Franchise Corner Entry: THE EXORCIST
THE EXORCIST ***** USA 1973 121 mins Dir: William Friedkin.
Three key American horror films of the 1970’s have recently turned “40” and, like JAWS and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE EXORCIST remains unmatched in many ways. Adapting William Peter Blatty’s wrenching novel, William Friedkin visually shifts between the light and the dark, between lengthy passages of near-silence and outright aural assaults. Friedkin offers an authentically depressing depiction of a modern U.S. city and a credibly broken contemporary family, where initially old-school suggestions of a haunting (noises in the attic, the line “my bed was shaking”) become ever more disturbing.
The movie may be remembered for “Tubular Bells”, but music is notably sparse throughout and so much of the film’s impact stems from the performances: Ellen Burstyn (full of strength and conviction) and Linda Blair (an unusually naturalistic child actor) have an unforced intimacy on screen, and few horror film characters are as heart-breaking. The slow-burn first hour offers nightmarish, non-supernatural moments of an uncomfortably mundane nature, from the wailing lost souls lurking in the care home where Father Karras’ mother spends her last days to the harrowing portrayal of modern medicine’s invasive, ineffectual way of dealing with an extremely sick child. Close-ups of syringes and Blair’s pain-encumbered face during an ultimately redundant spinal tap precede the film’s first actual “horror” scene : the initial confirmation of Blair’s possession is conveyed via intense screams, jarring noise, profanity…and immediately followed by silent reflection (It’s easy to forget how quiet much of the film is). Everything that made THE EXORCIST notorious in 1973 still upsets, and Freidkin’s command of the mechanics of suspense still make you dread what awaits us at the top of those stairs, even when we know exactly what’s coming. Without all of this, THE EXORCIST would still be seared into your consciousness for the many extraordinary images alone, none more so than the Magritte-inspired shot of a silhouetted Max Von Sydow making his unforgettably eerie arrival at that cursed Georgetown house.
THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC ** USA 1977 112 mins Dir: John Boorman.
Now a budding dancer taken under the wing of shrink Louise Fletcher and suppressing memories of her Georgetown trauma, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is roped into a series of mind-transference sessions with Priest Richard Burton. In his investigations of Father Merrin’s death, Burton believes the demon Pazuzu still lies dormant within her and traces its origins to a locust-worshipping cult in Africa overseen by James Earl Jones. This widely unloved follow-up to the biggest horror film of all time is one of the oddest Hollywood movies of the 70’s and the strangest major studio sequel to a hit property on record. Almost entirely lacking the physical horror of its predecessor and uninterested in the overt shock effects of the blockbuster genre films of its period (CARRIE, THE OMEN), part two brings back notable players from the first film in virtually irrelevant roles and favours dialogue over incident. It’s bemusing, pretentious and not even really a horror movie – except by association – but its curiosity value has oddly helped it to endure more than most conventionally “good” sequels. Beautifully shot by William A Fraker with one of Ennio Morricone’s most haunting music scores, it is a simultaneously alienating and fascinating flick to watch…particularly with that cast.
THE EXORCIST III **** USA 1990 105 mins. Dir: William Peter Blatty.
Given the response to THE HERETIC, Warner Bros. were at pains to promote the belated third movie as a direct sequel to the Friedkin hit, enforcing the return of Jason Miller as Karras, the inclusion of “Tubular Bells” and a notably awkward exorcism climax. Here, a typically excellent George C Scott takes over from Lee J Cobb as Lt Kinderman, investigating a series of off-camera murders in the mould of the long-dead “Gemini Killer”, and writer-director Blatty’s origins in comedy are readily apparent in Scott’s delightful banter with old buddy Father Dyer (now played by Ed Flanders). THE EXORCIST III needs these moments of mirth and warmth (alongside a surreal dream sequence featuring Samuel L Jackson and angels playing trombones) because most of the time it is oppressively sinister and genuinely scary. Avoiding the shock visual tatics of the Friedkin movie, Blatty, adapting his novel “Legion”, opts for deliberate pacing and implied violence, while his lengthy dialogue exchanges between Kinderman and Patient X (Miller) / Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), foreshadow the similarly theatrical Lecter –Starling scenes a year later in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Sadly, the studio-ordered finale – all Hellish imagery, melodrama and skin-tearing gore – is horribly at odds with what has gone before…but all is forgiven since, along the way, Blatty has crafted two of the greatest movie scares of modern horror. One is an agonisingly prolonged master-class in sustained suspense in a solitary hospital corridor; the other an extraordinary jolt involving Viveca Lindfors as a silent but terrifying possessed nurse who inveigles her way into Scott’s home.
THE EXORCIST THE BEGINNING *** USA 2004 114 mins Dir: Renny Harlin.
None of THE EXORCIST movies had a smooth journey to the big screen, but the fourth entry was the most tortured of them all. John Frankenheimer died before his planned version (with Liam Neeson) could go into production, composer Michael Kamen died after writing a score that was never used, and Paul Schrader’s cerebral take on the prequel was deemed to be uncommercial and unscary, resulting in the employment of Renny Harlin to reshoot 90% of the movie. THE BEGINNING is a fascinating mess of senseless plot twists, shoddy scripting and graphic gore that probably turned off the mainstream audience.Subtlety not only left the building, it went to Vegas, married a lap dancer called Darlene and dressed as Dolly Parton for the ceremony. It has Stellan Skarsgard as a young Father Merrin who finds that the British excavation of a 5th century Christian church has awoken an ancient evil, leading to the possession of a pre-pubescent boy. At a time when Hollywood was more inclined toward mall-friendly PG-13 supernatural horror, Harlin deserves credit for revelling in pus, gore and naughty language, and he even pulls off some arresting images of physical horror: a stillborn baby covered in maggots, a mental patient carving a Swastika into his chest and some grim child-murdering Nazi Germany flashbacks. Despite some cursory visual and verbal quotes from Friedkin’s original, the movie keeps borrowing elements from other franchises (including the flies from THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the ravens from OMEN II) and relies heavily on clichéd shock effects and false scares. It’s never dull, thanks to a barrage of sandstorms, battle sequences and Izabella Scorupco hilariously blaspheming about arse-fucking, but it’s also prone to embarrassing detours, including Alan Ford’s overacting as a lecherous, diseased Cockney loon and some crappily animated CGI hyenas that would have been laughed off the screen even in 1992.
DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST *** USA 2004 117 mins Dir: Paul Schrader.
Probably inspired by the critical ennui that greeted the bombastic THE BEGINNING, Warner Bros ultimately released the original prequel that was shot, almost completed and then dumped for not being scary enough. The basic plotline and certain imagery exist in both versions, but Schrader’s cut attempts a subdued, unusual slant on the possession theme, opting for a slow-burning sense of unease rather than the in your face shocks of the Harlin version. Stellan Skarsgard is excellent, admirably dedicated in both versions, here facing the gradual impact of evil on a stricken mute boy (Billy Crawford) described as “one of God’s afflicted”. The central conceit of possession healing an afflicted person’s body as opposed to destroying it as in THE EXORCIST presents a fascinating twist on now-familiar themes, though the movie’s measured approach (much like Blatty’s take on THE EXORCIST III) is hampered by a climax that merely retreads old EXORCIST territory: Crawford develops glowing red eyes, a malevolent Devil voice and levitates as he taunts Father Merrin. Although these scenes are lower key than any of the horror in Harlin’s film, they face a similar risk of appearing simply absurd after years of EXORCIST parodies and clones. Assisted by an evocative Angelo Badalamenti score, Schrader’s film captures a quietly eerie ambience though its attempt at a serious meditation on good and evil is too often weakened by goofy visuals, notably the appearance of the shitty CGI hyenas from Harlin’s version, here accompanied by an equally shite CGI cow!!