“This I believe in ... I believe in death. I believe in disease. I believe in injustice and inhumanity, torture and anger and hate ... I believe in murder. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty and infidelity. I believe in slime and stink and every crawling, putrid thing ... every possible ugliness and corruption, you son of a bitch. I believe ... in you.”Though, it’s probably not something a lot of people would admit, I have a few things in common with Jeffrey Dahmer: outcast status in high school, excessive drinking in the first year of university, great hair, and an aversion to locker rooms.
As it turns out, I’ve discovered another thing I have in common with the late cannibal. We both share a deep and abiding love for THE EXORCIST III.
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t my favourite movie, not in a world where CASABLANCA, TOUCH OF EVIL, and AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD exist. It’s not even my favourite horror movie. Messrs Carpenter, Fulci and Cronenberg would have something to say about that. What THE EXORCIST III does for me, however, is scratch an itch that no other film can.
THE EXORCIST III is undoubtedly a flawed film, but I believe it is the CITIZEN KANE of flawed films. In fact, it is one of the few films whose flaws end up working for it. So, after years of answering Negative Nellies with derision, I’m honored to be able to stack my appreciation for this film all in one place.
William Peter Blatty wrote the novel, and its subsequent Academy Award-winning screenplay adaptation, The Exorcist. I don’t believe he ever had any desire to be involved in a sequel to the film or novel, but I suppose watching 1977’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC can inspire feeling of “I can do better than that” pretty readily. He eventually began to work with William Friedkin developing a story that would lead to a falling out and the film being thrown into limbo. Not Catholic Limbo, mind you. Movie limbo: surely, a much worse fate.
Blatty then said “screw it!” — though, he may have never used those exact words, and gone instead with “tarnation” or “fiddle faddle,” but I like to think of him as a pretty chill dude —and turned the story into his novel LEGION. He turned the novel, a success, into a screenplay and got the interest of Morgan Creek. Morgan Creek told him he could direct, and voila!
Well, maybe not. But we’ll get to the studio interference with the film in a little bit.
The great thing about THE EXORCIST III, LEGION, or THE EXORCIST III: LEGION (if you’re nasty) is that it doesn’t negate anything in EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, despite popular opinion. It just doesn’t have anything to do with it. The first sequel to THE EXORCIST follows the MacNeils and Father Merrin a few years after those horrific events from the original film. I think much of the flack Blatty’s film gets stems from the facts that a.) most people never gave the film a shot after the previous film, and b.) people kind of loved Linda Blair, and she is barely mentioned in this film. This one follows Lieutenant Kinderman, Father Dyer and Damien Karras. However, what Blatty chose to do in the third film was a stroke of genius; he made a direct sequel to the original novel.
Much of the novel THE EXORCIST was based on dealt with characterizing one Lieutenant Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb in that film. Unfortunately, the character gets short shrift in the film version where it was tightened into a family drama with severe supernatural religious implications. It works for that film, obviously seeing as it is considered by many to be one of the best horror films of all time.
The Kinderman we get in THE EXORCIST III, played brilliantly by George C. Scott, is a man who has clearly reckoned with the events of the first film so many years prior, and come out defeated. The best part is that it is not done through portraying Kinderman as a self-loathing alcoholic, brooding alone in a dark room. George C. Scott’s Kinderman is a loving husband and father, a good friend to Father Dyer, and a gruff but amiable co-worker to those in the police force. Behind all that is the haunted man who cannot come to terms with the evil that man is capable of, the evil he has seen manifest one too many times. But much of that is below the surface. When he acknowledges it in the film’s climax by delivering the monologue quoted under the title of this essay, he tells us what he sees and believes. It is important to note that his character is so well defined that he sees and believes these things, but he refuses to let them ruin his life. And, while this sub-textual existential dread does not drive the film, it pervades its every moment.
What does drive this film is maturity. It’s a breath of fresh air for a genre so often consumed with jiggling naughty bits and sharp things driven through heads, which are good things too, don’t get me wrong. Kinderman is an amazing viewpoint character. He is an older man in the lead of a horror film (which you don’t often see) whose relationship with his wife is one of a worn-in familiarity and lived-in warmth (which you don’t often see) who, with his best friend that he met during a time of great trauma, shares conversations about cinema over dinner instead of the all-pervading cosmic horror that brought them together (which you don’t often see.) It’s all steeped in reality.
For so long, movies have given us single-minded characters driven by a single force. It’s not always wrong either. Some of the greatest movies have that as a driving motivation: JAWS, DIRTY HARRY, MRS. DOUBTFIRE. However, when we do see something different, it truly sticks out.
I’m not one of those people who refuse to call horror films horror films if they are intelligent. I don’t reserve the term thriller for intelligent horror films, and Pazuzu knows I’ve seen my share of dumbass thrillers. THE EXORCIST III, on the other hand, spends much of its time dancing through so many genres that my head would spin if it would stop being so engrossed. It’s a drama, it’s a black comedy, it’s a police procedural, and, yes, it’s a horror film.
In fact, it contains the single most effective jump scare in cinematic history. Those who have seen it will agree or be prepared to fight. I’ve seen this movie a ridiculous amount of times and I jump every single time.
A jump scare, however, does not an effective horror film make. It is also littered with horrific imagery, some of which has been ceaselessly copied in lesser flicks. I’m talking to YOU old lady crawling on the ceiling. But the real moments of terror come when Kinderman fears for his family’s well-being in an extremely effective edge of your seat race to get home and in a quiet moment where he pretends to be a radio repairman for a senile old woman who matter-of-factly delivers one of the movie’s freakiest lines of dialogue.
In fact, the film delivers so well on the scares and atmosphere that I’m sure it would be considered a classic, right up there with its granddaddy, if it didn’t have such a wildly and insanely uneven third act.
And, boy-oh-boy, what a third act! The murders Kinderman is investigating appear to be those of the Gemini Killer, who died in the electric chair 15 years ago. Well, how do you explain the mysterious Patient X in the dangerous wing of the psych ward who claims to be the dead serial killer? That’s not all! Astute film fans and even the most casual of viewers of the original The Exorcist who have not seen this film would have been confused by my earlier mention of Damien Karras. Sorry to spoil one of the most famous films in the history of cinema for you, but Damien Karras dies as a very important plot point of the first film. Why, then, does Jason Miller – the original actor who played Father Karras – portray the inhabitant of Patient X’s cell? As we learn in this film, the man in the cell is not a man, but many men, and his name is Legion.
It sets up an intriguing rework of the story’s third act. Rightly or not, Morgan Creek demanded there be an exorcism at the end of the film. I suppose that it makes sense for a film with the word “exorcist” in the title. There ought to be an exorcism or two. The changes and reshoots Morgan Creek demanded of Blatty add a bizarre and head-spinning end to a film that has already achieved a relentless atmosphere of unease.
As a result, the actors portraying Patient X snaps back and forth between Jason Miller and the great Brad Dourif, who Blatty wanted originally. Miller was added only after Morgan Creek wanted another actor from the first film. Miller then performs the role of Karras as well as the host of demons inside his body, while Dourif tends to play the role of the Gemini Killer inside Karras’s body. Then, when you add in the myriad of vocal effects added to both actor when they speak, there is an endless barrage of crazy wrapped into the film’s last forty minutes. I adore it.
Now, I’ve spent much of my word count here pounding into your head how serious and grim this movie can get – and it can – but there is also an insane element of fun. Fun is an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of a film for me, hence my love for those movies with jiggling naughty bits and sharp things driven through heads. This movie has it in heaps. Fabio plays an angel! Patrick Ewing plays the Angel of Death! Blink and you might miss cameos from Samuel L. Jackson and Larry King! The best, however, has to be the great visual gag as homage to Dourif’s more iconic horror role from CHILD’S PLAY.
This column is among those featured in
BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of
horror essays written by contributors to
THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
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A lot of hoopla, yes hoopla, is made of studios meddling in the creative process and ruining otherwise decent films, especially now when we are so aware of when films go into reshoots and release dates are constantly being pushed back. This film is one of those, but even as a flawed film, at least a little bit deviated from the writer/director’s original vision, it works on so many levels. Its status as a neglected child in the series of Exorcist films is definitely unearned. Especially when you look at the fact that this one wrapped the story up so neatly they had to go the prequel route when they of course went back to the well in 2004 … and again in 2005. Talk about flawed films! I think it’s fair to say that if you want a sequel to THE EXORCIST that is a great film, you have to go with Blatty’s THE EXORCIST III.
There isn’t likely to be a better film in the series unless, of course, someone comes up with the original excised footage from Blatty’s cut. Everybody seems to be sold on the fact that the original footage from the film is lost, but if The Wicker Man and NIGHTBREED have taught me anything, it’s that one can never give up hope. Especially since Morgan Creek said NIGHTBREED’s excised footage was lost, and, lo and behold, we’re on the cusp of that being released. At the very least, we can say that I have a much better chance of seeing the director’s cut of the film than Jeffrey Dahmer does.
DESMOND REDDICK is a writer, teacher, podcaster and horror fan who lives on Vancouver Island with his tolerant wife, two savage sons, four vicious chickens and one neurotic female duck named Howard. Check out his podcast at www.dreadmedia.com where he offers his unsolicited opinion on all kinds of different genre movies weekly. Send more whiskey!