2. The Exorcist III: Legion (1990)
After thirteen years, the Exorcist franchise returned, this time with original novel writer (and the original film’s writer) William Peter Blatty at the helm, after original director William Friedkin dropped out of adapting it. No Regan this time; instead, The Exorcist III: Legion follows George C. Scott’s detective hunting down a copycat to a serial killer from fifteen years before, seemingly executed, but back on the demonic prowl again.
A far more talky and literary-minded film, it begins to right some of the wrongs of its predecessor by simply having more belief in its concept. It is a far more subtle film, taking its time – there’s not too much about showy clouds of locusts or hypnosis. Brad Dourif puts in an astonishing performance as the killer; incredible as he’s confined to a cell the entire time. The lighting feels more in keeping with the original, the tone is more reverent, it’s seemingly getting back on track. It even has one of the best jump scares ever put to screen.
But the back-and-forth plot of the detecting aspect is convoluted, some aspects you have to go ‘ooh, spooky demon stuff’, and a reshot exorcism ending at the request of the producers doesn’t have any impact because it was never planned to be there. It’s interesting to think what could have been, but as it is, Legion is a film that tried to do better but was chopped up as it went; a diamond in the rough.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Was there ever any doubt?
This is the big one, the grandaddy, the one all exorcism movies look to for inspiration. When you think of an exorcism, even in passing, you think of The Exorcist. When you think of someone possessed, you think of little Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, trapped in her bed. When you think of catholic priests, you think of Max von Sydow and Jason Miller with their robes, cold breath in the air, sprinkling holy water on a floating child and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!”
Although not the first exorcism story (Ray Russell’s novel “The Case Against Satan” from 1962 is a very interesting predecessor to Blatty’s 1971 novel), and certainly not the first of the so-called “Satanic Panic” films (Rosemary’s Baby from 1968, an adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel of the same name from the year before, is usually credited with kicking that off), it is the most influential.
The slow, creeping dread, the accumulation of evidence that the girl is indeed possessed by a powerful demon, those infamous scenes of heads swivelling, projectile vomiting, staircase spider-walking; everything comes together to create a powerful, terrifying vision.
The key to The Exorcist is found in Father Damien Karras who is struggling with guilt after the death of his mother. He is haunted, and tries to save Regan to stop the aching inside, but the demon continuously preys on his fears. It is an internal conflict about humanity against faith, about why cruelty can be allowed to continue. Eventually, it is about demons using an innocent child to prove the darkness inherent in people. It accurately brings forth one of the key quotes from the novel in glorious, terrifying fashion:
“I tend to see possession most often in the little things, Damien: in the senseless, petty spites and misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends. Between lovers. Between husbands and wives. Enough of these and we have no need of Satan to manage our wars; these we manage for ourselves …for ourselves.”
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After half a century, The Exorcist remains unmissable. The rest of its franchise, less so. But which film do you think deserved more credit in this list? Were you a big fan of any of the lower-ranking entries? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and X (Twitter) for updates on more insightful movie lists.