The Exorcist III (1990) directed by William Peter Blatty
What’s it about?
This second sequel to The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty’s own 1983 novel Legion, is set 17 years after the original (it ignores the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic). Police detective Kinderman and Father Dyer (who were played by Lee J. Cobb and William O’Malley in the first film but are played by George C. Scott and Ed Flanders here) have remained friends throughout the period. They meet every year to watch a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at a local Georgetown cinema, thus drowning out the feelings of depression caused by the strange death of their friend Damien Karras after the exorcism in the original film.
This year, however, their ritual is being overshadowed by a series of horrific murders which greatly resemble those carried out by a serial killer known as The Gemini Killer 15 years ago. When the aging Dyer is hospitalised due to his ill health (no doubt brought on by all of the drinking and smoking he visibly indulges him), Kinderman has a premonitory dream suggesting that his friend will become the next victim. Sure enough, the next day his ward has become a homicide scene. Kinderman arrives to find him decapitated with nearly all of his blood meticulously drained from his body and placed into a series of sealed jars. What little was left of his blood has been used to smear the words “IT’S A WONDERFULL LIFE” (sic) on the walls.
Nurse Allerton (Nancy Fish) who was on duty at the time is adamant that the only person whom she saw was one of their catatonic patients named Mrs. Clelia (Mary Jackson). Surely she couldn’t have carried out this murder - let alone the previous ones of a priest and a young boy outside of the hospital grounds? Things become even more bizarre when one of the hospital’s doctors, Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) reveals that Karras was found still alive fifteen years ago in a severely delirious state and has been confined to a securely-locked cell in their psychiatric ward ever since.
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Why is it significant?
The original The Exorcist was a phenomenal critical and commercial success which proved to Hollywood that it was viable to make a horror film on a big budget with Oscar-calibre talent (in this case, director William Friedkin). However, the long-anticipated 1977 follow-up Exorcist II: The Heretic was widely lambasted and, while it turned a profit at the box office, it didn’t do anywhere near as well as its predecessor. Featuring an incoherent script, a visibly drunk Richard Burton, direction by John Boorman in full-on Zardoz-style batshit-crazy-pretentious mode and James Earl Jones in a locust costume, it has come to be regarded by numerous critics as the worst horror sequel ever made - if not the worst film ever made full-stop.
Despite Exorcist II’s failure (or, more likely, out of a desire to rectify its defilement of the franchise), William Peter Blatty set out to create his own Exorcist sequel called Legion, with Friedkin returning as director. However, the project fell through due to creative differences between the pair, resulting in Blatty initially turning the story into a novel of the same title which was published in 1983. Eventually, Blatty managed to get the movie project up and running with the Hollywood film studio Morgan Creek, who were in their early days at that time. He ended up directing it himself, making it the second of only two films which he has done so (the first being The Ninth Configuration in 1980).
However, after he had finished principal photography the studio forced him to return for reshoots to insert an exorcism sequence into the finale performed by a newly-introduced character named Father Morning (played by Nicol Williamson). They also insisted on retitling it to The Exorcist III.
The resulting film, released in 1990, opened to mixed reviews and lacklustre box office. However, it has won a number of fans over the years and is now generally regarded as the one Exorcist sequel to be worthy of any respect. In North America the label Shout! Factory released a Blu Ray version accompanied by a new Director’s Cut.
How does it hold up?
It’s clear from watching The Exorcist III that William Peter Blatty entered the project with bold ambitions and a vision to create a true horror masterpiece. However, while there are moments when it achieves the greatness it aims for, at others, it merely tries very hard and falls short. The great scenes only make the film’s unevenness all the more frustrating.
It’s often obvious why William Peter Blatty has done a lot more writing than he has directing because many scenes feel like just that: more “written” than “directed”. There are stretches of several minutes involving characters spouting line after line after line of dialogue at one another. The writing is often excellent and does, on occasion, work very well in context: the film’s approach of verbally describing The Gemini Killer’s murders both gets around potential censorship issues and provides ample proof that imagining horrific stuff is far more effective than watching depictions of it. However, the sheer volume of gabbing drags down the pacing and simply doesn’t feel cinematic. Some of it feels entirely unnecessary; why do we need to see Dr. Temple reciting a revelatory piece of dialogue before saying it to Kinderman when he enters his office?
The main cast does at least make the endless talk somewhat more palatable. George C. Scott is as great as ever, playing Kinderman as a gruff and cantankerous man - but one with a soft heart underneath his hard exterior. Ed Flanders is also fun to watch as an outgoing and not entirely strait-laced man of the cloth. The pair has great on-screen chemistry together and really make us believe that they have been friends all this time, making it rather sad when the latter faces his demise. Brad Dourif is also as creepy as ever as the demonic manifestation of The Gemini Killer. However, director Blatty lets some of the actors lower down the cast list get away with some rather stiff acting.
The film’s other major issue is the forced inclusion of the character of Father Morning and the climactic exorcism. While Nicol Williamson plays the character well with his deep, Shakespearean delivery, he is introduced in a couple of scenes seemingly placed randomly within the film where he doesn’t interact or talk with anyone and doesn’t add anything to the wider story arc. Even his big, effects-filled payoff scene at the end where he performs the exorcism ritual doesn’t feel particularly consequential to the overall narrative.
A few moments of horror greatness
However, when Blatty actually remembers that films are supposed to be cinematic he delivers some genuinely impressive results. The opening POV shot through fog-encrusted nighttime Georgetown streets is an ominous and effective continuation of the original’s dark finale. The dream sequence in a celestial train station is imaginative and beautiful - a surreal religious painting come to life. During the final third there are three wonderfully creepy/scary scenes: a jumpy moment in a hospital corridor, the sight of a patient crawling upside-down on the ceiling and a suspenseful race against time to stop yet another murder. If anything, from my point of view, a couple of these moments are (whisper it) actually more frightening than anything in the original The Exorcist.
All in all, I do like The Exorcist III a lot despite its issues. It’s an unusual horror film from its period in that it largely emphasises a believable script and implied horrors over goop-encrusted special effects. At best, the approach works superbly and at worst, it can be a bit of a slog. Still, the spine-chills outweigh the talky stretches and disjointed inclusions of the studio-forced scenes.
Runtime: 110 mins
Dir: William Peter Blatty
Script: William Peter Blatty from his own novel
Starring: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, Nicol Williamson, Scott Wilson, Nancy Fish, George DiCenzo, Don Gordon