Retro Review: The Exorcist III

"Do you dare walk these steps again?"

The Exorcist III (1990)
Directed by William Peter Blatty
Written by William Peter Blatty

After the messy debacle that was The Exorcist II: The Heretic (regarded by many as the worst sequel of all time), one might wonder why anyone, especially the author who penned the original novel, would be interested in making another Exorcist film. Well, for those of you who aren’t aware, The Exorcist wasn’t just a classic, stand-alone film based on a classic, stand-alone novel. William Peter Blatty published a sequel to his genre-defining book entitled Legion in 1983. It’s an engrossing novel that carries over events from the first story and tells a new tale revolving around a serial killer named “The Gemini.”

Being that The Exorcist III is based on this book, it’s regarded by most fans as the true sequel. For this third installment, Blatty took on screenwriting and directing duties himself, probably in an attempt to keep the source material true to his vision. Blatty had nothing to do with the production of the first sequel and he ignores its events in this one.

The legendary George C. Scott (Patton, The Changeling) takes over the role of Lieutenant William Kinderman, a somewhat minor character in the first film portrayed by Lee J. Cobb. Brad Dourif (Child’s Play, Dune, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, etc., etc. et al) turns in a harrowing performance as the incarcerated Gemini Killer, or rather a man claiming to be possessed by the long-dead Gemini Killer. A man who somehow manages to carry out a new rash of killings from behind the walls of his asylum cell.

The film beings to derail a bit when the character of the Gemini begins alternating between actors Dourif and Jason Miller, who played Father Damien Karras in the original film. As one would expect, events become a bit confusing and convoluted right around this point, but I think it’s worth pointing out that most of the film’s flaws were a direct result of studio pressure. Aside from the same character being portrayed by two different actors with no concrete explanation, Blatty was forced to change his ending to include an exorcism, even though it didn’t really jibe with the plot. Though having said that, the exorcism is a great scene (mostly due to the intense monologue delivered by George C. Scott) if you can get past the fact that it was shoehorned in.

Scott’s speech during the exorcism is undoubtedly one of the high points of the movie, but elsewhere he weaves so much dark wit into the character of Kinderman that one almost forgets he’s an unhappy and emotionally exhausted man on the trail of a vicious, possibly supernatural killer. Scott never misses a chance to trade quips with the other characters and his cutting sarcasm provides a welcome counterbalance to the many macabre events he encounters. Dourif is excellently diabolical as usual and along with Scott, he is successful in distracting from some of the film’s more glaring flaws.

Some of the most unsettling moments in The Exorcist III come completely out of the blue. Far from being cheap jump scares, these are scenes that are genuinely frightening and surprising. However, there is one scene in particular (two words: “hedge clippers,” or the medical equivalent thereof) that may have given birth to the jump-scare as we know it today, although it’s used to much greater effect here.

It’s true that this movie is, in fact, flawed. But it manages to get so much right that I find it easy to forgive its shortcomings. I do think it’s terrible that Blatty, a man who provided us with one of the scariest movies of all time, was forced to sacrifice his art at the bidding of a movie studio. But in the end, as the true sequel to The Exorcist, this third installment easily trumps all the other lackluster prequels, sequels, reboots, and imitations that have since surfaced. Darkly humorous, emotionally taxing, and, at times, flat-out terrifying The Exorcist III is a more than worthy successor to the original film. Don’t let that number “III” next to the title keep you from experiencing this harrowing, emotional, and unique film.

4 Knives

One Comment

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  • David
    24 October 2016 at 5:22 am - Reply

    All of the connections to part one are shoehorned in, not just the exorcism. The others are Blatty’s fault, not the producers’, even the presence of Father Karras. He could have made a standalone story about the Gemini instead.

    The change the studio made was to cast the original actor as Karras instead of Brad Dourif. 

    The change actually makes sense. Why cast a different actor when the original guy was still alive? 

    George C. Scott replaced another actor only because the original guy died. 

    (Jason Miller was originally unavailable, then became available after Blatty’s first cut.

    Maybe they should have waited for the original actor to begin with.)

    I agree flipping back and forth between Dourif and Miller probably wasn’t the best idea, but I can also understand not wanting to cut Brad Dourif out entirely when he’s a much better villain and they already spent so much money on his scenes. 

    Also, they probably should have avoided the demonic makeup on Jason Miller since it makes him less recognizable and most of the time he’s not possessed by a demon. The Gemini was just a person. 

    The exorcism was an improvement over the original ending. It’s an anticlimax if Kinderman just walks up and shoots him. 

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