Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Exorcist III

Directed by William Peter Blatty
The United States of America

Dammit!  It isn’t supposed to work this way!  Everyone knows the rules to making Hollywood sequels, particularly for horror films!  The first one is supposed to be an instant classic that breaks the rules and challenges preconceived notions about horror (i.e. Jaws, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street).  Then a half-baked sequel comes out that receives lukewarm to negative reviews from critics and audiences (i.e. Damien: Omen II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Hills Have Eyes 2).  And then, in a last ditch effort to squeeze as much money from the public as possible, an abysmal third film comes out that mocks the franchise, offends the fans, and becomes a massive flop (i.e. Child’s Play 3, Amityville 3, Friday the 13th 3).  The Exorcist franchise was following the rules perfectly at the start.  The Exorcist (1971) was one of the few horror films in history to be critically acclaimed, ludicrously profitable, and nominated for several Academy Awards.  It was followed six years later by Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film that did a decent amount at the box office, yet was universally regarded as one of the worst horror sequels of all time.  And then, thirteen years later, it was followed by yet another sequel, The Exorcist III.  So, by all rational accounts, The Exorcist III should have been a horrendously horrible film, right?  Wrong!  Not only is The Exorcist III a fantastic horror film and sequel in its own right, at times it is even better than the original!

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...


  1. Somebody once told me that one of the scariest scenes he had ever seen in a movie was in Exorcist III. So I guess you are not the only person who loves this one!

    I was planning on seeing the first Exorcist with a friend at a re-release showing but it didn't work out. So after I see the first I will check out this movie. Great review and your enthusiasm makes me really want to see it now!

  2. Thanks man! Coincidentally...I think I know EXACTLY which scene he was thinking of...

    But, yeah...The Exorcist and The Exorcist III would make an AMAZING double feature! I'd love to shotgun them both one day.

  3. Nate, I couldn't agree more about this movie. I don't know, but I'm guessing it did not get the attention it should have because Exorcist II was such a terrible movie, and people probably expected more of the same.

    Exorcist III is just plain one of the best horror movies I've ever seen. It is incredibly literate, full of allusions to great literature and philosophy, fabulous performances, and two of the most frightening scenes I have ever witnessed in a movie. Yet, such subtle, quick fright scenes you almost can't believe what you have seen. Nightmares! Blatty is a tremendous writer, and I had read "Legion" before I ever saw III. Having him do the movie was obviously why it was so good. All except for one thing!...

    The actual exorcism scene at the end, in my opinion, did not seem to even belong in this movie. If I remember right, Blatty was not happy about it, but the studio insisted that there had to be a good bloody exorcism, and it was put in at the last stages of filming. Anyway, there were good things about it, but the scene as a whole was completely different from the rest of the movie. If it were totally taken out, except for one vital part, the end of the scene, the movie would still be intact.

    And boy are you spot-on!...Those scenes between George C. Scott and Brad Dourif are just remarkable. ("Oh you are issuing an invitation to the dance...") Brilliant. This is one of you best articles, Nate. Kudos!

  4. Many thanks, Becky! One of the reasons why I love "The Exorcist III" is because it's so well written. A lot of love and work went into creating a great screenplay and believable dialogue. Not to mention that George C. Scott gave one hell of a performance!

    And, yes, the exorcism at the end was unnecessary. But pay attention to how Scott reacts to the exorcism and how he eventually defeats the demons. It reveals a massive amount of information about his character.

    This truly is one of the lost greats.

  5. I believe the exorcism was in there due to the contract Blatty had with the studios. It had to be called Exorcist something-or-other and had to have an exorcism, even though Legion--apparently--does not, hence the strangeness at having it thrown in.

    Great review.

  6. I rented it when it first came out, and I agree 100%. I have always harped on this movie to friends. Rent it or buy it and you will like it.

    1. I would recommend buying it. This is the kind of film that you'll want to watch multiple times!

  7. I have so many stories about this movie. My favorite is that a friend was going to take some hallucinatory type things and asked for a specific crazy movie. We'd seen E3 and were terrified. So, i switched the labels. It was revenge, btw. Got a great call from him hours later.

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