Ranking the Exorcist (Movie) Series

A couple of years back, I ranked the original Halloween series (before the era of Rob Zombie and reboots). This year, it’s time to turn to a different and (blessedly) shorter horror franchise: The Exorcist. Keep in mind, I’m only talking about movies here. Those looking for an in-depth analysis of The Exorcist and Legion will have to wait for another day.  Like last time, let’s start with the best and work down.

1. The Exorcist 

Real shocker here. William Friedkin‘s 1973 film isn’t just the best in the series, it is (in my opinion) one of the greatest horror films of all time. This is the only film in the series where one exorcism in the main focus – for some reason all of the sequels felt the need to escalate the conflict into some grand battle between good and evil, with multiple souls always thrown into the balance. This film grounds its horror in a world that is virtually identical to our own.

The cast of this movie is superb, with every actor putting in an incredible performance.
The cast of this movie is superb, with every actor putting in an incredible performance.

The Exorcist has a battle, but it is just for the soul of one little girl. There’s nothing special about her, which adds to the terror that something like this could happen to anyone. With such a simple story, the movie is allowed time to develop it fully. While this is about exorcism, the film parallels demonic possession with mental health treatment in the 1970s – to tremendous effect. The loud whirl of machines probing Regan‘s brain is just as unsettling as the demonic voice pouring from her lungs.

The result is an entertaining, powerful movie with multiple layers to it. The Exorcist does not simply succeeds with scares. It repulses, disturbs, and captivates.

2. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

This was a toss up and, let the record show, the drop off in quality is steep from the  1973 film. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is a movie with high concepts and an interesting script. The film focuses on Father Merrin in 1940s Africa. At this point in his life, he is struggling with his faith – having been a priest during World War II in Nazi Germany.

To the movie’s credit, it presents the struggle in a very interesting way. It’s not that Merrin doesn’t necessarily not believe in God, he just feels that matters of good and evil are ultimately all in mankind’s hands, and that the divinity is an absent figure. Likewise, the demonic presence in the film is much more subtle – pushing the buttons of a tense situation, rather than forcing evil upon man.

That said, the film’s weakness lies in its directing, which is sorely lacking. Paul Schrader is constantly unable to deliver real impact on the scenes that should have it. Dominion also follows a flaw of every Exorcist sequel: it’s not scary… at all. It sounds strange to say, but a film in 2005 feels far more tame than one in 1973.

The visual effects in this movie are incredibly sub-par, which also hurts the believability of crucial scenes.
The visual effects in this movie are incredibly sub-par, which also hurts the credibility of crucial scenes.

To be clear: objectively, I do not feel this is a good movie. Yet for someone interested in The Exorcist, who wants more, this would be the first film I recommend. Followed closely by:

3. The Exorcist III

William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist novel, wrote and directed this sequel to the original film. The movie follows detective Kinderman (now played by a very old George C. Scott) and he investigates a new string of murders that appear to be related to demonic possession.

This film, more than any other, tries to nail the tone of the original. On one level, it succeeds – it feels far more like a natural successor than the second film in the franchise (see the very bottom of this list). Unfortunately, however, the realism that elevated the first movie is nowhere to be found.

Brad Dourif acting creepy. One of the chief highlights of this film.
Brad Dourif acting creepy. One of the chief highlights of this film.

Exorcist III also quickly loses steam as it develops, and there are many scenes (particularly in the beginning-middle) that drag on. While there are flashes of brilliance – and a creepy sequence that is very well done – the movie ends on a down note. I do not mean it ends poorly for the main characters, just that the ending itself is not satisfactory.

It is worth mentioning that the long-lost director’s cut (complete with a different ending) was just released. I have not seen this film but suspect that it may in fact be better than Exorcist III.  For those wanting to check this film out – I recommend doing what you can to rent the new blu ray… and watching the Legion cut.

4. Exorcist: the Beginning 

Man… is this an odd film. Remember Dominion? Well Exorcist: the Beginning is a different cut of that film. Much of the movie has been completely re-shot, with a couple of the main roles replaced. That said, the cast is largely the same – and the movie follows the same basic plot setup. Father Merrin has lost his faith, a buried church is discovered in Africa, the film deals with a demon elevating conflict between the British Army and local native tribes…

And it is all much worse. This film greatly dumbs down the ideas of the first. Father Merrin’s crisis of faith is reduced to the basic “I used to believe in God but don’t anymore.” Get ready for scenes saying that Father Merrin used to be a priest – this film has at least three of them.

Lot of upside-down cross imagery in this film. Odd as this is not a symbol of satanism.
Lot of upside-down cross imagery in this film. Odd as this is not a symbol of Satanism.

What replaces the lost philosophy is gore. This is the grossest film after the original. It adds in characters who exist only to be killed in horrifying ways. While this film is better directed than Dominion (there’s some almost Evil Dead-esque shots),  the script and pacing are an absolute disaster. This feels like film that began life as a different movie.

The most interesting thing about Exorcist: the Beginning is the fact that it exists at all.

The ending is actually kind of fun to watch, but getting there is a struggle.
The ending is actually kind of fun to watch, but getting there is a struggle.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

Every now and then a film comes along that fails at the basics of storytelling. What is going on? What is the central conflict? What is at stake for the main characters involved. Exorcist II: The Heretic is such a film.

Regan is now... a patent at a psychiatric center, living at a psychiatric center, volunteering at a psychiatric center... it is no exaggeration to say this information is not provided.
Regan is now… a patent at a psychiatric center, living at a psychiatric center, volunteering at a psychiatric center… it is no exaggeration to say this information is not provided.

Following Linda Blair‘s Regan from the first film, this is about… the demon coming back for Regan? There is also a lengthy (LENGTHY) investigation by Richard Burton‘s priest character into the backstory of the demon from the first film. The investigation is the dominant use of screen time in the movie. The two plots come together at the end in the bedroom of the original house.

Yep.

Exorcist II is a film that is trying to be a surreal dream (the movie is filmed in a very abstract, detached way) while attempting to have all the bells and whistles of a straight-forward sequel. This is a very hard combination to pull off, and the film fails spectacularly.  The surreal-ness distracts from the characters and the consequence of the plot, and the plot makes all the interesting use of camera and scene setup come off as a waste of time.

On top of it all, Regan is rewritten to no longer be the average everyday girl. Now she is a special healer (somehow) and this was the reason the demon targeted her. In doing this, the random nature of the horror from the first film is lost completely, and a convoluted explanation is instead thrown in (similar to Laurie Strode being Michael Myers long-lost sister in Halloween II).

This movie also features James Earl Jones in a locust costume...
This movie also features James Earl Jones in a locust costume…

I do not recommend Exorcist II: the Heretic for any human being who is mortal. There are far better ways to spend your precious time on planet Earth.

So there they are, The Exorcist movies. While Dominion and Exorcist III are at the very least interesting films, I would defer to Father Merrin when it comes to talking about this franchise: “There is only one.”

Oh – and there’s a TV series now too.

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