The Exorcist III first published by Little White Lies, as the 94th entry in my Cinema Psychotronicum column
The Exorcist (1973) is two, even three films. There is the sensitive, slow-burning psychodrama of faith in crisis that William Friedkin actually made, working closely with his screenwriter William Peter Blatty (who was adapting his own 1971 novel). Then there is the abbreviated version that plays in our memories and in our memes, consisting exclusively of the film’s most sensational moments – the green projectile vomiting, the bloody stabbing masturbation with the crucifix, young Regan’s head spinning an impossible 180 degrees. A third version of the film, the so-called director’s (or extended) cut, was assembled later, adding more sensational outtakes, most famously Regan’s ‘spiderwalk’ down a staircase. Friedkin and Blatty had intended to make a film about one lost priest’s struggles to locate his relationship with God in a modern, increasingly secular world – but what audiences really wanted to see was the devil getting all the best tunes.
Something of this schism between filmmaker’s intentions and audience’s desires was replicated in the production story of The Exorcist III. It was originally written by Blatty as a screenplay (entitled Legion) for Friedkin to direct, but when Friedkin withdrew over creative differences, Blatty adapted his script into the best-selling 1983 novel Legion. Morgan Creek purchased the film rights, and hired Blatty to direct, but after he submitted his completed film, the production company realised that they had a sequel to The Exorcist with no actual exorcism in it, and so insisted that Blatty shoot an entirely different, SFX-heavy exorcism-based climax in order to give the audience what it wanted, and then released this version of the film under the title The Exorcist III (it has no connection to John Boorman’s much maligned Exorcist II: The Heretic, from 1977, although Blatty’s own 1980 directorial debut The Ninth Configuration was set in the same universe as The Exorcist, and was in many ways a truer, better first sequel to Friedkin’s film).
Watching that theatrical cut now, it is perfectly clear that the entire subplot involving Father Morning (Nicol Williamson) – a priest with past experience in exorcisms who is an obvious double for Max von Sydow’s Father Merrick in the 1973 film – has been gratuitously shoe-horned into the narrative, and is there just to literalise the film’s spiritual conflicts with unsubtle imagery and whizzbang effects. Before that, the film’s focus had instead been entirely on Lt Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott).
Kinderman was best friends with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) from the original The Exorcist, and was present when Karras died 15 years earlier. The well-named policeman – genuinely a kind man beneath his grouchy bluster – is now investigating a spate of horrific and paradoxical murders that bear all the hallmarks of the serial killer James Venamun (aka the Gemini Killer), except that Venamun had also died 15 years ago on the electric chair. Played with earthy brilliance by Scott, Kinderman is a decent husband and father who struggles increasingly to make sense of all the disease, depravity and death in the world around him, and as his investigations lead him to the Georgetown hospital where his good friend Father Joe Dyer (Ed Flanders) – also an old friend of Karras’ and a character from the original film – was bizarrely murdered, he is confronted by a man locked in solitary in the ‘disturbed ward’ who looks like Karras but claims to be the Gemini Killer reborn, and whose mental illness may be masking a demonic possession.
Their ensuing conversations, like Kinderman’s earlier verbal sparring with Dyer, represent an ongoing dialectic on the problem of evil that is the beating heart of Batty’s film. For while The Exorcist III is perhaps now best remembered for one conventional scare, shot wide in the hospital’s corridor after an immaculately executed build-up (and false release) of tension, what stands out in the film far more than its horror beats are Blatty’s witty dialogue and some extraordinarily lived-in performances (especially, but not exclusively, from Scott). Compared to all this, the exorcism sequence at the end feels lazy, cheap and tacked-on.
Included in this boxset is also the so-called Director’s Cut (retitled Legion) assembled by Scream Factory in 2016. This has been reconstituted from what remained of Blatty’s original, largely lost version – a combination of incomplete film and video sources provided by Morgan Creek (including some very poor quality VHS copies of dailies) and footage from the theatrical version. This is more a palimpsest of Blatty’s intentions than a definitive rendering of them, but it is still a more or less coherent version of the film that tantalises us with what might have been without dumb-assed studio intervention. There is more of that seriocomic dialogue between Kinderman and Dyer, Jason Miller has been entirely replaced by Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer (in the theatrical cut the rôle was disorientingly shared between them), there is no Father Morning or indeed exorcism, and the ending is far more downbeat and ambiguous.
If the Gemini Killer is loosely modelled on the real-life Zodiac Killer (who claimed to enjoy the film The Exorcist), then there are other geminations in both versions of this sequel, which prove as schizophrenic in their use of cinematic allusions as the Gemini Killer is demonically legion in his different personalities. Near the beginning of the film, Kinderman and Dyer go to a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) to cheer themselves up on the 15th anniversary of Karras’s death – and indeed this whole film plays like a Satanic inversion of Capra’s feel-good film, with Karras’ post-suicide spirit forced by a vengeful demon to witness from the inside all manner of nightmarish depravities that his body is subsequently used to enact. The casting of Dourif as a patient who has undergone regular electro-convulsive therapy and is shown dressed in a straitjacket represents a clear allusion to his breakout rôle in Milos Forman’s asylum-set One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), while the director’s cut also has Dourif using the phrase ‘child’s play’, conjuring the similarly metempsychotic serial killer Chucky whose voice Dourif had also recently started providing in Tom Holland’s Child’s Play (1988). One priest references The Fly (another film, or films, dealing with monstrously divided selves), while extended dialogue in the Director’s Cut also has Dyer improbably comparing It’s a Wonderful Life to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) – which, like Blatty’s film, features dream sequences set in heaven. These different intertexts inform the identity of Batty’s film in much the same way that Venamun is an amalgam of multiple trapped souls (and the devil, maybe).
Watching The Exorcist III is a frustrating experience, with both cuts of the film – one a victim of studio tampering, the other imperfectly restored – pointing to the better version of themselves that, like Karras, remains hidden within. Still, they are both a cut above your average sequel, and Blatty once more disinters a core of frail, fleshy humanity in all the apocalyptic demonology.
© Anton Bitel