Directed by William Peter Blatty
The United States of America
I know that last sentence is quite an inflammatory one. But I kid you not. The Exorcist III is hands down one of the best horror films that I have ever seen. Directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the novel that The Exorcist was based on and its Academy Award winning screenplay adaption, The Exorcist III both honors and respects the legacy laid down by the first film while looking ahead towards new horizons. Blatty wisely decided to ignore the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic when making this film. So, in a sense, The Exorcist III can be viewed as an official sequel to the original.
The Exorcist III is set fifteen years after the original film. It follows Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott), a grizzled old policeman who should have retired years ago. Recently, there have been a series of gruesome murders in Georgetown. A 12-year-old boy was found with his head cut off by the river after being tortured. A local priest was discovered decapitated in a confessional. Kinderman’s best friend, another priest named Father Dyer, was found dead in a hospital bed, having been paralyzed and drained of all of his blood with a catheter while still alive. What’s worse is that on the wall next to his body, the words “It’s a Wonderfull Life” were written in his blood.
It’s a Wonderful Life was their favorite film. A few days before his murder, Kinderman had gone with Dyer to see it in the theaters. But what’s worse is that all of the murders have something in common: they all fit the description of a notorious serial killer known as “The Gemini Killer.” And The Gemini Killer was captured and put to death in the electric chair fifteen years ago.
The original film worked because it operated on two different levels. The Exorcist was not just a horror film, but an investigative mystery as well. In a sense, it was a kind of priest procedural. Father Damien Karras spent a good portion of the film trying to figure out whether it was an authentic possession. He talked with a psychiatrist, had recordings of the possessed girl’s rantings examined by a linguist, and even faked out the demon by spraying it with regular water while claiming it was Holy Water. The film provided ample room for doubt as to whether or not the possession was real. In an introduction given by director William Friedkin on an anniversary re-release of The Exorcist, he mentioned how people seem to take away whatever they bring to the film. If they believe that there is a God and that good will prevail, they see The Exorcist as a tale of triumph. If they don’t believe in a God and have a pessimistic world view, then they see The Exorcist as a confirmation of their convictions. This is especially curious considering how The Exorcist confirms the existence of the supernatural in the final scenes. The fact that people can watch the little girl’s head spin around 360 degrees and levitate in the air and still believe that it was a hoax speaks to the film’s ability to create doubt.
The Exorcist III operates similarly. For the first hour or so, everything is up in the air. It could be a deranged copycat serial killer or a case of the spirit of The Gemini Killer possessing people so he could carry out his murderous deeds. By following Kinderman, an actual cop, the film focuses even more on the investigative aspect of the storyline. There is more suspicion of foul play, more distrust of the supernatural. Of course, in the last act the supernatural is revealed to be the ultimate culprit. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way. There are supernatural forces at work in this film...but not in the way you’d expect.
Also, The Exorcist III remembers one of the most forgotten rules of the horror industry: we won’t be scared about characters in danger if we don’t care about them in the first place. One of the reasons why horror films are so bad these days is that too often they make their characters completely unlikeable. Yes, yes...we know that most of them will die hideous, gruesome deaths...but after establishing them as horrible people, we start to cheer for the killer. In a true horror film, the hero shouldn’t be the killer, but the people who stand up to them. Films like Poltergeist, Jaws, The Shining, Halloween, and The Exorcist remember this. They spend a large chunk of the film making us genuinely care about the people on the screen. Therefore, when a masked killer comes for them, we don’t want them to die...hence the horror. The Exorcist excelled at this. We came to identify with and emotionally connect with the possessed girl, her mother, and the priests involved in her exorcism. In The Exorcist III, the film takes its time, letting us get to know the characters. We find faults in Kinderman, but we sympathize with them. We watch him go to the movies and dinner with Father Dyer. We see them shoot the breeze and reminisce about old times.
When Kinderman learns of Father Dyer’s death, it is one of the film’s most powerful scenes.
The Exorcist III succeeds because we have an emotional investment in the characters.
But what would a great horror film be like without authentic scares? Thankfully, The Exorcist III has plenty. Another one of the great problems with modern horror is that they are too reliant on jump scares; people jumping out of shadows and loud noises that explode out of nowhere. Both The Exorcist and The Exorcist III create horror through atmosphere. Blatty used noted cinematographer Gerry Fisher to create claustrophobic shots and lighting. The film’s two greatest scenes both involve Kinderman interrogating a man in an insane ward who claims to be possessed by The Gemini Killer. I personally consider them to be two magnum opuses of the horror genre. Watch Fisher’s use of camera angles and shadows.
But more importantly, listen. Listen carefully to how...you know what...never-mind. I’m not going to tell you what to listen for. You’ll notice it. I guarantee you.
The Exorcist III is a true triumph of the horror genre. It deserves to be as respected as the original. It makes me weep that to know that he has only directed two films. The Exorcist III proves that he has a genuine talent and distinct cinematic voice. It frustrates me that I can’t tell you more about this film...but that’s just the way things have to be considering that it’s a horror film. If I say too much, it’ll ruin the suspense. All I can do is beg you all to go out and see this film. You won’t be disappointed...or left unscathed...