Exorcist III, The (1990)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-26 02:07

The Exorcist III (1990)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: October 25th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

As a film franchise, The Exorcist is a strange beast: after debuting with William Friedkin’s indisputable masterpiece in 1973, it’s never come close to regaining those heights thanks to a combination of befuddling decisions and constant studio meddling. Never was the latter more frustrating than it was with the curious case of The Exorcist III: easily the only sequel that even attempts to recapture the vibe of the original, William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his novel Legion nonetheless befuddled a horde of suits who couldn’t understand why they had paid millions of bucks for an Exorcist movie that didn’t feature an exorcism. Their eventual tinkering and forced re-shoots left The Exorcist III yet another victim of studio interference—and, if you believe its director, a shade of its former self. For over 25 years, it’s been both tantalizing and frustrating: clearly, there’s some greatness here, but what if there were even more?

Before tackling that question, it’s worth revisiting The Exorcist III we’ve known since its release, the somewhat malformed, jagged adaptation that often works despite the suits working against it. Like its (mercifully ignored) predecessor, it refuses to simply retrace the original’s footsteps; however, unlike Boorman’s loopy, deranged sequel, it’s much more faithful in spirit, not to mention much more organic. Where that film couldn’t resist returning to Reagan McNeil and delving into the backstory concerning her demonic possessor, Blatty moves on from the obvious and makes a more tangential connection by catching up with detective William Kinderman (George C. Scott).

A relatively minor character in Friedkin’s original film, he’s the protagonist fifteen years later: still haunted by the death of his friend Damien Karras (Jason Miller), he’s remained on the homicide beat all these years. When a rash of bizarre, ritualistic murders intersects with the anniversary of the slain priest’s death, it appears to be a strange coincidence. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the fateful night that claimed Karras’s life only planted the seeds for further evil that are now blossoming in the form of beheaded corpses and other gruesome mutilations. At a loss to explain these murders, Kinderman eventually must reckon that sinister, supernatural forces from his past have returned to exact vengeance.

Given its wildly different remarkable just how this thing is easily identifiable as an Exorcist film. In theory, one could easily change some character names and tweak some minor details, and this would be totally, completely removed from the franchise since it’s less a demonic possession movie and more of a spooky police procedural. And yet, Blatty somehow manages to recapture the existentially apocalyptic vibe that defined The Exorcist: even though it’s not as preoccupied with religious anxiety, an unmistakably Satanic presence looms over it immediately. An opening tracking shot ominously prowls through the bleak Georgetown streets as a mysterious voiceover connects the film to the final, tragic moments of The Exorcist, wherein Karras plummeted down a flight of stairs to his death.

It’s a specter that lingers over The Exorcist III, vaguely guiding the film towards the eventual revelation that Karras may not have died after all since his apparent doppelganger—a mysterious “Patient X”—has been stowed away in a psychiatric ward for fifteen years. A tricky, kind of messy plot development, it’s still the lynchpin that makes this an authentic Exorcist follow-up, and a clever one that allows Blatty to craft a terrific character piece around Scott’s Kinderman, a high-strung but dignified old war horse that’s still trying to make sense out of that fateful night fifteen years ago. When these demons resurface in a literal form, it must feel like both punishment and an opportunity for penance, and Scott deftly captures the desperation of a man seeking answers that may never come.

It’s an odd thing to say given its reputation, but it’s entirely possible that we’re still understating just how terrific the character work in The Exorcist is. Over the years, its shlock reputation has understandably loomed large, but none of its infamous outbursts is as unsettling and engrossing as Karras’s crisis of faith. Frankly it—and Miller’s performance—make that film, and it’s no surprise that Blatty is the only person that fully understood this when tackling an Exorcist follow-up. In many ways, Exorcist III is an inverse of the original, as its violent outbursts arrive in bursts and are scattered throughout some rich character work. With the exception of one of cinema’s most jarring and effective jump scares and some delirious dream imagery boasting the likes of Patrick Ewing (!), the overt horror elements don’t dominate the discussion of this sequel.

Instead, it’s fair to say that Exorcist III is much more renowned for its wonderful character work, particularly the early-going, which almost feels like a hangout film as Kinderman and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) banter about. Like Kinderman, Dyer still reels from Karras’s death, and the two mark its anniversary with a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, an obviously ironic choice given the circumstances. Blatty’s underrated gift for gab is on display whenever these two share the screen and spit dialogue back and forth like a couple of mismatched partners in a buddy cop comedy. It’s the last thing you’d expect from an Exorcist film, but it’s crucial in establishing the human stakes that makes the sequel work.

Because of its sprawling, backstory-laden narrative, The Exorcist III leans heavily on exposition, especially once Kinderman confronts Patient X, who may or may not be the reincarnated spirit of a deceased serial killer now inhabiting Karras’s body. To say the plot requires some untangling is an understatement, and sight unseen it’s tempting to assume it’s better suited for its original novel form. You could do worse, though, than to have Brad Dourif deliver the deranged, expository rantings of the Gemini Killer. Obviously no stranger to serial killers exacting revenge from beyond the grave, Dourif gives a sublime performance that’s full of both wild-eyed fury and the inkling of perverse, regretful humanity that’s defined his best performances. His Gemini Killer is an unrepentant bastard, but Dourif hints at the lost, drowned soul that once inhabited Karras’s body, making the forced reshoots that added Jason Miller seem superfluous. Dourif wonderfully captures that internal struggle on his own, so Karras’s presence only serves to clumsily underline the proceedings.

Likewise, the overblown exorcism ending forced on Blatty feels at odds with the rest of the film. An otherwise quietly menacing affair that creepily works on your brain, The Exorcist III resorts to a brash deus ex machina that it doesn’t exactly need. It’s not the worst case of studio interference, but it feels extraneous considering the actual climax (Kinderman putting a bullet into Patient X’s brain) lands enough of a punch on its own. At worst, it’s just an overdone distraction, though Blatty certainly does his best to re-center the film after this mandated intrusion.

You can feel that struggle through The Exorcist III. Like the Gemini Killer itself, it’s constantly at war with itself, with Blatty’s original vision fighting to be heard beneath the din of studio interference. Ultimately, the former does win out, if only because Blatty’s stamp is indelible. His commitment to both his characters and an intriguing, nonconventional sequel plot are difficult to deny. One could easily imagine an alternate universe with endless, bland Exorcist follow-ups that simply attempted to duplicate the original, but we were thankfully spared of such a fate. Most of actual films might not have been great, but, at the least, all of them are interesting in some way. Exorcist III is the best of the bunch: both audacious and completely worthy of the original film, it’s more than earned its reputation as a wrongfully overlooked sequel.

The disc:

If this status weren’t already obvious enough, then Scream Factory’s canonization of the title confirms it. A release from the fan favorite label is perhaps the best indicator of a title’s popularity, and its message is almost always clear: “we’ve heard you,” Scream Factory intones, and then delivers a fucking amazing package that makes up for years of a studio ignoring a title. That message is loud and clear for The Exorcist III, a title that has become something of a holy grail for enthusiasts ever since Fox’s meddling all but assured its cult classic status. While the film was released as part of Warner’s Blu-ray anthology a couple of years ago, it was practically a bare bones treatment since a trailer provided the lone supplement. Scream Factory has more than righted that wrong with a signature Collector’s Edition release that boasts a newly restored 2K transfer of the theatrical cut and a bounty of extra features.

Most noteworthy, of course, is the inclusion of Blatty’s “director’s cut;” more accurately, it’s an approximation that feels like more of an assembly cut that’s been culled from whatever VHS-sourced dailies Scream could uncover. Because the actual footage has been completely lost, this is (barring some miracle) the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Blatty’s original version of Legion. Despite the varying quality of the footage, it’s an appreciable effort that at least gives us a glimpse of something we never thought we’d see. “Better than nothing” is a phrase that comes to mind, but don’t mistake that as an apologia for this release, especially when it boasts so much more.

For starters, a decent amount of vintage material accompanies on the main feature on the first disc, including interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, alternate and deleted scenes, a deleted prologue, bloopers, trailers, and TV spots. If this were all the release boasted, it’d still represent more than Warner’s meager efforts over the years. However, there’s even more in the way of a ton of newly-produced stuff.

Never content to just deliver the bare minimum for its most popular titles, Scream has gone all-out with six new supplements featuring cast and crew members. Interviews with Blatty and Dourif are most noteworthy, but Scream also gathered recollections from producer Carter deHaven, actors Clifford David and Tracy Thorne, production assistant Kara Reidy, production designer Leslie Dilley, and composer Barry DeVorzon. For a better idea of just how in-depth these extras are, consider that one is exclusively dedicated to the reshot ending and its effects work, as the artists, the editor, a body double, and the production designer reminisce about the process.

After years of waiting, fans who have clamored for this sequel to receive its due can rest assured that The Exorcist III is no longer likely to be overlooked. For my money, it ranks among their most laudable efforts, right alongside recovering the Halloween 6 Producer’s Cut, the Nightbreed Director’s Cut and (mostly) restoring the original Return of the Living Dead soundtrack. I don’t know that it raises the already high bar, but it does make you wonder just what else Scream might be capable of delivering. As one of the (likely very) few people dreaming of a release for the original cut of Hellraiser: Bloodline, I feel like I have some hope of seeing it one day. (One thing’s for sure: if Warner’s stinginess with its library weren’t enough of an obstacle, the amount of shade thrown at The Exorcist II on this disc ensures that we probably shouldn't be holding out hope for that one.)
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