Ranking “The Exorcist” Franchise
What an excellent day for an Exorcist franchise ranking. Happy Halloween, folks!
It is our sixth year of ranking an iconic horror franchise every Halloween. For the second year in a row we dare the world of religious horror (last year we did The Omen), joining our Catholic compatriots to purge evil by ranking all of The Exorcist films.
We are leaving out one film that could be included, The Ninth Configuration. The author of the novels, William Peter Blatty, considers it the second part of his “Faith Trilogy,” and the film does contain a character mentioned in The Exorcist. But it’s a bit too far removed from the other films to be a full part of the franchise. The Exorcist also had a short TV series that ran for two season before cancellation, but we will only be ranking the five main films.
Without further ado, let’s grab our holy water and get to it!
5. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Usually the final film before a remake is the worst in a horror franchise, the killer of that continuity. The Exorcist is a rare franchise that has never received a modern remake of the original film, perhaps due to the prestige of the original.
Instead, the worst film of this franchise is the direct sequel. Exorcist II seemingly had many harbingers for success. It was directed by another prestige director, John Boorman, who had made Deliverance just two films prior. It also brought in excellent actors such as Max von Sydow, Louise Fletcher, Richard Burton, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, and even saw the return of Linda Blair.
A look behind the curtain reveals the problems. Boorman had been asked to direct the original film, but he turned it down due to his lack of interest. The studio begged him to come again for the sequel, and this time he accepted. But he completely rewrote the film during shooting, rendering it an absolute mess. The story is a haphazard mixture of half-baked ideas and confusing developments. Cheap effects and aimless editing make the film confusing to follow and exceptionally corny in many scenes.
The film has a strange obsession with hypnosis and psychic visions, resulting in an obnoxious number of scenes with Linda Blair and other actors sitting in a chair with cords strapped to their heads. it also taps into racist stereotypes in its depiction of Africa, making overt what the original film hinted at about the demon’s origins. There are nuggets of something interesting with the constant use of locust imagery, emphasizing that the demon is a primal and ancient entity. But any tension is cut down by the hokey quality of every aspect of production.
The film’s worst sin is that the plot renders the sacrifice of the first film pointless. The demon still lingers on in Regan, and therefore Father Karras’s entire arc is essentially a waste of time. This story choice might have been redeemed had there been anything else of value in this film. But apart from a few half-decent performances, nearly every part of this movie is monumentally terrible. No amount of “Our Father’s” can redeem this trash. Author Blatty and director William Friedkin both lambasted this film as an insult to the original, and we couldn’t agree more.
- Global Ranking: #10,684
- 3/6 on Flickchart’s The Omen filter
- Wins 20% of its matchups
- 13 users have it in their top 20
4. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
The film’s production story is far more interesting than the film itself. Warner Bros. set out to create a prequel to the Exorcist trilogy, perhaps due to several other horror franchises getting remakes, sequels, or prequels around the same time. The studio originally hired John Frankenheimer for the project, but he retired due to health issues. Paul Schrader then sought the job, as the studio seemingly wanted to take a less flashy and more philosophical approach. He was given a decent budget and the ability to write most of the script, and he nearly finished the movie, teaser trailer and all. However, the company balked upon seeing his version and did not think it would have any commercial viability.
In a rare, nearly unprecedented move, the studio handed the reigns over to director Renny Harlin and hired a new screenwriter who rewrote almost the entire film. In short, the studio essentially had Harlin reshoot and remake the movie with new characters added, some characters taken away, and with multiple roles recast. This amount of overhaul so late in production is stunning to contemplate.
Unfortunately, all of their efforts were for naught, as Harlin’s film is simply not that interesting or good. The prequel film covers Father Merrin, the title character of the original film, as he suffers a crisis of faith similar to Father Karras’s in the first movie. Merrin has left the church and is conducting archeological digs in Africa. The very premise hints at some of the issues with the work, which is that it essentially repeats the same arc of the first film.
The reasoning behind the crisis of faith is at least somewhat interesting, and likely would generate a genuine foundational quake. And Stellan Skarsgård does a fine enough job in the role of young Merrin. He does not quite have the gravitas that Max von Sydow had, but Skarsgård does bring grit to the role.
The rest of the film, though, is a series of fairly predictable and dull choices. Studio interference is likely to blame for the corny plot points, and the effort struggles to find anything interesting beyond riffing on the demon from the original film.
Exorcist II is where the demon got the silly name Pazuzu, and this prequel retreads some of its missteps, dealing with the African setting and Merrin’s fight to free a town from evil. The exorcism in this film, compared to the first film’s heavy treatment, feels like a dumb action-movie encounter.
Cheap CGI and even cheaper callbacks to lines from the original film will leave you groaning louder than the demon. This is another entry in the franchise that Blatty criticized, stating that seeing it was his “most humiliating professional experience.” While perhaps a tad better than that, The Beginning is still hardly worthy of consideration as anything more than a footnote.
- Global Ranking: #11,142
- 4/6 on Flickchart’s The Omen filter
- Wins 20% of its matchups
- 13 users have it in their top 20
3. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
You’ve heard most of the fun production story above, but let’s conclude it here. After handing Renny Harlin the keys to the kingdom and releasing Exorcist: The Beginning, critics and audiences alike panned it.
Pivoting yet again, the studio went back to Paul Schrader‘s version and spent even more money hiring an editor to compile his version of the film — an even crazier occurrence in the Hollywood business model. They eventually asked Schrader himself to come back and edit it. Unfortunately, the studio only forked over an additional $35,000, resulting Schrader only being able to partially complete the film. The score was Frankensteined together from The Beginning‘s score, metal band Dog Fashion Disco, and unpaid work from Angelo Badalamenti.
What a wild journey for a film that is only mildly better than The Beginning. Because Paul Schrader’s vision is worked into it, it at least has a more immediate and unique take on the franchise’s crisis of faith theme. The film abandons the flashbacks of Harlin’s version, the cringy demon and exorcism scenes, and all of the other gimmicks for a film that’s more quiet and contemplative.
Yet it still drags almost as substantially as the Harlin version. Skarsgård continues to be strong in the lead role, but his character mostly wanders around Africa without much to do. There is a little more intrigue in the notion of a false possession and healing, and the androgynous “perfect” being that the demon becomes is at least a unique take.
Still, this is only a mid-tier film at best. It never match the heights of this franchise either in terror or in thought-out character arcs. The film is as dry as its sun-drenched desert setting. Blatty was nicer, at least, in his review of it.
- Global Ranking: #13,194
- 5/6 on Flickchart’s The Omen filter
- Wins 27% of its matchups
- 4 users have it in their top 20
2. The Exorcist III (1990)
Most of the sequels in this franchise have little worthy of praise, but that all changes with The Exorcist III. Directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the books and script for the first film, The Exorcist III manages to be the first genuinely chilling entry apart from the original. Casting George C. Scott as the police lieutenant Kinderman, who plays a small role in the original film, he encounters a series of religious killings that link back both to Father Karras from the original film and the Gemini Killer, a serial killer that was executed years ago.
Blatty originally resisted any idea of a sequel to The Exorcist, but an idea eventually entered his head to do a feature film called Legion and to have William Friedkin return to direct. The studio was keen to support a sequel despite the failure of the second film. Friedkin and Blatty eventually parted ways, though, in a disagreement over the story direction. Blatty decided to release the story as a novel instead, but the success of the novel led to him continuing developing his film ideas. While Blatty originally tapped John Carpenter to direct, Carpenter stepped out after he realized that Blatty really wanted to direct it himself.
While a Friedkin or Carpenter sequel is fun to imagine, Blatty did a pretty good job himself. The film burrows into the psyche of Kinderman as he plunges further and further into a series of events that confront his idea of reality. Scott is great in the lead role, with his typical barking rage suiting the character’s journey wonderfully. There are more than a few great sequences, including a great turn from Brad Dourif.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. Far from it. It still drags in spots and feels like it has to replicate every part of the original. It features long, contemplative discovery of the supernatural. With such a singular focus on one character, instead of the double-pronged approach of the original, there isn’t quite enough there to sustain the running time. It also has some off-the-wall sequences that are too silly to work as intended.
Still, The Exorcist III is the most worthy follow-up to one of the best horror films of all time. While there is occasionally too much hokum, the pros outweigh the cons.
- Global Ranking: #2,685
- 2/6 on Flickchart’s The Omen filter
- Wins 41% of its matchups
- 23 users have it in their top 20
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Was there any doubt? The Exorcist is not only the king of its franchise, it is also one of the best horror films and overall films ever made. Just what makes the film tick? A marriage of reality with the fiction certainly helps. Blatty wrote the novel after being inspired by a supposed real exorcism. It was an instant hit, and a film was quickly put into production.
The story of the intense search for a director and cast has been meticulously detailed by others, with many notable names turning down the directorial chair and the lead roles. Many were uncomfortable about working with intense material featuring a young girl enduring some truly horrible terrors and a serious depiction of religious evil. William Friedkin was eventually hired when Blatty insisted on him due to the manic energy of The French Connection.
The immediacy and realism is likely a huge part of the film’s success. It feels grounded and true-to-life. The wealthy Georgetown setting disrupts the notion that horror only occurs in far-flung or eerie places, and visting those Georgetown steps yourself certainly adds to the power of the film.
The evil within the movie feels like it is taken seriously. So many horror films become cartoonish in their depiction of evil, or are too laden with overdone effects that make the events a more remote experience. Such films reach such absurd heights that they belong firmly in the realm of fiction.
Not so here. Because the evil and terror are approached so clinically, with even our religious characters taking an arms-length approach, the realization that evil exists hits deep and hard as it happens. Credit also goes to the great performances, like Ellen Burstyn‘s terror, exhaustion, and sorrow that convey a mother’s worry about an unexplainable terror plaguing her child.
Friedkin’s direction is also fantastic. The film is perfectly paced, drawing you into the mystery subtly while also holding your attention with great character arcs. Father Karras’s struggles with his mother’s issues and his own lack of faith help endear you to him before his purpose in the film becomes obvious. The excellent cinematography from Owen Roizman draws you in as well and achieves some truly iconic shots throughout the film. Notable, of course, is the misty arrival of the titular character himself.
It would be easy to accuse the film of being almost too showy in spots. From the head-twisting and the spider-crawl to the young girl’s string of profanities and crucifix masturbation, the series of memorable scenes almost feel overdone. But just the right touch of tone and pacing makes it all gel together and scare you at the right times.
The Exorcist is a horror masterpiece and one of the rare films to truly contemplate evil. While there are parallels to man’s evil within, the film never cheapens itself by getting overly metaphorical. The pain and loss are felt deeply and resound with your soul as a viewer, and that’s what true cinema is all about.
- Global Ranking: #242
- 1/6 on Flickchart’s The Omen filter
- Wins 50% of its matchups
- 9353 users have it in their top 20