CAPSULE: THE EXORCIST III (1990)

DIRECTED BY: William Peter Blatty

FEATURING: George C. Scott, , Jason Miller

PLOT: A seasoned police lieutenant notices details of a recent homicide case that are eerily similar to those of a dead serial killer’s 15 year-old murder spree.

Still from The Exorcist III (1990)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If The Exorcist III was about 30 minutes long, consisting of the most oblique, intense moments in the theatrical version, it may very well have been one of the most terrifying and bizarre films to emerge from the ’90s. This 110-minute crawl, however, somehow manages to find the mundane in supernatural goings-on and ritual murder sprees.

COMMENTS: A serial killer is on the loose, preying on the weak and the innocent in Washington, D.C., mutilating their bodies in the same grotesque fashion as The Gemini, a psychopath who was convicted and executed for his crimes 15 years ago. It falls to veteran police lieutenant William Kinderman to stop this madman before he kills again. Can he unravel the mystery in time, or will Kinderman be the killer’s next victim?

Oh… and there’s an exorcism. Did I mention that?

One could easily imagine the origin of the THIRD entry in The Exorcist franchise sounding like that of other famous horror icons’ origin stories: “locked away in an asylum until one fateful Halloween night”, “summoned from Hell into this dimension by unwitting pleasure-seekers”, and, perhaps most appropriately, “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” The execution doesn’t sound too pleasant, either; a vacated director’s chair is filled by the writer of the original film’s source material, the focus turned from Regan MacNeil to Detective Kinderman (!), and several studio butcher-block decisions radically alter the final product. But The Exorcist III is actually a bit more inspired than anyone expected it to be, which is what makes its place in horror history so complicated and its ultimate failure so frustrating.

This inspiration comes from writer/director William Peter Blatty, and acts as a double-edged sword in terms of the film’s success. The Exorcist III is so obviously the work of someone who makes their living in literature: a potpourri of pithy back-and-forths, heaping helpings of monologue, and even one of those evergreen “you’ve never read [insert Shakespeare play here] before?!?” moments mark this as a product of tell-not-show storytelling.  This style of filmmaking does make for crisp interactions and eases the inexplicable shift in perspective to an ancillary franchise character. Unfortunately, telling and not showing can be dreadfully dull in large doses, and we are given so many scenes chock full of our man Kinderman expositing, waxing, interrogating, and, of course, being crotchety that it slows the film down to crawl speed.

All this down time The Exorcist III affords us does itself no favors, because it allows us as the audience to question, and the one question that is always asked about this particular entry in the series is, “Is this really an Exorcist movie?” To which any person with a cursory knowledge of the source material would have to answer with a resounding, “no.” Characters are name-dropped, imagery is subtly referenced, and we even get the return of Jason Miller as the unlucky Father Karras, but this is all Exorcist window dressing around a murder-thriller with supernatural overtones, and that is simply not enough to tie this story into the tapestry of The Exorcist as a series. If the murmurs of references to characters from the first film and the overlapping themes of Christian possession fears and crises of faith were enough to qualify this as a direct sequel in any way to the events of The Exorcist, then Fox missed a huge opportunity to market 2012’s Ted as the long-awaited follow-up to Flash Gordon.

But that is not to say that there is nothing to recommend here. Blatty shows moments of real intrigue and bravado as a visual storyteller. The famous scene in heaven with the who’s-who of celebrities, while belonging to another film entirely, sticks in the mind’s eye and proves that Blatty can compose a shot consisting of more than two people sitting around talking. And the anxiety-ridden scene in the hospital with the striking nurse in the red sweater is a tight, well-crafted scene that is as horrifying as anything in the first film. George C. Scott is impressive here as Kinderman; not the clever, persistent side character portrayed by Lee J. Cobb in the first film, but a harder-edged, ornery badass presumably closer to the novelization (at least, I hope s—at one point, Kinderman cites Father Karras as his “best friend”, which, if we are to look only at their relationship from the original, says something utterly depressing about this guy). Scott growls and snarls through this supernatural world like he can take down the Devil with a dry bon mot and a punch in the kisser. It can be quite a bit of fun to watch. The real star here though is Brad Dourif as The Gemini. He vacillates between constrained evil bastard to scenery-chewing god of darkness with a deftness and believability that cannot be taught. And although his character is responsible for some of the more egregious monologues here, thanks to Dourif’s gift for imposing stillness, even these moments have a latent energy to them. His performance will be the lasting testament provided by The Exorcist III, and for that alone, it is worthy of at least a single viewing.

So, The Exorcist III ultimately fails to be a cohesive, successful film (and, really, an Exorcist film at all). It is 30 minutes too long, it reaches pathetically in its attempts to tie itself to a franchise it has no need to be involved with, and the filler scenes turn a taut thriller into bloated curiosity. And yet it is notable for the things it got right; a superb cast, isolated moments of sheer terror, and imagery that leaps off the screen. If it weren’t so inexorably tied to a series with so many built-in presumptions—if the film had been titled Legion as it was originally intended before the studio stepped in and decided to shoe-horn in an exorcism angle and an Exorcist title to suck out those precious sequel dollars—perhaps it would have achieved a cult status on its own merits. But, like the wretched spirit of Pazuzu, the looming shadow of The Exorcist overwhelmed The Exorcist III with a curse of fan expectations that shows no signs of slowing down all these many years later.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This may sound like heresy, but ”The Exorcist III” is a better and funnier (intentionally) movie than either of its predecessors…For all of the wildness of his imagination, Mr. Blatty is a comparatively discreet director.” -Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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