Every Exorcist film (and one TV series) ranked from worst to best

An image from the promotional poster and artwork for The Excorcist
(Image credit: Hoya Productions | Warner Bros.)

"And I'm the devil. Now, kindly undo these straps."

"If you're the devil, why not make the straps disappear?"

"That's much too vulgar a display of power, Karras."

The Exorcist was a true lightning in a bottle moment. Despite being directed by a maverick documentary-maker and stealing headlines with its vomit-inducing taboos, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s clerical horror novel was a hit beloved by the Academy. The story of teenager Regan MacNeil’s demonic possession and two priests’ battle to cleanse her soul won two Oscars, and is still hailed as the scariest film ever. 

Its legacy is so persistent that, in 2023, Halloween's David Gordon Green will direct a sequel. In preparation for this 50th anniversary adaptation, we've ranked and reviewed every Exorcist film ever made to get you up to speed.

A divider for Metal Hammer

6. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Neither director William Friedkin nor author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty wanted anything to do with an Exorcist sequel, since they weren’t happy with the pay they received the first time around. But the studio had a hit on their hands and wanted to capitalise on its success without breaking the bank. So, they used a script by obscure playwright William Goodhart, then bizarrely sat John Boorman – who’d derided the original as “a film about the torture of a child” – in the director’s chair. The result is one of the worst sequels of all time.

From the score to the screenplay, Exorcist II: The Heretic gets everything wrong. The plot revolves around Father Lamont, whom the church assigns to investigate the death of Father Merrin four years prior (better late than never, right?). He quickly meets former projectile vomiter extraordinaire Regan MacNeil, then uses some sci-fi tech to access her dreams. Or something. At the end, the demon manifests itself as a doppelgänger Regan, Lamont tries to have sex with it, then the OG Regan does a dance and it goes away. The end. Add in a soundtrack of wailing children and a shot that legitimately stood Linda Blair on the edge of a skyscraper with no safety measures and you have naught but pure bullshit.

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5. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

Prospects for Morgan Creek Studios’ Exorcist prequel appeared to be promising. Producer James G. Robinson hired William Wisher Jr, a co-writer on masterpiece sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for the screenplay, with Friday The 13th Part VI’s Tom McLoughlin attached to direct. But then the project cycled through directors, writers and stars at light speed. Shooting eventually started with Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader in charge, before Morgan Creek hated the result so much that Renny Harlin was signed on to redo the whole thing.

Exorcist: The Beginning follows Father Merrin years before the original film, when he travels to Africa to investigate a buried church that predates Christianity’s arrival to the continent. Although that premise sounds like the groundwork for a compelling mystery, the film’s more focussed on filling a checklist of Exorcist references: demon statue here, throwback dialogue there and, of course, the exorcism of a possessed woman tagged onto the end. Everything else, bar Stellan Skårsgard’s lead turn as Merrin, ranges from the forgettable to the flabbergasting. Why did the victim die of her injuries after the demon left her body, when Regan survived her neck becoming a chicken rotisserie in the original? Lame.

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4. Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (2005)

Nobody liked Exorcist: The Beginning. When it came out, it was instantly savaged by critics and bombed at the box office, grossing just $74 million against a $50 million budget. To add insult to injury, William Peter Blatty called watching the film the “most humiliating professional experience” of his life. Desperate, Morgan Creek Studios returned with hat in hand to Paul Schrader – the director whose original Exorcist prequel they lambasted and reshot – and asked to release his cut. It was resurrected for $35,000 and rushed into a limited cinema run with the name Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, where it received $250,000 and slightly more receptive reviews than The Beginning in return.

Without a doubt, Dominion is a better film than its immediate predecessor. The acting’s far superior, with Skarsgård surrounded by a new supporting cast that includes Gabriel Mann being positively heart-wrenching as Father Francis. However, the tight timeframe that Schrader was given to work within manifests itself in the laughably bad effects. There’s also a stronger fascination with screaming about the horrors of colonialism than there is in actually creating a scary Exorcist prequel. Sure, this is the lesser of two evils, but it’s still not worth the 116 minutes.

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3. The Exorcist (2016–2017)

Thanks to Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones ushering in the era of prestige television, the mid-2010s were defined by American channels scrambling to turn every licence they had into the next water-cooler series. The results ranged from Hannibal (great) to Dracula (naff), and Fox’s The Exorcist lands somewhere in the middle.

Written by Jeremy Slater, fresh from his more-painful-than-kidney-stones screenplay for Fant4stic, The Exorcist is a take on (and backdoor sequel to) the Blatty novel that ignores every other adaptation post-1973. It familiarly pits two priests, this time a naive goody-two-shoes and a maverick whose faith wavered after a failed exorcism, in slow battles against demons possessing young women. Picture the pacing of early Westworld in the anthology-ish format of The Sinner

Central duo Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels act their arses off, and their dialogue is magnificently written. The same can’t be said of the side characters, however, while the broadcast TV medium means there’s a new jumpscare or moment of gag-inducing grossness before every ad break to tempt viewers back. It quickly grows predictable. A ditching of the original film’s quietness and documentary cinematography in favour of more conventional scoring and camerawork only affirms this as a middle-of-the-road sequel.

2. The Exorcist III (1990)

In 1983, six years after John Boorman dropped the ball with The Heretic, original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty finally made a sequel: the novel Legion. The book ditches the “family drama that turns spooky” genre of the classic in favour of being a supernatural whodunit, as side-character Lieutenant Kinderman takes the lead in his hunt for the Gemini Killer. Ultimately, the pursuit – based on nothing but mutilated corpses and inexplicable fingerprints – leads him to a mental hospital, where the list of suspects presents itself. It’s a slow burn with no exorcism and only tangential connections to The Exorcist, yet also an intriguing narrative with ruminations on the nature of evil.

Although Blatty himself wrote and directed the 1990 film adaptation, studio executives still tampered with it. They demanded it be called The Exorcist III for financial reasons, and also twisted the writer’s arm into shoehorning an exorcism into the end. Unsurprisingly, the climax is the weakest part of the film, as it hinges on a priest character who’s in only one prior scene and adds gore and noise to what was previously a quietly tense thriller. Up to that point, though, The Exorcist III is a gem with flawless writing and acting – not to mention one of the best jumpscares ever. 

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1. The Exorcist (1973)

At time of release, The Exorcist was the most unsettling horror film ever made. William Friedkin was not a horror veteran when he directed his masterpiece. In fact, he’d never made a horror film before. Instead, the New Hollywood upstart cut his teeth on documentaries in the ’60s, then used the genre’s hallmarks to gradually craft what countless have dubbed the freakiest movie ever.

The first third of The Exorcist is not scary. It’s a family drama that slowly introduces Father Karras and mother and daughter Chris and Regan MacNeil, using long takes, moving camera shots, minimal music and reams of dialogue. By the time the audience knows them inside and out, the tension quietly escalates: there are unexplained knocks in the MacNeil attic, Regan pisses herself and spouts ominous prophecies, and Karras has silent, ominous dreams. The draconian ’70s operations used to figure out what’s wrong with the teenager are shot in hideous detail, to the point where doctors have used the sequences to educate students on medical history.

Then the practical effects start. Regan’s throat impossibly expands, her head rotates 360 degrees and furniture flies around her bedroom. By the time she actually gets exorcised, her mangled face and projectile vomiting are all captured with the same intimacy and lack of music as when she was playing with a Ouija board earlier in the story. It’s fucked up.

Somehow, The Exorcist nabbed an R rating before its release, meaning that children could see the film with adult supervision. Cue an entire generation traumatised and, allegedly, people being carried out of theatres in stretchers because of the awfulness played out on the big screen. 

Admittedly, The Exorcist isn’t hospital-level terrifying in the 2020s, yet it remains a masterclass in tension, payoff and pure atmosphere.

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Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.