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Catatonics are so easy to possess.

The Exorcist III
(1990)

(SPOILERS) The demand for reshoots on The Exorcist III, as seems to be the case more often than not, failed to bolster its box office. One might argue that alone made tampering with William Peter Blatty’s vision for the picture redundant. Ironically, however, it may have resulted in a superior film; while I haven’t seen the “Director’s Cut” version of the film assembled a few years back (glued together with sticky tape and Blu Tack might be more accurate, given the quality of the materials available), nothing I’ve read about it makes it sound superior to the theatrical release.

Most reviews – not Mark Kermode's, inevitably – have suggested the DC (titled Legion) is less satisfying than the theatrical, even if the vision involved is purer (the is-he/isn’t-he of a supernatural presence is massaged, with more of Brad Dourif’s performance and none of Jason Miller’s); I may well give it a look eventually, but I’d sooner it was in the form of miraculously found Morgan Creek footage than Blatty’s VHS dailies (I’ve read the director thought the theatrical was actually the better version, although I don’t have a source for this). Certainly, from summaries of the differences, the most significant divergent elements were in the novel and earliest screenplay (according to Wiki), presumably excised prior to the Legion Blatty shot and intended for release. These related to the Gemini Killer’s murderous motivation: abuse by an alcoholic, evangelist father, which seems rather on-the-nose – given the entire film is a rumination on evil vis-à-vis God allowing humanity to be afflicted by it – and might be why Blatty elected to excise it.

Blatty had originally developed Legion as a project with William Friedkin, before they fell out over the direction it was taking and Blatty went ahead and turned it into a novel. The Gemini Killer was in part inspired by the real-life Zodiac Killer – who was a big fan of The Exorcist – and included links to the earlier work (Lieutenant Kinderman, Father Karas’ possessed body). If the novel forwent any kind of cinematic ending in favour of elucidating the killer’s motivation, the DC seems to fall between the stools of providing not enough of either (the most we get is “I must go on killing daddy”).

It’s unclear precisely how the title evolved – what would it have been called if the Friedkin version had got off the ground? – but it’s evident Blatty would have preferred plain Legion, and the production was likely known as The Exorcist: Legion and The Exorcist: 1990 before arriving at the final release title of The Exorcist III. One might suggest Blatty should have been canny enough to realise that someone, somewhere along the line – if only the absent line of audiences: albeit, the picture did open at number one, forming a trio of supernatural afterlife fare at the top of the charts with Ghost and Flatliners; it plummeted out of the top five in its second week – was going to cry foul at an Exorcist movie minus any semblance of an exorcism (ideally Morgan Creek would simply have adjusted the title accordingly).

The director tells it that associations with Exorcist II: The Heretic were the killer to its box office, but in a genre where dud entries don’t tend to staunch returns for very long and recoveries are staged all the time, I find it hard to believe the chief reason wasn’t that this was a talky, contemplative anti-horror, one where we’re 45 minutes in and there stillaren’t any scary moments. It’s very much the kin of The Ninth Configuration rather than The Exorcist, and its box office reflects that more selective impulse towards finding a receptive audience.

Blatty also attested that it was more frightening than The Exorcist… which it clearly isn’t, even if it has that one scene that surpasses anything in the Friedkin film. That scene is a masterpiece in clinical restraint; you know something is due to happen because the camera is fixed for so long on the mundanity of the corridor, and then, when it happens… Also a lovely touch that the nurse locks the door before the heart-stopping incident. There are other moments in the film – the elderly patient crawling across the ceiling, the attack at the Kinderman home with those giant shears (Sherrie Wills of Heathers and Meet the Applegates narrowly avoiding them). And then there’s that all-timer line, “Catatonics are so easy to possess”. Those slim pickings aside, though, the most “horror” the film gets is courtesy of the reshoots.

Kinderman: This I believe in… I believe in death. I believe in disease. I believe in injustice and inhumanity, torture and anger and hate… I believe in murder. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty and infidelity. I believe in slime and stink and every crawling, putrid thing… every possible ugliness and corruption, you son of a bitch. I believe… in you.

The climax consisted of Morgan Creek throwing $4m at a showy exorcism sequence (which, to be fair, includes the odd moment of startling imagery, such as a crucified Karras appearing out of a gaping crevasse in the cell floor) via inserting a couple of earlier scenes featuring Nicol Williamson as a prelude to his performing a rather gruey – and perfunctory – casting out; it’s a less elegant repeat of Father Merrin in the original, the character shown initially but only destined to intersect with the narrative proper for the exorcising main course.

Kinderman: I was signalling beings on Mars. Sometimes they answer.

Also added is Jason Miller as Karras/ Patient X’s alter ego, and whether or not Blatty felt it was the right idea, in that it’s emphasising ambiguity as overtly the case, I think this adds to the texture and sense of the uncanny depths of the netherworld X partly exists in; there’s some fairly unsubtle and obliging exposition on the part of Dourif (which he’s absolutely terrific at), which includes the suggestion of the hierarchies and deals of the other side. This isn’t chilling in a conventional sense, but the notion of a realm of demonic “orders” disturbs on a more pervading level. Blatty commented of the exorcism “it’s all right, but it’s utterly unnecessary and it changes the character of the piece”. That may be true, but there’s nevertheless the sense that it doesn’t adversely impact what’s important therein, as it’s almost exclusively back-ended.

Kinderman: Shouldn’t you be reading from the gospels?
Dyer: They don’t give you all the fashions.

And besides, the picture’s most pronounced pleasures are in its opening sections. It’s very evident from these that Blatty could be a very funny guy (he wrote A Shot in the Dark, after all), and for my money his particularly line of black humour comes together more successfully here than in The Ninth Configuration. The banter between Lt Kinderman – George C Scott, taking on the Lee J Cobb role from the first film; it doesn’t matter too much that Scott was the same age as Cobb when he played Kinderman, as Scott could easily have passed for a decade older than his actual age – and the ailing Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) is a hoot, taking in the heavy metaphysical subjects (“Bill, it all works out right” assures Dyer), a carp in the bath (“It’s a tasty fish. I’ve nothing against it”) and It’s a Wonderful Life. Scott is a riot in this movie; even when he isn’t delivering zingers, Kinderman’s suddenly eruptive temper is hilarious (“It is NOT in the file! It’s NOT!”)

Patient X: It’s the smiles that keep us going, don’t you think? The little giggles and bits of good cheer.

There are noteworthy performances everywhere you look, of course. Flanders is completely up to the repartee with Scott. Brad Dourif’s career started off interestingly (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and would remain so, typically cast as freaks (The Eyes of Laura Mars, Wise Blood, Dune, Blue Velvet) but the Gemini Killer represented a point, post-voicing Chucky, where he would be an increasing go-to guy for the horror genre. It’s surely also not coincidental that a number of Exorcist III alumni would go on to appear in The X-Files (and Millennium), since the doomy, foreboding tone informs both of Chris Carter’s series as much as Kolchak and The Silence of the Lambs; serial killer Luther Lee Boggs in first season episode Beyond the Sea is a direct influence.

Patient X: I must admit, it makes me chuckle every time.

Dourif’s relishing every minute of Patient X (the only other big screen role in the ‘90s that comes close is Dr Gediman in Alien Resurrection), and as ever when two great actors share scenes, he and Scott only improve each other’s performances. Dourif’s serial killer brings a much humour to bear, including the almost meta “I do that rather well, don’t you think” when he transforms into Karras (well you should; an entirely different actor just replaced you).

There’s also Scott Wilson as the chain-smoking Dr Temple, in the tried and tested role of psychiatric hospital head who has as many issues as his patients (see also Dr Chiltern The Silence of the Lambs). Wilson is now best known for a four-season stint on The Walking Dead, but had played the co-lead against Stacy Keach in Blatty’s previous film and would later appear in The X-Files’ seventh season episode Orison; his rehearsal of his patient confessionals prior to speaking to Kinderman is particularly amusing. Nancy Fish (as red herring Nurse Allerton) would appear in X-Files Season 4’s Elegy, meanwhile, and there’s also Lois Foraker in a small role (7.3: Hungry). Away from X-Files associations, we also get Samuel L Jackson and Fabio in Kinderman’s Glen Miller-infused dream sequence.

Kinderman: Would a God, who is good, invent something like death? Plainly speaking, it’s a lousy idea.

Blatty indicated there simply wasn’t room for the rumination that concluded the Legion novel in a thriller of The Exorcist III”s nature, but that omission does rather leave a hole as to what the picture does believe in, where Kinderman’s journey does take him; his belief is confirmed, but it’s hardly a positive construct, given his earlier disillusion. The novel’s epilogue has much in common with the Gnostic cosmological view, albeit with a glimmer of perverse hope (Blatty notes “... before the Big Bang, mankind was a single angelic being who fell from grace and was given his transformation into the material universe as a means of salvation wherein his legion of fragmented personalities would spiritually evolve”). It might have been amusing if Blatty had attempted to shoehorn that in. As a much less palatable conclusion than the comforting Christian-tinged Hollywood ruminations being served up by Bruce Joel Rubin during this period (whose Ghost became the biggest hit of that year globally; he also had Jacob’s Ladder out that year), it certainly would have been interesting if he’d attempted to get the idea across somehow.

1990 was both a notable and less than illustrious year for the arrival of long-gestating – or too briefly knocked together – sequels to ‘70s properties, ones that underperformed either critically or commercially. There was Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, which like Legion was supposed to appear in the early-to-mid ‘80s; when it finally surfaced it bombed big time (I really liked it). Texasville found Peter Bogdanovich, in the career doldrums, returning to The Last Picture Show and assembling most of his cast but sparking little interest from audiences. Then there was – at that point – a Rocky too far, which despite the original director found audiences staying away in droves. And of course, most famously, The Godfather Part III (first mooted in very different form in the late ‘70s), conspicuously failing to reach the artistic heights of its predecessors. What they have in common (I’m not going to include Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3) is a struggle to meet the sensibility of their illustrious originals. In Blatty’s favour, though, aside from the reshoots, The Exorcist III at least doesn’t try. It may not be as effective as the original Exorcist in terms of singularity of vision, but I do think it’s a more interesting picture, focussed as it is on foreboding rather than visceral scares, and on rumination on the nature of evil rather than delivering pat pejoratives.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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