The Exorcist III (1990)
Trey’s rating: 5 Unexpected Fabio Cameos (out of 5)
The Exorcist, released in 1973, is easily one of the most influential and successful horror films of all time. It is no surprise that Warner Bros. was very keen on trying to recapture that success with a sequel. Unfortunately, their attempt was John Boorman’s The Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977. Make no mistake, The Heretic is not a good movie, especially considering the near-perfection of its predecessor and the level of hype that grew around it. However, William Peter Blatty, author of the novel and screenplay for The Exorcist, had absolutely nothing to do with that film. When he felt a sufficient amount of time had passed, he wrote a novel that he considered the official sequel to The Exorcist, and the title of that followup novel was Legion. Blatty, who mostly worked as a screenwriter, had dabbled in directing at this point (notably in the excellent but underrated The Ninth Configuration), and worked out a deal to adapt and direct his own novel under a different studio, Morgan Creek. This project is what eventually became The Exorcist III.
Now then, enough with the excessive background and production history. You’re here to find out if the flick is any good or not, right? I am not being hyperbolic when I say this is one of my favorite films. It exists in a kind of generic gray area – part supernatural horror, part drama, part psychological thriller, part meditation on faith – perhaps a bit ambitious given its budget, but even with its flaws I think the film accomplishes much of what it sets out to do. George C. Scott strikes just the right tone as Lieutenant Kinderman, the role played by Lee J. Cobb in the first film. His anger, vulnerability, and humor help provide a foundation for a film that in a lot of ways plays much more into the realm of fantasy than its predecessor. Other major cast members are holdovers from Blatty’s other film, The Ninth Configuration – Jason Miller (who also appeared in the original Exorcist as Father Karras), Ed Flanders (replacing William O’Malley as Father Dyer), and Scott Wilson as Dr. Temple. Brad Dourif, in a role I will not spoil here, stands out as the complete antithesis of Scott’s performance. His incredible performance opposite Scott is the highlight of The Exorcist III, and probably the biggest reason why I revisit the film so frequently.
Also appearing in what almost amounts to a glorified cameo is Nicol Williamson as Father Morning. This character is not in the original novel, and is the product of studio interference. The novel, Legion (which was originally to be the title of this film), did not actually feature an exorcism. For some reason Morgan Creek didn’t have a problem with this until production was already underway, so Blatty was forced to insert a new character and work in an effects-laden climax that was not really allowed for in the novel nor the script. This occasionally hurts the film’s internal logic and continuity (if you pay attention, virtually none of the other actors are ever seen in the same frame as Williamson), but ultimately I think the new ending works better for a movie than the novel’s ending would have. While powerful, the novel’s conclusion is very subdued, and on film would likely have seemed anticlimactic. I would have been nice if Morgan Creek had enforced this change early enough in the process that the new character could be fully integrated into the rest of the plot, but I think the film works just fine as-is. If nothing else, it enhances the fantastic, otherworldly elements the film takes on. In any case, Blatty has said that he shot much more footage than was allowed in the studio’s cut, and has expressed interest in assembling a director’s cut. Unfortunately, the studio claims that all of this footage has been lost.
This is not a horror film in a head-spinning, pea soup-spewing kind of way. There are a few jump scares (one scene in particular has become something of a cult favorite in its own right, and is one of my favorite suspenseful moments of any contemporary horror film), but Blatty is really concerned with a more existential kind of horror which is refreshing among the slashers and teen scream movies that have mostly defined the genre in the last few decades.
I suppose I should also explain the image taken for my rating. Blatty is, in my opinion, very good with dream sequences. He used them very well in both The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration, and this film also features a creative, surreal dream at a key moment in the film. Among the odd images in this scene are cameos by Fabio, Patrick Ewing, and a pre-fame Samuel L. Jackson. Also, look quickly in a Georgetown diner scene and you will spot Larry King.
The Exorcist III is a wonderful little film that has never really been given a chance. Audiences and studios alike see the title Exorcist and immediately think of the visual scares of the original film, but the real focus of both that work and Blatty’s later work is on proving the existence of a supreme evil and, by extension, revealing the possibility for supreme good. That message is often lost when the studio takes control (see Exorcist II: The Heretic, or Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: the Beginning). The almost-unreleased Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is something of an exception, but WB barely allowed it to be seen, and only did so after giving a wide release to the aforementioned travesty directed by Renny Harlin. What I’m getting at is that it is almost miraculous that so many of Blatty’s themes and ideas were allowed to remain in The Exorcist III, and it is a testament to his skills as a writer and director that he was able to make the film work. The DVD has virtually no special features, aside from the theatrical trailer embedded below. There are other trailers out there, one of which reveals an effects shot removed from the final cut (for good reason, in my opinion), but I really like the simplicity of this one. It sets the mood of the film and establishes its connection to the original, all without spoiling any of the plot. Also, I love the “Exorcist III: Legion” cross logo, and I think it’s a shame that in abandoning the Legion subtitle it was thrown out.
If you haven’t seen The Exorcist III (and if you are like most people I know, you haven’t), it is worth a look. I’ve tried to go out of my way to avoid spoilers in this review, because I honestly want people to discover this film for themselves, and I think it’s important to see it with fresh eyes. If you want to rewatch the first film beforehand, you can. It’s not necessary, however, as most of the necessary background information is filled in. If, after reading this, you do watch The Exorcist III, I would love to know what you think of it – I’ve met people who had a completely opposite opinion from mine, but also plenty who agree that it is an unappreciated gem of a horror movie. Either way, feel free to comment here or send me a tweet.
UPDATE: There was a content claim on the trailer I found, so embedding is disabled. I’ll post the link here, and for as long as it’s up feel free to go over to youtube and watch it.
© Ralph Lawson III, 2010, All Rights Reserved