonic possessions, I've heard ergot fungus, which tends to infect rye and causes all manner of convulsions and hallucinations proposed, and while it seem doesn't apply to the incidents in Salem, it might explain some medieval witch outbreaks.

As for Salem, I read one book that argued that the whole thing was a manifestation of the vague class struggle going on between the old landholding elites and the newer, more commercially-oriented younger generation.

This is why you don't let Marxists study witch trials.
Sister Magpie at 21:17 on 2010-05-25
I've read that one too. The thing about Salem is that it was weird even at the time. Whatever was going on, it had very little in common with the way witchcraft trials usually went.
Arthur B at 22:21 on 2010-05-25
The only history of the Salem trials I've read is A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill, which is pretty good. It covers the religious/social/class pressures on the accused but also goes into some detail about their interpersonal relationships which might go some way to explaining why, once one of them seemed to start acting funny, the others claimed to be bewitched in short order.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in May 2010