Byron Pitt lives and breathes cinema, displaying a rare and sometimes explosive passion for the silver screen - often with unpredictable results. GeekPlanetOnline is proud to present a movies column from the self-confessed “film drunk”; a man who once yelled at an entire cinema for laughing at Johnny English…
This article is a brief bunch of rambling essays focusing on the Exorcist saga. I have checked out all five films (some for the first time) and I’ve decided to slap my thoughts around your beautiful faces, if you will.
Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, 2005
Let’s start with Dominion, an ill fated prequel which suffered from bad testing and studio interference (something that crops up often with the series). It’s clearly obvious to even those with a small amount of cinematic knowledge that Paul Schrader (best known as the writer of Taxi Driver) had more on his mind than just a one note exorcism. Dominon has many plot strands that not only focus on the disillusioned Father Merrin (A well cast Stellan Skarsgard), but on the notion that the actions of humans (and original sin) are what allowed such a supernatural evil into the world. The idea that the demon that resides in this film feeds off our guilt, pride, arrogance and ignorance not only harks back to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist but to the novel by William Peter Blatty that the series came from.
Schrader’s scope is on a grand scale, as you can tell from some of the beautiful, sweeping cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, and the idea of executing this period piece as a more classic feature is a noble one. The art direction alone gives a “golden age” feel to proceedings. However, the film's pace is more letherigic than lyrical, while flat acting, terrible make up effects and cumbersome editing take away the intriguing set up that Schrader and the two writers (William Wisher and Caleb Carr) wish to bring about. Frustratingly, despite its awkward pace, if some of the other characters had more time to breathe (hacked to bare essentials it seems by the studio) and the screenplay was allowed to strengthen the conflicts (you will question certain people's actions) we may have gained a better film. The studio decided that Dominion wasn’t their thing, and wanted something completely different in terms of “action”, which leads us to...
The Exorcist: The Beginning, 2004
Renny Harlin’s feature is a remake (or more remixed) version of the original prequel (although released before it) and boy does it miss the point. The film doesn’t only lose some of scope and ideals that Dominion wanted to show, but the execution is very murky. Harlin was brought in by executives due to poor testing of the first prequel and he gives us what many studio peeps think we want: more blood, guts and jump scares. Moments of Dominion are recut and re-edited and much of it is re-filmed. None of it has the grand cinematic feel Schrader tried to bring to the Dominion feature, and even more aspects are pushed to the background in order to have more CGI hyenas and more overused visual references to William Friedkin’s 1973 film. The Exorcist: The Beginning also clearly believes that Friedkin’s film is all about the actual exorcism and nothing else, so what we get is all very OTT, all very hammy and features lots and lot of jump scares as of course it’s that and that alone that scares us, right?
Due to the changes in the story and editing, Stellan Skarsgard's relatively decent performance from Dominion (it was the best from a bad bunch) goes from heavy weighted to heavy handed, while the change of the female lead (Izabella Scorupco replaces Clara Bellar) is a misjudged one. This is mostly because Scorupco only appears to be cast in order to sex things up (the screenplay and direction helps matter with a generous smattering of skin baring and swearing) while other characters appear not as real character per se, but more as little
Basil Expositions. But then again, the moment you see Bricktop from Snatch wondering around in the desert, it’s not hard to see how blunt they wanted things to be.
The Exorcist, 1973
While time and legacy have affected this movie in various ways, this is still one of my favourite horror movies. Not only is the film about a lack of faith, it's also a film of fractured relationships (Karras and his mother, Regan’s unseen and unreachable father), guilt and social unrest. Despite clearly being a product of its time (I doubt many will faint in a screening now), Friedkin’s hold on the material within the movie is difficult to better.
I think what I still find so astonishing about the movie is not the various secretions or effects (although they are still way more effective than Harlin’s CGI), but the build up of tension between everyone involved. Every scene is cut at the height of drama with every character at their peak of anxiety. Friedkin’s assembling of such scenes is so proficient that long before the initial exorcism, there’s a cold feel of dread that rests on my shoulders every time I watch the movie.
I would like to mention one thing that doesn’t get talked about as much as the pea soup: the film's cinematography. Owen Roizman does a superb job conducting the beautiful chaos on screen. Many talk about the head turning or levitation sequences, but more needs to be said about Regans “praise” of Pazuzu or the brief but quietly haunting shot of Karras’ mother sitting upright in the bed. It’s those images that stay with me over the more overt horrors that lay within the film.
Overall The Exorcist is, for me, the standard by which I judge many horror films. It holds some of the best performances in a horror film; it’s visually stunning and wonderfully plotted. It may not hold as much strength in its set pieces as it once had, but it still maintains an intensity that few horror films even try to match.
The Exorcist 2: The Heretic, 1977
Despite the film having one or two fans (Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese for instance), I have to say that The Heretic is a mess of a movie. While the theme that good needs evil to exist is a good one, the film is too bogged down with stilted performances, woeful dialogue and an overcomplicated narrative, to let anything truly interesting to break through.
Despite the original film leaning quite heavily on the basic theme of good and evil, The Heretic tries to elaborate on things tenfold. It begins with something that appears to resemble an engaging idea (Priest Lamont is trying to investigate what happened in Washington while the Catholic church are doing their best to modernize and hide the idea that exorcisms still exist) but it soon descends into madness with a delirious Richard Burton gallivanting with James Earl Jones in Africa, almost nonsensical locust talk and a dream machine that makes Inception’s look humdrum (this machine allows mind melding by telekinesis). The producers and filmmaker clearly have noble intentions, but it seems quite obvious that the lack of Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair’s wish not to be placed under the same conditions as before, hurt the movie deeply (along with the dubious rewritten script).
There’re some visuals that look to exhibit the duality that lies within the story, and despite being overused, Ennio Morricone’s music brings about a bizarre eeriness. However, this can’t take away from the overall dated look of the film, its undisciplined narrative and poor directional choices. This film is weakest of the saga.
The Exorcist 3, 1980
William Peter Blatty, writer of the original book that started this series, directs this feature, which thankfully decides to ignore the woefully all over the place sequel that tainted the series before it (although the prequels didn’t do much to help matters). Like so much of the series, this film has clearly been tampered with by studio gremlins. There is no real need for the exorcism at the end of the film, and it’s quite clear that it has been tacked on, along with the film’s title (originally called Legion, based on the novel by Blatty).
This is a shame, because the film oozes with atmosphere throughout many of its scenes. Not all of it adds up, in particular the film's main conceit surrounding the identity of the Gemini killer who has decided to rekindle his passion for murder, fifteen years after allegedly passing away. The film asks for leaps of faith that may be too grand, depending on the viewer’s knowledge of the film series and books.
Despite this, the film is for the most part an effective supernatural thriller, and one that wishes to be a quieter relation than its barnstorming sister movie. Blatty knows how to turn the screws and the film does become more chilling as the plot evolves. Two set pieces (the old woman on the ceiling, and the nurse station sequence) are not only unsettling but predate features such as The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity respectively. One wouldn’t be surprised if the makers of those films had been inspired by this one.
In consideration of his début film The Ninth Configuration, Exorcist 3 not only borrows cast members from that feature (Scott Wilson and Jason Miller) but also explores similar themes. Once again Blatty focuses on the nature of good and evil in relation to us and God. It doesn’t dig as deep as The Ninth Configuration but many moments, particularly the scenes of George C Scott’s Det. Kinderman and Ed Flanders' Father Dyer, definitely belong in the same ball park. What is interesting to consider is that the Kinderman in this film is so beat up by the evil he has seen that his curiosity from the first film is now replaced with dead-eyed cynicism.
The performances aren’t as strong here as they are in Friedkin’s film, but then again this wishes to be a more understated feature. What does come out more is the nicely handled banter that lies in Blatty’s dialogue, which is another feature the film shares with The Ninth Configuration.
The Exorcist series was all in all an interesting watch (even the bad films) as they are films that deal with themes I do enjoy exploring in films. I do really enjoy films in which good and evil do battle through a window of faith and despite wildly varying results, all the films try to feature that theme. It’s a shame that some of the films feel that an exorcism scene is the most important aspect of the series, mostly because of the name.
Interestingly, I feel the real series actually ignores the two prequels and The Heretic and is actually the original film, The Ninth Configuration and the The Exorcist 3. as these three films have a more consistent through line and connecting characters. The Ninth Configuration craftily features Scott Wilson, allegedly as the astronaut who Regan states is “gonna die up there” in the original film. The biggest connection between them of course is Blatty and it seems that whenever he is reconnected with the material (Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, Exorcist 3) the films regain their focus.