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