Is The New 'Exorcist' Trilogy a Very Bad Idea in the Making?

We’ve known for a while now that David Gordon Green was set to make a new Exorcist movie. But today word broke that there are actually three new Exorcist movies on the way – a new trilogy that will bring back original star Ellen BurstynHamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr. is also on board, playing the father of a possessed child.

This news was met with a heavy dose of skepticism, and that’s not really surprising. The original Exorcist was a huge hit and remains an all-time classic, but the sequels – quality aside – have had some problems. Regardless, Universal has forked over a whopping $400 million to land the rights to make a new trilogy. But does anyone really want that at this point?

The Exorcist

The Exorcist franchise, even by horror franchise standards, is a bit of a mess. But the original movie has stood the test of time. Released in 1973 and directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist remains a revered classic, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an expertly crafted horror film that blends heavy themes of faith with spookhouse thrills and chills. Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty (adapting his own novel) tapped into a primal terror that very few filmmakers can match, especially these days. The secret to The Exorcist’s success isn’t just its impressive and ghastly special effects — which are unquestionably excellent, and hold up better than most modern-day effects. What really makes The Exorcist tick is its characters.

We care about movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). We care about Chris’ poor, possessed daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). We get to meet both of them in happier times in the opening moments of the film, and this lures us in so that when the horrific shit hits the fan, and Regan starts going through hell, we’re both invested in her plight and horrified by it, and Burstyn is incredible at portraying a mother’s anguish. We feel the hopelessness radiating off Chris: she turns to doctors to help her tormented child and none of them can do a damn thing about it. That’s doubly-terrifying because The Exorcist is set in modern times. Medical science is supposed to be able to get to the bottom of anything and root it out. But here, it’s as useless as a campfire in a monsoon.

The only help Chris can find is from the church, which is hard for her to swallow since she’s an atheist. She goes so far as to call priests “witch doctors.” But it’s a priest who becomes her only real lifeline. That priest is Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller. Just as they did with Chris and Regan, Friedkin and Blatty make sure to introduce Damien and get to know him before the horrors kick in. We like him and we feel for his own personal problems involving the death of his elderly mother coupled with his own failing faith. Miller’s performance is a work of beauty; he never really feels like an actor. He didn’t have movie-star looks and his acting style was disarmingly natural. We can easily believe he’s just a real priest caught up in the middle of this.

While we don’t get to know a whole lot about the titular exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max von Sydow), we still have enough quiet moments to make him someone we’re invested in. This is helped along by von Sydow’s calm, quiet performance. All of these elements blend together along with Friedkin’s realistic directing style to create a horror movie that is somehow both full of the supernatural and alarmingly real. When you watch The Exorcist now, it’s easy to see why it remains so iconic.

The Exorcist Franchise

Hollywood can’t say no to a franchise, so when The Exorcist broke box office records, it made perfect sense for producers to start churning out sequels. The first of those sequels, 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, deserves credit for trying new things. It would’ve been very easy to just have another kid possessed by demonic forces, but the John Boorman-directed sequel attempts to expand the mythology, such as it is. Linda Blair is back, older now, and clearly not over her traumatizing experience. A bored (and possibly drunk) Richard Burton is on hand as a new priest character, and James Earl Jones shows up wearing a giant bug costume. The end result is an admittedly bad movie. But it’s a bad movie that at least tried something.

In a sane world, The Heretic probably would’ve driven the final nail in The Exorcist series coffin. But remember: Hollywood never says never. And in 1990 we got The Exorcist III.

Normally, the third entry in a franchise is never that great, but Exorcist III is the exception to the rule (see also Halloween III: Season of the Witch).

Original author William Peter Blatty returned this time to both write and direct the film based on his book, Legion. This sequel has more direct references to the original film, but it also takes big swings, going in a completely different direction and creating a horror procedural. The results speak for themselves – Exorcist III is great, and there are times where I come very close to thinking I actually like it more than the original film.

Exorcist II turned a profit but it did not come close to replicating the success of the original movie. And while The Exorcist III is a damn good movie, it was a box office failure. Again, you might think this would be the end of the story. Instead, the franchise merely took a little nap, only to wake up again in the 2000s. And here’s where things get really messy.

Paul Schrader, a screenwriter and filmmaker who knows a thing or two about Catholic guilt, was hired to make a prequel to The Exorcist, focusing on the early days of Father Lankester Merrin, now played by Stellan Skarsgård. Schrader ultimately delivered something that producers were not happy with. The brass at Warner Bros. wanted a movie full of big jump scares and special effects, and Schrader made something far more introspective.

The solution: reshoot almost the entire damn movie with a new director. That director was Renny Harlin, the filmmaker behind Cliffhanger and other action pics. Skarsgård remained the lead, but Harlin’s film was everything Schrader’s wasn’t – big, loud, and full of dumb scares. The film, titled Exorcist: The Beginning, opened in 2004. It was promptly torn apart by critics and flopped at the box office.

“Surely, this is the end of things!” you might be thinking. But no, you’re wrong.

Warner Bros. doubled down and released Schrader’s version of the film, now titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. I’d like to tell you that Schrader’s movie was a lost masterpiece and it righted all the wrongs of Exorcist: The Beginning. But the truth is it’s really not much better than Harlin’s theatrical cut.

The overall story found new life in 2016 with The Exorcist TV series, which drew direct connections to the original film while also telling its own story. It was a lot better than it had any right to be, but not enough to keep the series from being canceled after two seasons.

Now What?

So here we are, all caught up, with three new Exorcist movies on the way. If all goes according to plan, the first movie will hit theaters on October 132023. After that, who knows? There’s a chance the two sequels go right to Peacock or never get made at all. For now, though, let’s assume they’re happening.

Is this a good idea?

I hate to immediately say “No!” For one thing, I’m not entirely averse to a new Exorcist movie. I’m thrilled that the folks involved here aren’t attempting a full-blown remake because that would be a fool’s errand. Instead, they’re making a new direct sequel, and bringing in someone with experience on making new direct sequels to horror classics: David Gordon Green.

Green’s 2018 Halloween was quite good, and I can’t wait to see the sequel, Halloween Kills. I think Green is a good filmmaker overall, and I’m sure he has some good ideas regarding what to do with The Exorcist. 

And yet…my reaction to this news was on the negative side. While it sounds good on paper to bring back Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, I’m not entirely sure what sense it makes. While all of this is subject to change, the first new Exorcist film’s story involves a new demonic possession. When his child becomes possessed, a father, played by Leslie Odom Jr., turns to Chris MacNeil for help.

Again, this sounds good on paper. Chris has some experience with these matters, after all.

But honestly, what help can she be? While Chris is a strong character in the original film, she doesn’t actually do much to save the day. Instead, it’s Father Karras who ultimately gets the job done of driving out the demon, and he ends up dying for all of his troubles. It’s not as if the new Exorcist can turn Chris into some gun-toting survivalist like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in 2018’s Halloween. What’s Chris going to do, shoot the demon?

Don’t get me wrong: I love Ellen Burstyn, and I’m happy she’s still working. But having Chris somehow be involved with this new series of films feels like a stretch. If they must tie this directly to the original, why not bring back Linda Blair as Regan? Did they offer Blair a role, only to have her turn it down? Or maybe Blair will be coming back and her deal hasn’t been signed yet? Even assuming that hypothetical scenario happens, I don’t think Regan would be much help, either. Canonically, she doesn’t really remember much of when she was possessed.

Then you have to take into consideration that this is going to be the first of three movies. How? Is Leslie Odom Jr.’s poor kid going to remain possessed for three movies in a row? Or will the two other movies be dealing with new possessions?

I suppose the bottom line here is that it’s way too early to draw too many conclusions. All I can say is that when news about David Gordon Green’s first Halloween movie broke, I was thrilled. But every new bit of info about these new Exorcist movies makes me progressively more uneasy. I hope that changes, but I can’t say I have much faith.

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