A woman crawls by unnoticed – on the ceiling like a fly. A long-dead killer claims victim after victim. Flames erupt, snakes slither, the ground opens and reveals a writhing pit of the damned. The evil is back.
Also back is the creative force whose novel and Oscar -winning screenplay shaped the trailblazing the Exorcist. Adapting his novel “Legion,” William Peter Blatty writes and directs The Exorcist III, a jolting foray into terror that begins where the first film ended. George C. Scott plays police Lt. Kinderman, investigating mysterious murders. Kinderman doesn’t believe in demons and possession. Not yet. Jason Miller reprises his priestly role from the original. And look for Samuel L. Jackson, pro basketball’s Patrick Ewing and more bit-role surprises.
The Exorcist III 8.0
eyeslights: the cast. the concept. the tone. the score.
eyesores: the weak ending. the contrived connection with the first film.
“Let’s call it revenge. A certain matter of an exorcism, I think, in which your friend Father Karras expelled certain parties from the body of a child. Certain parties were not pleased, to say the least. The very least.”
After the incredible success of ‘The Exorcist‘, it was only natural that Warner Bros. wanted more of that box office gold. It took four years, but the studio eventually produced the execrable ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ – a cinematic non-sequitur that felled the franchise and at least one career. It was such a horrible film that it would take nearly 15 years before another sequel was considered.
By then, original writer William Peter Blatty had been interested in revisiting the characters he had created. He had written a novel called ‘Legion’, which was essentially a follow-up to ‘The Exorcist’. It was a bestseller in 1983, but it would take another seven years before it would be produced as a picture, with Blatty writing the screenplay and, this time, also directing the picture.
For this sequel, Blatty completely ignored ‘Exorcist II’: instead of making Regan his protagonist, what he decided to do was to follow Lieutenant Kinderman, years later. The story brought us back to Georgetown, the setting of the original, with Kinderman investigating a series of murders that remind him of an old case, that of the Gemini killer, a local serial killer.
He follows a few leads and finds himself face-to-face with the killer in the most unlikely of all places: a hospital. However, the killer is confined to a cel, and cannot escape it due to his straight-jacket. So Kinderman has to find out how the murder are committed, who is helping him, and how all of this pertains to Father Karras – whom the Gemini killer seems to know a lot about.
Right from the start, the picture connects us with ‘The Exorcist’ by revisiting the stairs where Father Karras had died, as well as Tubular Bells, which was closely associated with the picture and which provided an aural hook for the audience (the soundtrack of the picture is further enhanced by growls and other such soundbites to creep out the audience – to great effect).
It’s a moody and dramatic opening to the picture, complete not just with the iconic location of the first picture, but with the addition of breathing and an atmospheric soundscape. We also get a POV shot that implicitly suggests a spirit or entity wandering about the streets of Georgetown. It takes us to a church, where the entity’s reaction to all the iconography is particularly strong.
It also refreshes our memories of Kinderman and Father Dyer, who was a friend to Father Karras. Not only was it important to do this, 17 years later, but it was crucial because both parts were played by different actors than in the original. Lee J. Cobb, who had played Kinderman was long gone. As for William O’Malley, who played Father Dyer, it is unclear why he didn’t reprise the role.
The opening is slightly awkward because its exposition is mildly redundant: we had already been going back to the stairs over and over again, making it abundantly clear that we were watching a sequel to ‘The Exorcist’. I would have to suspect that this was a studio decision, because it was far too exaggerated not to be. By the time Kinderman and Dyer meet, we got the point.
Kinderman and Dyer are friends who meet yearly on the anniversary of Father Karras’ death, each thinking that he is cheering the other up. They have an amusing dynamic, prodding each other. Both are worn, cantankerous and caustic, and yet they go to see ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ together, both being film buffs. During their visit, they talk about God, his responsibility and the pain of existence.
Although ‘Exorcist III’ has an intriguing enigma at its core, its driving force are the lengthy dialogues that the characters have. Not only do they inform the characters’ behaviours, but there’s some utterly fascinating exchanges, in particular the lengthy meetings between Kinderman and the Gemini killer – which are intense, thanks to a fantastic dual performance.
George C. Scott is excellent as Kinderman. He’s very different: more angry, edgy, certainly nothing like the light and jovial version that Cobb offered us. This is totally in character for Scott, however, and I wonder how much of the part was adapted to his needs, or if he was simply perfectly cast. Reading the book would likely provide the answer to that question.
(An interesting bit of trivia is that Scott also replaced Cobb in ‘12 Angry Men‘. Cobb had played Juror #3 in the film version, and George C. Scott played Juror #3 in the television movie version of it in 1997. Holy coincidence, Batman! An even more fascinating coincidence is the fact that none other than William Friedkin, director of ‘The Exorcist’, helmed 1997’s ’12 Angry Men’!!)
In any case, Scott pretty much owns the role, and we can almost forget Cobb’s rendition. There’s this terrific moment when Kinderman realizes who is in the isolation cell. It’s utterly poignant. And even when all he’s doing is listening to the Gemini killer rant in his oft-lengthy monologues, Scott’s presence is powerful; he expresses more with silence than most with words.
Of course, this is ignoring probably the strongest performance of the piece, and that is Brad Dourif as the Gemini killer. Holy crap. He was phenomenal in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, but I never expected him to be as intense as he is here – especially given how squandered the rest of his career has been, mired in s#!tty-@$$ B-grade (if not C-grade) horror films.
Here, he’s masterful, nearly to the extent that John Malkovich was in ‘Dangerous Liaisons‘. You feel as though he’s in control of the situation – or, at the very least, believes that he is. Ironically enough, he doesn’t come off nearly as devilish or malicious as Malkovich, but he’s a force to be reckoned with; he’s probably as good as Jack Nicholson got in his best moments.
There’s some excellent trickery in the sequences between the killer and Kinderman, like having Gemini’s voice change while he’s talking, taking on different characters. Or, even better yet, the re-introduction of Father Karras, who looks appropriately gutted and devastated (I wonder how much of that was make-up and how much was Jason Miller’s age/lifestyle).
‘Exorcist III’ can almost entirely rest on these two shoulders, and is also partly shouldered by Miller’s own performance and Ed Flanders as Father Dyer. Almost all of the cast is uniformly solid, with one exception: Zohra Lampert in the role of Kinderman’s spouse. She was absolutely devastatingly awful; her delivery had all the subtlety of a truck crashing into a storefront window.
Ever since I saw ‘Exorcist II’ in the cinema, at the time of its release, I’ve been a big proponent of it. I think that, although it isn’t as masterful as the original is, it has a great atmosphere, a fair number of chills and plenty of meat on its bones. It made enough of mark on me that, when I watched it, some of the spooky bits startled me even though I remembered them beforehand. They still worked.
That is why I offer it as the true successor to ‘The Exorcist’. It works thematically and connects the thread of the original, but it’s also the only other well-crafted film in the whole franchise. Granted, it has some flaws, not least of which is the needlessly grotesque exorcism at the tail end; it was an ending that felt tacked on and completely out of step with the rest of the film.
But there’s a story behind that.
The fact is that this is yet another case of studio interference, just like with ‘Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist‘. Not only did the studio change the title from ‘Legion’ to ‘Exorcist: Legion’, they then had Blatty add an exorcism at the tail end to support the title – the original story didn’t have any exorcisms in it, you see. So they had to reshoot the last third of the picture at great cost.
Then they decided that they wanted and actor from the original picture to reappear, so that’s when Jason Miller came in. Blatty was forced to blend Miller and Dourif into the film so that he didn’t completely bury the latter’s work. Eventually the studio decided to change the title of the picture to ‘The Exorcist III’, much to the Blatty’s dismay, who wanted no association with ‘Exorcist II’.
To make matters worse, all of the footage that Blatty shot prior to all the reshoots has apparently disappeared from the studio’s vaults. For all intents and purposes, it is lost and we may never see it again. Is it studio negligence or was this purposely tossed to ensure that the studio would forever have the final say. Who knows, but it’s a damned shame that we will likely never get to see Blatty’s original vision.
For all their demands, the picture was only a mild hit, and it wasn’t enough for the studio, who considered it a failure. It would take them another 15 years before revisiting the franchise. Meanwhile, ‘The Exorcist III’ has since been largely forgotten by the masses. It remains extremely under-appreciated, even though it is, without a doubt, not just a terrific picture, but the natural heir of the 1973 classic.
‘The Exorcist III’ deserves to be reconsidered, to be given new life.
Date of viewing: September 26, 2014