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.
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Inevitably, THE EXORCIST would be parodied. For the most part,
these spoofs have been short scenes in other comedies, such as Joan Greenwood
afflicted by a spinning head and pea soup in Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s
bizarre version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (directed by ex-Warhol protégé
Paul Morrissey in 1978). More recently we have had SCARY MOVIE 2 (2001) which,
although taking pot-shots of dozens of movies, does have a dedicated spoof with
'Father McFeely' (James Woods) towards the beginning of the film. More recently,
ST TRINIAN’S 2: LEGEND OF FRITTON’S GOLD (2009) has a short sequence with a
'possessed' girl levitating and talking in a growl.
Apart from these
minor references in otherwise unrelated comedies, there has been one major
spoof: 1990’s REPOSSESSED, directed by Bob Logan, which references numerous
aspects of the original movie. The most obvious reference is its star: Linda
Blair as Nancy Aglet, a housewife who had been possessed as a child, and finds
that she is now possessed again by the same spirit. Coming to her rescue is
Father Jebedaiah Mayii (Leslie Nielsen), which leads to a final confrontation
similar to the original film, with Father Mayii squaring off against Nancy in a
spirited spoof exorcism commentated by Jesse Ventura and wrestling pundit 'Mean'
The following year gave us the horror comedy TEENAGE
EXORCIST, in which 'scream queen' Brinke Stevens moves into a haunted mansion,
only to be possessed, turning into a temptress searching for a virgin sacrifice.
The cast includes the geeky Eddie Deezen and, as the priest Father McFerrin,
Robert Quarry (better known for portraying Count Yorga in a brace of seventies
Footnote: there is an Italian film L'ESORCICCIO (1975),
a comedy featuring an entire family being possessed. The central character is
played by Ciccio Ingrassia, a comic actor who was once part of the duo Franco e
Ciccio. 'Esorciccio' is a pun on his name (the Italian word for exorcist is
actually esorcista). The film is also known as EXORCIST: ITALIAN STYLE, although
it has not been widely screened outside of Italy. In its homeland, the film is
not highly regarded and has a poor reputation. In fact, a correspondent on the
Internet Movie Database notes that in Italy, one way to damn any film with faint
praise is to say, “at least it wasn’t L’ESORCICCIO!”
(8) SPIN-OFFS AND
William Peter Blatty, has claimed that the story of the
original 'Exorcist' novel, though fictional, was partly inspired by true events,
namely the exorcism of a young Lutheran boy, known only as 'Roland Doe', by the
Jesuit priest Father William S Bowdern and his colleague Father Walter Halloran.
It was only a matter of time before this true story was told, first in the book
'Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism' (1993) by Thomas B Allen, and then as
a television documentary drama, IN THE GRIP OF EVIL in 1997. The story was
retold in more opulent fashion in Steven E DeSouza’s 2000 film POSSESSED. This
is a sober drama and not a horror movie, and is told in a matter-of-fact style
befitting its basis in fact. Former 007 Timothy Dalton plays Father Bowdern
(here renamed Bowden) with Jonathan Malen as the boy, here named 'Ronald
Mannheim' (the true identity of the boy has never been revealed). This film
avoids most of the tropes of the original EXORCIST but keeps its dignity
The story has recently been revisited in the 2010 video
documentary THE HAUNTED BOY: THE SECRET DIARY OF THE EXORCIST, directed by
Christopher Saint Booth and Philip Adrian Booth.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY
ROSE (2005), directed by Scott Derrickson, is a sober courtroom drama with the
occasional bit of screaming horror (such as the possession and exorcism
sequences, shown here in flashback). It stars Tom Wilkinson on trial for the
death of a young woman during an exorcism. A fictional tale, it is loosely based
on the case of Anneliese Michel of Bavaria, who died after a 'failed' series of
exorcisms in 1976. At the core is an interesting meditation on science and
faith, let down slightly by the over-the-top exorcism scenes and a few
oh-so-conveniently spooky coincidences. It features good performances,
especially by Wilkinson and Laura Linney.
Annelise Michel's story has been the basis of two other films. The first of these, LA POSESIÓN DE EMMA EVANS
(aka EXORCISMUS, 2010), is a drama directed Manuel Carballo, which fictionalises
the story and updates it, and features Emma’s exorcism being secretly filmed.
The film is a Spanish production but is filmed in English with an international
cast including Stephen Billington and Doug Bradley. The second film is the much
more exploitative ANNELIESE – THE EXORCIST TAPES (2011), a pseudo-documentary bu
Jude Gerard Prest (also known as PARANORMAL ENTITY 3: THE EXORCIST TAPES). This
was made by The Asylum, the studio behind 'mockbusters' like MEGASHARK VS
CROCOSARUS and TITANIC II (both 2010). It purports to be the 'real' footage of
the Anneliese Michel exorcism but is in fact entirely fake.
The tropes for exorcism films seem to be changing, and evolving
their own mythologies, like vampire films before them. For example, the key
exorcisms in both THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and THE LAST EXORCISM take place in
farm outbuildings, and both THE RITE (2011) and THE DEVIL INSIDE (2012) are set
in Rome, feature 'exorcism schools' and both have gory scenes in
And in the recent Tim Burton film DARK SHADOWS (2012), Eva
Green’s evil witch character projects some familiar green liquid at Barnabas
Collins (Johnny Depp).
Nowadays, the influence of the EXORCIST continues
with the current crop of 'found footage' movies, starting with THE LAST
EXORCISM, and EXORCISMUS (2010, mentioned above) and the recent THE DEVIL
INSIDE, which is also part of the found footage/pseudo documentary trend. It
follows the exploits of a woman who becomes involved with a group of maverick
young Catholic students in Rome who freelance as exorcists, with predictably
To bring us right up to date, we have the latest from
Sam Raimi’s Ghost House pictures, THE POSSESSION (2012) directed by Ole
Bornedal. This features a box containing a dybbuk, a Jewish demon (also seen
recently in David S Goyer’s 2009 film THE UNBORN). Here, the dybbuk physically
possesses a young girl until being forced out during a Jewish exorcist ritual -
an interesting twist on the subgenre.
Future offerings in the same genre
include THE VATICAN TAPES, promised for 2014, which purportedly shows a Roman
Catholic exorcism gone wrong (a very similar premise to THE DEVIL INSIDE).
Things may also go full circle: there have long been rumours of a William Peter
Blatty-scripted television series, reimagining THE EXORCIST for a modern
There’s life in the old devil
The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to
the Devil in Cinema by Nikolas Schreck, Creation Books, 1971.
Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, edited by Steven Jay Scneider, FAB
Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by
Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St Martin’s Press, 1995.
Mondo Macabro: Weird
and Wonderful Cinema Around the World by Pete Tombs, Brainiac Books, 1997.
Plus the various pages on many of the films mentioned on Wikipedia and
Further information on the true-life Anneliese Michel. Various websites have footage which purports to show the 'real' exorcism of
Anneliese; I cannot comment on the veracity of these (seek them out and judge
There is a brief overview of Italian EXORCIST rips by
Paul Yapp on the Classic Horror website.
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.
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