The Exorcist III

There are two major things wrong with The Exorcist III and the way it was marketed (there’s a third, which I’ll get to at the end):

(a) William Peter Blatty’s 1983 book Legion should never have been made into a movie. Blatty adapted it himself, so the blame for that falls on him. Legion is a beautiful read, but it’s essentially a philosophical police procedural with supernatural elements. Not the stuff of cinema.

(b) Having made a movie of Legion, Warner Brothers should never have called it an Exorcist movie. In the novel, the only holdovers from the original Exorcist book and film were rambling Jewish detective William Kinderman (played in the 1973 film by Lee J. Cobb, and played here by George C. Scott), witty Catholic priest Father Joseph Dyer (played in the original by an actual Jesuit priest, and played here by the late, great Ed Flanders), and the undead Father Karras (Jason Miller). But the studio wanted more of, y’know, an Exorcist flick, so Blatty had to go back and reshoot scenes to include another exorcist, Father Morning (phoned in by Nicol Williamson).

The changes didn’t help; Exorcist III was largely ignored by audiences and sneered at by critics — though it has built a cult audience on video in the years since, and has gained a shinier reputation among web critics, some of whom go so far as to insist that it’s better than the original film. I’ll call it a noble failure — not nearly as brutally effective as The Exorcist, and not as enthrallingly mind-bending as Blatty’s only other directorial effort, 1980’s The Ninth Configuration.

I’d read Legion countless times in the seven years before the movie came out — it’s that kind of book — so a lot of the changes Blatty made in the film rubbed me the wrong way. (This from someone who usually bellows “The book is the book, the movie is the movie” whenever some geek whines about minuscule changes made to a movie version of something.) Kinderman’s relationship with his sergeant sidekick Atkins (Grand L. Bush) makes up much of the book’s warming core — the men are deeply fond of each other, Kinderman perhaps seeing Atkins as the son he never had. In the movie, we see virtually nothing of their quirky rapport. An entire fascinating character — the neurologist Amfortas, who experiments with talking to the dead via audiotapes — is discarded, though, bafflingly, the script includes a couple of allusions to the practice (which Blatty reportedly believes in), in a Kinderman dream sequence wherein angels attempt to communicate with the living. (Samuel L. Jackson gets one line — dubbed over by someone else — as a blind angel who complains “The living are deaf.”)

Stripped to its basics, the story is about Kinderman’s pursuit of the Gemini Killer, who died in the electric chair fifteen years ago but now appears to be killing again. Blatty used this as a jumping-off point for a grand philosophical theory of the very meaning and origin of human existence (I won’t spoil it, except to say that the title Legion takes on a deeper significance). The movie mostly loses all the Deep Thought, though we get an occasional, pointless-seeming exchange about Pain or Evil. It seems pointless now because there’s no follow-through (maybe there was before Blatty was told to go back to the editing room).

Damien Karras, it turns out, is the unwilling host body for the spirit of the Gemini Killer (played in his true manifestation by Brad Dourif, in a chained-down spewing-psycho performance that scooped Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter by six months). Kinderman’s trail leads him to various elderly mental patients, which in turn leads to an admittedly exciting (if overblown in comparison with the novel) sequence in which Kinderman races to get home before an old nutcase (Viveca Lindfors), posing as a nurse and carrying gigantic bone shears in her bag, can liberate his daughter’s head from her body.

It’s too bad that Blatty was so hamstrung by the demands of delivering “an Exorcist sequel” (Paul Schrader faced similar trials with his Exorcist movie — he was replaced by Renny Harlin), because he remains a superb director. The problem with Exorcist III — other than the obvious eleventh-hour finale, which feels ridiculously abrupt and borders on the unintentionally hilarious (“Now, Bill! Shoot me now!”) — isn’t in the way it’s crafted. Blatty sets up one by-now-legendary seat-jumper involving the murder of a nurse: I’ve never seen it done that way before (or since, really), and the moment etches itself into the pantheon of great horror scenes. In general, Blatty maintains an eerie, oppressive tone without stooping to linger over carnage (the more hideous crimes are merely talked about, the corpses chastely cloaked in sheets). As he showed in The Ninth Configuration, Blatty is masterful with sound, and he and editor Todd Ramsay borrow William Friedkin’s technique in the original of clipping a scene just before you expect it to end. The film keeps you off balance; it’s strikingly well-made, for a movie that shouldn’t have been made.

Which brings us to the film’s third major problem: George C. Scott. Casting him as the rumpled, benevolent ruminator Kinderman is like casting a Rottweiler as a beagle. Scott begins each scene keyed up too high, and he’s simply too angry and animated to ring any bells as the man so memorably embodied by the late Lee J. Cobb. Everyone else in the large cast — and Blatty certainly corralled an interesting ensemble, ranging from Patrick Ewing to Zohra Lampert to Scott Wilson to frickin’ Fabio — gets interesting bits of business and is allowed to be human. But Scott is inhuman; he’s not remotely credible as a frail old man questioning our purpose in life. His big, splenetic speech near the end — which a lot of people love, but I hate — is not the Kinderman I know from the books; Kinderman would never lapse into saying “I believe in slime and stink, and every crawling, putrid thing, every possible ugliness and corruption!” — give me a break. Did Blatty really write this? In the end, the only thing that can restore order is Kinderman’s trusty pistol. Scott is all too plausible spouting off about “slime and stink” and then plugging the unholy with lead; that’s what finally kills his characterization and the movie.

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