Good Example: The Exorcist III

by Jay Stringer

After listening to the guys talk about THE EXORCIST, I thought I’d take a look at one of the sequels.

I find the original film to be a very frustrating one. Buried away in there is a film I should love, a character driven 70’s study of the conflict between faith and family. A tale of a priest who has lost faith and another who earned his the hard way. William Friedkin made one of my all time favourite movies with THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and I can feel the same kind of energy and ideas trying to come to the fore in THE EXORCIST. Unfortunately this element is let down by the other part of the film, the histrionics, the head spinning, the over-the-top silliness.  Everyone will have their own views on the film, but each time I’ve returned to it I’ve found that the latter elements have derailed the former.

I’ve seen THE EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC a couple of times, and find it to be a sequel to the elements of the original that I don’t care for. Up until this week I had never given the third film a chance. I’ll be honest; I sat down expecting this to be a prime Bad Example. Silly shocks, bad acting, twisting heads and heavy directing.

I had some witty remarks already planned and the snark-ometer was ready to go off the chart.

But just as the first film frustrates my attempts to like it, so the third film frustrated my attempts to hate it.

First let us give a little background. It’s not really fair to write it off simply as a sequel to the first film, because it’s based on one of Blatty’s books. Legion was published in 1983, and although it picks up from the ending of the first book, it is a stand-alone story in it’s own right. A murder mystery crossed with a supernatural melodrama, it uses the pieces set in place previously to ask a few serious questions about morality and identity.

Although we can understand the film studio’s preference to name the film EXORCIST III rather than Legion, I would say it does the story a disservice, and one of the films biggest problems is that the title weighs around its neck like a dead weight.

While Blatty as a director isn’t a match for Friedkin, he does show a lot of confidence. The film is allowed to build slowly, to use the location and the soundtrack to build atmosphere and unnerve the audience. The first scene following the credit sequence is a long steady-cam shot, tracking through the Georgetown streets and then taking a tumble down a familiar flight of stairs, before we’re dropped into 1990 and see how the events of the first film have continued to haunt some of those who survived it. It asks a few questions about traditions and friendships; both Kinderman and Dyer still keep their annual cinema date, and both say it’s for the benefit of the other. Is it a tradition that has long since lost any meaning, or is it an important date for both men, with neither willing to admit it?

As much as Blatty is directing with confidence, he does struggle to impose a single style onto the film. The editing is sometimes too fast, never quite allowing the film to settle into being either a slow burning 70’s style film or a 1990’s horror. The studio is said to have re-edited the film before release and made some significant changes, so we’ll never know what Blatty’s original vision was. His writing rises above the problems, though, with some crackling dialogue and a few delightful character touches, such as Kinderman using his badge to get into the cinema for free.

“Shouldn’t you be reading from the gospels?”

“They don’t give you all the fashions.”

There are several moments that threaten to ruin the film, such as a clunking dream sequence that feels like it’s lifted from a Woody Allen comedy, and each time one of these scenes hit I could feel my Bad Example article writing itself. Each time, though, the film righted itself again.

As with good psychological horror, the film spends a lot of time working to unsettle you without flat-out scaring you. It’s a cumulative build, each time you hear a strange laugh, or a clock stops for no reason, it adds to the feeling that something is simply not right. The centrepiece is a scene between Kinderman and the possessed Damien Karras, when the actor playing the part switches between Jason Miller and Brad Dourif. It’s a tight and well-acted scene, and it’s incredibly unnerving.

Sound is key to the film. Blatty leads with it, letting us hear the sound before we see the image. It trains us like Pavlov’s dog, preparing us to listen for sounds and feel tense. The best recent example of this is THE DARK KNIGHT, where Nolan lets us hear the Joker’s unnerving theme in advance of his actions, so that later in the film the very sound of the film gets us on edge.

The first real scare of the film doesn’t occur until around 90 minutes in, when a Nurse gets killed, and again sound plays the major role. The build up of the scene has trained us to listen. The camera has been locked off some distance away from the character, so instead we focus on the sounds, the keys as they jangle, the doors as they shut. We’re so tuned into this that when the soundtrack his us with a big noise, as a shrouded figure jumps out at the nurse, then the sound alone makes us jump.

The second scare is even more effective, and a nice nod to the infamous spider walk scene from the first film. It made me need to look up at the ceiling above me, just to make sure.

When we get to the inevitable exposition, it’s given to us by Dourif, and his performance is unnerving enough that we ignore the big dump of information that’s hidden in his speech. The plot would be recycled several years later as the Denzel Washington vehicle FALLEN, which would be nowhere near as effective. It twists the concept of demonic possession from the first film into something new; both a revenge plot and a murder mystery.

It sets up another interesting twist on the first film. Karras had a complete story arc, going from someone who had lost faith to someone who believed hard enough to die for it. The ending always felt a bit like a cheat though. Blatty’s film is the answer to that. It shows what happens when a priest invites a demon to possess him, even if it was done for the right reasons.

From what I’ve read the exorcism scene was a forced inclusion from the studio, and it does feel different in tone from the spooky murder mystery that had gone before it, but even then it still works up until a point. The ending is as sudden as the first film, but leaves a few questions unanswered. How would Kinderman explain his actions? Who would take the blame for the killings? Where has the demon gone to this time?

Although EXORCIST III never manages to be as good as the best bits of the original, it does manage to be much more consistent and so, to me, might be a better film. And that frustrates the hell out of me, because I was all set to hate it.

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