So much has been written about The Exorcist and its sequels/prequels that most STARBURST readers will probably be intimately familiar with how the series plays out. The Exorcist, in our opinion, is still a masterpiece, as intense and unsettling as the first time we watched it many years ago. True, familiarity has dulled the terror, but Friedkin’s film still scares on a primal philosophical level. And maybe, with stories of supposed ‘real life’ possession appearing more frequently on TV shows and in magazines, the message The Exorcist sends is still pertinent; that we shouldn’t discount the possibility there are entities out there, floating in the ether, hungry for the opportunity to pounce and hijack our bodies and souls. Maybe there’s much more to The Exorcist than we’d like to recognise. That is why the original film still has the power to keep us awake at night.
But for all the resonance The Exorcist continues to hold, the films that followed it pale by comparison. Exorcist II: The Heretic, condemned as an artistic and critical failure from the moment of its release, remains an ungodly mess but, as the years have passed, it’s become less of a train-wreck and more a puzzling miscalculation. Heretic’s director, John Boorman, apparently hated Friedkin’s movie so much that he wanted to take things in another direction, and the central ideas behind Exorcist II - what happens to a possessed person after they’ve been dis-possessed, and the conflict between theology and psychology - is an interesting one. There are, at the very heart of Exorcist II: The Heretic some fascinating themes waiting to be mined. It’s just a shame that Boorman and his screenwriters didn’t know how to excavate them.
Because of Exorcist II’s failure, Exorcist III arrived a long time afterwards. Based on a novel by the author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, it is more a detective story than a horror film but the film’s producers couldn’t resist corrupting Blatty’s original vision by forcing him to add a climactic exorcism scene that is both nonsensical and tedious. In terms of the series, it easily ranks second to the original, but studio interference undoubtedly reduced its power.
After Exorcist III it seemed as if the franchise had been permanently… well, exorcised… until 2000, when William Friedkin released his directors cut, The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, to a mixed reception, although it was great to see the film on the big screen again. Still, The Version You’ve Never Seen made so much money that the studio decided to move in fast and greenlight Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist with John Frankenheimer at the helm (and after 1996’s fiasco The Island of Dr. Moreau, the mind boggles to think what a Frankenheimer Exorcist would have looked like). When Frankenheimer withdrew from the production due to ill-health, Cat People’s Paul Schrader came in to replace him. Schrader, although a genius director and screenwriter in his own right, was also a problematic choice. He had made it clear way back in 1982 while working on Cat People that he wasn’t very interested in horror movies.
It’s no surprise that Dominion was a failure, a handsome looking but very dull meditation on the nature of evil with a young Father Merrin transformed into a priestly version of Indiana Jones. Dominion terrified the studio so much that they didn’t want to release it. They brought action maestro Renny Harlin on-board to save the project, rewrite the story entirely and film it using Schrader’s sets and also Dominion’s lead actor, Stellan Skarsgard, who reprised his role as Father Merrin.
The result, although not much better than Schrader’s movie, was at least more kinetic and entertaining. As expected, Harlin checked his brain in at the door and not only dumped all of Dominion’s navel-gazing philosophising (thankfully) but also its intelligence, replacing them with gore, jump scares, very loud off-camera bangs and CGI hyenas. Exorcist: The Beginning was critically savaged and barely caused a dent in the box office, but it did make people ask the question ”Just how bad could Schrader’s version actually have been?”, which prompted the studio, seeing dollar signs yet again, to finally release Dominion on a limited run. Seen side-by-side it’s curious to note that, despite being the most cerebral of the two prequels, Schrader’s version actually gives us the most unsatisfying vision of Father Merrin. It is Merrin in Harlin’s movie, who has already turned his back on religion when the film begins, that suggests this character might grow into the Merrin played by Max Von Sydow in Friedkin’s original.
Now The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology brings all six films together for the first time on Blu-ray. The collection has been available in the US for a while and despite the mixed artistic qualities of the series it’s good to finally see the anthology reach these shores albeit in pretty flimsy cardboard packaging. Although the special features are sparse (except for the Friedkin version, which seem to be a direct port from the original home video release), the picture and sound on all the films is fantastic and probably as good as we’re ever likely to see beyond a full-blown restoration of Exorcist II and III which, let’s be honest, is pretty unlikely. That’s kind of a shame really. It would be nice to one day see those films as Boorman and Blatty intended because, even in their flawed states, the passage of time has revealed they do have their merits.
Bottom line - The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology is a must-own. Get out there and grab this so fast it’ll make your head spin. Highly Recommended.
THE EXORCIST: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: ELLEN BURSTYN, MAX VON SYDOW, LINDA BLAIR, RICHARD BURTON, JASON MILLER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW