After 27 years, “The Exorcist” has returned to show the kids today what horror is all about. The success of its opening weekend proved that the market for the real thing is still there, and that the public is hungry for more. Did I say MORE? Aren’t there a couple of sequels? There doesn’t seem to be much talk about a couple of other movies with the word “Exorcist” in their title. Let’s find out why.
[ Exorcist II: The Heretic ] ^ Warner Brothers didn’t quite know what to do with the first film before they released it. It started out with a limited release over Christmas 1973, and the legend spread quickly over the couple of months it took the studio to release it wide. When it soon became one of the highest grossing films of all time, they of course wanted a sequel. There were a few problems.
William Peter Blatty, the author of both the novel and the screenplay, had no ideas whatsoever. Director William Friedkin had nearly killed himself (and everyone else) during nearly two grueling years of production. He had no interest in coming back. Warner execs then had to form a new creative team from scratch. This wouldn’t end well.
The studio first acquired the sequel rights from Blatty. Long a veteran writer of Hollywood movies, he didn’t let anyone screw him out of anything. With that in place, story and screenplay came from little-known writer (and he’d stay that way) William Goodhart. The movie was doomed at this point, but Warner Brothers thought it was brilliant.
Now they needed a director. John Boorman had been offered the director’s chair before Friedkin and turned it down. As he instead went on to make the hysterically awful “Zardoz,” he could use a big studio project.
Producers secured original cast members Linda Blair and Max von Sydow, but Ellen Burstyn wouldn’t come back. Instead, they beefed up the part of Kitty Winn’s Sharon. Of course they needed a big star as the titled “Exorcist”, and they went for Richard Burton.
Seems like they had all the pieces for a hit, right? Nuh-uh. They instead assembled one of the worst teams possible and they went out and made one of the absolute worst sequels in the history of film. What went wrong?
The first problem was Boorman. Usually quite pretentious and difficult, the director has often expressed his “artistry” in movies that were “so bad they’re good” (“Zardoz”), movies where supposed cultural significance masked a lot of horrible storytelling (“The General”), and movies that were just pure s**t (“Exorcist II: The Heretic”). He turned down the original “Exorcist” because he only saw a story about “torturing a child.” Consequently, he made a sequel that’s instead about torturing the audience.
This points us the real problem. Apparently no one, not the studio suits, and definitely not Goodhart or Boorman, had the slightest idea about what made the original work. It wasn’t just the prosthetics or fancy directing. Audiences connected at a very deep level with this film, in both positive and negative ways. A big reason why is its handling of Christian faith.
I can only think of two Christian-themed works that are both truly heartfelt and completely thought out by intelligent filmmakers. Those films would be Martin Scorcese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Exorcist”. While Friedkin is actually Jewish, he respected what Blatty had done with the book. It was always meant as an affirmation of the writer’s Catholic faith. Every detail of the religion was painstakingly verified. The Catholic Church itself approved of both novel and film, which is why both could claim priests for technical advisors. Many events are never really explained and some of those only occur off-screen. One of the purposes of this is to convey the sense of a universe larger than the one we can see. In turn, all of the nastiness throughout the film can be viewed in terms of faith, and that eventually all is right in the world again.
Boorman never understood any of this about the novel and he sure didn’t learn anything by the time of his movie. He had no respect for the religion and it shows. I guess an artist of his stature couldn’t be bothered while crafting his grand statements for his own cinematic vision. As such, “Heretic” takes a dump on the original’s ending, meaning, style, and most of its characters. Apparently the first exorcism didn’t really take and the now-teenage Linda Blair is some kind of “golden child” who will save the world or some such nonsense. All I can see is that Burton always looks and acts like he just got kicked out of a bar after last call and an all-day bender. I don’t know if he actually meant this to be a horror film. The only frightening element is the film’s relentless silliness.
The studio must have known something was wrong. About a week before its intended release, Blatty called the execs for an advanced screening. They agreed to set something up near Georgetown, where the writer lived, but only on the condition that he couldn’t bad mouth it on “The Tonight Show”. It was not so odd a request as Blatty, a frequent guest, was scheduled to sit with Carson within a week. Blatty declined the deal. He paid his money on opening day like everyone else, and then used his camera time to express his anger and horror concerning the film. He was not apparently the only one who was pissed off.
After audiences first viewed this pretentious and inscrutable mess in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, they rioted. The story then as Blatty tells it, Warner Brothers head John Calley dragged Boorman to the theatre at six in the morning the next day. Upon learning the studio would pull the picture so the director could shoot a new ending, the great artist reportedly said, “Americans. It’s obviously too good for them.”
[ Exorcist III: Legion ] ^ Blatty eventually did come up with a sequel story to tell, so he wrote a book called “Legion.” Production Company Morgan Creek later procured the film rights. Blatty hadn’t done much film work since “The Exorcist” was released. He didn’t really need to with all the money he made. He did finally direct his first film, an adaptation of one of his other books released as “The Ninth Configuration”. It was enough to convince producers to allow the writer to direct “Legion” himself.
It couldn’t be that easy. Of course producers wanted the public to know that this new production was a sequel to the 1973 hit. So, they changed the title to “Exorcist III: Legion”. Blatty was not happy about this for a couple of reasons. First, he was completely ignoring “Exorcist II: The Heretic”. As far as he was concerned, that abomination had no right to exist. Second, there wasn’t an actual exorcism in the story. When the director pointed this fact out to Morgan Creek honcho James Robinson, the producer responded by forcing Blatty to put one in.
Upon release, “Exorcist III: Legion” didn’t do so well. While mostly a very effective horror film, it is perceived to have suffered for two reasons. First, the public perceived it to be a sequel to “Exorcist II”. Second, the final exorcism scene feels kind of tacked on and unnecessary. To be fair, another issue is that Lee J. Cobb and Father William O’Malley were not available to reprise their roles, so new actors took their place. Only Jason Miller was around to reprise his role from the first film.
The producers of “Exorcist III” seem to have maintained about the same level of respect for Blatty to this day. The film’s author explained to me that they never bothered to inform him that the film was being released on DVD. He said, “I had to buy it on Amazon.”
That’s more than I can say for the second film, the only one currently not available on the DVD format. It’s just as well as I don’t think Warner Bros. should consider a box set any time soon. The third movie works fine as a stand-alone feature. However, when I recently watched all three films back to back, the difference in style and quality is more than a little jarring. The original is very naturalistic in look; it just draws you in. Friedkin should be lauded for not screwing around.
I can’t tell if the makers of the second film even saw the first one. Even the exterior scenes appear as if they were shot on a soundstage. The only worthwhile element is Ennio Morricone’s score. The rest of the film is just Boorman whacking off to his own delusional “genius.”
The final chapter is in a third style, much like a thriller. All of the gore is kept off-screen and left to the viewer’s imagination. It’s still entertaining, but after watching the first film you’ll probably have expectations that are never going to be met.
There have been rumors floating around about a new project to be called “Exorcist: Dominion”. I did ask Blatty about this and he did indicate that proposed director Tom McLoughlin came “sniffing around” but that film would never happen. I believe both he and Friedkin would tell you know to just be happy with the first one. After all, how many times has it been called, “the greatest horror film ever made?” Shouldn’t that be enough?