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Devious Dialogues: Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak on ‘The Exorcist’ Franchise

For their third horror crosstalk, Mike Thorn and A.M. (Anya) Novak discuss William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist and its controversial sequels/prequels. Over 40 years after the initial release, the original film still enjoys widespread acclaim and constant reference, while the other installments remain divisive. Novak and Thorn compare thoughts and opinions, while also considering The Exorcist’s deeper meanings and implications.

Mike: I was only 12 or 13 when I first saw The Exorcist on TV, which almost definitely helps explain why I found it so terrifying. But I often wonder how much my upbringing might also factor into my strong response to this film; as someone who was raised in a Catholic household, am I more sensitive to the subject matter? While I identify as an agnostic at this point in my life, I feel like having that religious presence in my childhood probably affects my reaction in a big way. I think this comes through not only in the fact that I still find it quite scary, but also in my reaction to its unapologetically (Christian) Manichean morality. More than any other horror film that I can remember, this one seems to sincerely believe in pure evil. You were around the same age when you first saw it, right? Has your relationship to The Exorcist changed at all over time?

While watching it recently, I couldn’t help but reflect on the recent onslaught of very heavily, blatantly Exorcist-influenced films (from Ouija: Origin of Evil to Exeter to The Conjuring). Do you think these repeated rehearsals or re-imaginings change The Exorcist in some ways?

Anya: I saw The Exorcist at around the same age as you. I convinced my mother to rent the film for me after I successfully read the entire book one summer, and she held up her end of the bargain. At the time, I was dragged to church every week, but had begun to question the Southern Baptist upbringing I had. In a few years’ time, I would become comfortable in my lack of faith and stop going to church altogether, but that didn’t stop me from being terrified of Captain Howdy. I genuinely feared having my body possessed by a demon despite also believing that such things didn’t exist. Even today, as a content atheist, I find that occult horror still elicits the strongest emotions out of me. Whereas I was once terrified of a demon taking over my body, I now fear the general idea of not being in control of my own person, and of being a prisoner in my own skin. So, to answer your question, my relationship with The Exorcist has changed over time. But, it’s a more lateral move than one of quality or degrees. I’m still afraid, but the film hits a different pressure point in my psyche now. As far as re-imaginings and Exorcist-influenced films, I like to watch them because, like any other horror subgenre, the central monster may stay the same, but the thematics change over time. The Dawn of the Dead zombies represent something far different than those of 28 Days Later. The antagonist of A Girl Walks Home at Night may have fangs and a cloak, but the symbolism surrounding her is a far cry from that of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. As society changes, so do our fears, and horror has always been the most powerful reflection of those fears. In that context, it becomes fun to look at recent possession films and see what scares us now, and how The Exorcist’s formula has been utilized. It doesn’t change the original in my eyes, but it does put a finger on the pulse of our cultural trepidations.

Mike: Great point. I think it speaks brilliantly to the genre’s constant adaptability and susceptibility to evolution. When I first saw John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic a few years ago, I strongly disliked it — I went into it with my arms crossed (“Why even make a sequel to The Exorcist?”). Revisiting the film recently, I was stunned by my completely opposite reaction. It seems to me that, as a sequel, Exorcist II knowingly refutes its predecessor’s tone and aesthetics. If The Exorcist is a mostly enclosed, dread-inducing domestic drama, Boorman’s response is a visually exuberant study of huge psychological and spiritual spaces. It’s most definitely a sequel, because it deals so extensively with the first film’s characters and narrative, but it also almost explicitly counters so many of Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s ideas. If the first film is, in some sense, about pure evil, Boorman’s production reacts by taking seriously the possibility of “pure good.” The thing is, The Exorcist can’t be topped for pure affect and terror — it’s a perfectly composed expression of its ideas. I think Boorman made the right choice in taking the material to a totally different place. For its ambition and bombast (boosted by that amazing Ennio Morricone score), I must say that I kind of love this film. Having said all this, I realize there are many Exorcist fans who feel very differently. What’s your relationship to Exorcist II?

Anya: You’ve brought up an interesting point, that Exorcist II attempted to flip everything its predecessor did. When thinking about the wild variety of prequels and sequels in regard to tone and visual approach, The Exorcist franchise seems to be the most experimental. The story itself is simple, but its aesthetic is malleable, and Boorman ran with that into heavy psychological horror territory. Exorcist II is, at its core, an origin story. While I’m not averse to origin stories (see: my unapologetic support of Halloween 6’s Thorn storyline), this one just failed to hold my attention. I have tried on four different occasions to see what Pauline Kael calls, “winged camp — a horror fairy tale gone wild,” but all I find is the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks methodology that has plagued directors of big-budget sequels since the 1970s. From the mumbo-jumbo dream-sharing Synchronizer device that was really just an excuse to re-use footage from the original film, to the now-psychic Regan and her ability to conquer evil through the power of tap dancing, the entire film bewildered me. I honestly think it would have made an amazing psychedelic musical, and I’m still pulling for “Pazuzu and Me” to hit Broadway. Boorman did indeed take the material to a totally different place, but he did so with a grandeur that didn’t jive with the simplicity that I loved about the original. I can say one nice thing about it: as always, Ennio Morricone can do no wrong.

Mike: If and when “Pazuzu and Me” makes its way to Broadway, I’m there.

Following my re-watch of Exorcist II, I checked out Blatty’s Exorcist III for the first time and enjoyed it thoroughly. It feels kind of like a meeting place between the first and second film’s tones (although it definitely sways more toward the first). But even despite its oppressive mood and serious, sustained interest in evil’s capacities, it pushes tone and narrative a little further than Friedkin’s film. I’m speaking as someone who hasn’t seen the new Scream Factory edit, and who hasn’t read the source novel, Legion. Even in its apparently compromised state, though, this is an affecting and calculated piece of horror cinema; I appreciate its patience, its visual calm and the way it lets its philosophical ideas rise slowly to the surface to generate fear. What are your thoughts on Exorcist III? Have you seen both versions? Do you, by any chance, love Brad Dourif as much as I do? I think he’s one of the great living actors, and he’s on the top of his game here.

Anya: I adore Dourif in everything from Exorcist III to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and lately I’ve been enjoying his role in Rob Zombie’s Halloween. In Exorcist III, he’s the man behind one of horror’s greatest jump scares, you know the one! Exorcist III jives incredibly well with the first film, though my dream double feature would be to pair it with its tonal and thematic sister film, David Fincher’s Se7en. One of its greatest strengths is just what you touched upon, the way it allows ideas to slowly bubble to the surface of a simmering narrative. Not one of the gruesome murders is shown; we only see the aftermath, and we witness the investigators putting clues together. As medical reports come back and witnesses are interviewed, we start to get a bigger picture. So, the horrifying nature of the crimes — and the impossibility of their execution — builds dread in a way that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. In fact, the prequels attempt to garner that level of mounting fear and apprehension using a different approach of brutal onscreen deaths, and the effect is lackluster. Exorcist III’s power lies in its subtlety and a near-Lovecraftian ethos to keep the monster in the shadows, and its monstrosities in plain view.

Mike: Well said. I love Dourif’s work in Zombie’s Halloween films as well; one of his scenes in Halloween II almost always brings me to tears…

Now onto the prequels. I’m almost inclined to ask “What the hell went wrong?” and leave it at that. But, maybe you feel a little more favorably toward one (or both) of these films. I’ve heard many people say that Dominion looks great in comparison to Exorcist: The Beginning, but I found them equally painful to slog through. It’s bizarre, because they both feature so many talented people (Paul Schrader, Vittorio Storaro, Renny Harlin, etc.), but I found almost nothing to enjoy in either of them. Beginning may be more visually dynamic, but it’s even more irritatingly reliant on the worst kind of “Mickey Mouse scoring” and broad tropes. And while Dominion lacks any kind of texture or atmosphere, Schrader treats the material with a kind of respectful seriousness. Bottom line, though, I didn’t care for either of these at all. How about you? Do you prefer either one of them? What do you think caused the films to turn out the way they did?

Anya: One good thing I will say about the Exorcist prequels is that they are closest in tone and narrative to the TV show, which I really enjoy. That being said, there are fundamental differences with Dominion/The Beginning that, while bold, are more harmful than helpful to the films overall. The main problem is the shift in battleground. Whereas we began our journey in a serene Georgetown suburb, we’re now in stark, unforgiving British East Africa, a change of scenery so polar that it dulls the atmospheric bite before the teeth are even bared. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King wrote, “There is no horror without beauty…no nasty without nice” (p.510). There’s no moment where a rift occurs between our normal world and malevolent mayhem where demons have free reign. In The Exorcist, we see the beautiful suburb and get to know Regan and her loving mother, when that sense of normalcy is literally shattered with a bang in their attic. No such catalyst is available in Dominion, where a sinister undercurrent is present from the beginning. That sort of heel-turn isn’t necessary for a good occult story (The Serpent and the Rainbow proved as much), but it was integral to the terror of the original Exorcist film. We were horrified at the sight of this American family being torn apart, and of this girl-next-door being corrupted in the most invasive ways. In the prequels, there isn’t a suburban idealistic equilibrium to be restored, and so the film continuously plods along with its baggage all hanging off one shoulder.

In Schrader’s director commentary on Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, he has his own thoughts on the film’s flaws:

“One of the inherent problems with the script I directed, as a horror film, lay in its very premise and the originality of its premise. The feeling was that you had to get away from the Friedkin Exorcist because it was such a classic. One of the ways to do that was to switch the possessed person from a girl to a boy. But even more importantly was a switch of the very nature of possession. So the boy who is possessed is afflicted, he’s an outcast. As the possession takes hold, he gets better, and everyone else gets more and more insane. This, I thought, was an ingenious twist on the formula and really separated it from the Friedkin film; it was its own film. When you have a young person getting better, you’ve essentially taken the motor of the horror vehicle. Horror is based on the innocent being tormented as the clock runs, Well, we didn’t have the innocent being tormented anymore, the innocent gets better. And try as you might with any gimmicks or any sound effects, that’s not a very effective horror mechanism. And that was fine with me, because I had in my mind a slightly different kind of film; a film more about Merrin’s journey than a strictly horror vehicle.”

Again, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that the series has been largely vulnerable to interpretation, for better or worse. What do you think is the most essential part of the Exorcist story?

Mike: A great and challenging question. I think if I go back to Blatty’s novel and Friedkin’s film, what I see at the center is a fairly rudimentary set of ideas: that pure evil exists as a destructive force, and that its foil can be found in “goodness” as defined by Catholicism. But I think both the novel and original film also house ideas about the human psyche possessing an inherent Apollonian/Dionysian divide. Returning to your earlier ideas about setting, I think The Exorcist peels back the thin veneer of suburban comfort to reveal the always-present threat of violence, severe mental illness and drug addiction. Of course, we also see horror in the notion of one’s self stripped away or alienated from one’s own body — this connects to the idea you phrased so well, the idea of “not being in control of one’s person.” All of The Exorcist’s confrontational imagery allows for these kinds of readings, consciously or otherwise. So I guess my assumption is that Blatty uses this narrative as a vessel to study human morality within a specifically Catholic context, but along with the genre-specific apparatus comes a slew of other interpretive possibilities. There’s so much that can be said about both the novel and film’s dealings with family, as well, especially in terms of the central mother-daughter relationship. Like all great horror texts, I think The Exorcist has access to so many of the “pressure points” you’ve described. What might initially appear to be a fundamental simplicity is actually just a framework within which Blatty and Friedkin open up a universe of ideas. The Exorcist is huge.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a horror enthusiast and contributor to Daily Grindhouse, 100 Films/100 Scenes, Horror Writers and 52 Weeks of Horror. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she’s scribbling nightmares for the masses in the form of short stories. 

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