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Vulgar Displays: The Exorcist Movies Ranked

We rank the Exorcist movies—from the classic 1973 original through the disappointing 2023 sequel—from worst to best.

Many have tried to follow or imitate William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel about a young girl (Linda Blair) possessed by a foul demon. Few have succeeded—especially within the series, which consists of five films—two stinkers, one laugher, and another that harnesses some of the original’s Vanta-black magic. As of October 2023, we can add The Exorcist: Believer, the first in a planned-now-scrapped trilogy from David Gordon Green (Halloween reboots), to the list as we rank the Exorcist movies from worst to best.

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#6. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

A man in a cave holds a lantern up to a demonic statue

Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) finds the Pazuzu statue in the 2004 prequel Exorcist: The Beginning. (Video screenshot from YouTube)

When Warner Bros. shelved Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, citing a lack of chills and thrills, the studio hired Renny Harlin for this pulseless, silly do-over.

Harlin’s $50 million Exorcist prequel follows Father Lankester Merrin a quarter-century before his encounter with Pazuzu in the original film. A shady antique dealer asks Merrin—who quit priest-ing after being forced to assist in random executions during World War II—to retrieve a demonic relic from a recently uncovered church in Kenya.

Freaky stuff happens, but the film has none of the creeping dread, taut suspense, and traumatizing insanity of the original film. Would-be shocking events flop because we don’t care about the characters. Even the sequence where Merrin first encounters the Pazuzu statue is a dud. Worse, there’s a hamfisted third-act attempt to include some Regan-like action, including a wall-crawling lookalike that spits familiar lines while grinding Merrin’s dickey.

How bad is it? Critics spat upon it, and so did fans. And William Peter Blatty told the New York Times that watching the film was his “most humiliating professional experience.” We think it tries too hard and shows nothing for the effort.

#5. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

A bald young man with red eyes sits before a stone statue

Cheche (Billy Crawford) seems to think the CGI work in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist sucks, too. (Video screenshot from Amazon Prime Video)

Since Harlin’s prequel flopped spectacularly, Warner Bros. gave Schrader $35,000 to finish Dominion. They hated this film, too—but not as much, which is kinda funny since Dominion’s would-be big scares blow chunks.

Dominion is darker than The Beginning and looks much better, but it’s very unscary and ultimately insulting. Chalk that up to a plague of rewrites, reshoots, and re-cuts. But what kills the film for us is that Schrader saved visual effects and music for last, and Warner Bros. cheaped out on the completion budget, which makes some of Dominion’s key moments laughable.

Stellan Skarsgård again does his best as Father Lankester Merrin. Unfortunately, he’s up against Cheche (Billy Crawford), a bald, diapered, demon-stuffed teen with laughable red CG eyes, the voice of Mary Beth Hurt (uncredited), and all the menace of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. After 90 boring minutes, the third act becomes a bad video game cinematic that pisses us off. Go to h-e-double-toothpicks, Cheche. You don’t deserve real Hell.

Shockingly, Blatty—who wrote and directed the only worthwhile Exorcist sequel—called Dominion classy and elegant. We respectfully disagree.

#4. The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

A young demon-possessed girl glares from a corner in her bedroom.

Regan redux? Olivia O’Neill as Katherine West in The Exorcist: Believer. (Video screenshot from Peacock)

So many disappointing sequels and prequels—and only two of ‘em are worth watching (one only ironically). Can’t we get a good one? Apparently not. Based on Halloween (2018), it seemed like David Gordon Green and Danny McBride would give us the goodness: an Exorcist sequel with a satisfying story and all the queasy crowd-pleasing shocks we can handle.

Instead, we got Believer, a movie that tried to give us that but in a clumsy, ostensible rush where, in its haste, the filmmakers botched Ellen Burstyn’s return as Chris MacNeil and another insulting, tacked-on surprise cameo. In terms of disappointments, The Exorcist: Believer might be the worst Exorcist movie. Lucky for Green, the Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader prequels exist.

#3. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

The grayscale Exorcist II: The Heretic movie poster shows an image of Linda Blair as Regan McNeil over a strip of smaller headshots showing other cast members.

(R to L): Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) use science and God against Regan/Pazuzu (Karen Knapp) in Exorcist II: The Heretic. (Video screenshot from Max)

John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is one of the worst films ever. It’s also a cult classic—as a comedy—which is why a critically reviled film managed to land in the top three Exorcist movies.

Boorman, repulsed by the violent script, turned down the directing gig on the first Exorcist movie. He accepted this job because his sequel could be a positive counterpoint to the original film. Positivity? Goodness? In an Exorcist sequel? That’s how you make a certified stinker, to use Friedkin’s words, “a f**king disgrace.” Exorcist II: The Heretic is pretty fun, though, in a “What in the Church of Scientology is this nonsense?” sense.

Boorman eventually distanced himself from Exorcist II: The Heretic, admitting he didn’t give the audience what they wanted. Blatty, who wasn’t involved with the film, did a much better job of that with The Exorcist III.

#2. The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist III movie poster shows two men, one thoughtful and one evil, in a collage with other smaller images from the film.

James Venamun (Brad Dourif) rages at Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott, not shown) in 1990’s The Exorcist III. (Video screenshot from Amazon Prime Video)

William Peter Blatty wasn’t interested in making an Exorcist sequel but finally did when inspiration struck for his novel Legion, which he would adapt himself.

The Exorcist ends with Father Dyer (Father William O’Malley) and Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) walking off together, talking movies and making lunch plans. Blatty’s film finds now-besties (recast with Ed Flanders and George C. Scott, respectively) 15 years later, discussing the exorcism that brought them together—and killed Father Damien Karras. The next day, Kinderman catches a complex serial murder case that leads him to a mental facility. There, he finds an amnesiac mental patient—Karras (Jason Miller returns in the role)—who claims to be a dead serial killer responsible for the recent murders.

The Exorcist III doesn’t continue the Regan MacNeil story, and it’s relatively light on shocks, but the film gives us most of what we wanted from an Exorcist sequel. We get some satisfying story progression with Kinderman (Scott nails the character), Dyer, and Karras. The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif in a phenomenal performance) is as chilling, gripping, and evilly eloquent as Regan/Pazuzu. And the resolution of Karras’ story is brutally poignant.

The Exorcist III never got its contemporaneous due, but it’s a genuinely good film that earned its cult-classic status.

#1. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist movie poster shows the silhouette of a priest as he prepares to enter a home.

Praise Pazuzu! Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) worships the devil inside in this scene from 1973’s The Exorcist. (Video screenshot from Max)

After 50 years, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist is still the best film in the series—and the most ferocious, core-shaking horror movie ever. (Hereditary comes close, but not quite.)

The Exorcist isn’t just a scary movie. It’s an ordeal. That’s why it was an immediate cultural phenomenon when the film came out in 1973. People flocked to see it, curious to see if it lived up to the hype: Was it really so scary that people fainted, puked, or walked out?

At the very least, people left the theater traumatized after witnessing the slow, gory, vulgar domination of a sweet girl by a gleeful, vicious demon. And The Exorcist is as scary today as it was in 1973 not because it’s shocking, but because it’s an outstanding piece of filmmaking. Everything about it—the writing, direction, editing, performances, practical effects, music, everything—works. That’s why it’s #1.

Pro tip: Ready to watch every Exorcist movie in order before The Exorcist: Believer comes out?

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