William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is not only one of the best movies of all time but also one of the best horror movies that I have ever seen. It’s one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time. In fact, it’s such a highly revered film that everything that has come after it has either been bashed to hell or has been met with highly divisive reviews because people just can’t see anything coming close to the classic. So, you can only imagine what the vibe amongst horror genre fans is like right now as The Exorcist: Believer has been released in theaters, and it’s made by the guy who has delivered the most polarizing Halloween movie. Yes, I am talking about David Gordon Green. The man is being accused of ruining childhoods by bringing back legacy characters and making a mockery of them. Some are saying that he has made an anti-abortion film. And the rest are simply disappointed that his Exorcist movie doesn’t even have a decent exorcism. However, is this the worst entry in the franchise? Has no one truly managed to match up to or surpass The Exorcist? Let’s find out.
Major Spoilers for every Exorcist movie, as well as the TV show that no one has watched.
I don’t think I’ve to go into the details of the plot or talk about why Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is so good because it has probably been watched by every soul who loves movies or casually watches movies. Those who haven’t watched it yet are probably not even going to read the article based on its title. But who knows? Maybe there’s someone out there who needs the littlest of nudges to watch it. So, for them, here’s the primer. Chris MacNeil is an actress who lives with her daughter, Regan, in Georgetown. They have several caregivers who look after the kid, and Chris ensures that she gets to spend time with her, too, despite having an erratic schedule. But that’s not enough for a child like Regan, who is in her formative years. So, she pulls up an Ouija board to talk to her imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, who happens to be a malevolent demon called Pazuzu. He latches on to Regan, thereby throwing the MacNeil household into turmoil. With no other option left, Chris turns to Father Karras, who is actually a psychiatrist who helps priests and is having a crisis of faith himself. The fact that Karras’ mother is dying, which is obviously taking a toll on the poor guy, makes Karras vulnerable to the demon’s antics. However, he empathizes with Chris’ desperation and sees that Regan needs help. Hence, he calls upon Father Merrin, who has fought the demon earlier, to conduct an exorcism.
The Exorcist isn’t a good movie just because of its third act, balls to the walls, head-rotating, jaw-dropping, bone-chilling, exorcism. It’s a good movie because of the slow-burn build-up to those concluding moments. You get to spend so much time with these characters that it starts to feel like you’ve known them your whole life. Even supporting characters like Burke Dennings, Father Joseph Dyer, and Lt. William F. Kinderman have these small moments that make them integral to the larger narrative. The conversations about faith, God, the devil, and humanity are so profound and yet relatable. And just when you’re lulled into a sense of comfort, it delivers some of the most vile and profane things that you’ve ever heard or seen, so that you are convinced that the demon is working overtime to test the mettle of the characters. On top of that, it’s an outrageously gorgeous-looking film, with beautiful editing, sets, costumes, camerawork, etc. I’ve been staring at that iconic shot where Father Merrin arrives at the MacNeil household and trying to figure out how they might have achieved that and drawing a blank. Is the light actually coming out of the window? Is the source somewhere off-screen? Is it some kind of actual sorcery? All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I understand why fans gatekeep the film and shun any attempt at mining it for nostalgia and money.
John Boorman and William Goodhart’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is widely considered to be one of the worst films of all time. Is that true? No, I don’t think so. First of all, I think it takes the story in a really interesting direction. Secondly, it looks, sounds, and feels like it was made with passion and intent. Thirdly, the exorcism scene in the final act is so insane that every other horror movie can only dream of being that good. So, the reason why I like the story is because it takes an unexpected approach to get Regan involved again. Instead of showing that she’s still haunted by Pazuzu, which she isn’t because she has completely forgotten about the ordeal from the first film, it brings her in through an investigation. Father Merrin was the guy who was tasked with curing Regan. But not only did he die on the job, but Father Karras supposedly passed away as well, thereby proving the existence of something Satanic. Father Lamont is tasked with researching the matter and debunking Merrin’s findings so as to protect the image of the church. That brings him to Regan, and his efforts to reignite her memories through a complicated process of hypnosis re-establishes her link with Pazuzu. That leads to all kinds of pandemonium, thereby testing Lamont’s already shaking sense of faith.
To be fair, the haters are right about one thing: the locusts. I mean, was that the best way to introduce Lamont to a character who can fight Pazuzu while also establishing that Pazuzu has the ability to appear as a swarm of locusts? No, maybe not. But this particular subplot leads to an interesting James Earl Jones cameo and several scenes where the frame is filled with actual locusts. No CGI. Probably a little VFX. That said, if you can see more than 2000 locusts on the screen, every single one of them is real. The fact that the makers went ahead with that plan, knowing full well that it’d lead to production woes, which it did, by the way, is impressive. That’s called commitment. Talking about the visuals, as mentioned before, it looks great. There are so many shots that boggle my mind. And then there’s that concluding stretch. Everything from the taxi crashing to the MacNeil household splitting into two halves while the stunt people keep tumbling (into somewhere safe, I hope), it’s astonishing. If my jaw was detachable, I would’ve taken it off and thrown it onto the floor to express my euphoria. So, yes, Exorcist II: The Heretic is neither the worst Exorcist movie nor one of the worst movies of all time. This is a hill that I can defend with my eyes closed and one of my hands tied behind my back.
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (yes, the writer of The Exorcist directed an Exorcist film) is even more interesting. It skips over Exorcist II‘s events. It doesn’t feature the MacNeils. There’s hardly any mention of Pazuzu. The movie is actually shaped by the relationship between Lt. William F. Kinderman and Father Joseph Dyer and a spate of horrifying serial killings. FYI, Kinderman and Dyer met each other at the very end of The Exorcist, and the third installment in the franchise claims that they’ve been good friends since then. They reminisce about Father Karras, who is presumed to be dead after taking a tumble down the now iconic steps following Regan’s exorcism. However, Kinderman’s investigation into the serial killings leads him to a psychiatric ward where a man who claims to be the Gemini Killer (a case that Kinderman had worked on) is being held captive. That man is none other than a possessed Father Karras. He is the vessel for the Gemini Killer, and the supernatural criminal leaves Karras’ body every night to unleash hell on the town and then repossesses him to feed off his soul, I guess. Kinderman gets the opportunity to rejoice at the fact that his old friend is still alive, but that feeling is immediately squashed because he has to see Karras die a second time.
I don’t want to beat around the bush. So, I’ll just say it directly: The Exorcist III is the best follow-up to The Exorcist. I will go a step further and say that it’s better than The Exorcist. Of course, The Exorcist III can’t exist without The Exorcist, and yet it does stand tall on its own two legs while being helmed by the author of the novel that started it all. Talking about the author, Blatty’s vision is unsettling, unnerving, surreal, and audacious. Every single frame in this film feels like a wild swing at the fences, which has never been done before or after. To describe the moments that he and his team craft is to diminish their magic. You simply have to see it with your eyes to believe it, and then rewind it and replay it so that you can be sure that what you’ve witnessed is real. On top of that, it has some of the best performances I have ever seen. There are a couple of long-drawn-out conversations between Scott and Dourif that are hypnotic. Until someone literally leaves the room, you don’t realize how long that scene has been going on. And, oh boy, the stuff that comes out of Dourif’s mouth will make your skin crawl. In conclusion, after watching The Exorcist III, I felt like I had found my new favorite horror movie.
It’s pointless to talk about Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist because they are one and the same, but also not exactly the same. The story goes something like this: William Wisher Jr. came up with a prequel to The Exorcist, focusing on Father Merrin and his first tryst with Pazuzu in Derati, British Kenya. John Frankenheimer was hired to direct the film, but he fell ill. Paul Schrader replaced him. When he displayed the finished product to the producers, they didn’t like it because it wasn’t scary and gory enough, as if that’s what makes a good Exorcist movie. The producers wanted to re-edit the film before releasing it, but Schrader put his foot down and didn’t allow them to do that. That’s what the kids nowadays call a “Chad Move.” Unfortunately, that “Chad Move” got Schrader fired. Renny Harlin was hired and he essentially remade the film. It was panned critically, and it bombed at the box office too. So, Schrader’s version was resurrected and given a limited release. Guess what happened to it? The film got a lot of bad reviews, and it bombed at the box office, too.
If you watch The Beginning without knowing that it’s a reworked version of someone else’s film, you’ll probably like it because it plays out like a very generic horror film. But as soon as you watch Dominion, you’ll be infuriated at the way Schrader and William’s ideas and visuals were dumbed down to achieve something so mundane. In Dominion, Merrin sees history repeating itself as the British oppress the villagers of Derati, much like the Nazis did in occupied Holland. The Beginning does the same thing, but it has no bite to it. Dominion does a decent enough job of dividing the focus between Christianity and Derati customs so that the audience can understand the demonic power of colonialism. The Beginning solely focuses on Christianity, thereby misunderstanding the crux of the narrative. It’s funny that producers thought Dominion wasn’t scary and The Beginning was scary enough, even though Dominion has a scene where a guy slaughters the kids to avoid the spreading of the Christian curse, and The Beginning has nothing that matches up to the horror of that particular moment. In addition to all that, Pazuzu is genuinely scary in Dominion, but he is pretty bland in The Beginning. So, there is no point in guessing which version of Merrin’s “origin” story is better and which one is the worst.
The Exorcist series is the most underrated and underappreciated corner of the horror genre. Jeremy Slater and his entire team struck gold with this follow-up to the William Friedkin classic, and almost no one showed up to the party. Well, I did, and let me tell you something: the show caught me off guard twice over the course of two seasons. I know that doesn’t sound like a huge number, but those twists were so good that they should be in the Hall of Fame for the best twists of all time. The first season introduces us to Father Tomas and Father Marcus, who are brought together by the possession of Angela’s daughter, Casey. It’s a brutal possession, and you are invested in the unraveling of the Rance household. To make things a bit provocative, there’s a subplot to kill the Pope. And right when you’re digesting the show’s audacity to state that every department in the United States of America is possessed by demons, you learn that Angela is actually Regan MacNeil, and the demon that’s tormenting Casey is actually Pazuzu. It’s not shocking for the sake of being shocking, and it’s not blatant fan service. The twist actually underscores the repercussions of receiving national fame for overcoming a supernatural ordeal while showing that the media hasn’t changed after four decades when it comes to sensationalizing a deeply personal and painful struggle.
After spending so much time in the public eye, Season 2 of The Exorcist goes to a literal island, untouched by technology and anything that’s synonymous with the word “modern.” It focuses on Andy Kim and the foster home that he runs. He has an amicable relationship with the kids living there, i.e., Verity, Truck, Caleb, Shelby, Grace, and the new arrival, Harper. Unlike the first season of the show and every Exorcist movie, Season 2 doesn’t initially reveal the character who needs to be exorcized. There are hints of something lurking in the woods, but that’s about it. However, halfway through the show’s running time, it drops a bombshell of information: Andy is possessed, and Grace isn’t even real. I distinctly remember that when I learned that, my stomach dropped, and I don’t think I have recovered from that revelation. I have to remind you, though, that these twists work not just because they are surprising. It’s the focus on character development and dialogue writing that makes these moments tick. The showrunners don’t use episodic storytelling to stuff the most scares into the narrative. They use it to ensure that its commentary on religion, extremism, self-doubt, belief, and mental health is as succinct and relatable as possible. In addition to that, the cast (especially Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels), the cinematography, the editing, the production design, the SFX, the VFX, and the music are all perfect.
That brings us to The Exorcist: Believer, which is essentially a rehash of the first film, but instead of one demonic possession, it features two of them. On one end, there’s Victoria and Angela Fielding, and on the other end, there’s Katherine, Miranda, Tony, and two more siblings of Katherine. Angela and Katherine are good friends, and since they do everything together, they decide to enter the woods and perform a seance to talk to the spirit of Angela’s deceased mother, Sorrene. As expected, Pazuzu responds to the call by latching onto Angela and Katherine’s souls, thereby forcing the two families to opt for an exorcism. To be honest, the first hour of the David Gordon Green film is fine. You can see that it’s trying to emulate the slow-burn storytelling of the first film. However, all that effort is overpowered by its need to be a legacy sequel and set up two more movies in the trilogy. It doesn’t have anything new to say about religion and the battle between good and evil. What it does end up saying sounds dangerously like pro-life rhetoric. And, on top of that, the exorcists of the film aren’t any good, and the exorcism itself is too tame in comparison to its predecessors.
Is The Exorcist: Believer the worst follow-up to The Exorcist? According to how I have rated the movies and the two seasons of the show, The Exorcist: Believer is as bad as Exorcist: The Beginning. But as you have read, Beginning is a studio-mandated remake of a temporarily shelved film. So, it gets a pass. What is Believer’s excuse? From what I have heard, David Gordon Green’s movie has undergone several changes based on test screenings, which is a truly awful concept if not used properly. Hence, there is no way of actually saying if what we’ve seen is Green and his team’s unadulterated vision until they explicitly state what they were going to make and what they ended up making due to the pressure from the studio are similar or dissimilar. Therefore, until and unless we get the director’s cut, based on totally factual and very subjective research, the theatrical cut of The Exorcist: Believer is actually the worst follow-up to The Exorcist. It relies way too much on jumpscares. The amount of attention given to the two families is disproportionate. And it’s an incomplete film because Green has two more sequels in the pipeline.
Let’s not end this on a negative note, though, and talk a little about two of the best follow-ups to The Exorcist, i.e., The Exorcist III and The Exorcist TV series. I deeply love both of them, as they expand upon the ideas of the first movie and show everything that can be done in the horror genre if one has a deep understanding of the subject matter that they are dealing with. Every department in the movie, as well as the show, should have gotten all the awards in the world, and the show should’ve gotten more seasons. I don’t know if the latter is possible anymore. But if there’s even a remote chance, I implore you to go check it out and demand whoever owns the rights to the IP to let Jeremy Slater and his team cook again with Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels at the helm. In addition to that, I’ll recommend Exorcist II and Dominion because they at least approach their respective stories from an interesting angle, and they have something to say about religion, resilience, faith, and more; and they’ve two of the wildest third acts that I have ever seen. So, in conclusion, give all the Exorcist sequels (which includes the show) and prequels a chance, and let us know if any of them match up to William Friedkin’s film or surpass it.