Of course you remember the head rotation, the much-spoofed profanity and the enthusiastic crucifix masturbation. The Exorcist had all the sensational goodies, ground-breaking unpleasantries and controversial images to generate worldwide word of mouth and encourage tabloids to run headlines like “My Otherwise Totally Normal 13 Year Old Just Told Me To Go Fuck Myself” so they could blame the movie and add to Warner Bros’ already substantial box office.
When you revisit The Exorcist these days, it is in the wake of almost forty years (yep, we are that old…) of imitations, parodies, sequels and variants, so it can no longer rely on the shock value of the BIG moments that got them talking / puking / masturbating in the aisles back in ‘73. Which makes it all the more impressive that, if anything, it holds up better than ever. Strip away the grim physical manifestations of Satanic possession and you notice just how heartbreaking Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of the mum is, and just how authentic Jason Miller’s performance as the ill-fated but dedicated priest comes across.
What’s more, you appreciate that, in 1973, it was possible for a big Hollywood studio to spend a large amount of cash on a horror movie with an intelligent, challenging script and direction that is as much about the cumulative effect of slow-burning dread as it is about making an audience of texting fuckwits jump every 10 minutes by whacking the audio up to 11. The word “classic” in movie terms is often attached to movies that are ridiculously boring or pretentious or feature Ben Kingsley, but The Exorcist is truly worthy of the word. With each passing year you start to wonder if Mark Kermode might actually be absolutely right in his consistent “Best film ever” accolades.
Which brings us neatly to a bunch of movies that either ripped off William Friedkin’s colossal hit, or riffed on its themes and images. One of this year’s most high-profile U.S. horror releases is the Eli Roth production The Last Exorcism so now is as good a time as any to ponder over the many movies over the past four decades that yearned for some of the shock value (and, lets face it, profits) of the Warners release.
The list that follows is merely a countdown of ten movies which would make a diverting alternative to The Exorcist if you’ve watched it too many times or accidentally jizzed all over the disc to the point where only the interactive menus play (in Spanish). It was tempting to include The Exorcist II: The Heretic, one of Hollywood’s oddest follies. This was a movie that decided the best way to follow one of the most talked about and shocking horror movies in history was to make a movie with no horror in which Richard Burton (off his tits on booze) has mind-transference sessions with Linda Blair (Now! With Added Tits!) that are somehow linked to a locust-worshipping African cult.
It was also a consideration to include Renny Harlin’s loopy Exorcist The Beginning (2004), an MTV prologue to the 1973 film under the impression that what the original really needed was CG sandstorms, machine guns and animated hyenas. Subtlety left the building, went to Vegas, married a lap-dancer named Darlene and fingered Dolly Parton on the bus home. That said, when the alternative was enduring Paul Schrader’s boring-as-fuck Exorcist Dominion , you get to appreciate a big-budget production happy to indulge in so much mutilation and cruelty inflicted on children.
There are scores of hilarious / sleazy Italian movies that didn’t make it to the top ten due to space restrictions - if you’re that way inclined, you should definitely check out both versions of Mario Bava’s nutty, recut Lisa and the Devil (1972), also known as House of Exorcism. Movies like Naked Exorcism, the dubiously named Exorcist III : Cries and Shadows, Seytan, the very mainstream Stigmata and the recent, really rather excellent [Rec] 2 The Possessed if only to watch a ridiculously young Harrison Ford burn to death at the midway point.
Here, though, are ten movies that, if you watch them often and hard enough you could grow up to be just like Linda Blair… though, sadly, you need a totally different set of movies (and drugs) to be the mighty Linda Blair of the Savage Streets era….
10 .The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972) This largely forgotten combination of sincere horror-drama and social realism emerged between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but, along with other occult curios of the time (including the eerie and batshit-crazy The Mephisto Waltz) disappeared into relative obscurity. It’s worth seeking out today, if only because - like so much 70’s American horror - it is devoid of hope and joy, thus giving you a welcome excuse to cut yourself while wearing your “Nihilism 4Ever” T-shirt.
Wealthy NYC divorcee Shirley MacLaine (you’d rather have Regan MacNeil for a daughter than the real Shirley for a mum, trust us) is alarmed to find her younger brother (Perry King) exhibiting behavioural anomalies, talking in tongues and, less worryingly, suspected of beheading his girlfriend. MacLaine is the kind of unsympathetic bitch of a protagonist who was quite common before Hollywood made packages rather than movies: she’s a shit to her Puerto Rican housemaid but its through her that she learns King has been possessed by the vengeful spirit of a decapitation-loving Puerto Rican serial killer.
It’s a restrained picture and was never going to become a sensation like The Exorcist but it captures quite nicely the class divide and racial unease in Manhattan, and the extended finale is suitably grim, as the deranged King holds MacLaine’s kids at knife-point, making the boy strip and the girl eat dog food. Just a normal evening down my way, you know.
9 .The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2005) Forgive us for erring on the mainstream side of the force, but this box office hit is an unusually effective combination of outright supernatural horror movie and TV movie-ish Remarkable True Story Courtroom Drama Of The Week. Forgive it for being as glumly sincere as one of those hilarious “Chat” magazine articles with outlandish but manipulative titles like “My breast fell off while I cuddled my terminally ill premature deformed baby born of my husband who died tragically when a sick dog fell on his head from a plane hijacked by Muslim terrorists, one of whom I had an affair with last summer”. And forgive it also for being rated PG-13: it survives the restraints and refreshingly avoids possessee taunts like “Your mother washes socks in Hell”.
Nineteen year old college student Jennifer Carpenter dies after a failed exorcism attempt ; the priest (Tom Wilkinson) is accused of negligent homicide, is forced to stand trial and, while the prosecution claims the girl was merely a psychotic epileptic, the movie gets balls deep into the contest between science and the paranormal.
It’s an earnest, overlong movie but, of all the post-Exorcist movies wanting to be The Exorcist , it does have some of the most frightening scenes of actual possession. Jarring flashbacks depict Emily Rose abused by an invisible force, hallucinating demon faces on the general public, eating insects, contorting her body and mutilating herself. Their power is greater for being contained within a dialogue-driven script.
8 .Exorcismo (1975) Featuring 190.6% more facial hair, xenophobia and naked Spanish chicks than The Exorcist this Paul Naschy-backed entry in the post-Blatty rip-off-o-rama is, nonetheless, a surprisingly restrained affair despite its relish in depicting swinging 70’s Satanic orgies complete with hairy bush, bongo drums and lots of swaying with plants.
The lovely Leila is initiated into drug-fuelled Satanism thanks to the dark influence of ill-fated beardy fiancée Richard (well, he did spend some time in Africa, so what do you expect…?). After a near-fatal car accident, she becomes prone to calling the house maid a disgusting whore, yells “Pigs! Garbage!” at bemused party guests and eventually gets beset by all the spontaneously appearing scratches, throaty demon noises and contortions we know and love from the earlier movie. Unlike his American predecessors, priest / family spiritual advisor Naschy (in a nicely subdued performance) takes a lot of convincing that the girl has been supernaturally hexed, attributing her displays as signs of mental illness.
It’s a talky and deliberately paced picture, for sure, but among the classier of its star’s output and its decision to avoid the sensationalism of its Italian cousins actually enhances the impact of its hallucinatory, candlelit finale, with Leila’s final demon-hued appearance being genuinely chilling. For no extra charge, you also get to see Paul Naschy wrestle with a demon-possessed German Shepherd.
7 .The Sexorcist (1974) “There’s no such thing as incest, it’s just an invention of priests!” In a boom period for dodgy Exorcist cash-ins, this flick also enjoyed a second, baffling life and title change to The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, which made about as much sense as calling it The Wooden Spoon Murders or Rosemary’s Gherkin.
Here, uber-hot artist Stella Carnacina alarms her parents with noisy masturbation sessions after getting possessed via a full-size crucifix carving, from which Satan himself emerged for a bit of the old in-out. Carnacina vomits and masturbates accordingly, munches on her own hair, displays stigmata and, as with a lot of these Italian riffs on the American hit, the movie becomes horny rather than horrific.
With hell-bound / rape-tastic nightmare interludes, the presence of the truly weird Ivan Rassimov as Satan himself, and Carnacina shedding her clothes regularly, this is a typically seedy Italian cash-in. Not content with its heroine turning to debauchery and trying to cop off with her own dad, it also shoe-horns in gratuitously irrelevant sub-plots like Carnacina’s mum being flogged with rose-stems by her hunky bit on the side. Not a huge amount of horror or, weirdly, actual sex, but studies have confirmed it features approximately 89.3% more masturbation than The Exorcist . And Carnacina is way hotter than Max Von Sydow.
6 .Anticristo (1974) Deservedly one of the best-remembered of all the mid-seventies Italian would-be Exorcists , this has paraplegic Carla Gravina - wearing a Mia Farrow haircut – traveling to Rome in search of a miracle but instead finding only blasphemy and more doubt. Embittered and alone she resorts to hypnotherapy but this only leads to her becoming possessed by an ancestor from the Inquisition who fucked Satan. Bloody relations.
The tone set by the unearthly moans and wails of Ennio Morricone’s creepy score during the title sequence, this impressively elegant-looking but decadent-thinking shocker is leisurely paced, for sure, but rewards the faithful with Gravina’s all-out immersion in her role. The possession effects begin in a low key: messy eating at the dinner table, supernatural whirlwinds, foaming at the mouth and random profanity: “How many lovers you had? So many cocks you cant remember!” / “You stinking pots of shit!”.
Some kind of benchmark in Exorcist rip-offs is reached, however, for a Hell-set sequence that takes the memorable impregnation sequence in Rosemary’s Baby to the next level (and then molests it). Gravina deserves some kind of Humanitarian Oscar for eating a toad’s head on-screen prior to eating out a live goat. Not the kind of thing you’d get Dame Judi Dench to do, methinks.
5 .Beyond the Door (1974) Like Enzo Casterelli’s cheerfully shameless Jaws rip-off The Last Shark (featuring Vic Morrow when he still had a head, gawd bless him), this swiftly churned clone of you-know-what had its cash registers silenced by the threat of legal action from Hollywood. Director Assonitis is generally not associated with quality product though pretty much anything he does is good for some belly laughs on a slow evening.
This one, which confusingly shares an alternate title with I Don’t Want To Be Born (both have, at some time or another, been known as The Devil Within Her), scores some originality points at the very start by employing a particularly smug and dapper-sounding Satan to introduce the story, bragging about the mischief we’re about to watch unfold. Adulterous musician’s wife Juliet Mills finds her pregnancy accelerating at an abnormal rate (clue: you’re carrying a Hell foetus, bitch!), and so begins eating banana peels off pavements, vomiting spectacularly and twisting her head all the way round.
In between all the plagiarism is a lot of unintentional laughter: Mills’ daughter, despite being around six years old, speaks like a bummed-out 60’s teenager: “Man, you’ve gotta stop cryin’ or you’re gonna have a really bad trip…”. A typical conversation between Mills’ very bizarre children runs like this : Daughter - “Hey, remember that crazy nickname you gave Dad?” Son - “Asshole!”. We’re assuming they were spawned from the same shallow gene pool as Bob in House By The Cemetery.
4 .Amityville II: The Possession (1982) It took a mean-spirited, sleazy Euro sensibility (step forward Italian director Damiani…) to lift the Amityville franchise out of the doldrums, and an awful lot of reheated but enjoyable Exorcist juice to power this triumphant “prequel”. You know this aint going to be a conventional Hollywood family-in-peril haunted house movie when the Dad turns out to be sweaty fat bastard Burt Young (hobbies : polishing shotguns, belting the kids, smacking the wife up) and Mom Rutanya Alda (hobbies: hovering on the brink of total hysteria, followed by actual, total hysteria) is presented as a spineless, hand-wringing waste of flesh even more so than the unsympathetic Shelly Duvall in The Shining .
As peculiar outcast teenage son Jack Magner becomes possessed by the evil inherent in the Amityville house, Damiani wastes no time putting the family through the wringer : it took nearly two hours in the original for a pay-off involving slime dripping down the walls, while here nearly everyone is dead after an hour, including the kids. Tawdry melodrama - Magner cant resist how perky his sister (Diane Franklin) looks in tight 80’s sweaters so sensibly shags her after admiring her magnificent norks - alternates with fabulously gross 80’s bladder FX and the only moments of genuine creepiness in the whole franchise: note the awesome extended sequence of Magner alone in the house and pursued by a roving Stedicam that swoops over his head.
After Magner has blown away his entire family in a memorably heartless set-piece, the movie offers courtroom drama, police procedural sub-plots, Indian burial ground back-story…and an enthusiastic replay of the Friedkin movie. Haunted James Olsen gives it some welly in the Jason Miller role when he suddenly becomes the movie’s male lead; the words “Save Me” spontaneously appear on Magner’s arm; throbbing lumps of demonic shit bulge in the lad’s neck and ultimately his face splits open in graphic Videodrome style, revealing a green-eyed demon lurking below. More fun than watching Margot Kidder (when she still had her own teeth) doing naked aerobics.
3 .I Don't Want to be Born (1975) A wet dream of a movie for any genre fan yearning for a tacky British mash-up of It’s Alive, The Exorcist and the final scene with the disfigured slash-happy dwarf in Don’t Look Now. In arguably the most alarming birth scene in movie history, Floella Benjamin (!) and Donald Pleasence (!!) deliver the 12lb offspring of tarty ex-stripper Joan Collins who, on her last night working for the club, got cursed by a suitably grotesque-looking, horny midget named Hercules and now appears to be the proud mother of Old Nick’s Young Nick. Or, as her nutty nun sister-in-law Eileen Atkins would pronounce it, “The Day-vil”.
Featuring the most insulting use of a dwarf this side of the Krankies (and that side of The Sinful Dwarf) this woeful yet wonderful movie is breezy about its rampant misogyny and struggles to build much tension out of cut-aways to a bored-looking, ordinary baby. Said baby moves from decapitating toys and dropping dead mice into Hilary Mason’s cuppa to pushing nannies into the canal and somehow slashing Pleasence’s neck with a garden spade. Pleasence and Atkins gamely replay the verbal battle between medicine and mysticism prevalent in The Exorcist while the suitably daft finale involves the latter trying not to look embarrassed as she performs an exorcism on the baby.
The most gruesome and disturbing thing about this riotous trash-fest is Ralph Bates’ portrayal of Collins’ proud Italian husband: delivering lines like a crazy person, the short term Brit horror icon is about one sentence away from “Justa one cornetto!” His passion-lite sex scene with a startlingly unsexy Joanie (accompanied, of course, by wailing sax) isn’t the least arousing intercourse interlude of the 70’s - but only because it was the 70’s. P.S. This one is also notable for being released in certain territories as Sharon’s Baby despite the lack of anyone called Sharon in the movie (!).
2 .Malabimba (1979) Andrea Bianchi won an Oscar for his remarkable work on the estimable Burial Ground (in a parallel universe where the weird kid from House By The Cemetery has grown up to be King), so its not surprising he was in the driver’s seat of one of the more compulsively fucked-up Exorcist clones. If William Friedkin was a total pervert and not restricted by the demands to deliver an R-rated, releasable Hollywood movie, The Exorcist might have turned out like this and all of us might have grown up a little differently.
Sexy teen Katell Laennec (in her only movie role) gets possessed during a castle séance (don’t ask) by a nymphomaniac ancestor and turns into a sex-crazed harridan who snogs her dad, subjects her uncle Adolfo to a fatal blow job, shags her teddy bear, spies on incestuous threesomes, exposes herself to dinner party guests and gets on down in a lesbo-fashion with a middle aged nun. There are some things you just cant get down Kings Lynn Docks for £30 and still have change for chips afterwards.
Bianchi’s warped career, which veered from the sublime giallo Strip Nude For Your Killer to the astonishing Brit sleaze-flick Night Hair Child, had many highs, and this movie - hardcore inserts and all - can be considered one of them, even if it skimps on actual horror in favour of shoehorning as much sexual perversity as possible into a 90 minute period. Laennec, who has a Mia Farrow-ish androgyny thing going on, is an arousing and bizarre presence and it’s arguably Bianchi’s best looking movie.
1 .The Exorcist III (1990) A belated attempt at a direct sequel from a returning creator eager to bury brain-burning memories of a part two whose most memorable features were Linda Blair’s comeliness and a pissed Richard Burton wondering where his next shot was coming from. From the returning use of “Tubular Bells” to the surprise presence of Jason Miller (in his one major movie role), the movie is strong on continuity and cannily casts George C Scott as Lt Kinderman, here tracking the perpetrator of a bunch of off-screen murders linked to the mysterious, incarcerated, apparently possessed “Patient X”, who bears a startling resemblance to the late Father Karras.
William Peter Blatty’s origins as a writer lay in comedy, which is apparent throughout both his marvellous, still-underrated The Ninth Configuration and this often witty third movie : particularly lovely is the interplay between buddies Kinderman and “lemon drop junkie” Father Dyer (now played by Ed Flanders). The movie needs these moments of mirth and warmth because it is consistently sinister and very, very scary. Forsaking the ground-breaking shock tactics of the 1973 movie, Blatty opts for a slow-burn creep-out full of quiet, discreet terrors, creaking doors and violence no more elaborate than a single shot of blood seeping slowly into frame.
Some of the creepiest moments are subtle and easily overlooked : there’s a disarming and weirdly eerie scene early on in which a doctor talks to Kinderman about a mysterious patient (Brad Dourif essaying “The Gemini Killer”) and is seen clearly to be reading from a pre-prepared script. The story boils down to another conflict between the forces of good and evil and pays off with a Hellish, skin-tearing exorcism finale that was never Blatty’s intention, but this dialogue-heavy, non-gory sequel looks more and more like a masterpiece with each passing year.
Away from the challenging, theatrical scenes of Scott confronting either Miller or Dourif (foreshadowing the Lecter-Starling dynamic in The Silence of the Lambs), the movie delivers two of the finest big-screen scary moments of all time. The first, involving an imperilled nurse and an overwhelming sustained sense of dread, consists of extended single shots of a solitary hospital corridor and culminates with a yelp-worthy emergence from stage left. And the second is the extraordinary moment in which silent possessed nurse Viveca Lindfors inveigles her way into Scott’s home and almost (so close!) snips the head off one of his loved ones with shears.