Collins’ Crypt: It’s (Finally) A Good Time To Be A Fan Of The EXORCIST Series
(WARNING: There are major spoilers for Exorcist III and the Exorcist TV show below)
I don't know how many 50-60 year olds read my stuff, but I'm guessing it's a minority, and thus it's safe to assume pretty much none of us (yes, myself included) can remember or were even around when The Exorcist was enjoying its original box office run. Nowadays if a horror movie makes more than $50m at the domestic box office it's considered a huge hit, and the rare ones that gross over $100m are labeled phenomenons. But The Exorcist made almost twice that amount in 1974, or the equivalent of $888m in 2016 money - just shy of what The Force Awakens raked in earlier this year, and still ahead of things like Avatar and Jurassic World in terms of ticket sales. The idea of an R-rated horror movie striking that kind of chord with mainstream audiences warms my heart, but it also kind of saddens me - I know it will never happen again on that scale.
And if it somehow did, it probably won't be Exorcist 5 that did it. The box office figures for the first film are impressive on their own, but comically so when compared to its four sequels (including both versions of the 4th film); for starters, the *combined* ticket sales for all four followups amount for only 1/4 the number of tickets sold for the original (and no, that's not counting its 2000 re-release). With the exception of 1990's Exorcist III, all of them have better stories from behind the scenes than the ones being told on-screen - 1977's The Heretic was such a chaotic production that we'd probably use it as the primary example of such if not for Apocalypse Now two years later, and the fourth film was essentially made twice, with Renny Harlin replacing original director Paul Schrader for "reshoots" that ultimately comprised 90% of the finished film. Even Exorcist III had its fair share of production trouble, but unlike the other films the result still did the brand proud; the seams showed in spots, but with original author William Peter Blatty at the helm (based on his book Legion) it's no surprise that it's the most thematically consistent followup to the original classic, and the only one that won't make you wonder what the hell people were thinking when they made it.
But it's been well known that the film went through changes at the request of the studio, some of which Blatty ultimately came around on, others he did not. The biggest revision was the 3rd act, as Blatty's film had no actual exorcist or exorcism scene in his original cut, something the studio thought might be an issue for people buying a ticket for a movie titled "Exorcist III". So Nicol Williamson's priest character was clumsily shoehorned into the film, because to the producers it made more sense to change the movie (at a cost) than change the title (that they didn't even opt for a vaguer title like "Exorcist: Reborn" or something like that, and insisted on reminding folks about the 2nd film with a telltale roman numeral is an even sillier decision to my eyes). They also reshot Brad Dourif's role as The Gemini Killer with Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in the original and whose body the Gemini was inhabiting. But for many reasons, Miller couldn't do the role as needed for the film, and so Dourif was brought back to reshoot parts of his own performance in order to fit the new version, which would have both actors playing the role and Blatty cutting between them when it made sense (it's easier to follow onscreen than it sounds, believe me).
It's actually a change I like, but to this day, Dourif isn't happy with how it turned out. And if you don't believe me, just watch his brand new interview on the Blu-ray, which hits stores today and features both cuts of the film - the theatrical we all know and mostly love, and a reconstructed version of Blatty's original version. The latter is assembled from a remastered version as well as a VHS workprint, so it's not exactly as revelatory as Scream Factory's similar treatment of Nightbreed, which coincidentally was also a 1990 theatrical release from Morgan Creek. For that one they were able to find original masters of nearly all of the material that was cut, but they didn't have as much luck here, so the quality changes when it cuts to the newly rediscovered footage. It looks fine - it's not like you won't know what you're looking at or anything, but it's a shame they weren't able to present it in all its intended glory. Still, it's been something fans have asked about for 25 years, so to finally have it at all is a reason to celebrate, even if it's not as perfect as we may have hoped.
To soften the blow, the disc comes with lots of other material, including new interviews with some of the film's cast and crew (an inordinate number of cast members have since died, so that reduces those folks' availability) and loads of vintage interviews/behind-the-scenes stuff that Warner couldn't be bothered to include on either of its previous releases. While they've always done right by the original film (both incarnations), the releases for II and III have always been fairly bare-bones affairs, and the dueling versions of part 4 offer (drama-free) commentaries and little else. And that's not likely to change anytime soon; WB has shown little interest in giving these "niche" movies the sort of gala presentation that's practically second nature to labels like Scream Factory, as they don't see the value in it (to be fair, they're all movies that bombed). The only reason Exorcist III is an exception is because the film isn't actually owned by WB - it was a Morgan Creek production originally distributed by Fox during a period where Warner apparently didn't care much about the Exorcist property. So while "in-house" Warner productions remain out of reach for Scream and their peers, this one's wonky distribution history allowed us to get the special edition we deserve.
Ordinarily, this would be pretty much the only good news to come out of the Exorcist brand for decades, but it's got competition. Few, myself included, had high hopes for an Exorcist TV show, especially since it would be on Fox and not a cable channel that could be more trusted with an IP like this - my fear was that it would be a lot like, well, their awful Lethal Weapon show, which premiered around the same time. But I couldn't have been more wrong, as the show started strong and actually IMPROVED on subsequent weeks, as the character development strengthened and our ensemble began interacting. And it smartly wasn't a remake of the original story - a quick shot of an online news clipping about Regan MacNeil in the first episode showed us that it was set in the same universe as the films (well, not The Heretic, which was never acknowledged in anything else), but was not following any of its characters.
Or was it? After a big reveal was teased for the show's fifth episode, I chugged a coffee and stayed up late to watch it and the previous week's episode on DVR this past weekend before anyone spoiled it for me, and watched the entire thing trying to guess what the twist would be. Since the show began it's been clear that there's something wrong with Casey (Hannah Kasulka), with her older sister Kat (Brianne Howey) and parents Geena Davis and Alan Ruck battling over how to get her help - Kat wants her to see doctors and professionals, mom wants her to see a priest (dad is just trying to keep the peace, and is a little out of it after an accident left him kind of lightly brain damaged). So I thought maybe the twist would be that she was actually just sick and someone else was possessed, or that one of the priests (Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels, both of whom come with plenty of baggage) would turn out to be evil in some way, and thus never saw the actual twist coming. After a quick throwaway reference to DC and the discovery of a bible signed to "Rags", Davis' character Angela Rance reveals that she's really Regan MacNeil - the Linda Blair character from the old films.
Someone pointed out that this would mean absolutely nothing to a non-fan who was watching the show, and they're not wrong - but based on its ratings and the fact that The Exorcist is undeniably the most successful horror film of all time, there can't be too many people tuning in who hadn't seen it, so I'm willing to bet everyone watching knew exactly what it meant. And thus they also realized how it changed the dynamic of the show and made the previous episodes worth re-watching now that we know the truth; it certainly explains why Angela Rance (an anagram for "A clean Regan", heh) was so quick to trust in a priest when her daughter started showing signs of being possessed, as she's kind of an expert. One could argue that the show should have stood on its own for a longer period (or forever?), but since it happened relatively quickly we know for sure that it was part of the intention all along, and not a panicked decision based on low ratings.
And if you ARE one of those non-movie watchers who was watching because they were a fan of Davis or one of the other actors, the show has offered plenty of completely new material to keep you engaged. The two (completely original) priest characters are the highlight for me - if the show continues I'd love to see it focus squarely on them finding new families/cases every season, rather than find ways for poor Regan/Angela to continue being menaced by Pazuzu and his ilk. There's also a pretty grim serial murder storyline that fans of Exorcist III can appreciate (the end of episode two, with several murders being committed in a Chicago suburb, was THE 'holy shit' highlight of the series until Angela's reveal), not to mention one-off incidents like a spontaneous combustion to keep things on the crazy side. But what really grabs me about the show - and the reason you should be watching - is that it feels more like a cable show than a network one. The serialized storytelling is one thing, but it's also not quick to toss in cliffhangers for the sake of commercial breaks - one time they just went to ads after a quiet scene of the Rance family having dinner. The censors don't seem to be too strict for the show either, which also adds to the feeling that the show transcends its place on the same network that inflicts Lucifer on us.
But in a way, it's kind of a no-brainer that the franchise would finally find new life on TV after so many failed movies. It's easy to see why the movies never measured up - the shoes were simply too big to fill, and with expectations set so high the films always had too many people calling shots and second guessing everyone else, which is why every sequel is kind of a mess (even Exorcist III - it just manages to overcome its stumbles in a way the other sequels couldn't manage). The TV show is shot in Chicago, which probably keeps interfering on-set execs to a minimum (unlike NY or LA produced shows), and the fast pace of TV production probably minimizes how much rewriting can be inflicted upon it. And unlike the movies, there isn't as much money riding on it - they spent at least $80m on the last film, for example. So with less to worry about, there's a more consistent vision, and thus it's turning out quite good.
If only more people knew that already! The ratings aren't exactly cancellation-ready, but they're close, and it's far from a lock on a renewal. Alas, telling people to watch a show never works in my experience, so I won't bother. Instead, I'll just join in its small but vocal chorus of supporters, and hope that the show's ratings remain steady enough for Fox to see it through (they put it on Friday nights, so they can't be expecting it to pull Empire numbers). But more importantly, I'll cherish the fact that for the first time since I was introduced to the franchise in 1999, there's a reason to be excited about it again. The Blu-ray of III will hopefully encourage a fresh wave of defenders (not to mention new fans), and if the TV show's quality stays this consistent it can top III as the franchise's most worthy followup to the legendary original. Perhaps someday, the locusts and CGI hyenas can be completely forgotten, and the Exorcist brand can be known for its quality instead of its misfires.