The Exorcist III

The Exorcist III ★★★½

The December Challenge: Film 12

Trailer

Following the critical and audience reaction to the unpardonably rotten Exorcist II: The Heretic, it’s something of a minor miracle that The Exorcist III was ever commissioned. Having gone through a period of development Hell in the early eighties, the plans for the film were shelved and William Peter Blatty - author of the novel which inspired the original film, and the man responsible for writing said film’s screenplay – decided to turn his concept into a novel entitled Legion. However, despite the clusterfuck that was Exorcist II, both the audience and the studios were gagging for more and so, in 1990, the criminally underappreciated The Exorcist III was finally released.

The plot gets off to a great start in that Blatty, as the writer and director, decides to ignore the events of Exorcist II and pretend that they never happened. Focussing on William Kinderman, the detective from the original movie (played then by Lee J. Cobb, and here by George C. Scott), the film revolves around a series of grisly murders that bear a striking resemblance to those carried out by a long deceased serial killer known as ‘The Gemini’. At first believing the murders to be the work of a copycat, Kinderman soon discovers that the murders are much too similar to those carried out by ‘The Gemini’ in that they match his modus operandi perfectly. Furthermore, the fingerprints at each of the crime scenes belong to different people, suggesting that multiple killers are responsible. When Kinderman’s good friend, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), is murdered, Kinderman begins to uncover a terrifying truth that goes right back to the original movie and the death of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) at the end of The Exorcist.

Considering just how lacklustre the first sequel to The Exorcist was, it is amazing just how well this film succeeds in restoring the terror and the mystery that made the original movie so powerful. As a standalone film, which is partly what Blatty intended for it to be, it is a tight horror-thriller that manages to keep its audience gripped and that manages to create a backstory that is truly unsettling. As a sequel to The Exorcist, the film works in that it maintains the mythology that Exorcist II attempted to destroy, though the last fifteen minutes try too hard to emulate the original film. In many ways this film is more terrifying than The Exorcist because it relies less on the supernatural and more on the tangible; the death scenes are gruesome (though we never actually see much; Blatty lets our imaginations do all of the work), the situation is more grounded in reality and the characters are much more relatable. It lacks much of the uncomfortable imagery of the first film and, as I said, when it tries to emulate what went before it doesn’t really work, but as a thriller this is a thoroughly underrated film.

In part it is the performances that make this film so engrossing. The battle of wits between Kinderman and the man claiming to be ‘The Gemini’, played fantastically by Brad Dourif, is fascinating to watch and both men deliver two truly powerful and gripping performances. The relationship between Kinderman and Dyer is incredibly enjoyable to watch and though Dyer doesn’t make it very far into the film, there is a genuine sadness when he dies because his friendship with Kinderman is so well written. The script is consistent, dramatic and intense and it’s clear that this series and its mythology belong to Blatty because nobody could capture its many intricacies as effectively as he does. When the film is at its darkest it really is terrifying and it manages to leave you guessing for quite some time. Even when all the evidence is against you, you can’t help feeling the same doubts that Kinderman feels which is testament to both the writing and to George C. Scott’s excellent performance.

However, this film doesn’t come without its problems. The final fifteen minutes, which Blatty was forced to include by the studio, are a real let down and they undo much of the good work that many of the earlier scenes accomplish. Some of it becomes a little bit laughable and the ending feels rushed and completely out of touch with the film’s general tone… and that’s ignoring the hilarious scene where a catatonic lady attempts to murder a young girl and then starts throwing people around a room. The inclusion of Tubular Bells at the very start irritated me a tad as it seemed to be trying much too hard to ram the idea that this is definitely a sequel to The Exorcist down your throat, particularly when it fails to resurface throughout the rest of the film, and I felt that the plot became a tad confusing and heavy-handed at times, though Blatty thankfully manages to avoid doing what John Boorman did with Exorcist II by keeping it coherent.

I’ve always said that this film is underrated and nobody believes me. Exorcist II was so opprobrious that even my Mother, the World’s biggest horror fan, has never actually watched this film. I can’t recommend it enough though. Sure, it’s nowhere near as impressive as The Exorcist and it does have its flaws but as thrillers go it is pretty damn good. It manages to introduce elements of the slasher genre into the series mythology without it coming across as cheap and ridiculous, and Blatty helps to heal the gaping wound that Boorman opened with his disgraceful hatchet job in 1977. This is a highly enjoyable and majorly creepy film that any horror fan – or indeed anyone with an interest in film - should see, if only to prove to themselves that it is possible to make a worthy sequel to one of the greatest films of all time.

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