Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: ghosts in a haunted house, demonic possession, it's all fair game in The Conjuring, a giddy old ghost story of the best campfire tradition based on the case files of noted paranormal investigators/professional frauds Ed and Lorraine Warren. Not that stories about demons and Satan need to be giddy; some of them are far too serious to think about such plebeian matters.
The Exorcist is head and shoulders better than the 1973 theatrical cut, and they owe thanks to William Peter Blatty, writer and producer of that film, and author of it source novel, and the main driving force behind the creation of the extended cut. They're also probably the best possible candidates to watch The Exorcist III, for that film, released in 1990, was the one and only Exorcist film that Blatty himself directed (it was his second and final time behind the camera), adapting it from his 1983 novel Legion. Though he was forced by the studio to make severe changes to the film's climax - changes that the filmmaker and some of his actors have stated in later years fundamentally ruined the movie, and looking at the details, it's not hard to disagree with them - this still remains the most direct delivery system of the man's ideas in cinematic form.
As one of the people who urgently doesn't prefer the Blatty cut of the original Exorcist, and largely regards most of the problems of either version as stemming from what I am inclined to call the "Blattyness" of the material, I'll admit upfront that I certainly am not the best candidate to watch The Exorcist III, and having now done so, I do not entirely care for what I saw. It's still easily the best film in the franchise after the original, if that's worth anything. After all, this is the franchise that includes Exorcist II: The Heretic, one of history's most notoriously vile sequels. We're not ranking Godfather pictures here.
Now, I have not read Legion; but on the evidence, it seems that the movie is probably more of an adaptation of that book than it is a sequel to the first movie, given the way it silently revises character relationships in directions that simply aren't compatible with what we saw in '73, which the movie insists was actually '75. It's certainly not the most complete transgression against the dignity of the original possible, regardless. Have I mentioned The Heretic yet this paragraph? Because shit, man. Blatty could have turned the material into rock-opera featuring the ghost of Father Merrin as the emcee of a discotheque in Heaven, and The Exorcist III wouldn't be as far from the spirit of the original as The Heretic was.
Surprisingly, The Exorcist III doesn't make any attempts to disavow The Heretic, fixing entirely on those characters who weren't involved with that first sequel, and never directly contradicting anything that happened there. Where we are is that Lt. William Kinderman (George C. Scott, replacing the late Lee J. Cobb) of the Washington, D.C. police is investigating the death of a 12-year-old boy, one that unnerves him for two reasons. First is the severity of its profanation of religious imagery. Second is that a few details seem to square with the case of a brutal serial killer from the '70s called Gemini, executed 15 years ago, though Blatty doesn't see fit to let us know that Kinderman picked up on this for quite a long while, one of a great many writing decisions that just don't make any damn sense. Kinderman is consulting with his friend, Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders), on this most upsetting case, but it's about to start getting way more upsetting when a Catholic priest is butchered in a confessional, and Dyer himself ends up in the hospital, where he proves easy pickings to be the third victim in the apparently resurrected Gemini killer spree.
I'm glossing over a lot, but the devil is in the details, ha-ha. We figure out pretty early on - the bestial growling and overdubbed voice-of-many-tormented-souls dialogue are big tells - that the killer is possessed by a demon; the fact that the story's title is either Exorcist or Legion, depending on the medium would already have us thinking in this direction, naturally. But we're just that much smarter than Kinderman, for whom ideas about religion and spirituality simply don't matter in the day-to-day, and who doesn't start to put things together for an awfully long time. Eventually, he finds a patient in the psych ward of the hospital where he's investigating Dyer's murder, who claims to be the Gemini killer, though Kinderman is rather disturbed to find that the patient much more resembles his long-dead friend, Father Damian Karras, who last died during the successful exorcism of Regan MacNeill in the '70s. In a nifty gesture that was forced on Blatty, who used it to his advantage, the version of this character we see when he's possessed by the legion of malevolent spirits is played by Brad Dourif, while the moments that Karras's body is being left mostly alone are played by Jason Miller, who played Karras in The Exorcist. Because that is, after all, where this is going: the demon forced out of Regan, pissed at being beaten by those meddling priests, was able to manipulate the spirit of the evil Gemini killer into Karras's dead body, though it's taken a decade and a half to undo the physical corruption of his brain enough for that body to be useful as a vessel for revenge against those who played a role in casting that demon out. In the meanwhile, the Gemini has been body-hopping into the doddering old dementia patients of the same hospital, using them as meat puppets to enact the demon's will.
I guess that's a little spoilery, but 23-year-old movie and all. Anyway, you cannot possibly discuss The Exorcist III without having all that out there, because it's the only way to get across that the film feels, frankly, like Exorcist fan fiction. Surprisingly creative and internally coherent Exorcist fan fiction, but there's always a weirdness about the way this bends the characters - Karras is a demon zombie now? For real? - that simply doesn't fill a need. It feels very much like somebody was spouting off some diatribe about what they'd do with Kinderman (that obvious fan-favorite), and ending it with, "I mean, wouldn't that be so fascinating to see what would happen?" Yeah, probably. Would I have been much happier if these speculations hadn't been anointed with the legitimacy of canon? Unquestionably. Let us say that it feels like a good-faith attempt to make an Exorcist sequel that was going to come out anyway more decent than it had to be, rather than a story that thrives on its own and justified the making of a sequel.
Story aside, The Exorcist III is a mind-blowingly daft bit of moviemaking, suggesting that Blatty had seen and loved many films without ever really paying attention to how they worked. And to be entirely fair, I don't know how much of this is a direct result of the studio's tinkering and chopping; with Blatty's original cut held to no longer exist, none of us ever will (I'm guessing the studio didn't insist on all the painfully on-the-nose symbolism, though; a calling card of the unseasoned filmmaker). But it's a frightfully amateurish bit of filmmaking, primarily worthwhile for Gerry Fisher's rewardingly '70s-style cinematography.
The dialogue is stiff and talky; fine, that's kind of Blatty's thing, and The Exorcist itself bogs down far more often than its biggest fans concede in blocks of speeches about theology. But The Exorcist had William Friedkin at the height of his powers driving it forward; in The Exorcist III, an unforgivable number of dialogue scenes (that is to say, virtually all of them) are cut according to the most primitive idea of an editing pattern imaginable. One person talks: you see them in close-up. The film cuts to another person in close-up; they talk. It cuts back to the first person. Over and over. It's the absolute worst: even if you don't notice it in specific mechanical terms, it's the sort of thing that interferes with how the scenes play, reducing them to nuggets of speech that plop out, one by one, no flow between ideas and no relationship between characters. It's something that you'd only do deliberately if you were trying to make a parody of film students; first-year film students at that, because overlapping dialogue is literally one of the first things they teach you in editing class. Do we blame editors Peter Lee-Thompson and Todd C. Ramsay for this? Did Blatty simply not give them enough coverage? It's bizarre, nor is it the only editing problem: scenes pervasively and continually end a half second or so early, right at the instant that dialogue ends and not with a beat to let the film draw a breath. The net result: a film that has some of the worst flow between and within scenes that I can imagine.
And the ending (which Blatty directed, though not happily), is a fucking nightmare: comically absurd in its great big gore moment, utterly out-of-place, badly staged, confusing, and bogged down in terrible, generic exorcism movie dialogue.
It's not otherwise incompetent - though some of the looped dialogue is mixed so terribly that I'd like to believe it's on purpose, if I could imagine what that purpose might be - and in places, The Exorcist III is irreproachably great. In places, it's also quite stupid: almost the first thing that happens is a crucifix sculpture of Jesus opens its eyes as evil tries to break into a church, like one of those dolls with weighted eyes that move if you stand it up. But when he gives up the talky shit and actually attempts to make an atmospheric horror-drama hybrid (for it never remotely jumps into horror theatrics without couching it in character business and theme, two things that I don't believe Blatty is as good at writing as he plainly believes), it is genuinely chilling and unnerving - its absolute best scary moments are creepier than anything in The Exorcist itself, in fact, particularly when the terrible sound mixing is turned to the film's advantage and makes the demon seem like something not quite in reality.
Above and beyond anything else, as horror, as theology, or as a character study, the film has George C. Scott and Brad Dourif, whose scenes together are nothing less than exquisite. Scott is good in the whole film, mind you, but the scenes he shares with the demonic psychopath are on a completely different level: even the choppy editing settles down into languid two-shots and fascination with Dourif's horrifyingly intense monologues. It is the one point where the movie effortlessly achieves the sense of soul-sickness that it otherwise has to fight for and only rarely attains; the one place where the stated exploration of evil on a spiritual and physical level rises above the talky philosophisin' and becomes real, tangible, and genuinely upsetting. It's not a huge amount to build a movie on, but it's absolutely brilliant stuff, and nothing else in The Exorcist III is remotely bad enough to rob it of its pitch-black power.
Reviews in this series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
The Exorcist Prequels:
-Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
-Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)