Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.
Exorcist II: The Heretic was met with such contempt and vitriol that another sequel wasn’t released until 1990, 13 years later. This time around, William Peter Blatty, author of the The Exorcist III novel, which served as the basis for William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, took matters into his own hands. He adapted the screenplay for his novel, Legion, and assumed directing duties for The Exorcist III, a horror sequel that has no right to be as good as it is.
In fact, put The Exorcist III right up there with Bride of Chucky, Saw III, Tremors II, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare for horror sequels that throw you a curveball that feels like a knuckleball between your eyes because you weren’t expecting it at all.
Blatty wasn’t keen on having “Exorcist” anywhere in the film’s title. If it were up to him, as opposed to Morgan Creek Productions, he would’ve named the film after the novel. Morgan Creek’s fussing also led to a new, louder ending, featuring an exorcist, special effects, and a lot of sound and lights, contrary to Blatty’s original vision. It’s a testament to the novelist-turned-screenwriter’s proclivity with words, buildup, and nuance that such interference didn’t undermine a truly special film that’s boldest move might be its conservativity in showing the horrors of demonic possession.
Instead, the second sequel to Friedkin’s film takes the understated route. It’s set 20 years after the events of The Exorcist and after the reign of the Gemini Killer. We follow a hardened Georgetown gumshoe named Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott), who is investigating a series of elaborate, grisly murders. They all remind him of the Gemini Killer’s work, and the murders fit the modus operandi of the man whose real name was James Venamun. Kinderman really can’t help but get sucked into the case when his friend, Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders) is murdered whilst in the hospital, every drop of blood sucked from his body and stored in neatly placed vials without so much as a smudge.
Was the Gemini Killer possessed at the time of execution? Could that spirit have found its way into the body of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller)? These are the questions we, and Kinderman, must contemplate.
Everything from Blatty’s literary dialog to astute framing — also a credit to cinematographer Gerry Fisher — locks you into the mystery. The Exorcist III plays like an artful police procedural. Most of the violence occurs off-screen, a move ostensibly primed to disappoint viewers. But Blatty is a wordsmith at heart, and he knows the graphic and detailed descriptions of the Gemini Killer’s heinous acts can do more to get the gears of the mind turning them simply seeing possessions happen. By the early 1990s, moviegoers had become accustomed to every kind of brutal slashing, murder, impalement, crucifixion, and demonic overtaking you could conjure. The thought of a young Black boy being decapitated and his head being replaced with the marble head of Jesus Christ? That lingers in the mind longer than it takes to clean up vomit.
Fisher’s cinematography makes every establishing shot a work of art. The opening tracks a college campus in the dead of night, with not a car on the street nor a pedestrian on the sidewalks. It’s noir-ish in the way it exists germane to the isolation of Kinderman, who we meet not long after. Then there’s an Apocalypse Now-esque shot of three helicopters flying towards us with a gleaming orange sun in the background. Help is on the way, we suppose, until we see what we’re up against.
George C. Scott made a name for himself playing hardnosed, traditionalist men of principle. He’s an atheist who sees the atrocities committed by humans as insurmountable evidence that a God of any kind doesn’t exist. One relationship Blatty would’ve been well-served to further develop, at least in the film, is Kinderman’s friendship with Father Dyer. Dyer is the yin to Kinderman’s yang, and an early scene has them sharing coffee and discussing theology with one another. Scott’s everyman detective is perfectly contrasted with Brad Dourif, who gives a career-performance as an unhinged lunatic with a magnetic presence. If the Academy wasn’t so posh and parochial when it came to horror, Dourif would have an Oscar nomination for a role that mostly involves him sitting in confinement and relaying to Kinderman the murders he’s committed. He’s raw and convincing for every beat he’s on screen.
Then there’s the famous hospital scene, which should be a focal point of study for anyone interesting in horror filmmaking. Try and overlook the fact that the sequence is immaculately framed and blocked. Truly hone in on how effective it is. It’s not hyperbolic to believe it might be one of the greatest jump-scares in horror history.
William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III was put between a rock and a hard place from the moment it was greenlit. It had to combat the sour tastes audiences still had in their mouths from a legendarily lousy sequel, and Blatty’s more restrained and intellectual approach to religiosity, exorcisms, and the crumbling of institutional protection was lost on a studio that probably wondered, “why can’t we make another Exorcist?” Blatty also didn’t set out to devise a framework that would leave studios and other directors the opportunity to make three or four easy sequels out of the material. He focused on making one great film, and a great film he indeed made.
Starring: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Scott Wilson, Nicol Williamson, and Brad Dourif. Directed by: William Peter Blatty.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!