For a good portion of my life, The Exorcist was the scariest thing I had ever seen. I first saw it on A&E one afternoon on a double bill with The Shining and proceeded to rent the VHS tape as quick as possible so I could not only watch it again, but see all the good stuff the channel cut out. It scared the life out of me; and hearing my mom's story about when she and her friend saw it as kids during its theatrical run terrified me even more. At the time, I couldn't think of anything scarier than her running home late at night after the screening alone in the dark. Of course, as years go by, the thought process towards spirituality changes, and those who drift away from being a believer have a certain right to scoff at the silliness of Friedkin's classic. But at the time, I was going to a Catholic school and while I never thumped a Bible, a large part of me believed in the fact the events in the movie could really happen. And perhaps they can. While the original film went down as a classic, few people outside the horror community remember the triumphs and tragedies that would befall the series with each sequel. If the path to glory is a rocky one, wouldn't it just be easier to go to hell? Great. Shall we?
5. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Believe me, after that initial A&E viewing, there was no question I needed all the Exorcist I could get. Right away, I spotted this sequel next to the original and threw it on the rental counter. I don't remember my exact expectations, but I sure as hell wasn't expecting a two hour sit though of shit. I don't think Nostradamus would have predicted it could have been half as poor as it turned out to be. Meandering, meaningless, confusing and just plain bad, there is little I remember nor care to remember about this literal Heretic. I did enjoy the scene of thick locust swarms with the little boy snarling "Pazuzu" and Linda Blair in memorable possession garb, but that was it. At least they got the shit out of the way early on because the next episodes proved to be miles above and beyond this, yet somehow series events would get even more unbelievable after the turn of the century! And in the urban legend inspiring Exorcist series, that is really saying something.
Paul Schrader is a big name and when fans found out he'd he at the helm of the new Exorcist film, they were ecstatic. It took a short while before it got seen after a limited theatrical run, but those that did see it got their money's worth. Classy all around, it is very unfortunate that Morgan Creek deemed the film too slow for modern audiences (it is an Exorcist film, after all) and shelved it in favor of the much more popcorn friendly prequel with Renny Harlin at the reins. Creepy and subtle, it truly feels like a film that belongs in the traditional franchise and even manages an unforeseen twist along the way. Despite the fact that fans turned on Warner for, in their minds, undermining their intelligence, Dominion isn't as well revered as its brother, The Beginning. Perhaps it is because Harlin's film was seen in theatres, thus damning Schrader's in certain ways superior version at the starting gate.
At least part of the reason I ever so slightly prefer Harlin's version to Schrader's is because it did get that head start. While different in story and enormously opposite in tone, certain details of each film remain the same and those minute elements were entirely new to me upon viewing Harlin's prequel, bringing a more lasting fresh appeal. Wonderfully boisterous, obnoxious and gore drenched, I always thought the Harlin opus got a bad rep just because it kicked Schrader's version aside - a version no one had yet seen, I might add. It's definitely the one in the canon that is paced like a modern Hollywood gorefest, but I also found the story more than engaging and Father Merrin's crisis of faith to be as believable and important as the more classical Schrader cut. There is some bad CGI, but Harlin's direction is intense and famed Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is second to none in a horror film. Like the buried church in the desert, there is something unique to be had here, you just have to dig deep and sort through the sand in your popcorn to find it.
Oddly enough, I had seen portions of Legion years before I even seen the first Exorcist and can remember being really freaked out as a kid. Still just as haunting to this day, creator William Peter Blatty comes back to right the wrongdoings of Part II, this time centering around Father Karras' own battle with the demonic spirit of the Gemini Killer, who takes control of his and others' bodies, wreaking havoc on a mental institution. Performances are solid with Brad Dourif on board and the film encompasses perhaps the single greatest jump scare in horror movie history. Bleeding statues, great POV shots and a winding story notch this one just ahead of the newer films, hinged mostly upon the return of the tragic Karras character. With a tacked on, yet effective, exorcism at the end and a great crime thriller subplot, Legion plays a lot of hands and plays them well.
Although the possession aspect of this enduring, trend setting masterstroke of cinema is most endeared, these days I find myself as much engulfed in the Father Karras character as the exorcism itself. It's a perfect example of a good film being able to transcend age boundaries and become more and more relevant thematically as a person grows. While visceral and terrifying, the glue that holds it all together are the Bergman and Bu˝uel-like religious tensions with all their classic themes; remorse, anger, fear, the unknown and coming to grips with yourself as a person, eventually realizing that there is no easy way to overcome the things that we fear the most. Few horrors have ever topped it and dozens of others tried to be it, The Exorcist's impact on the genre will never be matched.
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