In the early 2000s, Paul Schrader directed a prequel to The Exorcist. Then the studio scrapped it and had director Renny Harlin make another one.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has frightened generations of movie-goers since its release in 1973 – which largely explains why various producers have made repeated attempts to turn such a singular moment in filmmaking into a typical horror franchise.
The results have ranged from the loudly derided (1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic) to the divisive (1990’s The Exorcist III), but still the series persists. In 2021, Universal Pictures and streaming platform Peacock paid a reported $400 million for the Exorcist rights – a purchase which ultimately led to The Exorcist: Believer, the first in a planned trilogy of new films. (To put that $400 million into context, the original 1973 film’s worldwide gross was roughly $428 million.)
Across the series’ 50-year history, though, few stories underline Hollywood’s dogged determination to keep its possession-horror flame alive than production company Morgan Creek’s fraught attempts to make an Exorcist prequel in the early 2000s.
By the late 90s, Morgan Creek had enjoyed a range of successes and failures; Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) were gigantic hits, but movies like Clive Barker’s oddball horror Nightbreed (1990) and David Cronenberg’s poignant drama Dead Ringers (1988) failed to earn back their budgets, at least theatrically.
Despite some late reshoots, The Exorcist III managed to turn a profit in 1990, however, and so Morgan Creek co-founder James G Robinson began developing a prequel to the series in 1997.
For years, little was known about the project besides the basics: that it would follow a younger Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow in the original Exorcist) and his demonic encounters in Africa, some 30 years before the events of the first film. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original Exorcist novel and later directed The Exorcist III, was less than complimentary about the prospect of a prequel in 2001.
“I have nothing to do with that,” the author told IGN at the time. “That weirdo project with Merrin in Africa. They seem unaware that that’s been done already in Exorcist II. Merrin in Ethiopia. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. And I hope and pray to God it doesn’t.”
Eventually, Morgan Creek managed to will the prequel into being, despite a number of false starts. Director Tom McLoughlin (Friday The 13th: Part IV) was initially going to direct, but he dropped out, reportedly due to a disagreement over the script; John Frankenheimer (French Connection II, Ronin) took over, but he was forced to bow out when his health took a downturn (the filmmaker sadly died in 2002).
Exorcist: The Beginning finally went into production in late 2002 with Paul Schrader taking over as director. According to Schrader, Moroccan locations had already been scouted and a script – written by Will Wisher (Terminator 2) and Caleb Carr – was in place.
The prequel’s story would, Schrader later recalled, be a relatively grounded one. Although it would again deal with demonic possession, all concerned agreed that there would be “No spinning heads, no pea soup” in the movie. “It’s virtually impossible to compete with the original Exorcist,” Schrader noted in a 2005 interview with CaptainHowdy.com.
Schrader may have seemed like an unusual choice for a franchise horror movie, given the grounded nature of his earlier work; the acclaimed screenwriter of Taxi Driver, he later became a prolific director, with his films including Blue Collar, Hardcore and American Gigolo – indeed, the closest Schrader had come to possession horror was his saucy 1982 retelling of Val Lewton’s Cat People. Not that Schrader seemed too fazed about the prospect of taking on such a high-profile project, even if the spectre of Friedkin’s peerless original loomed up in the background.
“I’ve done unlikely things over my career,” Schrader later said. “I’ve lacked the fear of doing something that could come back and slap you in the face. I’ve never been afraid of stepping up to the plate and taking a swing.”
Filming on Exorcist: The Beginning lasted between three and four months, with the budget set at around $30 million. When Schrader assembled a rough cut for Morgan Creek’s executives to look at in May 2003, however, the response was less than positive. “They wanted to re-edit the movie to make it scarier,” Schrader recalled. “I said, you can’t re-edit it to make it scarier; you might be able to fix a few things, but the problem isn’t with the ending, the problem is with the premise.”
Eventually, Schrader had the project taken away from him altogether. Reshoots were considered – all in the hopes of making the film scarier – but eventually, studio president James Robinson signed off on a far more drastic decision. Schrader’s film would be junked entirely, and a new director would be hired to shoot it from scratch.
By October 2003, Morgan Creek had hired Renny Harlin, the Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger director whose previous brush with horror had been A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Harlin’s version of Exorcist: The Beginning would use many of the same sets and costumes as Schrader’s version, as well as the same cinematographer (Vittorio Storaro), while the script was rewritten by Skip Woods to add more horror overtones.
The cast, meanwhile, was changed almost entirely, with only Stellan Skarsgård remaining in his role as the younger Father Merrin (Liam Neeson was originally set to star, but he bowed out before Schrader’s version had begun filming).
Just as filming on the new version of the prequel got underway in Rome in late 2003, however, disaster struck again: Harlin was crossing the street when he was hit by a car. The impact broke the director’s leg in multiple places, and production on Exorcist: The Beginning had to be paused while Harlin underwent surgery. Once the production was back up and running, Harlin spent several weeks in Cinecitta Studios, directing the film while on crutches.
By the time production had finished on Exorcist: The Beginning in the summer of 2004, Morgan Creek had spent even more on Harlin’s version than it had on Schrader’s – this second stab at making the film cost around $50 million. All told, the studio had spent almost $100 million making what was originally intended to be a medium-budget horror prequel; more worrying for Robinson, the studio’s co-founder, a lot of that investment came from his own pockets.
Said Robinson, “I never said I didn’t like that Paul Schrader film! He directed the script we all agreed to, but when it came in, it was too cerebral. Too tame. But I have a lot of money invested in [it].”
Robinson reasoned that Exorcist: The Beginning would have to make $40 million on its opening weekend in order to break even. “If we hit that,” he told the LA Times, “nobody wins, nobody loses.”
The film’s first weekend gross was $18 million.
Reviews were equally grim. Mark Kermode, a well-documented aficionado of Friedkin’s film, described the prequel as a “hamfisted horror-show” in his write-up for Sight & Sound. Several critics singled out the film’s dodgy CGI hyenas and close-ups of maggots for derision.
The reaction to Harlin’s version of Exorcist: The Beginning goes some way to explain why Morgan Creek decided to look again at Schrader’s cut, which it eventually released in 2005 as Dominion: The Prequel To The Exorcist. Although it was hardly a lost classic, most critics agreed that, with its more intelligent, restrained approach, it was still the better of the two films.
In the wake of all the drama, disappointment and bad blood, Schrader remained philosophical about his brush with the Exorcist franchise. As he points out, it’s vanishingly rare to see a film studio essentially scrap an entire production and start again. In the years since, the only high-profile example that remotely compares is Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were removed and ultimately replaced by Ron Howard.
“It will live in the shadow of the controversy,” Schrader later said of his film. “It will always have an asterisk on it […] It’s a very good film, but I don’t think it’s such a great film that it will outshine the murk that’s surrounding it.”
The story of the Exorcist prequels could be regarded as a warning to other producers hoping to make money from an unholy brand. But despite the unique woes that have beset every Exorcist film since the first, Universal and Peacock still pressed ahead and bought the $400 million rights that allowed them to make this year’s The Exorcist: Believer.
In a March interview with IndieWire, producer Jason Blum admitted that the Exorcist franchise represented his biggest gamble so far. “The riskiest movie I have made for sure is not out yet,” he said. “It’s The Exorcist. Just because it’s so expensive. Usually the bar to success on everything we do… is incredibly low. For The Exorcist, it’s high.”
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