Exorcism movies have gone on and off trend, just like ghost movies, vampire moves and zombie movies. There are several films which bear the Exorcist name and are loosely aligned with the original classic. However, the grim truth is that some of these sequels and (shudder) prequels are pretty dire. Especially if they feature Stellan Saarsgard. As far as I can tell, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) are exactly the same film, just re-worked and re-released.
At the start of the Psychoville: Halloween special (I cannot recommend this series enough, people!) Mr Jelly is settling himself down for an evening of beans on toast, movies and more. When trying to work out what time to ask his phone-order companion for the night to pay him a visit he explains to her, “…I was gonna watch Exorcist I, Exorcist III… don’t bother with Exorcist II, it’s sh*t…” I would agree with Mr Jelly’s summary.
There is a definitive Exorcist trilogy, and as far as I’m concerned, these are the three films based on William Peter Blatty’s three ‘faith’ novels; dealing with the questioning and finally cementing of the writer’s religious faith, who was raised a devout Catholic by his mother and received Jesuit schooling.
The Exorcist (1973) is a great film. Weirdly, I don’t find it particularly scary, possibly because I don’t have any children and I’m not super sensitive to blasphemy or scenes of extreme parental licking, but the power of Father Karras is what truly compels me. The late, great, Jason Miller’s performance as a cross between Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion and Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark and is massively touching. He manages to convey more, face-down on a street corner with the movements of his fingers in the final scene than a lot of actors ever manage to do in their entire careers. The whole film is, for me, essentially a heart-warming tale about a priest and his faith, but then so is Blatty’s novel. Whatever your views, religious or otherwise, watching Karras as his personal convictions are tested to breaking point is an engaging story.
The second of Blatty’s ‘faith’ novels is The Ninth Configuration (1980). Blatty’s 1978 book is a revised version of the earlier title Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, published in 1966.
This is the film in which Blatty’s fondness for comical dialogue is more apparent; if you find the exchange of seemingly random non-sequiturs between mental patients amusing, then this film will tickle you! The most interesting aspect of The Ninth Configuration is that Blatty has taken the ‘lunatics are taking over the asylum’ notion and run with it. A small gaggle of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress are permitted to run wild, enacting whatever fantasises they wish as part of their treatment. Cue Jason Miller once more, only now he is playing Lieutenant Reno, whose current anxieties revolve around trying to cast the all-dog production of Hamlet. He’s concerned about being accused of stereotyping if he casts a Great Dane to play the lead.
The ‘faith’ aspect of this film comes from the lead character, Captain Cutshaw, played by Scott Wilson. At one time an astronaut, he baulked on the launch pad and refused to be shot into space. Through his conversations with the institution’s new doctor, Cartwright explores his fears of dying in space and the loneliness involved if there were no God up there to keep him company. The film’s conclusion riffs on Blatty’s own faith affirming experiences regarding his mother’s St Christopher medallion, something that is also explored in the imagery of The Exorcist. I’m afraid there aren’t any exorcisms at all in this one.
The third and final instalment of the trilogy is Legion, filmed as (confusingly) The Exorcist III (1990). Although there is a very surreal and obviously crow-barred-in exorcism scene in the finale (the novel contains precisely zero exorcisms), it is a highly watchable film and well worth it to see how it offers another outing for the presumed deceased Father Karras (Miller reprises his role), poor old tortured soul that he is. Scott Wilson from The Ninth Configuration also appears in this film, this time as the rather unbalanced Dr Temple. There are also elements of the lighter elements as seen in The Ninth Configuration; Lietenant Kinderman and Father Dyer have become firm friends and it’s touching to watch the relationship between the two of them; even if they are both portrayed by different actors. The ‘carp in the bathtub’ speech, lifted closely from the Legion novel, is a particularly surreal but amusing moment, “I can’t go home until the carp is asleep because if I see it swimming, I’ll kill it.”
The most notable performance in this film, however, comes from Brad Dourif, playing very much to angsty tear-streaked type. It is difficult to find another example of anyone so clearly relishing the evilness of their character set-pieces. The Gemini Killer’s complexity is hacked away somewhat in the film and the sound team don’t seem to be able to resist fiddling with their assortment of knobs as Dourif’s speeches take their its darker turns, but the monologues themselves are both simultaneously chilling and lots of fun. In its film incarnation, the story becomes less about faith than fear; it’s a bit sillier and a bit stupider than the novel, but it’s still enjoyable.
In conclusion, you should watch the first and third Exorcist films and totally ignore the second. What you should do, in fact, is watch The Ninth Configuration in place of Exorcist II. When watched together, the films feel more like natural sequels, particularly The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III, which are both directed by Blatty himself. With either a few of the same cast members or reoccurring characters in each, as well as overarching, big theological questions about faith and our perception of life as we know it, these films start to feel like part of a cohesive trilogy. There are also several reoccurring motifs which you will notice as you go. According to Blatty, the first story of the trilogy simply raises questions of good and evil, the second attempts to address these questions and the third asks why mankind seems to have chosen the path of evil. Heavy stuff, but well worth the effort.