Franchise film holds its own: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)

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It’s hard to believe that there could be a worthy followup to a film such as The Exorcist. Indeed, the first sequel is famously atrocious. The Exorcist III, while not able to stand alongside its predecessor, can still hold up its head as a thoughtful and well made film. A good deal of credit for this must go to director William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist and also Legion, of which The Exorcist III is an adaptation. This film manages to feel like it has a certain pride in itself that makes it more than a cash grab. More surprisingly, it has a confident and distinctive style that’s inseparable from the story – not bad for someone who only ever directed one other film, an adaptation of his own The Ninth Configuration, a decade earlier.

Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer return in this film, played this time by George C. Scott and Ed Flanders, respectively. They’re not quite the same as they were in The Exorcist; we have to imagine that Kinderman and Father Karras were closer friends than they appeared to be, close enough that Kinderman commemorates each anniversary of the fatal plunge that Karras took down that flight of stairs. We can presume that Dyer took up Kinderman’s offer to go see a movie in The Exorcist’s final minutes, because he joins the policeman on these grim anniversaries. He also takes the opportunity to try to assuage Kinderman’s lack of faith. However, Kinderman has seen too many horrors to be convinced that God exists, especially now that a string of murders are being committed in the exact method of The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) – who was executed fifteen years ago.

This summary only hints at how closely this film ties into The Exorcist. The way in which this happens is one of the film’s best shocks, so I won’t spoil it. Another of them is how and when The Gemini Killer makes his appearance. The first hour of the film circles around these matters, at a mannered pace, creating a heavy atmosphere as it does so.

The Exorcist III has a smaller scope than the original, but small things (dead birds, dripping taps, gusts of wind) can unnerve. This film is full of horrific images and ideas, but approaches them with patience. They accumulate steadily, giving a sense that the world is full of ever-present evils. Many sequences are restrained, in which the lighting, often involving unnatural colours, shifts as though to indicate the movements of unseen forces. Near-inaudible rumblings and repetitive sounds do the same. There’s moments of gore and a few sudden shocks (this one has a well-deserved reputation), but they’re earned.

Some themes recur from The Exorcist. Setting much of the story in a hospital enables Blatty to continue to explore the indignities of old age and illness. More than that, he includes a dream sequence that envisions the immediate afterlife as a cross between a train station and a hospital, with ineffectual angels as the nurses. There’s a blackly humorous streak throughout, which was also present in Friedkin’s film but was easy to overlook. Still, Catholicism is taken as seriously as ever; to do otherwise would be to compromise the story’s gravity. The Exorcist III is all about the ugliness of human existence, which contributes to an argument concerning the nature of God that Blatty also explored in The Ninth Configuration. (Or so I’ve gleaned from reading reviews of that film; it’s a little hard to get ahold of.)

In a filmography filled with degenerates, crazies and murderers, The Gemini Killer still manages to stand out as one of Brad Dourif’s most intense roles. The character should not be particularly interesting; he’s confined by a straitjacket and chained to a wall, delivers dialogue that frequently involves exposition, and largely appears in just two scenes. However, the film anticipates his arrival so well that encountering him is something to dread, and Dourif handles his restrictions masterfully. The Killer is unpredictable, going from vicious to amused as a schizophrenic madman does. (At one point, while explaining something to Kinderman, he glances away and asks, “Is this true?” The novel was called Legion, after all.) He gets several long takes in which the camera shows a POV shot so that we, along with Kinderman, feel like we’re within reach of the Killer’s wayward spittle. Every motion the character makes is significant, especially when he gets to his feet and moves closer to the camera.

The most interesting thing about the performance is the way that Dourif controls his voice. When describing what the Gemini Killer did to a particular victim, he edges his pitch higher and higher, making his near cartoonish tones a mockery of the victim’s pain and intensifying the agony that Kinderman feels in listening to this. Then he drops his voice back down again, because there’s no real rhythm or sense to this character.

Less well-cast is George C. Scott. Yes, he was in a great horror film, The Changeling, a decade earlier. He also does bear some resemblance to Lee J. Cobb. At a hard-worn 63, however, he looks beyond weary. Perhaps the character is supposed to seem ill, but it is a constant distraction. Fortunately, his performance still works, even if he’s not the ideal actor for the role.

Expecting The Exorcist III to be in the same league as The Exorcist is an impossibility; that’s something few films in this genre can hope to be. Nonetheless, it’s more than a throwaway sequel. It’s an emotionally satisfying (if upsetting) continuation of this story, made with what seems to be sincere dedication by Blatty. Dourif’s performance is memorably insane, even for him. There’s a number of standout moments delivered in a restrained yet vivid style, and a well-constructed mood in the service of thoughtful ideas. It’s impossible to separate The Exorcist III from the first film in this series, but comparing them too closely would only lead to overlooking what this film has to offer.

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