Distraught that his penned sweat and blood was decimated with John Boorman’s cinematic abortion, Exorcist II: The Heretic, William Peter Blatty helmed the proper sequel to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist as he not only wrote the novel upon which he based the screenplay, but he directed the stunningly effective work which wisely opts not to mimic its predecessor but instead goes for intellectual chills in place of visual thrills and didactic moralizing.
Fifteen years after Regan McNeil is exorcised, Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott) is put on a case involving murders which resemble those of the infamous Gemini Killer, James Venamun, which took place a decade-and-a-half prior and ended with the murderer being put to death via electrocution. To add to the paradoxical perplexity and coincidental time of the killings, each homicide points to the most unlikely of suspects, all of which have one thing in common: a mysterious man referred to as “Patient X” (Brad Dourif), a catatonic individual in a mental ward who claims to be the Gemini Killer and who resembles Kinderman’s late friend, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller).
Masterfully, Blatty issues a plausible scenario which is never trite, unlike most sequels which force the narrative logic of its forerunner, as he skillfully implies that the desecration of the statue of the Virgin Mary was not a plot hole or directorial or authorial oversight in that the crime was presented but never satisfactorily addressed or validated in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
The most commendable aspect of The Exorcist III is how Blatty creates sympathy for his characters, unlike the original, as the comradery between Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders) and Kinderman is not only well done but it reinforced and later echoed in the the hard-love relationship between the latter and Nurse Allerton (Nancy Fish). As Dyer and Kinderman engage in comical philosophic duels of little consequence outside their own amusement, we watch as the poker-faced nurse gradually concedes to opening up to the Lieutenant. What results is the tight-rope of juxtaposition as brevity succinctly walks alongside, but never shares screen time with, the chilling murders which Kinderman is investigating.
The sense of distilled omnipotence from a horror antagonist has rarely been matched as Blatty’s killer precedes Anthony Hopkins’s Academy Award-winning characterization of Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs by a year. Blatty patiently develops atmosphere as his poignant mystery convolutes the suspense before he grants his villain total dominance before the plot elements are revealed. Though many sequences are spine-tingling, the manner in which Blatty presents and shoots a murder inside of a confessional is plainly daunting as Scott’s performance lends further creditability to the surrounding events, making Richard Burton’s presentation in the previous installment in the horror franchise appear amateurish by comparison. All the more impressive is the fact that Lee Cobb’s depiction of Kinderman in the original was given so little screen time as Scott manages not only to successfully emulate what his predecessor granted us 17 years prior (especially Kinderman’s signature hand gestures), but coordinates and synchronizes Cobb’s effort with his own.
Other aspects of The Exorcist III of note are the intriguing color indicators implemented throughout as the prologue divulges that the original possession of Regan took place two years prior to the film’s real time release, that is, fifteen years before present day–1990, thus setting Friedkin’s film in 1975. Furthermore, Gerry Fisher’s superb cinematography is almost pitch-perfect, though–at times–a bit underlit , yet this minor gripe almost goes unnoticed when placed next to his amazing use of a wide-angle lens.
Unfortunately, the finale leaves a lot to be desired in that it seems not only rushed but somewhat forced, if not blatantly arbitrary. However, Blatty is not culpable in that he was forced by the production company, Morgan Creek, to include an exorcism in order to legitimize the title which, to add insult to injury, was not the director’s choice either in that he voted to use the 1983 novel’s title, Legion, but the production company demanded name recognition in order to exploit the popularity of Friedkin’s film. Furthermore, Dourif’s character is used as a plot explicative mouthpiece three-quarters of the way through the film as his megalomania-driven diatribe runs a bit overlong, thus diluting its prowess.
Not since A. Edward Sutherland’s The Invisible Woman has a sequel been as fun or as rewarding, as William Blatty’s vastly overlooked and criminally underrated work, The Exorcist III–as a film onto itself as well as a worthy sequel–posits one of the more frightening characters in horror cinema with Patient X a year before Hannibal Lecter sent chills down audience’s spines.
Trivia tidbits: 1) William Blatty wanted John Carpenter to direct. 2) Watch for cameos by Fabio, Patrick Ewing, Larry King, and Samuel L. Jackson. 3) Brad Dourif, the voice of the infamous Chucky doll, makes reference to his famed character with the statement that getting in and out of his cell and constraints is “Child’s play.” 4) Blatty’s film is one of the more sampled features for metal bands.
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