Monday, September 20, 2010

Because sometimes it's the third serving of pea soup that really takes the salt

I have strong memories of watching The Exorcist III late one night on cable, probably when I was ten or eleven years old. Though I remembered very little of the actual film, I still to this day recall how I felt when it was over, weirdly frightened and reluctant to head to my bedroom without first turning on the light.
Naturally, I had to one day return to a film not really considered to be a classic that had made me so uneasy. Having recently rewatched Friedken’s The Exorcist and, with much less interesting results, John Boorman’s boor-ing (see what I did there?) sequel, it seemed like the time had come to see how well William Peter Blatty’s 1990 thriller held up.
Quick Plot: Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original; a fine George C. Scott here) attempts to solve a series of grisly religious-themed murders in the sunny city of Georgetown. To de-stress, he heads to the movies with his best friend, Father Dyre (Father Karras’ old pal) who isn’t thrilled to hear about slaughtered priests and beheaded altar boys. Before long, extra tragedy strikes and Kinderman becomes personally involved in solving the case.
I won’t spoil one of the first major kills of the film; it’s somewhat predictable, yet still deeply sad and terrifyingly explained. The third murder moves the investigation to a shady hospital, the kind of place where the head of psychiatry can walk around chain smoking (ahhhh, 1990), the head nurse can rudely roll her eyes when being questioned about a crime, and the ‘disturbed’ patients sit wrapped in straitjackets inside dank, unlit cells with leaky faucets. 

It’s inside the mental ward where Kinderman meets Patient X, a sometimes catatonic man who was found roaming the streets with amnesia 15 years earlier. Now awake, the curly haired man oozes evil, waxing nostalgic about the murders he committed in the guise of the Gemini, a fictional serial killer supposedly executed right around the time that “McNeil Kid” threw up her last bowl of pea soup.

Has Pazuzu found his way inside Patient X? Did Father Karras welcome yet another unwanted demon visitor into his body on those fateful stairs? How close is Kinderman to solving the crime and what will he sacrifice in order to do so?
The Exorcist III is, in an easy word, a complicated film densely packed with a few too many ideas. Blatty himself was never quite satisfied with the end result, mainly because the studio (Morgan Creek) insisted on having the final cut so much so that they demanded an exorcism be weaved into the plot (despite the fact that, as you see in the final scene, it really had no place) and changing the title of the film. Though clearly a sequel to Friedken’s classic, Blatty wanted to call the film Legion, after his book that he had used as the basis. Despite the rightful bombing of The Exorcist II: The Heretic, the studio won out, believing a sequel to be more bankable. 

Production, you might say, was probably not buttery smooth.
That being said, however, I kind of loved The Exorcist III. By about thirty minutes in, I realized why the film grabbed me so deeply as a child. Even though most of the violence occurs offscreen, all of it is described in chilling detail; a black child crucified and decapitated, his head replaced by a Jesus statue in blackface. A woman split and stuffed with rosary beads. A little girl, whose ribbons and pink dress are as vivid in your mind as anything you’d see on camera. Blatty, who wrote the screenplay, uses novel-like prose as dialogue and since it’s delivered by fine actors, it comes off as natural and horrific. Some of the special effects don’t look quite as sharp twenty years later, but there are also a few shots that are as unsettling as anything I’ve seen in recent cinema. A hospital murder, given, without exaggeration, four seconds of screentime made me do another audible Magic -like “ugh!” and though I don’t have any religious affiliation, Blatty’s use of macabre Jesus statues gave me the chills.

Though this one is a little more The Joker Goes Catholic for my tastes

Will the film work for everyone? Probably not. There’s an age-old argument that occasionally surfaces when discussing The Exorcist that claims those without Christian leanings are naturally more immune to some of the story’s machinations. Perhaps that’s true for some, but what’s neat about The Exorcist III is that it never feels preaching or pro-religion. There is evil in the world, it argues, evil that may exist as some counterpoint to good (or God, if you like--I don’t) but good men can do something about it, regardless of their faith. You don’t necessarily need an ordained priest to save a soul; sometimes, a detective’s smarts, gun, and determination are enough.
High Points
There’s a lot to be said for laughing in a horror movie, especially one as dark as this. Blatty gives us some truly winning dialogue, especially in the unique but believable friendship between Kinderman and Father Dyre. There’s also plenty of visual gags that simply make the film interesting, including a wonderfully weird dream about heaven (complete with Fabio and Patrick Ewing, natch) and a wheelchair flasher who kind of deserves a sequel of his own

You simply can’t cast crazy better than Billy Bibbit himself, Brad Douriff, and even though you can occasionally catch a little Chucky in his voice, Douriff (and Jason Miller) make the Gemini Killer (maybe) a horrific force

Remember how I said the best part of a movie that ended up with the original title of this one was when a possessed senior citizen crawled on a ceiling? This film has one too. And it could kick that old bag’s ass

Low Points
Perhaps due more to studio intervention than Blatty’s skills, it’s hard to deny the story of The Exorcist III is kind of a mess
Because Scott, Douriff, and most of the priest, police, and medical characters are so darn good, the two scenes that take place inside Kinderman’s home feel out of place. Both the acting and general look just don’t mesh with the rest of the film, taking us out momentarily
Lessons Learned
Never trust a man who has a glamour portrait of himself hanging prominently inside his office
It’s a wonderful life

When conducting an exorcism, nothing says fashion like a tear-away robe
I’m heartily recommending a rental of The Exorcist III, mainly so that you can come back here and tell me if the film affected you in the same odd way it did me. I don’t scare easily, but there’s something so strangely wrong about the murders here, helped, of course, by some fine acting and a director with an instinctively good feel for atmosphere. Had the DVD included a single extra, I’d easily tell you to buy it but sadly, all of Blatty’s cut footage was ‘lost’ by the studio and no one comes back here to tell us why. This is a smart, funny, and deeply scary film that is simply better than it had any right to be. The fact that it’s been branded a cheap sequel is almost a sin.
Or maybe I’m just a wimp.


  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Exorcist III--I used to call it one of the best, most underrated horror sequels of all time, but in recent years it seems to be rated better than previously. And deservedly so, imo. It's gorgeous to look at, extremely well-written, impeccably acted, and even (gasp!) genuinely scary.

    George C. Scott is great here, though toward the end he does chew the scenery a little too vigorously perhaps--his chemistry with Ed Flanders as Father Dyer is just wonderful(l), esp. early on in the movie theater, the "Carp" dialogue scene.

    And Brad Dourif was robbed of a best supporting actor nod in this, I really believe that. He is soooo creepy and perfect--his voice, his odd calm, his glassy eyes--the only actor ever to absolutely terrify me with both hands literally tied behind his back.

    And of course the famous Hallway Scare. I still jump and gasp every time, and I *know* it's coming. That's a sign of good filmmaking there.

    I'm not big on the Celebrity Angels cameos (Fabio AND Patrick Ewing?), but otherwise the movie works perfectly for me. Nothing but love.

  2. Yay! I fell in love with the Exorcist III after my first viewing. I love how it's generally more detective/ murder mystery than straight horror. The book is fantastic as well, and some of the murders in the book are even more gruesome than the film. The nurse for instance is....really unsettling. You must read. But yes I agree, it is a shame they made Blatty put in that Exorcist scene. It's a little took kooky for my tastes I think.

  3. So glad to hear I'm not alone in finding this so enjoyable and terrifying. Scott and Flanders are fantastic together and deserved their own buddy cop/priest spinoff TV show. What fantastic chemistry!

    Regarding the angels, it was more amusing to me than anything else because I didn't realize they were actually famous at the time. I guessed Fabio was just cast cause he looked so angelic, but I suppose the early '90s were his pre-birded heydays. I didn't recognize Patrick Ewing until I checked some of the cast online, but that's because my basketball knowledge is limited to the three answers to any basketball Trivial Pursuit question ever asked: Michael Jordon (70% of the answers), Dennis Rodman (25%), or Magic Johnson (5%).

    Brad Dourif deserves an honorary Oscar for simply being THE Best Supporting Actor in just about every film he makes. As usual, he's fantastic in this one.

    And yes yes yes that HALLWAY SCARE!!! So perfectly staged and executed and probably one of the shortest actual scares ever. Gah I just got the chills!

  4. I missed ya there Andre!

    I'm in line to receive LEGION from my library one of these days, unless I happen to discover it being thrown out on the sidewalk the way I lucked into reading The Exorcist. Let's hope for the best.

  5. Hi Em,
    Like you I remember this scaring the crap out of me as a youth.
    Re-watching it not too long ago I was pleased to find that, for the most part, it held up. I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea of sadness that seemed to be throughout this film.
    As a kid the way they described what happened to the first boy really affected me as he was close to my own age (at least he was in my head). Now it just struck me as terribly sad, which for me, is a sign of good writing as I'm generally a callus bastard.
    That and the fact that old people genuinely creep me out (there's an old Dr. Who episode to blame for that) make this one that stuck with me.

  6. Hey Vish! Old people really are unsettling, much like babies in that sense. Not enough films take advantage of that, although I do recommend a hard-to-find thriller called HOMEBODIES about angry senior citizens unwilling to leave their rent-controlled apartment.

    But back to more possess-y matters, yes, The Exorcist III is quite sad, a testament to the writing and acting. The fact that it's George C. Scott delivering news of this insanely tragic death certainly helps.

  7. I've not seen this one yet. Now the power of your review compels me.

  8. Enjoy! And il domino nomino whatever!

  9. It's been a while since I've seen this one. Does George C. Scott smoke his way through this one too?
    This has its flaws but it still gives me the does The Changeling. Maybe it's just the power of The Scott. Or the Marlboros. I dunno.

  10. Hm. The Scott puffing doesn't stick out in my memory, but I maybe just not have noticed it. There's another character (head of psychiatry no less) who chain smokes in the hospital the whole time, so that could have just clouded my vision.

    I've never seen that many C. Scott films, but I watched The CHangeling (review coming soon) and this about a week apart and it really did make me realize what a difference a great actor can make in a genre film. Long live The Scott!

  11. I'll have to check this out again sometime soon. I was about the same age when I saw this. You know what I used to watch when I was young that unsettled me a lot, that, upon recent revisiting, is still equally unsettling at age 34? The TV show "Unsolved Mysteries!" All the missing persons, unexplained deaths, and wanted criminals at large are still really creepy. Yup, I turned the light on while brushing my teeth after watching that, and made sure my door was locked. It doesn't even seem like it's really trying to be scary, but it is!

  12. I definitely felt that way about certain crimes on America's Most Wanted and Sightings. In particular, some of the alien stuff always felt weirdly horrifying. And I can fondly recall debating at the age of 8 whether or not to call in a hot tip about a man I saw at a bowling alley who looked suspiciously like one of the criminals. Really, it was probably just another 30ish man with red hair, but to my eyes, he was a wanted killer!