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version seven. - Exorcist: Premise

Exorcist: Premise

In which I search for the missing link between Friedkin's The Exorcist and its prequels and find it in John Boorman's sequel, Exorcist II: the Heretic.

Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009 | Film, Literature

The man who financed it decided that he had made the wrong film and that he wanted a more contemporary kind of horror-driven film and I was dismissed and they started over: new writer, new director, (by and large) a new cast, and they made another movie. And so there are now two films of the same premise with the same lead actor.

This is unique in film history. Film schools around the world will be thankful. It's the easiest term paper anyone will ever write: "Compare and Contrast". It's sort of a boon to all aficionados of film history, to look at a situation where actors give different performances--this is not the performance Stellan gave for Renny Harlin, it's not the performance that Andrew [French] gave: the work [Vittorio] Storaro did is not the work he did on that film. It's just so fascinating and, at that level, it is a genuine asterisk in the history of Cinema. You know, hopefully it's more, but at least it's that.

Paul Schrader

This essay is about the "premise" or basic idea behind the two Exorcist prequels.

In describing the differences between the two films, a glib and flippant Paul Schrader offers the following characteristic as the primary difference between his Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) and Renny Harlin's Exorcist: the Beginning (2004):

...this is not the performance Stellan gave for Renny Harlin, it's not the performance that Andrew [French] gave: the work [Vittorio] Storaro did is not the work he did on that film.
Given Schrader's remarks from the DVD commentary for Dominion and what he had to say at the press conference that followed the film's 2005 premiere in Brussels (at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film), Schrader, who describes the two movies as "two films of the same premise with the same lead actor", seems to be less interested in the subject matter of the two films than he is with the work that went into them.

And, because of this, he's not totally unlike the vociferous, flannel-clad "Made in America" partisans who, motivated in equal parts by jingoism and self-preservation-instinct, make a point of insisting that cheap crap made in America is better than cheap crap made in China because even if it is just the same old cheap crap and an American can make it just as well as a Chinaman, consumers should prefer the cheap crap of their countrymen as a token of political and moral solidarity with their fellow countrymen. Which is, of course, not to say that Schrader's movie is "cheap crap", but rather to point out that the argument he's making is an argument that is generally made in support of a political agenda: "both movies are essentially the same", he concedes, "but my movie is better because of the work that me and my people put into it."

Which, not surprisingly, is actually false. Even though the fundamental, unalterable premise given to the two films by their producers and financiers is the same, Schrader contends that the narratives themselves are identical in both movies, and that's wrong. In fact, it's more than just the performances that change between the two films: Schrader declares that the two movies share everything but their cast, but in reality, the elements of either narrative are also very dissimilar.

And, without dwelling on the details of those differences (which are not the subject of this essay; "Compare and Contrast" will have to wait for another day), it is also true that the "point" or "idea" of either script is hugely different in both cases. Whereas Harlin's Exorcist deals with an abominable supernatural presence that is (literally) unearthed and wreaks unspeakable havoc until Merrin can box and shout it down and thus has, as its "point" the idea that one man's insuperable will can conquer a supernatural will, Schrader's Exorcist deals with a man who has lost his faith, on account of Nazi brutalities, in human authority and human institutions and regains it by discovering that capital "E" Evil is neither banal nor ignorable and thus has, as its "point", the idea that one's man's faith can rise to conquer his own apathy.

Or something like that. The point is that Schrader is only half right, but in being half right (i.e. about the fact that the two films have the same premise) he raises an important concern.

And, returning to that problem of the fundamental, unalterable premise that concerns us here, it behooves us now to consider why exactly the premise that the films share is so fundamental and unalterable in the first place. What is so freaking important about the concept of Father Merrin--essentially a bit player in both the original movie and its sequel--traveling to Africa in the middle of the 20th century and exorcising a demon from an African child that it was the one thing that had to be in Schrader's "original" prequel and Harlin's re-written and re-directed prequel, come Hell or high water?

To answer that, I think we have to look back on the history of the franchise.

First, there is Blatty's original back story for Father Merrin as he puts it across in his novel. In the novel (which, shame on me, I haven't yet forced myself through--Blatty's halting, heavy-handed exposition and narrating dialog isn't exactly what you'd call "readable"), Merrin, whose character bookends the novel (appearing at its beginning and in its final chapters), discovers some relics which cause him to reflect back on his first encounter with Pazuzu, i.e. when he exorcised the demon from an African Child.

Here, in the original novel then, Merrin's exorcism in Africa is back-story. And not even particularly consequential back-story, as Merrin's character is definitely not the novel's focus, and simply exists to tie present day events with a numinous "antiquity" that Blatty demurs to describe or define in any exacting or consequential detail.

In Friedkin's movie, Merrin is even less important: Max von Sydow has about 30 lines in the 2000 re-release of Exorcist (i.e. the one with the spider-walk and all the crazy, pile-driver sound effects that hadn't yet come into style back in 1971), not including ritual recitation, and mostly does what he does in the novel: he once allegedly exorcised an anonymous demon from an African child, he has recently worked as an archaeologist on the Dark Continent (and is therefore, the implication goes, that much closer to the primordial, ritualistic Darkness with a capital "D" at the heart of the narrative) and he is called upon to intervene when father Damian Karras' Jesuit superiors realize that he's in over his head and decide to call in a ringer.

In Boorman's movie, i.e. Exorcist II: the Heretic, this inconsequential bit of back-story is made central to the present-day plot that drives the narrative. In Boorman's 1977 contribution to the history of the franchise, his protagonist, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), discovers that, contrary to Merrin's grim insistence in Friedkin's movie that "there is only one" (i.e. Ol' Scratch, Luscious Lou, Lucifer), there are many demons and that Regan's demon has a name (i.e. Pazuzu) and that this is the name of the demon that Merrin met, and was bested by, in Georgetown. Consequentially, Lamont hops the first intercontinental to Ethiopia, climbs to the top of a thousand foot tall, pedestal-sink-like Ethiopian rock church, witnesses an ecstatic Ethiopian Communion (which features an anthropomorphic Host and some of the best Snoopy dancing you'll see outside of a Peanuts movie), and begins to share his consciousness with the departed Merrin, recalling (for some 40 minutes) the details of Merrin's first battle with the ancient Sumerian deity who flew to Georgetown in the form of a locust.

So here, in Boorman's movie, is, as it turns out, where the magic happens: in the making of the 1977 sequel that is widely held in American cinematic lore as one of the worst sequels ever made, the idea that Merrin's exorcism of the anonymous African child of Friedkin's 1971 original is a.) interesting and b.) therefore worth writing and dramatizing.

Which makes a lot of sense, if you consider that the third Exorcist movie, William Peter Blatty's Exorcist III, treats the story of Merrin's African adventure with the same relative indifference as Friedkin's movie. It makes sense that the particulars of Merrin's struggle against Pazuzu are central to Boorman's movie and not to either of the movies with which Blatty was intimately involved.

What does not make much sense is why Boorman's (admittedly weird, totally spaced-out) ideas about Kokumu (i.e. the possessed African child) and the details of his possession by Pazuzu became the subject of the prequel that Morgan Creek signed on to create in 2001. And so we return to our question. Earlier, I wondered what exactly made the idea of explaining Father Merrin's 20th century African exorcism so attractive, and now I can only conclude that someone, somewhere--probably at Morgan Creek--thought that he could succeed where Boorman failed.

Consider what Stellan Skarsgard (Father Merrin, in the prequels) had to say on the eve of the Brussels festival release of Schrader's Dominion:
There's a Hollywood tradition of trying to give some dignity to speculative, cynical, industrial venture by adding what they call "some class" to it. If you want to do "Rambo 9", who would you think of as the director? You would go, "is Bergman still alive?" If you want to do "Home Alone 6", you would hire Tarantino. If you wanted to do "Deep Throat 3": Lars von Trier.
While it is undeniably true that the star chamber decisions that informed the production of Schrader's Dominion betray the fact that somebody clearly thought that he could give "some class" to what would otherwise be a "cynical, industrial venture" by adding Schrader to the project, I believe that there was also someone working behind the scenes who genuinely believed in the potential of the project. I believe that the insistence on using Merrin's African exorcism, which is so important to Boorman's movie and so incidental to the others, proves this. I also believe that this person probably didn't join the production team until after the decision had been made to make this movie and to give it "some class" in the way that Skarsgard describes.

I further believe that, in addition to the inexplicable desire to re-capture some of the "authenticity" and "historicity" and "realness" of Friedkin's movie that clearly inspired the decision to fully dramatize and explain Merrin's African adventures, this mysterious person who genuinely believed in the potential of this project, also believed that he could help create a movie that realized the potential that Boorman's movie could not: why would you insist on taking so many integral elements from the most difficult, poorly received movie in the franchise if you didn't believe in the potential of both Boorman's sequel and the prequel you were working on?

This mysterious person, by process of elimination, must have been the primary and initial scribe on the prequel project, i.e. William Wisher Jr.

And so, since that's my strong hunch, I'm off to see what I can learn about Wisher and, hopefully, shed some more light on this (increasingly) murky and convoluted tale.

Yes, Boorman's movie is insanely ambitious in its narrative and philosophical scope. You can read my impressions here.