Three decades later, we look back at The Exorcist III, which despite everything is much better than most people remember.
Judge me harshly if you will, but I admit without shame that of all the entries in The Exorcist franchise, John Boorman’s 1977 all-star Exorcist II: The Heretic is by far my favorite. Not the greatest or most coherent of the lot, no, but my favorite. In terms of sheer brain-melting horror, I dare you to cite any scene from any of the other entries that can touch the terrifying spectacle of Linda Blair tap dancing. That said, 1990’s The Exorcist III comes in a very close second. It’s a far better film than it has any right to be, and at several turns, it even tops the original…
Based on his 1983 novel Legion, writer-director William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III arrived 17 years after William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which itself was based on Blatty’s monstrous 1971 bestseller. (Blatty also won an Oscar for the 1973 movie’s screenplay.) There were a million reasons and one why the threequel should have been a complete train wreck. In the end the theatrical version was only one-third a train wreck, but that wasn’t Blatty’s fault.
Normally I’m overcome with dread nausea whenever I hear about a novelist deciding he wants to direct. Very bad idea. Look at what happened when Michael Crichton or Stephen King or Norman Mailer decided they wanted to get behind the camera. Maximum Overdrive? Maidstone? The cinematic Westworld?! Yikes, right? But Blatty was a different story. After a stint with the Air Force’s psychological warfare division, he started writing screenplays in the early ‘60s, including two for Blake Edwards. This was around the same time he began publishing novels. So a few decades later, he was very familiar with the industry and knew his way around a movie set. In fact, I’d even argue he was a far better director than he was a novelist. Go back and try to read The Exorcist again. It’s hilariously godawful. But his directorial debut, 1980’s The Ninth Configuration (a dark psychological comedy based on his 1978 book of the same name) is on my personal Top 100 list.
The story behind The Exorcist III can be traced back to a point shortly after the release of the original. In the Hollywood of that time, sequels were not obligatory, nor a given, even for films like The Exorcist, which had made all the money in the world. In the case of The Godfather, there was still plenty of leftover material in Mario Puzo’s novel, so sure, a sequel could make sense. At the same time, as open-ended and downbeat as Chinatown’s conclusion may have been, it took another 20 years before anyone thought of a sequel.
Audiences may not have completely understood The Exorcist’s ending at the time, but the story had been resolved neatly and decisively. There was no material left to plunder in Blatty’s novel. There was no place left to go with it without resorting to cheap contrivance, so that was that. Why bother? Neither Friedkin, Blatty, nor the principal actors were interested in a sequel, so everyone went on his and her own merry way, happy to keep cashing those residual checks.
But then Blatty, who’d won an Oscar for his Exorcist script, had an idea. It wasn’t a sequel, exactly, but would concentrate on a couple of characters from the book and film. He’d put front and center the aging, movie-obsessed Lt. William Kinderman, who had a much larger role in the book than he did in the film where he was played by Lee J. Cobb. Although there would be a few other tangential connections to The Exorcist, it would be less a horror movie than a psychological thriller with supernatural and spiritual overtones. There would be no exorcisms and no projectile vomiting, though there may be a bit of deviltry afoot involving a serial killer. Blatty also hoped to use the story to touch on the question of life after death, something which had consumed much of his adult life.
Well, Friedkin was interested, so he and Blatty began hashing out the story and massaging it into a treatment. Meanwhile, as Friedkin and Blatty were working on this new non-sequel psychological thriller of theirs, the accountants over at Warner Bros. took another look at those Exorcist receipts. So okay, the film had a nice and tidy ending, and there was no place to go with it, but so what? No one involved with the original wanted anything to do with a sequel, but so what? It didn’t fucking matter—the movie had made too much money, so the WB brass wanted a sequel and they wanted one now. They hired John Boorman (he of gloriously weird genre epics like Zardoz and Excalibur) to direct, brought in some screenwriter no one had ever heard of, snagged Richard Burton while he was on another one of his benders, signed Linda Blair (who changed her mind about the whole “sequel” question after spending a few years in the TV movie ghetto), and they were off to the races. Exorcist II: The Heretic was released in 1977, and about a month later the bright boys at WB vowed there would never, ever be another Exorcist sequel if they had any say in the matter.
While all that was going on, the proverbial creative differences arose between Friedkin and Blatty over the story they were trying to tell, and Friedkin—a notoriously petulant type—pulled out of the project. The story nevertheless was dropped into WB’s development pipeline where nothing at all happened with it. It’s entirely possible that with the Boorman debacle still fresh on everyone’s mind, someone saw Blatty’s name connected to a treatment for a sort-of Exorcist sequel and made certain it would never be seen by human eyes ever again.
Deciding to forget about a new movie deal for a bit, Blatty began turning his story idea into a novel. The book, which he called Legion, was released in 1983 and quickly became a big bestseller. The marketing campaign probably helped, pushing the book (despite Blatty’s denials) as a legitimate Exorcist sequel.
A few years passed and then Blatty went back to Legion and reworked it into a screenplay, which had been the original idea all along. For the sake of economy, he dropped several characters and subplots, the back stories, flashbacks and Kinderman’s internal monologues about the nature of God, man, good, and evil that made up so much of the book, but the final script still maintained the core of the novel’s plot, even preserving a lot of the dialogue. He did modify the ending slightly to make it more clear, slam-bang, and crowd-pleasing.
Two production companies, Morgan Creek and Carolco, were interested, but when the smart cookies at Carolco suggested in all seriousness that Blatty rewrite it to make it about an adult Regan MacNeil giving birth to possessed twins, he decided to go with Morgan Creek instead. But that was hardly the end of his troubles with studio executive stupidity.
The first problem was the title. The novel had been called Legion, the script was titled Legion, so obviously Blatty was assuming the movie would be called Legion as well. The producers at Morgan Creek had a different idea. As I imagine it, the conversation went something like this.
“Now, Bill, look. If we just call this picture Legion, no one will know it’s an Exorcist movie.”
“But it’s not an Exorcist movie. It’s a psychological thriller with supernatural overtones. There’s not an exorcism or exorcist in it anywhere.”
“Yeah, but look—you got that cop and that priest from the first one in here. You got some kind of demonic possession or something like that going on with that serial killer guy. So it’s an Exorcist movie.”
“But look at it again—it’s actually quite different and…”
“Since that Exorcist II came out awhile back, we’ll just call it Exorcist III.”
“I prefer to believe Exorcist II doesn’t exist. And if it did,, I wouldn’t want this picture to be connected with it in any way. That Boorman abortion is a goddamn albatross. If you insist on calling it exorcist anything, why not call it ‘Exorcist: Legion?’ That has a nice ring to it. It’s based on my book Legion.”
“This was a book? Well, whatever. Naar, we’re giving you $11 million to make this thing, and we’re going to call it Exorcist III.”
Blatty signed on to direct, and set about casting the major roles. The gruff and venerable Lee J. Cobb, who’d portrayed Lt. Kinderman in the original, had died in 1976, so he was out of the running. Since this time around the film focused on Kinderman, Blatty chose the equally gruff and venerable George C. Scott to take over the role. Scott, if reluctantly, had made a few horror films over the previous decade, and liked the fact this wasn’t another one. So he was in. William O’Malley had played Father Dyer in the original. Like Kinderman, this time around it was a much bigger role, and O’Malley politely declined, saying he had better things to do. We’re lucky for that, as Blatty signed Ed Flanders to play Father Dyer instead.
Flanders always plays exactly the same character, no matter the role, and he’s always great. He comes off as smart, funny, casual and wholly believable, and in the end is a much better actor than O’Malley was. The same can be said of Scott Wilson, who was cast to play the troubled chief psychiatrist at the mental hospital where most of the film’s action is centered, and the always amazing Brad Dourif, who was perfectly cast as the demonically driven Gemini Killer.
It was a brilliant cast made up of some of the best character actors around (several of whom had appeared in Blatty’s Ninth Configuration), and they were the reason the film—at least for the first two-thirds—was so good. It’s a film driven less by plot than by a half-dozen characters who’ve been given dialogue and deliver line readings that remain absolutely believable even as the circumstances around them grow increasingly outlandish. Consider Kinderman’s monologue about the carp in his bathtub. Who the hell would drop something like that into an erstwhile horror movie?
As far as the plot goes, Exorcist III cannot be summed up quite as easily as the original—“a little rich girl gets possessed by the devil”—but in a nutshell: Seventeen years after the events of the first film, and with no reference whatsoever made to the events in the second, Lt. Kinderman finds himself confronted with the apparent reappearance of two figures from his past who had supposedly died a long time back. The first is father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who had died after bouncing down an endless flight of steps while performing an exorcism in the original movie. It seems that at the same time he was on a slab in the morgue, someone matching Karras’ description was found wandering around incoherent and with no memory of who he was or what he was doing there. Since that time he’d been locked in an isolation cell in a local psych ward where he was known simply as “Patient X.”
The other figure was the Gemini Killer, a serial killer loosely based on the Zodiac Killer, though the Gemini’s victims all seemed to have some kind of connection to the Church. He had been executed 17 years ago as well, but a new string of murders around town carry all the hallmarks of the Gemini—including details which had never been made public. More baffling still, the fingerprints found at the new murder scenes not only don’t match the Gemini Killer’s—they don’t even match each other. So it’s up to Kinderman to figure out just what the hell’s going on with all that.
But the plot is the least of it. Blatty knows how to use location to great effect (like the first movie, this was filmed in Georgetown, his longtime home), and has the ability to evoke fear and anxiety in a brightly-lit room. He’s also not afraid to drop genuine, intentional humor into what was taken to be a serious horror film. As a friend who recently saw it for the first time put it, “It feels like a film made in Canada, except it’s really good.”
For my money though, Exorcist III is all about character and detail. Keep an eye out for the following:
* The old woman with Alzheimer’s crawling across the ceiling of the psych ward day room like a spider, completely unnoticed, as Blatty keeps the viewer focused on the conversation taking place center screen. It’s done so subtly it wasn’t until my third viewing I even caught it at all. It’s a pretty fucking great and creepy effect, and no attention is called to it.
* The nearly 10-minute build up to the decapitation of a nurse, which is right up there with Linda Blair tap dancing as one of the most frightening sequences in modern horror.
* Pay close attention to how Blatty uses that famed endless flight of stairs in Georgetown, which played an iconic role at the end of the original. That famous staircase takes on a life of its own and, though quite tangible, exists here onscreen as a memory.
* I also really love Kinderman giving the waitress his silent “Fuck You” smile during the diner scene between Kinderman and Father Dyer. How I wish I could recreate that smile when need be.
* In terms of performance, the ongoing droll comic banter between Scott and Flanders is so natural and authentic, it comes off like we’re overhearing a real conversation between two old friends who’ve known each other for 40 years, which is a rare onscreen accomplishment. And though Scott is generally, and surprisingly, low-key here, the scene in which he becomes extremely agitated while explaining the Gemini Killer’s M.O. to a doctor at the psych ward has stuck with me for years.
* Likewise, the scene in which Scott Wilson, as the chief psychiatrist, paces around his office chain smoking as he rehearses what he’s going to tell Kinderman about the night Patient X was brought in goes on (quite deliberately) way too long. In the end, it becomes something out of a Beckett play. You’d never see anything like this, something this honest and embarrassing and frustrating and real. And I’m so glad it made the final edit—as simple and obsessive as his character is, Wilson is amazing.
* And, Christ, every last scene Brad Dourif is in. He’s distanced himself from the final theatrical version, but this may be among his best performances. Sure, it’s over the top, but it’s keeping within character. As the Gemini Killer notes at one point, it’s all about showmanship, and what’s not to love about a Child’s Play in-joke?
* And for those interested in such things, it’s a film packed with unlikely cameos, ranging from Fabio to Patrick Ewing to Larry King to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Almost everyone who was involved with the picture was, by most accounts, pleased with the way it turned out. It looked great, was well-paced, had a few genuine scares and laughs, and a collection of memorable, and memorably eccentric, performances. Like Blatty’s earlier Ninth Configuration, it had an overall tone quite unlike anything else coming out of Hollywood. It was the film he wanted to make, and most important of all, title aside, it was not an Exorcist sequel.
But after the film was edited and in the can, one of those morons at Morgan Creek had a thought.
“Hey, wait a second! We’re calling this thing The Exorcist III, but there isn’t a single exorcism in here! Nobody even talks about exorcisms! What the hell?”
Blatty’s contract gave him the right to one preview screening. If it went well, his edit would be released as is. If it didn’t, then the studio brass could demand changes. Morgan Creek brought in their own test audience, so you can pretty well imagine how the screening went.
With an additional $4 million, Blatty had to go back and shoot a long, effects-packed, and wholly contrived exorcism scene to end the film. And given there were no actual, um, exorcists in the picture, he had to bring one in in the form of Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson, best known to American audiences for having played Merlin in, yes, John Boorman’s Excalibur. But he couldn’t just bring him in at the end to recite a ritual and scare the devil away—Blatty had to write and shoot other scenes to establish the character, then find places to insert them earlier in the film. Since the silly exorcism scene alone ran about 20 minutes, he had to trim or cut a bunch of other scenes as well to make room, including the opening scene in which Kinderman views Father Karras’ body at the morgue after his fall down the stairs, which had set up the rest of the film.
Then the producers had another bright idea: “Hey, while you’re at it? Why don’t you bring in one of the actors from the original, you know, just to let audiences know this is a real sequel.”
Earlier Blatty had tried to conscript Jason Miller to reprise his role as Father Karras. Miller had been part of The Ninth Configuration’s ensemble cast, so there was a connection there. Miller, unfortunately, was unavailable at the time, “unavailable” being a code word for “slowly drinking himself to death.” So who else was there from the original? Linda Blair was in the middle of shooting the execrable Exorcist spoof, Repossessed, with Leslie Nielsen, and there was no place for her in the movie anyway. Who the hell else was there? That German couple who played the butler and maid? That lady who played the nanny? The astronaut? So he went back to Miller, who agreed this time. Problem was, Miller’s alcoholism had taken its toll, leaving him incapable of remembering anything but the shortest lines of dialogue. Fortunately, the way things were constructed, with Father Karras and the Gemini Killer constantly trading places within the same body (oh, go watch the freaking movie to see what I mean), this allowed Dourif to cover a lot of Miller’s lines.
Thus the Morgan Creek edit of the film, with its ludicrous ending and several inserted scenes that made no clear sense, was released and brought in a pitiable $39 million. After checking the numbers, the producers called Blatty and explained the film’s dismal showing could likely be blamed on audience members connecting it with Boorman’s Exorcist II.
In the years that followed, with the arrival of non-theatrical restored versions and director’s cuts on DVD, Blatty got to thinking about tracking down all that excised footage and reconstructing his original vision. Unfortunately, after repeated tries, the people at Morgan Creek insisted the footage was nowhere to be found in their vaults, and likely gone forever. The idea seemed dead in the water until about 2014 when someone came across a test print of Blatty’s original edit on VHS. Being a 25-year-old VHS tape, the quality wasn’t the greatest, but Blatty and a team of film restoration experts did what they could, re-inserting deleted scenes to salvage at least the semblance of the director’s cut. It was released as part of a two-disc collector’s edition in 2017, complete with an apologetic disclaimer about the condition of the source material.
Watching it, I must admit, is a bit like watching Sam Peckinpah’s rough cut of The Osterman Weekend—the one he turned in before the studio yanked it away and butchered it. You can tell there’s a much better and more coherent film there than the one we all had foisted on us, and if this is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing it, well so be it, and I’m glad we have this much. But from a non-film historian’s perspective, damn it can be hard to watch. Still, for his own peace of mind—this was the last film he ever directed—I’m glad Blatty got it out there before he died a year later at age 89.
There may not be any torrents of pea soup in Exorcist III, but for all its studio-inflicted shortcomings, in many ways the film still tops the original in terms of style and substance. It’s far more complex, measured and intelligent, and asked viewers to think a bit harder than usual while not being afraid to play a little prank now and again. Like Hallloween III: Season of the Witch, it was mostly ignored at the time and forgotten today, but well worth another look (or repeated viewings), especially as a double bill with The Ninth Configuration.
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