The Exorcist III
out of ****
Exorcist III is such an effective
thriller that it almost makes you forget that it is a completely
unnecessary sequel. Of course, most hit/cult films have unnecessary
sequels—that is inevitable, especially in the horror genre,
which continues to insist that you cannot keep a good monster
down, particularly when they are successful at the box office.
But as far as unnecessary sequels go, The Exorcist III
is top-drawer, and it successfully tells a good story that compliments
the original film without stepping on its toes.
maybe it isn’t so unnecessary. As I recall the incoherent
mess of The Exorcist II, perhaps part III is necessary
for restoring honor back to the series. I would argue that if
they had never progressed past the first
film, which is probably the scariest movie of all time, then
that would have maintained enough honor. However, since The
Exorcist II indeed came and went, without the support or
input of the original’s writer William Blatty, it was decent
of him to come back and both write and direct the third film as
sort of an apology for the second one.
In fact, Blatty did us a grand favor by making it optional
to watch part two before plunging into this one. This has been
tagged with the Roman numeral III, but it is, fortunately,
completely unrelated to part II and tells its own, unique story
that branches straight from the first film. Here’s some
free advice, on that note: Do what Blatty did, and after the
first film, skip straight to this one. You’ll thank me
later for that.
we first notice about The Exorcist III is its quiet,
thoughtful nature that works as a sharp contrast to the first
film’s aggressive mental assault. Blatty’s film is
first and foremost a good, healthy mixture of murder mystery and
ghost story, picking up around fifteen years after the first one
left off. The central character is Lt. Bill Kinderman of the Georgetown
Police Department. He had an important supporting role in the
first film, where he was played by Lee J. Cobb; here, he is played
by George C. Scott, an actor with equal talent and perhaps a little
more intensity—not to mention a striking resemblance to
the late Cobb. Scott's casting is a good sign that this will be
a refreshing movie: In an age of pretty Hollywood faces, here
is a film that's not afraid to have its central character be a
witty, cantankerous old man.
Blatty directs here from his own screenplay, and like M. Night
Shyamalan, he demonstrates a natural knack for still cameras
and creating most of his action and suspense out of what the
characters are saying. This is a curious departure from The
Exorcist part one, so much that if not for the nature of
the midway twist, this could be an entirely different, unrelated
movie. The first film, directed by William Friedkin, dealt with
a full-throttled, terrifying ordeal of the violent, demonic possession
of an innocent little girl (Linda Blair, unseen here), and the
pain and suffering that it caused for her and her family. It
was a carefully constructed film that took its time in creating
its characters and looking into the private lives of priests. The
Exorcist III is a more traditional mystery with supernatural
overtones, and while it does contain scenes of gripping terror,
most of its movement is contained in its freshly written dialogue
as Kinderman seeks to solve this mystery and, along the way,
question his own faith.
The story involves a series
of murders that have been taking place throughout the city
that resemble, to a ‘T,’ the
murders of the Gemini Serial Killer from several years prior.
The problem is, the Gemini Killer has been dead for years, put
to death in the electric chair. Kinderman tries to figure out
the connection to the murders and the person responsible for
the killings, and it eventually leads him to the disturbed ward
of the local hospital, where a mysterious Patient X (Brad Dourif)
insists that he is the Gemini Killer, back from the dead. Plot
twists abound that you must discover for yourself, but eventually,
Kinderman figures out the connection between Patient X and the
Gemini, and realizes that there are indeed supernatural powers
the reappearance of a few chief characters from The Exorcist,
this film tells a story that only reveals faintest connection
to the events of the original film. The last half of The Exorcist
III is essentially a long conversation between Kinderman
and Patient X—a sort of verbal chess game in which Patient
X boasts and reveals crucial plot elements while Kinderman listens
carefully and calculates his next move. All the while, X taunts
the detective about his flourishing serial killing career (“I
still hear from [my victims] occasionally, screaming. I think
the dead should shut up, unless there's something to say.”
) and Kinderman is helpless to explain it logically beyond the
supernatural, something he does not believe in.
There is a major twist about
halfway through the film that is a clear connection to part
one, but Blatty keeps the tone down so that this link is not
sensational or overbearing. This surprise could have been Blatty’s weakest link if he hadn’t
played his cards carefully: The whole film leads up to this twist,
and it is one so surprising and so preposterous that Blatty has
to spend the rest of the film explaining how it works. Much of
the dialogue, in fact, between X and Kinderman is an explanation
that is probably too exhaustive and complicated. Think about
it carefully, you will realize that this twist, which the whole
film basically revolves around, is underwhelming and a rather
pointless side-note to the events of the first film. However,
because the dialogue is so well written and acted, we forgive
the movie. Against all odds, Blatty pulls the premise off and
never cheats, and he manages to conjure up some pretty effective
scares just in the conversations between these two men.
the little girl’s cold bedroom was the spiritual battle
arena in The Exorcist, the battle of wits between Kinderman
and X takes place in a dark cell in which X is obscured in the
shadows—think Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector in Silence
of the Lambs. Kinderman does not believe that a ghost can
possess a person, or that the dead can be raised. Patient X seems
to be living proof of such a resurrection, and he is adamant about
convincing Kinderman so that his legacy of murder will live on.
Scott and Dourif play these roles with straight faces, and this
makes their verbal war very convincing. Dourif is particularly
vicious as Patient X; he sneers, mocks, and brags about skinning
his victims alive, and he does so with such conviction that it’s
Blatty does not leave his
film entirely void of physical jolts. There is a scene towards
the end of the film that is, frankly, one of the most unnerving
sequences that I’ve ever seen.
A camera rests far down the hallway, and we quietly observe the
actions of characters on the other end, who are nearly specks
on the screen. Why does the camera sit here, so far away from
the actors? We assume, correctly, that something terrible is
going to happen, and we brace ourselves. No amount of bracing,
however, will prepare us for the release that Blatty gives us.
It is a quick image that, while not gory or sensational, will
leave certainly leave a horrific, surprising impact that is just
as powerful and ten times more subtle than anything in the first
film. Hitchcock would have been quite proud of this sequence.
While The Exorcist III mainly works as a well-written,
if inconsequential, character-driven horror mystery, the tacked
on, gory ending leaves something to be desired. I understand
that the studio wanted an actual exorcism for an Exorcist sequel,
despite the film’s clear deviation from the original’s
themes. The final scenes, featuring a hastily added and underdeveloped
Father Morning (Nicol Williamson) confronting the Gemini Killer,
seem tacked on and unrelated to the rest of the film. In fact,
I doubt that they were directed by Blatty at all, who I understand
originally filmed a more emotionally complex ending that complimented
the quiet scenes of dialogue between the two chief characters.
As it stands, these moments with Father Morning lack the subtle,
absorbing style of the rest of the film.
These final scenes notwithstanding, Blatty has created a gripping
suspense film here, with a refreshingly different spirit than
the first Exorcist. So different, in fact, that I’m
left curious how two related films could seem so completely unrelated.
If nothing else, the change in tone strips our expectations away,
and we are forced to take our guard down, left truly wondering
that will happen next because we honestly did not expect a film
with such little in common to the film that it is a sequel to.
Many great horror films have unnecessary sequels, but rarely
are they as engaging or as horrifying as The Exorcist III,
nor as inventive.
A.KA. Legion, The Exorcist III: Legion.
C. Scott: Detective Bill Kinderman
Dourif: Patient X
Jason Miller: Father
Nicol Williamson: Father
Scott Wilson: Dr. Temple
Warner Brothers presents
a Morgan Creek production. Written and directed by William
Peter Blatty, from his novel Legion.
Rated R, for frightening sequences, brief language, and strong
violence/gore. Running time: 105 minutes. Original United States
theatrical release date: August 17, 1990.