Flashback: The Exorcist and its sequels and prequels

At least they waited until the day after Christmas to release the film.

It was 40 years ago today that a movie called The Exorcist came out in theatres and proceeded to shock its way to box-office success. But the film did more than jolt people with its images of outrageous demonic behaviour; it also subverted the assumptions of modernity by suggesting that there was more to us than science and psychology could understand, and in its own roundabout way, the film became an expression of faith (certainly on the part of its screenwriter, William Peter Blatty, though his particular brand of faith might not be exactly conventional or orthodox).

To mark the anniversary of the film’s release, I have re-posted my reviews of the original film and its prequels, and I have compiled a few links to other blog posts that I have written about the film. Check ’em out below the jump.

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How well have movies depicted Jesus the exorcist?

The History Channel had a huge hit this year with The Bible, but the makers of that mini-series are taking the sequel to another network, so it’s not too surprising that the History Channel turned to someone else to make a follow-up of their own. What is surprising is that their next Jesus-themed series will be made by a bunch of horror-movie veterans, including Eli Roth, director of Hostel (2005-2007), Eric Newman, producer of the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and the prequel to The Thing (2011), and Scott Kosar, a writer whose credits include the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Amityville Horror (2005). Roth and Newman also co-produced The Last Exorcism (2010-2013).

Deadline says the series is currently called The Lost Years and will look at what Jesus was up to between the ages of 13 and 30. The series will also reportedly fit into the horror genre as it explores “a theory about Jesus’ origins as an exorcist.”

Given the pedigree of everyone involved, this could easily be very schlocky (“Jesus The Teenage Demon Slayer,” as Matthew Archbold puts it). And yet I can’t help thinking that performing exorcisms was a major part of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s possible the Jesus-movie genre hasn’t paid as much attention to that side of him as it could.

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Review: The Last Exorcism (dir. Daniel Stamm, 2010)

THE BEST movies about demonic possession have always tried to ground themselves in a certain kind of realism. The Exorcist cast real-life doctors and priests as fictitious doctors and priests, while The Exorcism of Emily Rose was loosely inspired by a real-life court case.

So it was probably inevitable that someone would make a movie like The Last Exorcism, using the same pseudo-documentary techniques that have made films like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project so down-to-earth despite their otherworldly premises.

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Review: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (dir. Paul Schrader, 2005)

Have you ever looked at a film’s credits and wondered what the difference was between the “story” written by these guys over here and the “screenplay” written by those guys over there? Often, the “story” in question used to be a proper screenplay in its own right, until someone else was hired to give it a bit of a polish, and by the time the finished film came out, it became impossible to say for sure which bits were the work of which people.

You can see something of this process whenever an old movie is remade; some of the more confounding plot twists in, say, last year’s versions of The Stepford Wives and The Manchurian Candidate begin to make sense when you watch the original versions of those films and realize why and how the stories went in those directions. And when remakes go off in their own direction, it often says something revealing about the people that made them. But remakes are generally made many years after the originals — or, in the case of foreign-film adaptations like The Magnificent Seven, after a story has been transposed into a different culture — so the new films still tend to have an identity of their own.

So apart from the film’s actual content — more on that in a moment — the most remarkable thing about Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is that, in tandem with last year’s Exorcist: The Beginning, it provides a unique opportunity to see how tweaking a screenplay can produce a very different film, even when many of the same elements are in place.

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Review: Exorcist: The Beginning (dir. Renny Harlin, 2004)

It is almost impossible to imagine that a worthy sequel to 1973’s The Exorcist could ever be made, but that hasn’t stopped several filmmakers from trying. The original film — directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the original novel — was more of a mood piece than a story. The demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl was less a conflict to be resolved than a hook on which to hang a thoughtful meditation on the tension between modern materialistic science and an ancient, even primitive, belief in a spiritual realm beyond this life. At a time when many were asking if God was dead, and if concepts such as goodness still had any meaning, Blatty and Friedkin hit audiences with a bold, shocking depiction of evil and dared them to say that this, too, was not meaningful. If there truly was such a thing as evil, then there truly must be such a thing as good, too; and if the Devil existed, then so did God.

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Restored Exorcist searches for a moral centre

I WAS just getting out of diapers at the time, but the early 1970s were, I am told, a period of intense spiritual sensitivity. Certainly, popular culture bears that out. In 1973, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, two popular musicals based on the life of Jesus, hit the big screen. But the film that caught the country’s attention that year looked not to the Prince of Peace, but to the Prince of Darkness, for its inspiration.

The Exorcist was a huge box-office hit, raking in a then-unheard-of $165 million; once inflation is taken into account, some estimates place it among the 20 most successful films of all time, right up there with old Disney cartoons, Star Wars movies and Gone with the Wind. The film won an Academy Award for its script, which William Peter Blatty adapted from his novel; it was, in turn, inspired by a supposedly true incident.

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