The Exorcist franchise is like a roller-coaster – lots of ups and downs. The original film is an eternal, bona-fide classic. The Exorcist II, while I have never seen it, is generally revered as a terrible mess of a film. Things swing upward with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III. Blatty adapts his novel Legion into this theatrical outing with him directing as well. While this film is very much in a far better direction, there was studio interference which mostly complicated and muddled the film’s ending. Still, there’s a surprisingly creepy piece of horror cinema to behold that has gradually become one of my favorite horror films of all time.
Set fifteen years after the events of the first film, we mainly follow Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (now portrayed by George C. Scott) who has formed a friendship with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), friend and confidante of the late Damien Karras. It’s an odd friendship built on a love of movies and the memory of Karras. The Lieutenant is investigating an eerie string of disturbing murders that harkens back to those of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who was executed fifteen years earlier. There’s a religious subtext to some of the murders, but none of the forensic evidence pieces together from one death to the next. Things become stranger when investigating at the hospital Kinderman discovers an isolated mental patient who claims to be James Venamun, the Gemini Killer, but bares a striking resemblance to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). He is clearly insane, but knows everything about the original Gemini killings. He also refers constantly to “the master” who slipped him into this body as Karras was slipping out after his fateful fall down the steps fighting Pazuzu. Kinderman can’t see the evil within, but he feels it and knows the death and dismemberment it has caused. As Kinderman comes closer to deciphering this demonic mystery, his own soul and life could easily be in danger as well as others’.
This is a positive review, but I’m going to start out with the bad first, just to change up the template. The ending to this film was changed because after the studio renamed the film from the novel’s title of Legion to The Exorcist III, they realized there wasn’t a single exorcism in the script. To accommodate this, an extra plot line was introduced which bought Jason Miller back, and a line about seeing through “the eyes of faith” to accommodate having footage of both Dourif and Miller portraying the same general character. None of that is really a problem in terms of storytelling or the quality of the film. It’s all handled and balanced beautifully through clever editing and storytelling. Where the problem lies is the climax and conclusion of the film. What we’re inevitably left with is an overly grandiose exorcism with a breadth of fantastical, biblical, and blasphemous imagery which seems a little out of place and over-the-top. Granted, there is a heavenly dream sequence with a wealth of respective imagery. Also, there are supernatural elements throughout the film, but they’re more subtle. This ending breaks the restraints and lets loose the floodgates. In one perspective, it might seem appropriate like the gates of hell have been breached, and everything is being unleashed. However, to my perspective, it doesn’t seem to mesh all that well with the rest of the film’s style, and twists the story into an odd direction which isn’t as satisfying or coherent as it probably could’ve been. There’s also the dictated addition of Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) to the film who is not given any character building scenes to integrate him into the story. This addition causes some storytelling problems, and seems like an irrelevant diversion from the plot until the finale justifies it. All of this doesn’t kill the movie, but I would’ve been interested to see what Blatty originally had in mind. Apparently, the novel does not have a happy ending.
Onto the good stuff. George C. Scott commands this movie. From the guy who won an Academy Award for his powerhouse portrayal of General George S. Patton (though, declined the award), that’s to be expected. He offers up a dry sense of humor, some degree of grief, but overall, he provides conviction and intensity to Bill Kinderman. The highly acclaimed character actor Lee J. Cobb originated the role in the 1973 film, but the actor passed away from a heart attack three years later. Ed Flanders takes over the role of Father Dyer from the real-life priest, Father William O’Malley. Jason Miller is the only returning cast member from the original film, and does a very subdued and creepy performance as the brain damaged ‘Patient X.’ However, where the acting really soars is Brad Dourif. Whatever roll he was on going into this film, it made his performance enveloping. You just can’t turn away. With the monologues he had to deliver, the role and performance could’ve killed the film, dragging it down into boredom. Fortunately, Dourif has a magnetism that just reels you in hook, line, and sinker. His charisma eats up the scene, and the sparks that fly between him and Scott are the meat of the piece.
This was only the second film directed by William Peter Blatty. The first being The Ninth Configuration from 1980 which Blatty once considered the real sequel to The Exorcist despite it’s connection being one briefly seen, unnamed character from 1973 film. Despite such a brief directing résumé, Blatty shows a lot of skill and competency here. This film oozes with creepiness, making it one that’ll twitch your nerves, and keep you jumping. There is one particular sequence featuring a white gown and a killer musical stinger that’ll freak you out. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. No matter your own opinion of the film, this sequence will get you every time.
The musical score by Barry De Vorzon is quite fitting, and immensely effective. I was previously familiar with his haunting and intense score on the cult urban action film The Warriors, which was very much of its time in the late 70s. The Exorcist III score is much more traditional, but still haunting as well as chilling. It makes itself essential to building the atmosphere of the picture.
The director of photography, Gerry Fisher, gives this picture great composition and an amazing look in certain scenes. Every time the film ventures into the isolation chamber, the lighting is so beautiful in an exceptionally dark and eerie fashion. Fisher previously lensed the fantasy adventure classic Highlander with amazing artistic talent, and wonderful composition. The Exorcist III doesn’t call for anything as epic as Highlander, but the artistry is still beautifully evident. He definitely gives the film a visual impact that lasts.
There are some discrepancies between the original 1973 film and this sequel. Likely, these are due to Blatty focusing more on his original novel source material instead of Freidkin’s feature. The primary issue is that, in The Exorcist, Kinderman and Karras barely knew each other. They meet for one conversation for their first meeting ever, and are never seen together again. Here, it is heavily referenced that the two men were best friends, and knew each other quite well. It’s that friendship which drives Kinderman’s intense investigation, and motivates the plotlines along. I have not read Blatty’s novels, and so, I cannot confirm or speak to any of this speculation. However, considering he is the author, screenwriter, and director, it’s easy to conclude that these are character connections he always intended in some form or another. Other issues are easily resolved. The year of when the events of the first film occurred has been altered to 1975, but there’s nothing in the first film to conflict with this. Just the fact that it was released in 1973 is all that causes any issue at all.
Overall, I feel The Exorcist III is an amazingly well done film, and only the interference of Morgan Creek executives diminished and hindered Bill Blatty’s vision. Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin would also learn of this over a decade later when filming their respective prequels to The Exorcist, and Blatty blamed no one but Morgan Creek for both versions’ failures. A director’s cut of The Exorcist III is apparently never to surface due to Morgan Creek being unable to locate the footage. Still, despite these obstacles and tampering with the film, I honestly feel an effective, original, enthralling, and exceptionally satisfying horror film shines through. Blatty showed great talent and competence in both scripting and directing, and George C. Scott’s performance is a powerful and intense as you’ve come to expect from him. Ultimately, this is a great surprise considering the more maligned entries in this franchise (save the original), and is indeed one hell of a terribly creepy film. This is a horror film I can watch just about anytime and be pulled into every time. This is what has gradually made it a strong personal favorite of mine which I would also consider one of the best horror movies ever made. If for nothing else, it’s a good watch for a dark, lonely night.