This review of Part 2 contains spoilers of both parts. If you want to avoid spoilers I recommended you listen to the whole production before reading on.
With the first hour of The Exorcist dramatization tucked away, everything was ready for the second hour to power through to the climactic exorcism. It did exactly that while maintaining an eerie tone and deliberate-yet-precise pace. But was it gripping enough for the exorcism to be effective?
As evidenced in part one, the investigation of Burke Dennings’ death by Lieutenant Kinderman is much more prevalent in this audio adaptation; just as it is in William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel. In this second hour, the conversation with Kinderman and Father Dyer takes place, where Kinderman probes about Karras’ ongoing business in the MacNeil house. Opening with this scene helps bookend this hour as the story will honor the novel’s conclusion.
While Karras is speaking with Regan in her bedroom, the demon suddenly imitates the voice of the deceased Burke Dennings (tying in the episode’s opening conversation) for an extended conversation (not like the brief-yet-famous “cunting daughter” line in the film) and begins singing the tune All Things Bright and Beautiful before “his” voice turns back into Regan’s sweet, innocent harmonies– an essential gesture to illustrate how different ‘its’ voices really are. Regan’s mother Chris is called into the room and, instead of acting fearful, she proceeds to curse at the demon and behaves like she wants nothing to do with any of it. “Someone has to throw this thing to Hell! Get rid of it, Father…” This frustrated me as the nurturing nature of a loving mother remained completely lost.
Parts of Karras pulling evidence together had to utilize borderline cringe-worthy telegraphing and I can only sympathize with writer Robert Forrest and the vocal actors. For example, when Sharon show’s Karras Regan’s stomach, she must recite the words “Help me– it says help me. She couldn’t have done that herself. The straps are secure,” because anyone unfamiliar with the story wouldn’t know what is going on without the visual. It has to be told to the audience somehow. Yet, it’s hard to believe anyone would actually say that in the moment. A tough predicament, creatively.
Similarly, when Karras learns the strange language he recorded Regan gargling is actually just English in reverse, the scene plays out pantomimed and the spookiness of this revelation was lost. (Or perhaps I just knew it was coming… that’s where being objective while reviewing this was proving difficult.)
Merrin appears out of nowhere. Without mystique, without a knock or a greeting. He accepts brandy in his coffee from Sharon and that’s it– he’s ready to exorcise. He’s as straight forward, passionate and determined as expected, and the performance is very well delivered Ian McDiarmid, but his arrival to the story felt somewhat jarring; which might go to prove that the opening Iraq scenes in both film and novel do wonders for the third act introduction of the mysterious character.
The exorcism itself plays out as a cunning, deceitful struggle between good and an unwavering evil. A piercing, high-pitched tone shoots through the opening moments and creates a genuine grotesque feeling. I found myself honestly wanting it to stop, and I realized that this sound design had done its job perfectly.
The cunning words from Regan; be they sweet and pointed lies to Karras, or devilishly attacking curse words; pulled listeners into her orbit. While Karras and Merrin had traditional responses via the Roman Ritual, she was clearly the center of the room and controlled proceedings, creating a dreaded feeling of her insurmountable odds. This was aided by the fact that the exorcism was essentially (literally) more dialogue driven than the film. Portrayal of supernatural goings-on were cleverly crafted as explanations of their occurrence outside of the scene, allowing the listener to visualize what they just heard rather than have it horribly telegraphed in the middle of proceedings. “Want me to do that trick with the bed again?” teases Regan at one point.
It may have felt at times that the exorcism scenes walking a fine line between not meeting expectations and just suitably delivering, but all doubt was removed when Karras struck Regan. Repeatedly. Finally bursting with anger after the meticulous taunting of his guilt over his mother’s death and his fickle faith, and the untimely death of Father Merrin (he comes and goes rather quickly) Karras attacks Regan without restraint. This scene conjured a potent visual in my mind while listening.
“I’ll kill you right now! What happens then? What happens if I break your neck right now, you bitch!” Karras lashes out, the spit audibly spattering from his mouth.
“No, please, I want my mother!!” Regan shrieks. No demon voice. Just her sweet, innocent voice frantically begging for mercy.
Karras demands the demon come into “something bigger, something stronger– come into me!!” while choking Regan to the verge of death, her crackling voice gasping for air. And the demon makes it so, entering Karras’s soul… then it continues its taunting.
Inside Karras’ head, we hear the demon urging him, pressing him, luring him to “kill the piglet”. To tear her face apart. “You want, you need, you must… kill her, Damien.” But in a final show of true faith and ultimate good– Karras commits suicide, lunging out of the window and down the same steps where Burke Dennings met his demise.
For those fantastic final moments I was totally engrossed. I felt a chill rattle my spine and, in retrospect, I can honestly (and thankfully) say the film was completely out of my mind. For me, it made the entire re-imagining worth it.
Just like the novel and the Extended Director’s Cut of the film, the final image is that of Kinderman and Father Dyer agreeing to have lunch; “The beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The scene being included would appease Blatty should he ever hear this production and it was a comforting way to close… But I can’t help but feel attached to film director William Friedkin‘s impulse to leave on a more somber tone, given the hellacious struggle all these characters just endured. In my mind the ‘happy ending’ is when Karras saves Regan by diving out that window. Regan is fine and doesn’t remember any of it. Good made the ultimate sacrifice.
Before starting this second episode I had read some online negativity from Exorcist fans who had listened to Part 1. I think it’s fair to assume they were listening to the production with the perfection of the film fresh in their minds and their negativity came from the idea that the film was somehow being dishonored. While it’s absolutely fair for everyone to have their opinion, I feel those who were voicing their negativity failed to appreciate that this production was not intended for an audience that are diehard fans of the film. It’s target audience was people who may have only ever breezed the book back in the day; or had never seen the film.
With this in mind, hearing the production from a fresh point of view (as best as possible), it most certainly delivered on its promise to be a faithful, digest version of the source material: The novel.
But obviously, nothing will ever top the magnificence that was the 1973 motion picture. Nothing.