Exorcist III

(USA - 1990)

by Mike McGowan & Mike Lorefice

Cast: George C. Scott, Brad Dourif, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Nicol Williamson, Scott Wilson, Mary Jackson
Genre: Horror
Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty from his novel Legion
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Composer: Barry De Vorzon
Runtime: 105 minutes

"I have dreams of a rose, and falling down a long flight of stairs" - Father Damien Karras

Mike McGowan: William Friedkin brilliantly interpreted William Peter Blatty's "Exorcist" in the 1973 film that revolutionized the way horror films were viewed as legitimate theater. However, the ill-advised John Boorman sequel hamstrung the continuing saga of demonic possession with horrible execution. Here, in the third installment, Blatty seizes the directorial helm in an effort to revive his sordid tale. Not only does he save the horror genre for a modern audience (the state of horror being mostly garbage circa 1990), but he bests the legendary Friedkin original. This film is in my top five, all time. Go ahead, check out my profile, it's right there.

Mike Lorefice: Boorman is easily the best director of the three. He simply was not the person to direct an Exorcist sequel. The mistake he made is one that's made time and time again with sequels; it simply did not deliver what was good about the original. It is not a good film or even an average one, greatly hampered by a silly unbelievable story though even the acting is bad (Richard Burton was great the same year in Equus and good or better most every other I saw him, but this was totally a what happened here film). Visually it's an inspiring piece of work though, as Boorman's often are, especially Excalibur. It's annoying when a film like this, or especially Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, is considered among the worst of all time because it's all a knee jerk reaction to lofty expectations. These expectations also led to major recutting, which at least in the case of Cimino's film ruined it. This is something that wouldn't happen to an uninspired money machine product like virtually every Hollywood release today that everyone should know will be bad. They'd just spend more money promoting it and getting people to (or locating the idiots that already have) make a bunch of false statements in its favor rather than running scared from some critics and a few test audiences that were warning how much it (supposedly) sucked.

I agree that the state of horror wasn't good in 1990, but is it ever? To me, horror is a genre that, for different reasons, will always have mostly failures. In most cases, that reason is the idea that horror films should be made for a bunch of 15-year-olds. Between the juvenile mentality and the Motion Picture Annihilators of America making it impossible to make a scary PG-13 film by judging on intensity (when did it become offensive to be intense?), the majority of films are doomed from the get go because Hollywood is afraid of turning away any potential customers.

The thing with horror is the few that work are really enjoyable, at least to us. Exorcist III, Santa Sangre, and Jacob's Ladder were the quality horror films of the time (Dario Argento's half of Two Evil Eyes with Harvey Keitel is so good, but the less said about George Romero's half the better). They were the ones that were different. They caught us by surprise and riveted us, but unfortunately none of them changed the overall direction of horror films. They were just exceptions to whatever (I'd rather not try to remember) awful by the numbers "give the audience what they want" ones were being promoted at the time. At least Exorcist III almost doubled the abominable Jason Takes Manhattan at the box office. Speaking of Jason Takes Manhattan, that's the perfect example of a film far worse than Exorcist II where everyone with a critical eye that attended knew that going to suck, so they just couldn't be too pissed or horrified by it's badness to remember it when thinking of the worst ever.

Exorcist III is a cerebral horror that relies on the performer's descriptions and expressions for its chills. It's not strong, or often even interesting, visually and not graphic with its violence. It doesn't have to be because it has the right script and main actors. In other words, this style would not work for many horror films, particularly the Italian ones. Its strengths are the weaknesses of most horror films, and its weaknesses are the strengths.

MM: First, a warning. This review contains spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet and don't want it spoiled, stop reading and start renting. But I will admit, the re-watch value on this movie is unlimited…I almost can't spoil it for you. The reason being, this is NOT an action driven movie. No stalking psychopaths, or horrific monsters. It is a dialogue driven film. But before you say "ohh…one of those movies," I should tell you that the dialogue in this movie will send chills up and down your spine. Blatty does more with the simple spoken word than anyone else in Hollywood does with makeup, costumes and effects. His vision in Exorcist III is exactly as it needs to be…horrifying.

ML: The action driven ones are supposed to be the ones with the rewatchability. That's one of the things John McNaughton illustrates so well in his brilliant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He shows us a murder making us think it's happening, but then reveals that Otis is watching the tape of it. And then Otis rewinds it and watches it again, and again. It's trying to sicken us by showing us how demented Otis is, at the same time making us realize the only difference in what we find entertaining is that, in most cases, it's not the real thing (there's always the news, though, especially if we are warmongering and flexing our imperialistic muscle again). I agree with what you are saying though. The portions in the cell are so well written and acted that I'm always on the edge of my seat hanging on the words. Even though when I revisit it I have a good idea what's going to be said and the shock is never the same, I'm still transfixed.

MM: Appropriately, the movie begins where the original ends. Father Damien Karras has successfully exorcised the demon inhabiting young Regan. However, in doing so, he must offer a new host…himself. But as the demon enters him, he ends the cycle of possession by hurling himself through the Georgetown townhouse, tumbling down the steps leading to historic M street to his death.

ML: I thought this was one of the problems with the film. Wasn't it actually Father Merrin that performed the exorcism?

MM: Actually, Father Merrin began and performed much of the exorcism, with Father Karras assisting. However, while Karras is taking a break, Merrin tries to go solo and is killed by Pazzuzu (the demon occupying Regan.) Karras then goes a little mental, and starts throttling Regan, commanding that the demon leave her and "Come into me!" Suddenly, we see his eyes turn demonic (great early use of cool contacts in a movie). Regan, now just a girl again, is crying and Karras hurls himself out the window. So in fact, Karras exorcised the demon, and would have been the one that Pazzuzu and the Devil wanted to punish by being a vessel for the Gemini.

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MM: Here is where the third installment begins. You see, this movie is a brilliant murder mystery as well. There have been a series of brutal, satanic serial killings in the area, 15 years after the first installment concludes. Assigned to the case is seasoned gumshoe veteran Lieutenant Bill Kinderman, played to perfection (as always) by the incomparable George C Scott. Did you check out my profile when I told you to? I also list Mr. Scott as one of the top 5 actors of all time. This is one of his best performances. Better then Patton, even. Really. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of an acting performance better than his in Exorcist III. I've just never seen anything like it.

ML: Another thing about the movie that bothers me is if Exorcist is from 1973 and Exorcist III is from 1990, why do they put a graphic Georgetown 1990 up at the beginning but say it's been 15 years? Anyway, one of the two main places we differ on this movie is in the quality of the murder mystery. To me, it's not much of a mystery at all. It's just leading us along until the part in the cell where the movie begins firing on all cylinders. The thing is, it takes half the movie to get to that point. There's no real suspense about the identity of the killer is because Blatty makes the bad decision of proving Kinderman's questions and theories immediately through cutaways. There's actually a spot where we see Kinderman walk by a headless statue on the way to the elevator, and Blatty gives us this obnoxious jerky dolly in with "creepy" music to make sure the Spielberg fans wake up to see it. A director like Dario Argento wouldn't care if you noticed or not, which keeps you on your toes because in his mysteries these things can be the difference in your solving them or not. I'm not sure a mystery can really work when we know going in that the devil is behind it, but what makes good mystery is when we know as much or less than the sleuth hero. That matches our brains against his; this just out and out tells us where the film is leading.

Scott is certainly one of the greatest actors ever. He's a master at mixing his emotions and taking the intensity and volume up and down at the right times. This is a performance of great weariness. He's an old investigator, beaten down by all the sickening things he's seen over the years. I wouldn't rate this performance as highly as his work in Hardcore or Patton, but that's more due to the script. As good as it is, too much of Scott's roll, particularly in the strong portion, is simply asking a brief question and listening to the response. This film just doesn't give him as much opportunity as those other two, where he's a one man show and really he is the film.

MM: Throughout the first part of the movie, the available clues lead Lt. Kinderman to two places: the psychiatric ward of a hospital and the church. The terrible realization is that the killer at large has been leaving his calling card at the murder scenes. But the marks on the bodies and the messages scrawled in blood are identical to those left by the Gemini Killer 15 years prior. Two important facts are relevant here. First, the police never revealed the true nature of the marks to the press 15 years ago (a smart ploy to weed out the copycats and crackpots from the true killer.) And second, the Gemini Killer was executed by the state.

When the clues lead Kinderman to the hospital, he is confronted by a ghost from the past. One of the severely impaired patients looks strikingly like Father Damien Karras. In the original film, Kinderman was a minor character (played by the late Lee J. Cobb). He had investigated the death of the man who had been flung from Regan's window. He came to know Father Karras, and they established a strong bond of friendship. Events cause him to return several times to speak with the unidentified patient. (SPOILER ALERT)

ML: Blatty just aborts Boorman's film and acts as if Exorcist III is the first sequel. The ending of the 2000 Exorcist re-release where Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders) and Kinderman start talking about movies hurts that film if anything, but creates a positive bond that explains their longstanding friendship for this film. Blatty's writing has good touches that show his understanding of human nature. For instance, both Dyer and Kinderman tell people they go to the movies every year on the anniversary of Father Karras' death to cheer the other up.

The highlight of the early portion is the banter between Dyer and Kinderman. As Kinderman isn't exactly religious, they have some humorous disagreements including Kinderman asking who he should blame for the horrible state of the planet, Phil Rizutto and asking "That soon?" when Dyer tells him it all works out at the end of time. The best line is when Kinderman visits Dyer in the hospital and busts his chops for reading Women's Wear Daily, so Dyer justifies it, "Am I supposed to give spiritual advice in a vacuum?" Soon a nurse has the wrong room for the patient she's looking for, so Dyer tells her "Go in peace my child. May the Schwartz be with you."

MM: Here is where the movie kicks into full gear. It becomes clear that when Karras threw himself out of the window, the Devil took the opportunity to insert the freshly deceased Gemini Killer's ghost into Karras' body. After several long years reconstructing Karras' brain as a catatonic, the Killer, James Venamun, is now awakened, and is orchestrating the murders via remote (as Venamun states it, "Old friends.")

As good as Scott's performance is, the star of the show in this movie is Venamun, played by Brad Dourif. Blatty uses clever tricks to alter the pitch of Dourif's voice for effect, but the performance is all the actor's. When the Gemini surfaces, Jason Miller (revising his role as Karras) disappears and is replaced by Dourif. The monologues and dialogues with Scott are chilling. The writing is beautiful from a disturbing standpoint. If Tarantino is a master of capturing everyday colloquial speech, then Blatty surely is the grandmaster of the grandiose, elevating the language to biblical proportions. Each and every time you watch this film, you will catch a new nuance in the conversations between detective and killer. Enhancing the script is the fact that every single word is perfectly delivered.

ML: Dourif is one of those really talented actors that should have given many excellent performances, but rarely did because he was stupidly typecast. A film like John Huston's Wise Blood shows what he's capable of, but because he's so damn intense he seems to only be offered roles in horror pictures. At least this one supplies him with worthy material and uses him to great effect.

You mentioned before that this was a dialogue driven film. In a way, it's much like everyone's favorite from the following year, The Silence of the Lambs. I mean, the main thrust of the film is the conversations between serial killer and investigator. They could not be handled more differently though. Venamun is scary because he tells great stories in an intense deranged manner that isn't show-offy. He's so passionate and chilling with his altered pitch delivery, yet his brutal murders all sound so matter of fact. These stories are the focus, and what he says and how he says it will surprise you. On the other hand, you have Silence which is too concerned about Hannibal being cool and humorous. Dourif can be funny too, like when he's the voice of Chucky, but Blatty understands humor at those points just reduces if not kills the horror. The dialogue of Hannibal is often corny and over the top, especially when he gets into those terrifying fava beans. The focus is not on what Hannibal has to say or any kind of horror, but on what personal information he can get out of Agent Starling. The tension is not good vs. evil; it's a perverse fascination. You might be surprised and impressed by Hannibal's perceptiveness, but the narrative thrust is working against horror and the whole film is too over the top to take seriously much less be scared by.

One technique that Blatty gets right is the lighting in the cell. It's pitch black except for two windows in the middle, each providing slight blue illumination of a character's face. What makes this effective is you can hardly see the evil. Venamun has a dark top on and brown hair, which blend in with the background. You can kind of make out his face, but aside from the white tape on his nose from an earlier brief surprise explosion where everyone was so focused and into what Venamun was saying that they didn't see Kinderman coming, it's basically like various evil voices from the abyss.

MM: Don't worry, this isn't a two-man stage play. There are some truly frightening horror staples present throughout the movie. The difference is, Blatty gives these mainstays of the genre fresh faces. Nothing is routine, nothing is played out or rehashed. Blatty truly rejuvenates horror on the big screen. Several scenes will freak you out, giving the viewer an unshakeable creepy feeling. Other scenes will flat out scare the bejeezus out of you. One scene will just about sop your heart (you'll know when you see it…no freebie here.) This particular scene is all execution by the director. What's amazing is that Blatty had directed one movie 10 years prior to this, and nothing since. The entire film is flawless from all perspectives.

ML: There is one really interesting scene. It's just so bizarre, so out of left field. It's the one where an airport terminal is the passage to heaven and you have Fabio as an angel and Patrick Ewing as the Angel of Death playing cards with Father Dyer. That said, while I haven't seen The Ninth Configuration, which your brother always raves about, Blatty's doesn't strike me as much of a director. He had enough disagreements with Friedkin during The Exorcist (the "director's cut" is far closer to the producers cut, though Blatty was most fond of Friedkin's original 140 minute cut) then saw his characters butchered by Boorman, so he decided to direct his own novels in order for them to remain entirely his. Scott is the perfect actor for someone that isn't a good director because his instincts are so great. Like Paul Schrader (also in his 2nd film when he worked with Scott, and Scott actually made Schrader promise never to direct again though that was a case where dishonesty was a blessing), Blatty didn't have the experience to be dictating to Scott. With Scott though, he gives you his two takes, both the same and both perfectly done, and you can just move on because he knows coming in what he needs to get across and how he will do it.

MM: The other major enhancement to this film is sound. Blatty knows that our eyes are only one of the senses that can be used to scare us senseless. He uses sound to perfection, with otherworldly growls and whispers permeate all of the dialogue scenes with Venuman. It adds a tremendously thick layer to the already frightening text. Watch this film through a good stereo. The growls are low and rumbling. They overpower you. It is a fantastic feeling.

Ironically, sound is the one complaint I do have about this movie. Throughout the film, it seems that the one area they salvaged budget was in the mic-ing of the rooms. Or perhaps during sound editing. When camera angles change, you can hear a very noticeable change in the background hissing of the microphones. It seems like the placement of mics was variable, and I find such things slightly annoying. It's a universal complaint I have about most movies without huge Hollywood budgets. It's so minor most folks don't notice, but it does tend to take me out of the moment when you realize you aren't really there, you are watching a film where microphones are an essential element. Yes, I know I'm picky. But take note that this is the only complaint I have about this film. Sketchy sound mastering. If I ever hit the lottery, I'll offer to privately fund a sound re-mastering of this DVD. Then, we will truly have Deus ex Film.

ML: I would rank several problems well above this. My main problem with the film is that I couldn't forget it was a film. The editing was really annoying. It wasn't supposed to be jarring or jumping, and it wasn't, it just wasn't smooth. I mean, you noticed every edit even though that was not the intention. And there were way too many edits because it was so generically done, cutting between profile shots every time the speaker alternated. The film needed some long takes, different angles, and general variation. Blatty did try for some moving camera stuff when they weren't talking, but it was basically the same thing. It just lacked that smoothness and flow that makes you forget it's a camera and delude yourself into thinking you are walking alongside. Some of the special effects were kind of lame too. The wind blowing objects and people was good, and the transformation to snake was really neat, but then there was that Jesus statue opens its eyes stuff that was laughable. The sets and costumes looked low budget in the bad connotation, but for the most part they were no different from the rest of the filmmaking.

MM: In closing I have to ask, why can't more horror films be like this one? Here we are, in 2003, and the horror genre is dying again on the vine. Blair Witch provided a much needed injection, but it seems the genre has devolved back into the teen Scream knock off machine. We need another Exorcist III. This film, like the original installment, proves unequivocally that a horror film can indeed be considered great.

ML: I think what happened with Blair Witch is very similar to the Exorcist. Again, it's a case where the sequel was put in the wrong hands and didn't have any of the strengths of the original, so it soured everyone. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are in charge of the prequel that should come out this year, but since the studio had to try to cash in with that Book of Shadows imposter, it won't generate near the excitement of original.

MM: I can't possibly recommend this movie more to you, the reader. It is definitely must see. It is a showcase for how a film should be executed. How a film should be acted. And is a tragedy that it was swept under the rug when it was released. I think had the second never have happened, this would have been a hit in 1990. The taste left by that misguided movie was too bitter in audiences' mouths to take a chance on the third. It's a shame, because it's one of the best movies ever made. Four stars if there ever was a movie that deserved them. Surely, none deserve them more.

Mike Lorefice
Mike McGowan

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