William Friedkin’s film THE EXORCIST is a phenomenon. When it burst into movie theatres in 1973, this story of demonic possession caused a sensation and was a massive box-office hit. It was by no means the first mainstream film on the topic. For example, Ken Russell’s 1971 film THE DEVILS played with the theme, and one year before THE EXORCIST, the supernatural horror film THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY had been a minor hit - featuring Shirley Maclaine, whom author William Peter Blatty based the character of Chris Macneil on. But this big budget feature carried such an impact that it became what these days is called a 'game changer' - it set the template for virtually every film on the subject for the next three decades, in the same way that George A Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) left its mark on virtually every subsequent zombie movie.
Over time, audiences would be treated to several additions to the EXORCIST saga, in the form of two sequels - EXORCIST II - THE HERETIC (1977) and THE EXORCIST III (1990, written and directed by Blatty); two versions of a prequel - EXORCIST - THE BEGINNING (2004) and DOMINION - PREQUEL TO 'THE EXORCIST' (2005), both featuring Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Lankaster Merrin, Max Von Sydow's role in the original film, and a spin-off, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1977), featuring a minor character from THE EXORCIST, astronaut Billy Cutshaw, as a main character, and written and directed by Blatty from two novels he authored telling the same story. However, apart from the official sequels, prequels and spin-offs THE EXORCIST spawned a legacy of features which were inspired by the success of the original film, which eventually became the first ever horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. THE EXORCIST’s influence extends its demonic hand until the present day, especially early on amongst exploitation film-makers, who soon responded in kind.
Read Part 1.
(3) GERMANY, SPAIN, TURKEY, MEXICO
Italy wasn't the only European country
cashing in on the exorcism craze: others also made their own variants on the
theme. Over in Germany, film director Walter Boos came up with MAGDALENA, VOM
TEUFEL BESESSEN; this translates as MAGDALENA, POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL, the title
under which, in 1976, it would be released in the United States. At this time,
Boos was more famous for his softcore pornographic movies (including the
SCHOOLGIRL REPORT series from 1970-80 and 1973’s LOVE IN 3-D) which gives an
idea of the approach he takes with his filmmaking. The titular Magdalena (Dagmar
Hedrich) is an orphan, living in a boarding school in Munich, who becomes
possessed by a demon. She proceeds to commit assorted mayhem until the
(anti-)climactic exorcism releases the demon within. THE EXORCIST’S legacy of
regurgitation is here referenced in the scene where Magdalena vomits a Satanic
black snake. Unlike the original film (but not unexpectedly, given Boos’ earlier
work), there is copious nudity.
At the same time, that other hotbed of
Eurotrash, Spain, was busy producing several EXORCISTs of its own. One of the
most notable of these was EXORCISMO (1975), directed by Juan Bosch and starring
horror icon Paul Naschy. In this, the victim is a young woman who is possessed
by the spirit of her late father. Naschy, usually known for playing his werewolf
character Waldemar Daninsky, is the 'good guy' here, a village priest who comes
forward to confront the evil spirit and exorcise it.
horror, released the same year, was LA ENDEMONIADA (1975), which made its way
Stateside in 1976 under the title DEMON WITCH CHILD. This was directed by
another Spanish horror maestro, Amando de Ossorio, known for his BLIND DEAD
series of horror movies and also the vampire thriller MALENKA (1969). Here, a
gypsy’s curse on the daughter of a police commissioner leads to the possession
and, ultimately, the exorcism (complete with a Linda Blair style head-spinning
sequence). The star of the film is Marián Salgado, who, as a voice actor, had
re-dubbed Linda Blair’s voice in the Spanish version of Friedkin’s film. Because
of this, she was deliberately cast by D’Ossorio as the protagonist Susan Barnes
to provide a link with the original.
And the Spanish weren’t finished.
Also in 1975, EL JUEGO DEL DIABLO was made, directed by Jorge Darnell. This was
released in English as DEVIL’S EXORCIST. The victim here is a teenager, Teresita
(Imma De Santis), beset by visions and other phenomena, who starts to become
violent, eventually committing matricide (although it is judged to have been an
accident). Medical science (in the form of Dr Beneau, played by Euro-regular
Jack Taylor) tries to help the troubled teen but to no avail, and a priest is
eventually called... but is it too late?
One cannot talk about Spanish
exploitation without mentioning the offbeat and incredibly prolific master Jess
Franco. His twist on THE EXORCIST actually owes very little to the original, and
Franco gives it his own idiosyncratic spin. The film in question was LES
POSSÉDÉES DU DIABLE, which was actually produced in France; it features here
mainly because it was released in English with the come-on title LORNA THE
EXORCIST. It has also been released under the blatantly false title EXORCISM.
The titular Lorna (Franco regular Pamela Stanford) is not an exorcist, but
actually a succubus whose seductive yet baleful influence is extended over both
a businessman, Patrick (Guy Delorme) and his teenage daughter Linda (Franco’s
partner and frequent collaborator Lina Romay). It features none of the
head-spinning or pea soup puking of many of the other films, nor does it feature
any exorcisms! The film was remade in 2002 as JESS FRANCO'S 'INCUBUS'.
Franco has a distinct anti-clerical bent, and is particularly critical
of the Catholic Church; because of this, a number of his films are thematically
similar; for example, the picture LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN 9197)
features a young woman who is accused of being possessed, and ends up being
abused by agents of the Catholic Church (who are actually Satanists), the Devil
himself, and the Inquisition.
worthy of note is not from Europe but from Mexico: ALUCARDA, LA HIJA DE LAS
TINIEBLAS (translates as 'Alucarda, the Daughter of Darkness', the film is also
known simply as ALUCARDA). The title suggests a vampire film (ALUCARDA spelt
backwards is ADRACULA), but this is in fact another anti-clerical picture
produced in a Roman Catholic country. This tale of Satanism has thematic
similarities to THE EXORCIST. It takes place in a Catholic orphanage, where two
young girls come under the influence of Satan, causing all manner of mayhem (and
possibly the record for the largest amount screaming in a single film) before a
We will round off this section by briefly mentioning the
French film called CAUCHEMARS (Nightmares) and released in 1977. This is
actually a France/Canada co-production filmed in Montréal with an English
speaking cast. It is better known to American audiences as CATHY’S CURSE, and
features a twelve year old girl possessed by the spirit of her aunt – homicide
and the spouting of profanities ensue.
In the 1970s,
the American networks were usually quick off the mark in producing
made-for-television imitations of popular cinema films. However, they were much
slower to come up with their take on the Friedkin movie, possibly because the
explicitness and profanity of THE EXORCIST did not lend themselves well to
prime-time US television. An imitation (of sorts) would eventually appear in
1977, under the title THE POSSESSED. This was intended as the pilot for a
television series which did not materialise, and revolved around the exploits of
Kevin Leahy (James Farentino), a former priest who is now tasked with fighting
evil. In this pilot, he investigates sinister goings-on at a girls’ school (a
popular venue for these sort of shenanigans), culminating in an exorcism scene
with Leahy and the possessed victim facing off by the side of the school’s
swimming pool. This being 1970s television, pea soup was out of the question,
and instead the possessed woman spits a stream of nails at the unfortunate
Farentino, who still manages to stoically save the day.
The year 1977
also gave us GOOD AGAINST EVIL, in which Andy Stuart, a writer (played by the
splendidly-named Dack Rambo) and Father Kemschler (Dan O’Herlihy) team up to
take on the forces of darkness. The villain here is the sinister Mr Rimmin
(played by the ever-reliable Richard Lynch) who is grooming a young woman to be
the bride of Satan. The film ends with Kemschler, an acknowledged exorcist, in a
battle against the demonic forces. This was another failed pilot, but has a good
pedigree, being directed by TV movie specialist Paul Wendkos and scripted by
Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster. The cast includes a very young Kim Cattrall from
TV's 'Sex and the City'.
(5) IN NAME ONLY
We have seen above that
some films have been retitled to suggest similarities with the Friedkin opus.
There is also a subcategory of films that seem to have been retitled just for
the hell of it! Here are some samples...
VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (1974)
This Spanish horror film, originally titled VUDÚ SANGRIENTO ('Bloody Voodoo') is
actually about a mummified Voodoo priest reanimating and causing havoc on an
KUNG FU EXORCIST (1976) This obscure film from Hong Kong
features Kathy Leen (her only credit) fighting against an evil Shaolin
EXORCIST MASTER (1992) Nearly twenty years after THE EXORCIST
came this Taiwanese action comedy, originally titled KUI MOH DO JEUNG, which
actually features a kung fu master’s battle against vampires in a Chinese
(6) WIDER INFLUENCES
As well as being a fertile source for
numerous rip-offs, THE EXORCIST movies also had an influence on similar projects
which, while different in tone and incident, owe much to the success of the
original film in making 'horror' mainstream.
In particular, it paved the
way for other religious terrors, in particular Richard Donner's THE OMEN (1976)
which has various thematic similarities: a well-to-do family with a troubled
child, the intervention of the Catholic Church, a troubled priest (Patrick
Troughton, who doesn’t last long) and a final battle between good and evil. Like
THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN was a huge hit, and would eventually spawn three sequels
and a remake. In turn, THE OMEN inspired its own quota of imitations and
rip-offs, the most notable of which ia probably Alberto de Martino’s HOLOCAUST
2000 (1977) with Kirk Douglas and Simon Ward – but that’s another
Another successful series (and also 'based on fact') is the
AMITYVILLE sequence of movies, beginning with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) which
spawned a whole raft of sequels, beginning with AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION
(1982), in which a boy is possessed by demons and slaughters his entire family
(a rather tasteless fictionalisation of the story of Ronald de Feo, who did
indeed kill his parents and siblings in the Amityville house). In the film, the
troubled youth literally turns into a bug-eyed demon in the climactic exorcism
Later sequels included AMITYVILLE 3D (1983), which added an
extra dimension to the visuals if not to the characters. Other entries in the
series focus on possessed objects supposedly from the original house, such as a
haunted clock in AMITYVILLE: IT’S ABOUT TIME (1992) and culminating in the most
recent offering, AMITYVILLE DOLLHOUSE (1996)! In 2005, the original AMITYVILLE
HORROR was re-made, sticking closer to the 'true' story and featuring Ryan
Reynolds as the possessed father and Kevin Baker Hall as Father
Another high class horror was AUDREY ROSE (1977), based on
Frank De Felitta’s novel in which Anthony Hopkins' character Elliot tries to
convince a couple (John Beck and Marsha Mason) that their daughter (Susan Swift)
is the reincarnation of Audrey Rose, Elliot’s deceased child. Here the person
possessed is Elliot, who spirals out of control, leading to a shocking
More recently, we have had STIGMATA in 1999, in which a young
woman suffering from the wounds of Christ is possessed by the spirit of a dead
priest, and is used as a vessel to spread the Gospel of Thomas, which the
Vatican will do anything to suppress, including sending out 'hit squads'!
(Somebody should have told the film-makers that the heretical Gospel of Thomas
is not suppressed at all, and has been published in translation in 1959.)
A reappraisal of EXORCIST II by John and Paul Rowlands.
John C. Kerr started life as a graphic designer before mutating into a film archivist. He has had a passion for cinema ever since seeing Disney and 007 as a child. John has a Diploma in Film Studies, and although originally from Manchester, is now based in London.