An episode of French and Saunders once brilliantly spoofed The Exorcist. The show opened with an almost perfect recreation of the famous shot from The Exorcist that became the poster image: an eerie light shining from an upstairs window illuminating a large house. We cut to Jennifer Saunders soberly dressed like Ellen Burstyn as she ascends a dark staircase and pauses at a shadowy bedroom door. The camera follows as she enters to find Dawn French in a four poster bed dressed in Linda Blair wig and nightgown. On her lap is a ouija board – the glass is moving comically around by itself. Dawn isn’t well, so Jennifer has brought her a meal of – yes, you’ve guessed it – pea soup. The soup, of course, does not stay down. Throughout the programme, each time Jennifer enters the bedroom, Dawn is wearing heavier demon make up (the joke is that Jennifer doesn’t seem to realise she’s possessed) and uttering immortal lines like “You mother eats jelly babies in hell!”
It’s a wonderful spoof, brilliantly capturing the look and the feel of original film, complete with shaking bed, snaking tongue, and an ending which sees Jennifer diving Karras-like through the bedroom window in a bid to get the final close up. Amusing as the spoof was, though, it highlights just how easy The Exorcist is to parody. In the same year that the French and Saunders episode aired, Linda Blair herself returned to the role in another spoof, Repossessed (1990), playing a grown up mother of four who finds herself ‘re-possessed’ by the devil and in need of an exorcism from Leslie Nielsen. 1990 also saw William Peter Blatty direct his official sequel The Exorcist 3 which did mediocre box office. By the time Scary Movie 2 appeared in 2001, with its Exorcist-spoof subplot, it seemed that no film had been parodied, spoofed and pastiched as much as The Exorcist. And when, in 2004, Renny Harlin directed the troubled Exorcist: The Beginning, it seemed that the franchise itself had lapsed into self-parody. Could an audience ever take an exorcism movie seriously again?
But then in 2005 came The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The movie was a big hit, grossing $75 million in the US and a further $69 million worldwide. Exorcism became big box office once again. What’s more, Emily Rose seemed to usher in a new wave of exorcism films that took the realistic approach of The Exorcist and made demonic possession scary again. Since then there’s been The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), and now The Devil Inside is poised to set pulses racing when it opens here on the UK on 16th March 2012. And there are more exorcism movies in the pipeline, including The Last Exorcism 2 which is due later this year. So what lies behind the audience’s continuing fascination with exorcism movies and can any of these new films hope to match the impact that The Exorcist had on audiences when it was first released almost 40 years ago?
Nowadays it’s hard to believe the sensation that The Exorcist created when it first opened in January 1974. On its opening day in the States lines of cinemagoers stretched around city blocks (in fact The Exorcist was one of the first films that led to the term ‘blockbuster’.) In California it was reported that thousands queued each morning for the 8am showing. In Boston, 5000 cinemagoers queued outside Sack 57 Cinema every day for months. In Chicago, frustrated moviegoers used a battering ram to smash down the doors of one cinema, and in Kansas City police had to use tear-gas to disperse crowds who tried to force their way into the film.
Time Magazine published an article in February 1974 reporting the Exorcist-fever that had seized the nation. There were cases of people contacting priests after seeing the film, believing themselves possessed. Two people in Chicago required hospitalisation with nervous breakdowns. Many others who saw the film experienced nightmares, hysteria and ‘profound apprehension’. One Los Angeles cinema manager estimated that each showing exacted a toll of four blackouts, half-a-dozen bouts of vomiting and numerous spontaneous exits. Some commentators blamed the scare-sensationalism of the promoters and press for the hysterical response of audiences. William Friedkin, who directed the film, blamed the audiences themselves, claiming that those who reacted hysterically had already wound themselves up to the point of hysteria before even sitting down to watch the film. Whatever the cause of the audience’s hysterical response to the film, the effect was explosive.
The Exorcist, 1974
The Exorcist was not the first cinematic tale of possession: that honour belongs to a film called The Dybbuck made in 1937. Based on a Yiddish play, it is one of the only exorcism films to draw on Yiddish religion rather than Roman Catholicism. It tells the story of a bride who is possessed by the eponymous Dybbuk – a disturbed spirit, who happens to be the ghost of the man to whom she was previously betrothed (a similar storyline to The Unborn (1989), about a woman possessed by the spirit of her dead twin). The forthcoming film The Possession (2012), produced by Sam Raimi, is based on the legend of the Dybbuk Box, a wine cabinet recently sold on e-bay, which is supposedly haunted by a Jewish spirit.
One of the appeals of exorcism movies is that the belief in spirit possession is shared by many religions and cultures. The last four decades have seen exorcism movies springing up all over the world: Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, Korea, even Turkey – to name just a few countries where filmmakers tried to cash in on the success of The Exorcist.
When The Exorcist first came out it proved incredibly popular with the African American community – something Warner Brothers hadn’t anticipated when they opened the film in mostly white neighbourhoods. One man took notice of this – and was willing to exploit Warner Brothers’ mistake for his own gain. His name was William Girdler.
Born in Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1947, Girdler produced and directed nine movies before he was killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 30. Perhaps his most famous film is Grizzly (1976) a Jaws -knock-off. Girdler specialised in making cheap versions of successful bigger-budget classics. He made devil worship films (Asylum of Satan, 1972), backwoods-psycho movies (Three on a Meathook, 1973), blaxploitation movies based on the wildly successful Shaft series and other black mobster films (The Zebra Killer, 1973, Sheba Baby, 1975), and ‘killer nature’ films in the vein of Hitchcock’s The Birds (Grizzly, Day of the Animals, 1977). His final film, The Manitou (1978), starring Tony Curtis, was a mix of Rosemary’s Baby and Star Wars. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker who attempted so many sub-genres – and yet failed to distinguish himself in any of them.
Abby (1974), also known as The Black Exorcist, was Girdler’s attempt to cash in on The Exorcist’s appeal to African Americans. Shot in Louisville, Kentucky, Abby stars William (Blacula) Marshall as a minister who accidently releases an ancient African sex demon. The demon possesses his daughter-in-law, Abby, played by Carol Speed, who is compelled to try to have sex with everyone she meets while speaking in a weird male voice and sprouting ‘demon’ eyebrows. The film is cheesy fun, filled with lame dialogue (“Whatever possessed you to do a thing like that?” Abby’s husband demands after she tears open her clothes in front of house guests). There are blaxploitation clichés aplenty – a funky soundtrack, gospel singing and fried chicken for every meal. The final exorcism even takes place in a nightclub disco.
Despite its crass racial representation and its general air of ineptitude, Abby remains one of the most enjoyable of the 1970s batch of Exorcist clones and was a surprise hit at the box office. Produced for $100,000, Abby made $4 million in its first month of release. Warner Brothers immediately took notice – they sued Girdler for copyright infringement and Abby was pulled from release (The Italian Exorcist-rip off Beyond The Door was also sued, as was Mario Bava’s House of Exorcism). Distributor Sam Arkoff eventually struck a deal with Warner Brothers to release the frozen revenues but Girdler died before he saw any profits from the film. “Anybody should be able to make a good movie if they spend $20 million on it, the way they did The Exorcist”, Girdler is quoted as saying, adding ludicrously: “Comparatively speaking, for what we spent on it, Abby was probably a better picture than The Exorcist”.
William Marshall in Abby, 1974
Filmmakers around the world, however, took note of Abby’s success and cheap ‘n’ cheerful Exorcist knock-offs began to appear at an alarming rate and in the most unlikely of places. Seytan (1974) is one of the most intriguing of the knock-offs. If Abby stole blatantly from The Exorcist then Seytan simply remade it scene-by-scene, (at times shot-by-shot) - except in Turkish and with all the Catholicism taken out. Directed by Metin Erksan, a once-radical Turkish filmmaker who eventually gave up his social concerns to make market orientated popular films, Seytan comes across as a genuine cultural oddity. Set in Istambul, Seytan is about a secular young girl called Gul who becomes possessed by a demon and – well, you know the rest. Seytan follows the plotline of The Exorcist almost exactly. An Imam is brought in to exorcise Gul and at the end, cured of the demon, she embraces Islam.
While the scenes between Gul and her mother (played by glamorous actress Meral Taygun) are written almost identical to those in The Exorcist, even down to the actual dialogue, the scenes with Father Karras posed an obvious problem for Erksan, with Turkey being a Muslim country. Karras (called Tugrul Bilge in the film) is therefore no longer a priest, but a psychiatrist who happens to have written a book about witchcraft. His inner conflict is no longer to do with his lack of faith, although he still harbours guilt over the death of his mother. Seytan does not have the same power as the original partly for that reason. Another reason being the primitive filmmaking – so many zoom shots! – and Z grade special effects on display. Seytan features one of the most laughable 180 degree head turns in the history of Exorcist knock offs – with the actress’s turning head clearly photographed behind an obviously fake torso. Still, it is fun to gasp at the 1970s Turkish decor – all clashing designs and garish wall paper– which is more horrifying than the film itself. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is used throughout (played about twenty times!) so evidently Warner Brothers weren’t able to sue the producers of Seytan as they were films shown in the States.
The country that clocked up the highest number of Exorcist rip-offs was (you’ve guessed it) Italy. Hardly surprising considering Italy’s film industry has thrived on remaking Hollywood genres since the dawn of time, and given the fact that Roman Catholicism originated there.
Connoisseurs of Italian exorcism movies may disagree but I reckon the best of the bunch is Alberto DeMartino’s The Tempter (1974) also known as The Antichrist (nothing to do with Lars von Trier’s film of the same name). Carla Gravina plays a paralysed young woman who regresses to her past life as a witch from the time of the Spanish Inquisition. This causes her to become possessed, start breaking people’s necks, vomiting and levitating. The levitation scene in The Tempter is by far the most elaborate of all exorcism movies as Gravina floats out of one window and back in through another in a fine display of diabolical aerobatics. The film features Alida Valli from Suspiria and George Coulouris from Citizen Kane. Director Martino went on to make an Omen rip-off called Holocaust 2000 (1977) starring another slumming actor, Kirk Douglas.
The Antichrist, 1974
The possessed Juliet Mills in Beyond the Door (1975) (also known as Chi Sei?) suffered the double misfortune of also being pregnant with the Antichrist. This allowed director Ovidio Assonitis to rip off The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby into the bargain. The title probably refers to the horrors that lay beyond the ‘door of reason’, but more horror is generated by the mish-mash of locations (shot on low budget in Italy and San Francisco), poor dubbing and atrocious dialogue than by the story itself. Quite what Richard Johnson (Zombi 2) is doing in the film is anyone’s guess. Thanks to an ad campaign that promised more scares than The Exorcist, Beyond the Door became the most popular Italian exorcism movie released in the States. Warner Brothers sued the producers of Beyond the Door but lost – presumably because the lawyers argued that Assonitis ripped off more than one film. He went on to rip off Jaws in Tentacles (1977), starring John Huston, Henry Fonda and a giant octopus.
Juliet Mills in Beyond The Door, 1974
Richard Johnson also turned up in The Night Child (1975), Massimo Dallamano’s story of a young girl who is given the gift of a necklace. Unfortunately when she places it around her neck she becomes possessed by the spirit of a child who was a murderer.
Naked Exorcism (1975) is one of the few Exorcist rip offs to feature a possessed boy. Apart from that it’s business as usual. The boy is an archaeology student who is gradually possessed by an evil witch who casts a spell on him after he picks up a sacred talisman. Before long he has cut his girlfriend’s throat, felt up his own mother before throwing her down the stairs and started verbally abusing his sister who is a nun. Enter Richard Conte as the priest sent to perform the exorcism. Instead of a floating bed we have a revolving one. The titillating title refers to the numerous scenes of nudity in the film which are completely necessary to the plot! The title also lays out what audiences seemed to be looking for increasingly in these films: scenes of ‘shocking’ sexual references and bad language. Naked Exorcism served them up in spades.
So did The Sexorcist (1974) AKA L’Ossessa. In this one a young artist played by Stella Carnacina falls under the spell of a Demon/Christ statue she is going to restore. The statue comes to life (in the form of Italian cannibal films veteran, Ivan Rassimov) and ‘possesses’ her in more ways than one. Pretty soon she is cursing like a sailor, attacking her mother, trying to seduce her father and getting exorcised by Luigi Pistilli (who also played a priest in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). This film is not to be mistaken with The Sexorcist (1974) directed by Ray Dennis Steckler, who also made the immortal The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966). Steckler’s film was more or less a straight soft-core porn film with wrap-around plot involving a reporter investigating a sex-crazed Satanist cult who have possessed the body of her best friend.
A little late into the game, Andrea Bianchi’s Malabimba (1979), is essentially a nunsploitation flick that finds a teenage girl becoming possessed by her dead prostitute mother. Soon she is doing the diabolical dirty deed with her paralysed uncle, her grandfather, her middle aged nun guardian and even her own teddy bear! This one really is for completists only. Bianchi also directed the highly regarded giallo Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975) and zombie film Burial Ground (1981). The year after that he returned to the exorcism movie with Satan’s Baby Doll (1982).
Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1974) suffered the indignity of having extra scenes filmed so that the producers could ride the wave of pea soup and release the film in the States as House of Exorcism. More recently it has been restored to its original cut, much to the relief of Bava fans. House of Exorcism is considered a travesty of the original so the less said about it the better.
Spain, also a Roman Catholic country, made its fair share of exorcism movies in the 1970s. The best one is probably La Endemionada (1976), a film by Amando de Ossorio who is best known for his Blind Dead series of zombie films. La Endemionada, called also Demon Witch Child, is about an old witch who dies while in custody of the police, and to exact revenge her spirit possesses the police commissioner’s daughter. La Endemionada wins the prize for earliest levitation scene in an exorcism movie. As soon as the old hag enters the girl’s body she is floating up to her bedroom ceiling – even though there is no one else there to witness it. One of the nastiest exorcism flicks, La Endemionada features a castration by the possessed girl of her nanny’s boyfriend for no particular reason, and to make matters worse the girl sends the castrated testicles to her nanny gift-wrapped. Most of the above mentioned films include scenes of genital brutality but none quite this extreme!
La Endemionada shares an identical scene with Exorcismo (1975) when, the morning after the initial possession, the aforementioned nanny enters the room of the possessed girl carrying a breakfast tray which ends up being flung across the room by Satan as a first act of demonic wickedness! Evidently Satan does not like early morning wake up calls. Really the only thing notable about Exorcismo (apart from the fact that, confusingly, it shares the same title as a non-exorcism film made by Jess Franco the year before) is that the exorcism’s performed by Paul Naschy – Spain’s undisputed king of horror. Naturally he must fend off the girl’s lewd advances first. Set in Bristol, bizarrely enough.
Paul Naschy in Exorcismo, 1975
Finally from Spain is The Devil’s Exorcist (1975), original title El Juego Del Diabolo. Directed by Jorge Darnell, this tells the tale of Teresita, (played by Inma DeSantis), the daughter of a rich couple whose arrival at college coincides with her possession (like Emily Rose) after seeing visions of menacing men dressed in black and arms coming out of the wall to grab her. Somebody call el exorcista! De Santis went on to a notable career in Spanish exploitation (including a role in Eloy (Cannibal Man) Iglesias’ notorious Forbidden Love Game, 1975) before dying in a car crash in 1989 at the age of 30.
Germany produced Magdalena, Possessed by The Devil (1976) - a particularly sleazy Exorcist rip off. Magdalena is an orphan in a boarding school for girls who is raped and possessed by a demon who previously occupied the body of a Satanist. Pretty soon she is tearing her nightdress off and playing it lewd with everyone in sight. It was directed by Walter Boos, previously known for his soft porn school girl sex films, which pretty much sums up the level of Magdalena!
While 1970s exorcism movies in Europe increasingly catered to a sleaze-pit audience, back in the States, following The Exorcist, references to demonic possession started to find their way into mainstream culture. Fans of Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan may recall his medical drama, Rafferty, about a retired army medic (McGoohan) returning to civilian life. In a 1977 episode called The Will to Live, McGoohan is enlisted to help a wild boy who has been kept locked up by his parents who think he is possessed. Ever the social commentator, McGoohan uses this theme to comment on how easily people are influenced by films like The Exorcist. With cases of ‘satanic’ child abuse often in the news it does give pause for thought. The Will to Live shows the boy to be suffering from epilepsy, ill-treated by his mother and father because of their superstitious beliefs.
Franco Zefferelli’s TV mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth (1977), featured history’s first ever exorcism, as Christ (Robert Powell) casts out the demons from a possessed man. Although based on the gospels, the scene carried an extra frisson for horror fans coming as it did only a few years after The Exorcist.
Jesus of Nazareth, 1977
There were also a couple of notable made-for-television movies with Exorcist overtones. The Possessed (1977) features James Farentino as a born-again priest sent by God to an all-girls school where fires are being started seemingly by siblings Claudette Nevins and Joan Hackett. The cast includes P.J Soles (Carrie, 1976, Halloween, 1978) and a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford as the kind of teacher girls in an all-girls school dream about. The film is memorable for a scene in which the possessed student pukes nails at the priest (presumably flunking woodwork in the process).
No one who caught Satan’s Triangle on television back in 1975 will have forgotten this creepy little gem of a horror film. Doug (The Land That Time Forgot) McClure plays a coast guard helicopter pilot sent to rescue the female survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself trapped with the devil in a mysterious part of the ocean known as Satan’s Triangle. The film has a chilling once-seen-never-forgotten twist ending that people still talk about to this day on IMDb.
Exorcist-fever was still high in 1977, so Warner Brothers decided it was time to produce an official sequel. John Boorman, a British auteur who had made some important films like Point Blank (1967) Hell in The Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974) was hired to shoot it. His long-held, unrealised dream was to film The Lord of The Rings, but no financiers were interested in Tolkien until Peter Jackson came along. Boorman had turned down The Exorcist in 1973 (along with many other directors, including Stanley Kubrick) but relented when offered the sequel, sensing an opportunity to bring his trademark sense of mythic adventure to the project. Boorman is quoted as saying: ‘filmmaking is inventing impossible problems for yourself and then failing to solve them.’ Unfortunately those words became all too true in the case of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
There are too many problems with The Exorcist II: The Heretic to go into in detail here. Suffice it to say that on paper it must have looked like a sure fire winner: sequel to blockbusting original, major stars, top director – what could go wrong? The film is really trying to tell two stories: the first is a sort of prequel – charting Father Merrin’s first encounter with the demon Pazuzu in Africa (the basic story that Exorcist: The Beginning would take up 17 years later). Max von Sydow returned to the role and his scenes are memorable. However they represent only a fraction of the film’s running time. The rest of the film concerns Regan - now four years older and again battling Pazuzu who still lurks within her. Richard Burton is the priest investigating Merrin’s death who eventually ends up confronting Pazuzu.
Looking at the film’s production history, it seemed beset by problems from the very start. Ellen Burstyn refused to reprise her role as Regan’s mother, and her presence (which in many ways anchored the first film) is sorely missed. The first draft script called for Father Dyer from the original to take up the reigns of the investigation, but after Richard Burton was cast, the role was completely rewritten. According to Linda Blair the original script of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (by William Goodhart) was "really good at first", but after it had been rewritten by Boorman and Rosco Pallenberg, it became a ‘different movie’.
Unfortunately the movie it became received such a bad response from preview audiences that Boorman was forced to make even more changes in a bid to save the film. The final product still contains more than a few unintentional laughs, and suffers from the kind of whimsical silliness that underlies some of Boorman’s other films. It remains one of the most despised sequels in the history of the movies. Perhaps Boorman’s ultimate mistake was failing to give the audience what they wanted – which was more of the same.
Richard Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic
Amityville II: The Possession (1982) on the other hand was greeted as a superior sequel to The Amityville Horror (1979). In fact, Amityville II owes as much to The Exorcist as it does to the true story on which it is based. The Montelli family move into the Amityville house, and soon the eldest son, Sonny (Jack Magner) begins to feel the influence of evil (which speaks to him through his Sony Walkman). In one of the most effective possession scenes ever filmed, the demon literally forces itself into the hitherto decent Sonny (in a spectacular use of then state of the art bladder effects). Thereafter he seduces his own sister (Diane Franklin) before rampaging through the house with a shotgun.
For the first hour or so, Amityville II: The Possession is a masterpiece of suspense. Director Damiano Damiani (who also made a film in 1974 called The Tempter, which is not to be confused with Alberto de Martino’s film of the same name. Confused?) and cinematographer Franco DiGiacomo crank up the tension using a prowling subjective camera to portray the evil that lurks within the Amityville house, ready to destroy this all-American family.
Tommy Lee Wallace’s script deftly depicts the growing tensions of the Montellis – especially between Sonny and his overbearing father (played by Rocky’s Burt Young), and the underlying sexual tension between Sonny and his sister, Patricia. The evil in the Amityville house plays on these family tensions, compelling Sonny to corrupt his sister and destroy his parents.
Amityville II: The Possession loses its way in the second half, after Sonny is completely taken over by the demon, and rapidly sinks into Exorcist clichés as the family priest (played by James Olson) attempts to exorcise Sonny. Still, at the time, Amityville II: The Possession was probably the best film of its type since The Exorcist.
Amityville 2: The Possession, 1982
The 1980s was actually a pretty lean decade for exorcism movies. Apart from Amityville II: The Possession, there was The Unholy (1988), starring Ben Cross as a priest investigating the murders of priests by a demon in New Orleans, but besides that not much was going on in the head-spinning and levitation department. Then William Peter Blatty himself took to the director’s chair in 1990 for The Exorcist 3.
Based on Blatty’s novel, Legion, The Exorcist 3 was basically a theological thriller. Lt. Kinderman, from The Exorcist, investigates a series of murders in Georgetown that bear the hallmark of a serial killer called The Gemini, who died fifteen years earlier. His investigations lead him to Patient X, an inmate at the Georgetown Mental Hospital, who was admitted fifteen years ago. Kinderman starts to think he is losing his mind, as the patient appears to be none other than Father Karras (Jason Miller) who also died fifteen years before after exorcising Regan McNeil…
The Exorcist 3 has its fair share of admirers, and for good reason. It is tight, tense and intriguing, with astonishing performances by George C. Scott as Kinderman and Brad Dourif as the Gemini. It is also a strange, off-beat film, complete with dream sequences and an on-going discussion about the nature of evil delivered by Kinderman in a series of amusing dialogue scenes between him and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders). Blatty films a couple of great suspense sequences, including an excellent one in the mental hospital where the murderer is on the prowl.
This, however, wasn’t enough for the producers, who forced Blatty into filming an exorcism scene for the ending. Unfortunately it doesn’t really fit. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t spoil the film and there is much in The Exorcist 3 to enjoy (for many it remains the best sequel).
Jason Miller in The Exorcist 3, 1990
The same can’t be said of Repossessed. Bob Logan wrote and directed this heavy-handed parody in 1990 when interest in the franchise was high thanks to the production of The Exorcist 3. Leslie Nielsen plays Father Jebedaiah Mayii, who is called out of retirement to re-exorcise the re-possessed Linda Blair on live daytime television. The film aims to spoof both The Exorcist and American television evangelists. To be fair, it does have its moments, such as the ‘Certificate of Demonic Possession’ that Blair presents to the young priest, Father Brophy, as proof of having been possessed (it is simply signed, ‘The Pope’) and it is nice to see Blair enjoying herself in the role considering her life was blighted by scandal in the 1970s. However, at the time of release it flopped with audiences and critics alike.
The exorcism film again lay dormant for most of the 1990s until the 25th Anniversary re-release of the original The Exorcist in 1998. Although it did not cause Exorcist-fever the way it had in 1974, it still made for a helluva ride, especially for British audiences who had not been able to see the film on video due to a ban by the BBFC since 1984. The retirement of long time censor, James Ferman, made possible the certification of The Exorcist for home entertainment, and a DVD release shortly afterwards introduced the film to a whole new generation who had only heard about it but never seen it.
The success of the re-release encouraged Warner Brothers to okay a special edition of the film, The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (2000). This was not the director’s cut but rather the producer’s. For years Blatty had harboured misgivings about the version of The Exorcist that had been released in 1974. Following preview screenings, Friedkin had cut certain scenes that Blatty had thought key, including the novel’s ending, which saw Father Dyer and Lt. Kinderman strolling off together at “the start of a beautiful friendship”. Friedkin had ended the scene abruptly, with Dyer standing atop the iconic Georgetown steps in mourning for Father Karras. Blatty was troubled by the interpretation of many audience members who thought that the evil spirit had not been vanquished. “It always bothered me that people thought the Devil had won”, Blatty lamented.
For the new version, Friedkin agreed to re-instate the full ending together with several other minor scenes that Blatty had liked in the rough cut in 1974 and wanted put back in. One of these scenes is the infamous ‘spiderwalk’, a startling moment quite early in the film where Regan descends the staircase forming a backward arch on her hands and knees. In the novel, the scene works because the extraordinary physical nature of the spiderwalk is left to the reader’s imagination. Its inclusion in the film divided audiences, however. Sure, it’s a striking moment but does it fit in the film?
The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, 2000
The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen did pretty good business in cinemas and on DVD and Warner Brothers started planning another sequel. Meanwhile, in 1999 Rupert Wainwright directed big budget Exorcist-rip Stigmata, starring Patricia Arquette as a Pittsburgh hairdresser who becomes afflicted by stigmata (Christ’s wounds) after being given a rosary that once belonged to a priest who suffered the same affliction. Gabriel Byrne played the priest sent by the Vatican to investigate. He bears witness to Arquette’s transformation into the spirit of the dead priest who, it turns out, was excommunicated for translating a newly found gospel that could signal the demise of the Catholic Church! Despite the convoluted plot, audiences went for Stigmata, which, of course, featured the requisite levitation, and it was a box office hit, further fuelling a new demand for exorcism movies.
Also in 2000 Steven De Souza directed Possessed, a TV movie based on the recently published book by Thomas B. Allen which recounted the true life exorcism of Robbie Mannheim – the case that had in fact inspired Blatty to write The Exorcist back in 1970.
The priest who performed the exorcism in 1949, Father William Bowdern, is played by ex-Bond Timothy Dalton. Allen’s book is based on a fabled diary kept by another priest who was present at the exorcism in St. Louis. Blatty is said to have read the diary as he was writing his novel. This perhaps makes Possessed the closest adaptation to the actual case yet filmed. And for a TV movie it’s not bad. The boy, Robbie, is suitably foul mouthed, and at one stage urinates on the priests performing the rite. De Souza interestingly references the wider social and political evils that were taken place in the world at the time. The film opens with Bowdern as a combat medic witnessing the horrors of World War 2. He returns traumatised and an alcoholic. These are the horrors he must face down alongside the exorcism. De Souza also uses the cold war as a backdrop to the story. An early scene shows Robbie in class watching Duck and Cover (1952) an instructional film shown to school children telling them what to do in the event of an atomic attack. The civil rights struggles are also referenced as Bowdern angrily confronts white racists attacking black students outside the university where he teaches. Although De Souza never labours the point, the idea of possession as a symptom of national hysteria begins to seep into the story – an idea that later exorcism films like The Last Exorcism (2010) and Requiem (2006) would further explore.
Timothy Dalton in Possessed, 2000
Writer-Director, Paul Schrader had once described The Exorcist as “the single most powerful metaphor in the history of cinema”. It was fitting, then, that Warner Brothers would hire him for the next Exorcist sequel, Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist (2005). Schrader, like Blatty, had a theological background (although Schrader was a Calvinist) and had long admired directors with a ‘transcendental style’, such as Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. He had also made Cat People (1982), a graphic remake of the Val Lewton classic.
Stellan Skarsgard played Father Merrin, as a young priest facing true evil in Africa for the first time in the wake of World War 2. He discovers a young boy who begins to exhibit signs of possession. In the process of treating him, Merrin finds his true faith. The film that Schrader made of this basic story was typically psychological. And not what Warner Brothers wanted (didn’t they read the script?). After seeing his finished cut they fired Schrader and brought in Renny Harlin to reshoot the film using many of the same actors (including Skarsgard) and much of the same script but just with more – y’ know, Exorcist-type stuff.
Screenwriter Alexi Hawley was brought in to rewrite William Wisher and Caleb Carr’s script, taking the focus off Merrin’s spiritual struggle and emphasising the horror and the scares. Schrader’s version was shelved, and the Renny Harlin version appeared as The Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) to scathing reviews and poor box office. Meanwhile, in one of the most intriguing examples of Hollywood politics ever, Schrader’s version was finally given the go ahead for release a year later, following Schrader’s tirelessly working fan-based websites to create a rumour mill behind his film. Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist (2005) enjoyed better notices and made more money. William Peter Blatty supported Schrader in the campaign to get the film released, calling it a “handsome, classy, elegant piece of work”. Blatty had, on the other hand, described watching Exorcist: The Beginning as “his most humiliating professional experience”!
Exorcist: The Beginning, 2004
If Blatty objected to Harlin’s comic book, CGI-approach to demonic possession he probably wouldn’t have liked Constantine (2005) much either. Based on Vertigo Comics’ Hellblazer, it starred Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, as a cynical spiritualist-cum-cop-cum-exorcist, able to root out half-demons and half-angels and send them straight back to where they came from. Filled with action sequences, as one would expect in a Keanu Reeves movie, and lots of Exorcist-type hokum, it was enjoyable if not exactly satisfying sub-Exorcist fodder. Director Francis Lawrence went on to remake Richard Matheson’s classic vampire-apocalypse tale, I am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. Critics called Constantine ‘about as silly as fantasies get’.
After the Harlin/Schrader debacle, Warner Brother seemed content to leave the Exorcist franchise alone. Constantine had turned the subgenre into a comic strip action movie. By 2005, it seemed like the exorcism movie had finally run its course and met a demise of parody, spoof and pastiche. However, another true story was to inject some much needed gravitas back into the subject and inspire three powerful films that would reignite audience’s interest in demonic possession.
Anneliese Michel was a German Catholic woman said to be possessed by demons. In 1976, she underwent an exorcism that led to her death from malnutrition at the age of 24. The case has subsequently been labelled one of misdiagnosis, mental illness, medical negligence, abuse and religious hysteria. Anneliese’s story went on to inspire three films.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) tells its story through the device of a courtroom drama (based loosely on the trial that followed Anneliese Michel’s death) in which the priest who exorcised Emily Rose (played by Tom Wilkinson) stands accused of manslaughter. Laura Linney plays the hot shot lawyer who has to prove that possession is a possibility in order to get Wilkinson acquitted. It received mixed reviews but audiences loved it. Emily Rose’s possession and her subsequent exorcism are told in flashback – and to be sure, it’s pure exorcism movie stuff. Emily Rose (played by Jennifer Carpenter) is tormented by invisible forces, horrific visions and bodily contortions. However, the flashback structure tells these events from Emily Rose’s point of view raising the question – is she really possessed or mentally ill? This was a new twist to the exorcism movie back in 2005. The name cast and ‘true story’ credentials gave The Exorcism of Emily Rose a respectability that set it apart from the slew of exorcism movies, helped by the wrap-around device of the court room sequences which gave it the air of serious drama. What the film is actually putting on trial is the belief in demonic possession, does it exist or does it not? The film’s answer – shared, I suspect, by most of the audience - is a resounding yes. The Exorcism of Emily Rose became a hit, taking $75 million in domestic box office and $69 million worldwide, making exorcism movies bankable again.
Jennifer Carpenter in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005
Requiem (2006) was an entirely different matter, earning critical kudos for its realistic portrayal of a young college girl’s plight when her epilepsy is misidentified as demonic possession by herself and the members of her church. The film stars Sandra Huller as Michaela, whose strict religious upbringing causes her to believe she is possessed, while others around her either share her belief in the need for exorcism (her mother for example) or try to persuade her to seek psychiatric help. The film stays clear of the usual exorcism movie tricks, instead presenting a documentary style account of Michaela’s attempt to lead a normal life while trapped in a limbo between mental illness and her belief that she is possessed. The film went on to win many awards including the Silver Bear at the 56th Berlin Film Festival for Sandra Huller’s performance as the afflicted Michaela.
Sandra Huller in Requiem, 2006
Low budget rip-off merchants The Global Asylum released a ‘documentary’ of the Anneliese Michel story in 2011. Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes purported to include actual footage from the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, but the bogus nature of this documentary is apparent in its alternative title Paranormal Entity 3: The Exorcist Tapes. Is there no shame in this world? Given the success of Blair Witch Project, it was no surprise that someone would eventually apply the ‘found footage’ approach to an exorcism movie, however. Luckily, Eli Roth produced one that was eons better than the wretched Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes.
The Last Exorcism (2010) directed by Daniel Stamm, told the story of a disillusioned evangelical minister, Cotton (Patrick Fabian), who is forced to reassess his conviction that most instances of demonic possession are fake when he is called to the aid of Nell (Ashley Bell), a farmer’s daughter, who appears to be a genuine case.
The Last Exorcism tried to achieve the same level of ambiguity as The Exorcism of Emily Rose but also attempted a Requiem-style discourse on the ‘possession’ phenomenon itself as a social evil. Cotton suspects that Nell, who is pregnant, has been sexually abused by her father, who tries to mask his guilt by claiming Nell is possessed. The film plays on this ambiguity for the most part – until the ending, which some found a bit of a cop out. Overall though, The Last Exorcism was well received by critics and audiences – and made a bundle at the box office. It also featured a disturbing poster campaign that caused controversy in the UK. The original poster depicting a girl bent over backwards in a ‘possession bow’ met with complaints and was promptly banned from display in public places.
Ashley Bell in The Last Exorcism, 2010
If exorcism movies took a step forward with Emily Rose, Requiem and The Last Exorcism, they took a step backwards with The Rite (2011). This time Anthony Hopkins plays the Merrin-like priest, Father Lucas, who takes seminary student Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) under his wing to demonstrate the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism on a young woman whom he believes to be possessed. Based on Matt Baglio’s book The Making of a Modern Day Exorcist, which charted Baglio’s real life spiritual journey from sceptic to believer, The Rite starts quite well. Michael enters the seminary as an escape from job as a mortician working with his father (played by Rutger Hauer). He sees it as a free education and plans to abdicate as soon as he gets his degree. However it’s only when he accepts a scholarship to Rome to attend a class on exorcism that his education really begins. Unfortunately, The Rite quickly falls into cliché, especially in its depiction of possession (like in the Harrison Ford flick, The Possessed, the woman has a habit of spitting nails). Eventually it ditches the spiritual subtext in favour of risible plot development as Anthony Hopkins himself becomes possessed and Michael is called to deliver the exorcism, forcing him to find his faith in the process.
The problem with The Rite is that it fails to convince us that possession might be a real phenomenon, precisely because it ends up relying on the usual exorcism movie clichés, disposing with ambiguity (and subtlety) along the way.
As for The Devil Inside (2012), the reviews have been mixed. Directed by William Brent Bell who made computer game survival horror Stay Alive (2006), The Devil Inside is another film in the quasi-documentary ‘found footage’ style. The story is about a filmmaker who is documenting a series of exorcisms during her quest to find out what happened to her mother, a woman who murdered three people as a result of being possessed by a demon. The Devil Inside topped the US box office on its opening weekend – an indication that the demand for exorcism movies shows no sign of slowing. With The Last Exorcism 2 and The Possession in the pipeline, 2012 could well turn out to be the biggest year for exorcism movies since Blatty’s original set the trend in the 1970s.
So what of exorcism movies past 2012? Can films featuring demonic possession continue to break new ground? Will they continue to appeal? Or is the subgenre destined to sink into self-parody the way it has in the past? Recent films like Emily Rose, Requiem and The Last Exorcism have shown the phenomenon of possession is itself rich with ambiguity. Is it a form of mental illness? Or genuine evidence of supernatural forces at work? These three films, like The Exorcist, have intelligently explored these ideas whilst still providing audiences with what they want – a good old fashioned scare. And they have also shown that the social evils associated with possession – religious hysteria, family abuse, medical negligence – can provide exorcism movies with a serious subtext to explore, just as Blatty showed that issues of faith could provide the basis for a gripping tale in his original The Exorcist. If more films can be made like these then I suspect exorcist movies will continue to find audiences and stay popular with the critics.
Despite the clichés that have become associated with exorcism movies, the notion of demonic possession continues to fascinate us, as it has done for centuries: it is one of the great mysteries, one of the great unknowns. For that reason, if for no other, there is always bound to be demand for exorcism movies – and that’s enough to turn any Hollywood executive’s head around.