Here’s a surprise for you—The Exorcist III is actually pretty good.
Well… conditionally. It’s conditionally pretty good.
Written and directed by Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist III picks up 15 years after the first film, and follows District detective William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a minor character in the first film, who’s attempting to track down a religiously motivated serial killer. With a dead boy and two dead priests on his hands, Kinderman realizes that the murders match the M.O. of an executed serial killer, The Gemini, and are all connected to the possession of Regan MacNeil and the death of his friend Father Damien Karras.
Fans call it The Magnificent Ambersons of the horror genre, because, like Orson Welles’s pseudo-classic, The Exorcist III could have been a perfectly fine film before some commercially driven decisions by the film’s studio, Morgan Creek, tanked and cheapened the story.
Blatty’s film is dark, heady and, at times, extremely scary, using characters and themes from the first film as a jumping off point rather than as cheap cash in on the franchise’s marketable name. Performances are strong, if not showy, and mostly dominated by George C. Scott’s resigned grizzle, but there are bursts of syrupy theatricality throughout the movie, especially when Brad Dourif hits the screen–but I love Brad Dourif, so I don’t really care.
There’s a sequence in a hospital that shows Blatty’s film at its best, a scene so steeped in suspense that it borders on brilliant. In it, a nurse working the night shift looks after her hall the night after The Gemini killer struck again in her ward. The sequence is elegant and spare, just an edgy woman investigating distant ticks and flickers down the hall as the security guard, her only protection, walks in and out of frame. The scene is terrifying, and scored only by the quiet ambiance of the hospital—no scare chords, no music, no old women walking on the ceiling, just pure suspense with a great payoff.
Even with its strengths, the big story around The Exorcist III relates back to the studio’s insistence that the film include an exorcism of some kind–after all, it’s in the title, and moneymoneymoneymoney. Detractors to the changes are definitely right, the sequences are roughly shoved into the movie, and make close to zero narrative sense. The priest who performs the exorcism seems to exist parallel to the story until the end, only appearing every so often without much explanation as to who he is or how he relates to the plot. By the film’s climax, when Father Whoever busts out the exorcism tongs, you’re too confused to care about what’s going on.
To be fair, though, the effects laden exorcism scene itself is kind of gnarly, but the sequence appeals to lowest common denominator horror. It concludes with the priest getting cooked on the ceiling like a hamburger on a skillet, which would actually be kind of cool in any other movie, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in Blatty’s otherwise bloodless narrative.
Still, even with the studio’s machinations, comparing The Exorcist III to Welles’s soiled masterpiece is gross overstatement. Blatty may have strong convictions towards his vision, but as a filmmaker he can be unreserved and showy. As a consequence, Blatty’s film is talky, pretentious and, at times, hard to follow. A few scenes tread well into the territory of ridiculous—Damian Karras coming out of the floor on a crucifix, a scene in heaven with Fabio and Larry King. Bullshit like that. Blatty’s lack of restraint weighs the movie down, studio interactions or not.
For all of its weaknesses though, Blatty at least tries for something in The Exorcist III, and I can appreciate that. The core idea is pretty cool, if not completely well executed. Blatty has vision, that’s for certain, but he doesn’t have the skill to take a plot like this and make it coherent. You get the basics of what’s going on in the end, but his sloppy revelations leave you too busy connecting the dots to enjoy the good parts of the film. Had Morgan Creek stayed out of it and another director signed on (both William Friedkin and John Carpenter were slated to direct at one point), we might have a hell of a film. As it stands, though, The Exorcist III is an interesting side show on the road to obscurity.