Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Cast: George C. Scott (as Kinderman); Ed Flanders (as Father Dyer); Brad Dourif (as The Gemini Killer); Nicol Williamson (as Father Morning); Scott Wilson (as Dr. Temple); Nancy Fish (as Nurse Allerton); George DiCenzo (as Stedman)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #103
[Spoiler Warning Throughout]
After the critical debacle of Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a thirteen year gap took place which led to film production company Morgan Creek gaining the rights to The Exorcist franchise. They had the inspiration, as the author of the original source material of the first film, to not only have William Peter Blatty again adapt one of his novels, Legion (1983), but also direct it, having back in 1980 made his directorial debut with The Ninth Configuration. Sadly The Exorcist III was tampered with violently for theatrical release, the original version only able to be rebuilt from VHS footage and released in 2016. However this is a rare case of a film so unique that none of its later additions in footage ruined it. In fact it's an even rarer case of tampering with the production, when the theatrical version was put together, where the result created its own virtues.
The Exorcist III is a respectful sequel in context to the original. But Blatty's film by itself is also an exceptionally different, stranger film. You are immediately hit by both how serious it is, with its gristly narrative of a series of copycat killings with gruesome and elaborate staging of the bodies, but how between this and Blatty's obsession with good versus evil you also have borderline surrealism not found in the original Exorcist in the slightest, beginning with an evil form invading a church and the representation of Christ on a crucifix opening His eyes in alarm of the evil invading His sanctuary. Whilst aspects do evoke the original 1973 film there's aspects from the original in terms of characterisation and tone which are amplified far more here to the point this second sequel becomes very different.
There's also a noticeable jump in humour, Blatty taking a very risky tightrope walking between the dark contemplation on morality, the murders all based on a long dead figure known of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) who is yet inside the mental ward of a hospital in the present day, whilst having moments of lightness and eccentricity. It succeeds because Blatty is an incredible writer, from the class of figures in seventies New American cinema who desired to created complex characters who spoke nuanced and elaborate dialogue that fit them perfectly. He's helped further by the cast themselves. George C. Scott, reappraising Kinderman from the first film, gets to take centre stage after being a side character and the risk succeeds, absolutely engaging and the central lynchpin in how both humorous he is with his constant sarcasm, but also powerful as a cynical, agnostic person facing against a supernatural entity that evokes his nihilism about society. Orbiting him is as strong a cast. Ed Flanders as Father Dyer, sparring off Scott perfectly in their characters' friendly bickering. Scott Wilson as Dr. Temple, a small but utterly memorable role as the head of the main hospital setting whose body language and tone of voice are so distinct the way he has a cigar held high up in his hand in one of his earliest scenes immediately helps to flesh the character, as does the moment we seen him having to rehearse his words for Kinderman in a memorable moment. The dialogue is rich enough to help the cast immensely, brisk and to the point when needed, elaborate and powerful when the film can stop and bask in both lightness and darkness.
As a director, Blatty was also exceptional here for a man who only directed two films in his entire life, the gap from the previous one to here the entirety of the eighties. He has ambition, especially as the result is completely different in tone to the original. You don't come into a sequel like this expecting a whimsical dream sequences set in heaven, with an angel brass band and Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo, but it's here and used as much for emotional effect, giving a clear sign that, like in snippets from the original Exorcist, when something very odd or unconventional takes place its deliberately put there by Blatty for effect. Were it not for exorcism added in the studio version, it's an entirely different reflection on the original's subject matter, good having to be found in the world by Kinderman, an entirely different struggle not as a priest but a regular man on the street with a family. Even the demon from the original is fleshed out into a different direction, the demon of Christian mythology now fully based on "Legion", a figure of multiple beings within the form of only one, the struggle less against purely demonic forces but also human evil in a serial killer found within this maelstrom of voices.
And, while Blatty would be more concerned with tackling his philosophical themes, he still makes a horror film in terms of entertainment, managing with this to have generated one of the best jump scares in the genre. Considering his inclinations it's even better, knowing a writer-novelist-director with interests in dogma and existential questions still manages to out do a lot of seasoned veterans of horror cinema in how he presents it - a deliberately long, even patience testing scene of quiet, a long shot showing space to catch you off guard, a cheat scare to knock you off guard, then hammer the impact in with all the shock of an incredibly put together scene. It's sad actually that Blatty only directed two films before his death - The Ninth Configuration as well - as here he shows not only a talent for putting a film together, but with his dialogue and plotting, an idiosyncratic writer's voice entirely his that's a rare gift to have acquired.
In talking about The Exorcist III, it's impossible to ignore the significant tampering in post production which I'll end this review on. The only aspect which feels awkward in the Frankenstein-like creation is the titular exorcism, where Nicol Williamson as Father Morning feels completely distant from everyone else, even when sharing scene space in re-shoots, and suddenly appears out of nowhere into this already complex narrative. His scene introducing him, where a bird he's taking care of sadly dies and an evil form makes itself known to him in his apartment room, does stand out as a highlight but he's like Scott Gleen in Michael Mann's The Keep (1983), a mysterious figure whose existence is only to defeat the evil, and has even less time to be fleshed out in personality. The only tragedy of the theatrical cut, the one real sin, is knowing most of Brad Dourif's performance was left on the cutting room floor. Dourif is an actor who has had a healthy cult and genre cinema career, but as one of the best character actors of his era one wishes he had at least one more major role in the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) template in his later career. Even with voice manipulation here, it's terrifying how his character is depicted with body language, entirely within a straight jacket restricting the actor's arms, dragging the franchise away from the absurdity of the locusts of the first sequel to someone real and legitimately twisted.
But whilst Dourif is only in a few scenes, an accident with how Morgan Creek attempted to replace him in scenes only for a compromise to take place, brings something incredible in the version mostly known to the public. Jason Miller, returning as Father Karras, was brought in only to be able to do some of the scenes, leading to both footage of his and Dourif's performances to be melded together. This leads to making the "Legion" character far more powerful in cutting between the two like multiple personalities of the one person. It adds a dark tragedy in knowing Karras, thought to be dead at the end of the original Exorcist, suffered as a living corpse in a brain damaged body with demons and a serial killer living in the same space. The decision to switch between Miller and Dourif with Scott in both sets of footage gives a phantastical nature of immense power where, as visual shorthand for the viewers, a literal physical change take places between the two sides. What was reedits for the additional footage became an incredible artistic flourish, one notion rarely found when usually studio tampering just butches good material.