The late, great William Friedkin's The Exorcist turned 50 in 2023 - the same year as the writer-director's passing at the age of 87. A truly forceful work of fiction, The Exorcist cut a trailblazing path through the horror genre and became an instant phenomenon, a film that was feared and revered in equal measure, earning Academy Awards and box office success along with hysterical tales of people fainting in screens, controversy surrounding its graphic content, and even bans.
But The Exorcist was more than just images of ambulances rolling up to multiplexes and what studio Warner Bros. called "The Scariest Movie Ever Made". It was a fitting tagline, perhaps, but one that belied the true heart and soul of its text, which was a deeply moving, introspective reckoning with faith authored by William Peter Blatty, a Catholic screenwriter and novelist whose theological interiority formed the basis of his most enduring works: The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and Legion - the latter two of which were adapted for the screen by Blatty himself, and are arguably just as masterful as Friedkin's horror masterwork.
Not that they are widely accepted as such, though - nor could they ever expect to be. The Exorcist exerts an eclipsing influence as a film foundational to our understanding of horror as a genre, a preeminence further calcified by the many paltry follow-ups and imitators that landed in its wake - most notorious of all The Exorcist II: The Heretic, perhaps the most disastrous sequel ever made (directed by the otherwise brilliant John Boorman, of Deliverance and Point Blank fame). Others have come for The Heretic's crown as well; two middling Exorcist prequels were released in the early 2000s, while the equally pallid Exorcist: Believer had the ignominious honour of crashing the original film's 50th celebrations last year.
No one could be forgiven for concluding that, with those films in mind, no Exorcist sequel would be worth their time, which is perhaps why it has taken so long for Blatty's adaptation of Legion, which released as The Exorcist III in 1990, to earn its flowers. Although it premiered to a muted critical and commercial reception, the reputation of Blatty's film has improved dramatically over the last two decades, led in part by the cult notoriety of its iconic hallway jumpscare, as well as efforts to release a director's cut, with the theatrical release of the third Exorcist film having suffered intensive interference from studio Morgan Creek, to the point where an entire exorcism plotline was introduced, and Blatty's vision compromised.
A semi-salvaged director's cut of The Exorcist III now exists, called the "Legion Cut" - developed by Shout Factory for the 2016 Blu-ray release - but even in the tampered theatrical version you can see the genius of Blatty's vision, a film that matches the lyrical prose of the Legion novel in a gorgeously stylistic manner, demonic dread suffused with a renewed zest for earthly good. It is the one true Exorcist sequel, in my mind, and probably the greatest horror follow-up ever made - albeit one that came hellishly close to destruction.
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