“What’d you expect?” asks Anthony Hopkins of a young would-be priest who watches him perform an exorcism in the new film The Rite . “Spinning heads? Pea soup?” Well, as a matter of fact, we sort of did expect those things. Opening today, The Rite is the latest in a long, long line of film attempting (and usually failing) to replicate the success of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist.
Quickie rip-off imitation movies were nothing new in the 1970s, and similar smash hits saw plenty of Xeroxes rushed into the marketplace on their heels — Jaws was followed by Orca, Piranha, Tentacles, Grizzly, Great White, Mako-Jaws of Death, Barracuda, and Tintorera: Killer Shark, while Star Wars begat Star Crash, Laser Blast, and the original Battlestar Galactica — but those eventually died down. Not The Exorcist, which has inspired sequels and copycats to this very day. We’re not sure why filmmakers keep trying to top the terror of The Exorcist, but they keep on trying. Here’s a quick look at a few of its many imitators.
This 1974 Italian horror film (originally titled Chi Sei?) was so close to The Exorcist that Warner Brothers sued for copyright infringement (they lost). Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, the film was picked up for US distribution by exploitation mavens Film Ventures International. Critics weren’t kind (Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s not well acted, its ‘Possessound’ sounds routed through the ventilation system and the print looks like it was left too long in demonic possession”), but it rode its resemblance to The Exorcist to a $15 million gross. Five years later, Mario Bava’s Italian film Shock was released in the US as Beyond the Door II, even though (ha ha, minor point) it shared no characters, cast, or crew with the original. Several other Italian-made exorcism films also followed suit, including The House of Exorcism and L’Anticristo (aka Blasphemy, The Antichrist, and The Tempter).
One of the few ’70s film genres more lucrative than the Exorcist rip-off was the so-called “blaxpoitation” cycle — movies geared towards black audiences whose low budgets and exploitable elements made for big profits. So it probably didn’t take long for somebody to fuse the two, resulting in Abby, the tale of a bishop and archaeologist (played by William Marshall, aka “Blacula”) who releases an African demon that possess his daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed). According to the brothers Medved, who nominated Abby in their book The Golden Turkey Awards for one of the worst blaxpoitation movies ever made, “the climactic exorcism takes place on the dance floor of a discotheque.” Oh, dear.
One of the stranger obsessions of international bad-movie fans are Turkish rip-offs. These duplications of popular Hollywood movies didn’t just bear similarities to their source material — the Turkish filmmakers would replicate scenes shot-for-shot, sometimes lifting music and special effects right out of the originals, with no regard for copyright (or, for the most part, artistry). Several of the Turkish rip-offs, including their takes on The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., and Superman, eventually made their way to America, via shoddy bootleg videotapes (here are some clips). Unsurprisingly, the Turkish turned out their own riff on The Exorcist, 1974’s Seytan; you can compare the original and the unofficial remake above.
Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil
German director Walter Boos decided the one thing missing from The Exorcist was some good ol’ fashioned grindhouse-style sex, so he made his possession victim a busty redhead with an even dirtier mouth than Linda Blair. Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil (alternately released as Beyond the Darkness and Devil’s Female — exploitation movies often had multiple titles so they could keep re-releasing them as ostensibly new product) hit US shores in 1976 and enjoyed a long run in some of our, shall we say, less reputable movie houses.
Well, seriously, how could any of the imitators expect to replicate the success of The Exorcist when even the film’s cast and crew couldn’t pull it off? The first attempt at a sequel was John Boorman’s much-maligned 1977 film Exorcist II: The Heretic. Though the original film’s director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty both declined to participate, Linda Blair and Max von Sydow both returned. But audiences loathed the sequel; response (including unintentional laughter) was so bad at initial screenings that director Boorman went back and tried to save the film with an eleventh-hour re-edit. Blatty took a stab at continuing the story himself in 1990, when he wrote and directed The Exorcist III, based on his novel Legion; it received mediocre reviews and decent box office, but nothing approaching the response to the original, and the franchise lay dormant again.
Cut to ten years later: the original Exorcist, supplemented with deleted scenes and a bit of digital trickery (or, as it should be called, “pulling a Lucas”) was re-released to theaters as The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, and did surprisingly brisk business for an over 30-year-old picture. So the sequel machine was put back into gear; Warner Brothers and Morgan’s Creek hired Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader to direct a prequel, telling the story of young Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgård). But the studio was unhappy with Schrader’s low-key, contemplative film, so they ended up gutting the entire enterprise, hiring Renny Harlin — he of Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island — to start over. When his version of the story, Exorcist: The Beginning, was released in 2004, it made some money, but critical notices were scathing. Then, in another odd move, Morgan’s Creek gave Schrader the limited cash needed to finish his version, and released that one too, under the title Dominon: Prequel to The Exorcist. It got marginally better notices, but tanked in its (admittedly limited) theatrical release. That embarrassing turn of events over, Warner Brothers seems content to leave the franchise alone — until, of course, the inevitable unnecessary remake.
William Girdler, the auteur behind Abby, wasn’t done with tales of exorcism just yet; this time, he mated The Exorcist with the “Red Power” movement and came up with The Manitou, the goofy story of a white woman (Susan Strasberg) with a tumor on her neck that is, it turns out, the reincarnated spirit of Indian shaman, seeking revenge on the white man. (Isn’t that always the way?) Her husband (good ol’ Tony Curtis) seeks out an Indian shaman to help get the spirit out of his wife; the props and rituals may be new, but this is the same ol’ story, cranked out one more time, except this time, y’know, with a tumor carrying a reincarnated shaman on the back of a white lady’s neck.
The Exorcist would certainly seem ripe for parody, though only Richard Pryor (in a bit on his That Nigger’s Crazy album, subsequently adapted into a Saturday Night Live sketch) has done it with any panache. Bob Logan’s lead-footed feature-length parody, Repossessed, was released in 1990, with interest in the franchise high surrounding the release of Exorcist III. Starring Leslie Nielsen (of course) and Linda Blair, it flopped with audiences and critics alike.
The Exorcist‘s 2000 theatrical re-release was preceded, by only a couple of months, by the Wayans Brothers’ horror spoof Scary Movie. When that comedy was an unexpected box-office smash, Dimension rushed a sequel into production for release less than a year later, this time sending up the clichés of ancient haunted-house movies rather than the more recent meta-horror comedies of the original. With The Exorcist on their mind, Scary Movie 2‘s seven (!) screenwriters devised a lengthy opening sequence that would send up that film, with the wit and class we’ve come to expect from the series (ahem). In a typically odd (and paycheck-inspired) decision, Marlon Brando agreed to play the role of “Father McFeely,” but he was too ill to do more than a day’s work. The role was recast, with James Woods taking over; it would have been Brando’s final appearance in a theatrical film.
This 2005 effort attempted to set itself apart with its well-respected cast — Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson play the leads — and its “based on a true story” pedigree (The Rite is working from the same playbook). Director Scott Derrickson tells his tale through the prism of the courtroom drama, with Wilkinson’s Father Richard Moore on trial for the title event. Reviews were somewhat mixed, but the film took in an astonishing $75 million in domestic box office (and $69 million more worldwide). And with that, exorcism was lucrative again.
Is that title a promise? Hostel director Eli Roth produced this 2010 fusion of exorcism story and Blair Witch-style handheld “found footage” mock-doc, in which an evangelical reverend (Patrick Fabian) attempts to drive the devil out of a farmer’s daughter. Critics were kind (“It’s nothing if not clever about toying with your expectations,” noted Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman) and the film grossed $41 million — about 20 times its budget — because audiences love them some shaky-cam horror.
Another one from the “inspired by a true story” file (though the credit “suggested by the book” always raises a red flag). This time, Anthony Hopkins is the wise old priest and exorcist, showing the ropes to an awe-inspiringly dull young actor named Colin O’Donoghue. The twist this time (minor spoiler alert?) is that the exorcist becomes the possessed, allowing us the pleasure of watching a respected, Academy Award-winning actor twist and flail and click around in fright make-up like a common ingenue. Pre-release reviews haven’t been kind (“As Hopkins himself goes wild-eyed and FX-ed with popping veins, The Rite gives up on asking us to take it seriously,” notes the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Steven Rea); we’ll see if audiences take to this one.
So what do you think? Have audiences had enough of on-screen exorcisms?