The Exorcist was never supposed to be a franchise. William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel, and the 1973 blockbuster movie it inspired, had a simple enough premise: a young girl living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. is possessed by a demon. Her increasingly distraught mother, unable to find help from medical science, turns to the Catholic Church which ultimately sends two priests to wage a war for the young girl’s soul. There’s a bit more to it — soul searching, spinal taps, pea soup vomit — but the core idea is that this is one singular event never to be repeated. Mythology is implied but ultimately not particularly necessary; the purer the horror of tormented innocence, the more effective the story becomes.
But William Friedkin’s film adaptation was, if anything, even more successful than its source material, which led to a four-decade struggle to make the most out of a property whose best ideas were introduced and resolved in the very first installment. The result: a four-movie series with five movies in it and, this Friday, a brand new television spinoff which features (at least based on the pilot) none of the characters from the original. This might actually be a good thing. If past experience is any indication, the farther the show can get from the MacNeils and Fathers Karras and Merrin, the better.
Still, it’s an uphill battle. From the start, attempts to sequelize The Exorcist have been compromised, irrelevant, or batshit insane — or in the case of Exorcist II: The Heretic, all three at once. Released four years after the original, director John Boorman’s ludicrous vision looked to continue to the story of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and her further adventures with the wacky miscreant known as Pazuzu. Richard Burton (looking desperate, confused, and more than a little pickled) stars as Father Lamont, a priest tasked by the Church with investigating the circumstances surrounding Father Merrin’s death in the original film.
The result is a mishmash of overheated occultism and sci-fi tomfoolery, with Louie Fletcher watching from the sidelines as a psychiatrist with a special machine that lets people connect psychically by “matching tones.” It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and while Boorman’s ambition is laudable (the director of Deliverance, Excalibur, and, um, Zardoz gives it his all), it’s doubtful the result would’ve been effective in any context. But the repeated efforts to tie events to the original movie do a disservice to both films, undermining the sober-minded approach that made Friedkin’s work so powerful and making Boorman’s look even goofier by comparison.
It was over a decade before Warner Brothers went back to the Pazuzu well, this time bringing in William Peter Blatty to adapt his novel, Legion, into the inaptly titled The Exorcist III. The results were surprisingly strong; Blatty was able to bring his own sensibility to the screen (a refreshing mixture of grim humanism and surprisingly witty gallows humor) in ways that Friedkin couldn’t, and the movie delivers some of the best scares of the entire series, including one particular long shot in a hospital corridor that is maybe the most effective slow burn jump scare in the history of the medium. But the studio insisted on making sure the movie live up literally to its title, forcing an inelegant and unnecessary exorcism sequence into the final act, which robbed the film of much of its power.
Still, even in compromised form it stands head and shoulders above the two attempts to make the fourth (and currently final) film entry in the franchise. When director Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was deemed unreleasable by Morgan Creek Productions, Renny Harlin was called in to film his own version of the story of Father Merrin’s past: the result, Exorcist: The Beginning, was loud and garish where the original was restrained and morbid. Neither were particularly good, with both making the cardinal (pun not intended) mistake of providing information that the audience didn’t particularly care about.
Father Merrin is a figure of great mystery in the original film, a man whose past history facing down demons gives him considerable authority and power going into the final showdown. But as a character, there’s little about him that’s compelling outside of that authority and mystery. There’s no need to show his earlier confrontation with Pazuzu, or his attempts to understand evil, because neither will change what we already know happens: he shows up at the MacNeils, he (metaphorically) wrestles with a monster, and then dies, giving Father Karras (a more conflicted and more interesting character) a chance to sacrifice himself in order to save Regan.
The original The Exorcist told everything about itself that needed telling. That’s part of why it’s a great movie; there are questions left unanswered, but not questions that need answers, which is why the most successful sequel is one that uses elements of the original story to explore different ideas. That’s also the most promising thing about the new series. The pilot is well-paced and decently acted, but more importantly, it takes elements from its inspiration but places them in a new context. There’s a wealthy family with a disturbed daughter, but this time the potential possessee is a teenager, and Dad is suffering from (oddly plot convenient) dementia. There are two priests, but while one is more experienced in exorcisms than the other, neither is a direct match in name or personality to Karras or Merrin. And, at least so far, no one’s mentioned the word “Pazuzu” at all.
But for how long will that last? While it’s laudable that the new series is trying to remix familiar elements in unexpected ways, there are a number of growing pains in the first episode (the pacing may be gratifyingly fast, but at times it’s too fast; characters go from doubt to full belief in the space of a minute or so), and it’s too early to tell if those pains will smooth out over time. It’s possible that the new show could develop into a fun, serious-but-mildly-ridiculous thrill ride, which is arguably all the franchise has left to offer at this point. While it seems crass to simply exploit a title for brand recognition and basic concept, that might be the show’s best chance at success. Tempting as it may be, regurgitating old material is a game of diminishing returns; eventually pea soup stops being scary and starts being a chore.