The Exorcist III — a review

Is there somebody behind me? Somebody who's breathing heavily?

Is there somebody behind me? Somebody who’s breathing heavily?

Shortly after the astounding success of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel the film was based on (as well as the screenplay for the film), had an idea for a sequel. At first William Friedkin, the director of the original Exorcist, liked the idea, but when he reportedly changed his mind about directing it, Blatty turned the sequel idea into a novel called Legion, which was published in 1983, ten years after the release of the seminal movie. In 1990, Blatty would go on to write and direct the film version of Legion, which was called The Exorcist III, at the insistence of the studio (Blatty had wanted to call it Legion, after his novel, but the studio felt Exorcist III was a more viable title).

George C. Scott (Patton) stars as Lt. Kinderman (a role played in the original Exorcist by Lee J. Cobb), who finds himself confounded by a series of brutal murders, including that of a boy and a priest. The strangest thing about the murders is that even though both victims were killed in the same manner, the fingerprints left at the scene show they were murdered by two separate people using the exact same MO. When his close friend Father Dyer (well-played by Ed Flanders) is also savagely murdered, inexplicably in his hospital bed, Kinderman discovers that the killings are the work of the legendary Gemini Killer–the only problem is that the Gemini Killer has been dead for fifteen years.

I want you to put out an APB on someone who carries a pitchfork, has horns on his head and who answers to the name of Lucifer.

I want you to put out an APB on someone who carries a pitchfork, has horns on his head and who answers to the name of Lucifer.

Blatty draws you into this grim story not with horror or gore, but with humor. The early exchanges between Kinderman and Dyer are among the funniest and wittiest ever filmed. Scott delivers his lines with a deadpan panache, while Flanders looks like he’s just having a ball with his fun and cheery priest character, who’s a big fan of reading magazines and watching It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s an ingenious ploy on Blatty’s part, because he makes the viewer care about the characters, and when you truly care about what happens to a character, the oncoming horror and suspense becomes that much more real.

And Blatty doesn’t hold back on the horrific moments, either–starting with a ghastly scene where a priest takes the confession of an elderly woman. It starts out with the camera tight on the priest’s face–we never see the old woman; we only hear her dry, soft voice as she begins to talk sweetly and in great detail about having killed another woman. An uncredited Colleen Dewhurst, who was married to George C. Scott at the time, provided the unnerving voice-over of the old woman. What makes this scene so electrifying is that the camera stays on the priest’s horrified expression the entire time. You never see the old woman as she speaks so casually about such ghastly things.

Just another quiet night at the hospital...yeah, right.

Just another quiet night at the hospital…yeah, right.

And then, of course, there’s the sequence in the hospital, leading up to the murder of one of the nurses. With the exception of a quick cutaway, it’s largely an uncut static shot of a hospital hallway, with the nurse nonchalantly walking around, keeping busy. This scene has become a classic in terror, more for what it doesn’t do. There’s no music, nor any signs of an obvious cinematic buildup of tension; but the scene is still unnerving to watch, because you just know something really bad will happen. And it doesn’t disappoint.

Interestingly enough, Blatty’s original script didn’t have an exorcism scene (his novel didn’t have one, either). But the studio insisted on including an exorcism, because the movie was called The Exorcist III, after all (which was a title that the studio insisted upon in the first place). The exorcism feels very lurid and garish, in sharp contrast to the quiet chilling horror of the rest of the film, but it still doesn’t diminish the overall story.

Shout! Factory’s new Blu-Ray release of Exorcist III has a director’s cut included with the theatrical film. The director’s cut, which is reportedly approved by Blatty, restores the film to his original vision using previously cut footage sourced from old VHS tapes. While the picture quality of the director’s cut may not be the greatest, it was the best that they could work with, and it offers a tantalizing view at a more quiet and contemplative horror film.

But even with its flaws, The Exorcist III is still a far better movie than the second Exorcist, as well as the prequels, and it remains a superb and thoughtful companion piece to the original film. –SF

Star Trek Beyond — a review

It appears that Comic Con didn't go as well as they had hoped.

It appears that Comic Con didn’t go as well as they had hoped.

Imagine my surprise, when watching Star Trek Beyond, that it wound up being an extremely well-made, enjoyable movie. That probably doesn’t sound very fair, as if I went into the movie with very low expectations, but consider the evidence. The previous Star Trek film, Into Darkness, just wasn’t very good on so many levels. Aside from being a very badly done remake of the far superior Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness just didn’t “get it” when it came to the Star Trek characters, particularly Kirk, played here by Chris Pine.

There was a scene in Into Darkness where Kirk found himself completely flummoxed by an enemy ship that wiped out the Enterprise’s engines and weapons systems. As the Enterprise sat there, helpless, while the enemy charged up its main guns to wipe them out, Kirk turned to the bridge crew and said that he was sorry for letting them down.

The Captain Kirk that I grew up with on the original Star Trek series, played by the charismatic William Shatner, was a fighter. I don’t mean that he was a soldier, or a warrior (which Kirk himself once freely admitted to being), but a fighter in the sense that when the chips were down, Kirk just kept right on going. When it looked like the entire universe was out to get him, James T. Kirk could be counted on to damn the torpedoes and keep sailing right onward. He would never just give up, and that was why I found the quick and easy surrender of Chris Pine’s Kirk so disheartening.

Aye, I see the problem now. And you say his name is King Kong?

Aye, I see the problem now. And you say his name is King Kong?

Apparently, the writers and the director of Star Trek Beyond “got it”, because the Kirk that’s presented here in their film is far more the fighter who’s willing to take ballsy risks, just like Shatner’s Kirk did. It’s no spoiler that the Enterprise goes down (and in spectacular fashion, in a scene that’s thrilling to watch), leaving the crew stranded on an alien planet where they’re kept caged by Krall (Idris Elba), a warlord who seeks to pick a fight with the Federation. The crew members who are still on the loose, like Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) are being ruthlessly hunted down–but in Scotty’s case, he comes across Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) an alien woman who gives him shelter in a very unlikely place.

Star Trek Beyond is easily the best of the JJ Abrams-produced Trek films, which began with the Star Trek film reboot back in 2009. While the first two films were directed by Abrams, Beyond is directed by Justin Lin, who makes this Trek voyage an assured, confident ride that is just as comfortable dealing in character issues as it is in the broad action scenes. Lin is a confirmed Star Trek fan, and it shows in his lovingly staged shots of the Enterprise in motion, some of which are almost works of art in their own right. It’s rare to see CGI being used so well in movies, and Beyond is one of those films where the effects shine very brightly without overpowering the story.

The cast is also very good, with the stand-outs being Karl Urban as the ever grumpy Dr. McCoy, who’s partnered on the planet with Zachary Quinto’s injured Spock. Their chemistry is superb. And Sofia Boutella is a welcome addition as the engagingly feisty Jaylah. It’s also very bittersweet seeing the late Anton Yelchin here, doing his customary splendid job as the affable Chekov. Star Trek Beyond is a fitting film to be released during the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, not just because of its adoring tributes to the original cast that are sprinkled throughout its story, but also for reviving the essence that made Star Trek work so well that it lasted for half a century and hopefully beyond. –SF

The Joys of Funko Pop

We could all use a little Jillian Holtzmann in our lives.

We could all use a little Jillian Holtzmann in our lives.

Just came back from having my car inspected and was happy to see it passed–for the second year in a row, too. For a few years in the past, it kept failing. They always seemed to find one thing or another wrong. But lately, my car’s been doing well. Last year I celebrated passing inspection by getting a Funko Pop BB-8 (the ball robot from Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

For the love of Jyn!

For the love of Jyn!

This time, I wound up getting two Funko Pops. Jillian Holtzmann, from the new Ghostbusters film, and Jyn Erso, from the upcoming Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. She’s the one who says “I rebel” in that trailer. I don’t know if I’ll be doing this every year (“The car passed inspection? It’s Funko Pop time!”) but I just couldn’t resist these. –SF

Lights Out — a review

Yoo-Hoo! How about you stay right there while I go get the Marines, m'kay? Be right back!

Yoo-Hoo! How about you stay right there while I go get the Marines, m’kay? Be right back!

In Lights Out, a little boy named Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is having trouble staying awake in school, having fallen asleep in class for the third time. When Martin’s big sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) goes to pick him up at school, she learns that the reason he can’t sleep at home is because Martin is being terrorized by a vengeful apparition that lurks in the shadows. And when he tried to get help from his mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), Martin saw her speaking in a conspiratorial manner to the monstrous wraith in her bedroom. Rebecca, who lives on her own, decides to keep Martin with her at her apartment.

When she was younger and still living at home, Rebecca suffered very badly at the hands of her mother before running off to start her own life. Now she wants to spare Martin the same torment, yet the social worker that’s been assigned to Martin’s case informs Rebecca that trying to take Martin away from his mother is easier said than done. Rebecca eventually discovers that this shadowy assailant is not a figment of Martin’s imagination, and that it even has a name, Diana. And somehow this ghastly apparition, which thrives in the shadows, had attached itself to her mother. And now Rebecca is in Diana’s sights.

Look, I know it's not a light saber, but it will have to do, OK?

Look, I know it’s not a light saber, but it will have to do, OK?

Based on the short film, which was also directed by David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a fun little shocker that should play very well at a Halloween gathering, or any other time you feel like scaring the bejeezus out of yourself. What makes it work so well is that it uses the primal fear we all have of the dark, which is Diana’s domain. There are some very effective shock moments when people turn the lights off, only to see Diana’s scary-looking silhouette standing in the shadows, but when they turn the light back on, she’s gone. This is played to great effect during a sequence where a room is illuminated only by a blinking neon sign that’s outside the windows.

There’s also a great visual moment where someone is shooting at the advancing Diana, and she momentarily disappears in the flash of the gunfire, only to reappear, even closer, in the darkness. Maria Bello is very good as Sophie, managing to make her character sympathetic, and clearly avoiding the evil mommy dearest trope. Teresa Palmer is sturdy, if a little one note–it becomes obvious that she’s simply the perky young horror movie heroine that’s been established in such classics as the original Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street. While Lights Out may not have very strong characterization, it still hits the ground running, and never lets up the tension and suspense once during its 80 minutes. It may not be in the same league as It Follows, but it’s still an entertaining ride. –SF

Westworld (the TV series) — a review

If you didn't want to sing some songs around the fire, you could have just said so....

If you didn’t want to sing some songs around the fire, you could have just said so….

Back when I wrote the review for Michael Crichton’s film Westworld, I mentioned that plans were in the works to turn it into a TV series on HBO. The first episode of this new series has premiered, and it’s produced by JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, the brother of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception). The main storyline of Westworld is similar to that of Jurassic Park, where a high tech theme park suffers a catastrophic break down that puts its visitors in serious danger (the late Michael Crichton, who wrote and directed Westworld, also wrote the novel that the Jurassic Park film was based on), and I was extremely curious to see how Jonathan Nolan (who co-wrote and directed the first episode) was going to adapt this story into a series.

After watching the first episode, all I can say is: so far, so good. It’s the same basic storyline, where a western town filled with human-looking robots serves as a resort for human visitors, In Westworld, the visitors–or Newcomers, as they are known in town–can do whatever they want, right up to murder, all within the safety of the resort. But the team running the theme park starts noticing some weird behavior on the part of some of the androids, and when it’s determined that this behavior is the result of an update that ten percent of the android population had received, it’s decided that these androids need to be dealt with.

What did I tell you about doing that creepy thing with the horse? Just quit it!

What did I tell you about doing that creepy thing with the horse? Just quit it!

How the park employees deal with the mass removal of some two hundred androids from the park, without disrupting the fun for their guests, is ingenious: they simply have an outlaw gang come in and wipe out only the “infected” androids. But another ingenious scene afterwards, showing the simple act of someone swatting a fly, reveals that there’s still a problem. This version of Westworld has some forty years of advanced technology behind it, and the way the tech is handled is very smart. Unlike the original Westworld, which also had Roman and Medieval theme parks, there only seems to be the old west park in the new series (at least from what I saw in the first episode).

The cast is as exceptional as the writing: Anthony Hopkins plays the creator and owner of the theme park, with the always good Jeffery Wright starring as the chief programmer. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton are also all superb. And Ed Harris is exceptional as a character known only as The Man In Black. He’s a visitor to the theme park who needs to be watched carefully, because it’s made clear that he’s not there strictly for fun. I’m still not sure how this will play out. Will we see this Westworld collapse into chaos like the original did? Who knows? But it looks like it will be a fascinating ride finding that out. –SF