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Retro Review: THE EXORCIST III (1990)

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THE EXORCIST III
(US - 1990)

Written and directed by William Peter Blatty. Cast: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, Scott Wilson, Nicol Williamson, George DiCenzo, Don Gordon, Lee Richardson, Grand L. Bush, Nancy Fish, Viveca Lindfors, Zohra Lampert, Barbara Baxley, Harry Carey Jr, Ken Lerner, Mary Jackson, Sherrie Wills, Tracy Thorne, Tyra Ferrell, Lois Foraker, Kevin Corrigan, Patrick Ewing, Samuel L. Jackson. (R, 110 mins)


LEGION
(US - 1990/2016)

Same credits minus Jason Miller and Nicol Williamson. (Unrated, 105 mins)


Released in August of 1990 after a tumultuous production, THE EXORCIST III is tops among threequels that completely disregard the Part II's that preceded them, instead functioning as a direct sequel to the first film (see also HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION and the recent BLAIR WITCH, to name just two). William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist who adapted his 1971 novel for William Friedkin's landmark 1973 classic, had nothing to do with John Boorman's insane box office bomb EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) and opted to write his own sequel, publishing the novel Legion in 1983. When it came time to make Legion into a film, Blatty adapted and directed it himself, but made the first of many compromises with Morgan Creek bosses James G. Robinson and Joe Roth when he agreed to include the word "Exorcist" in the title. Throughout production, no one could settle on a name: on-set footage of the clapboard shows it as EXORCIST 1990, and it was also called EXORCIST: LEGION and EXORCIST: 15 YEARS LATER at various points. Even before shooting wrapped, the signs of disconnect and a communication breakdown between Blatty and his backers were already glaringly apparent.






The focus here is on Lt. Bill Kinderman, the Georgetown detective who investigated the death of the movie director thrown out of possessed Regan MacNeil's bedroom window in the 1973 original. Kinderman had a much larger role in the novel but was mostly relegated to the sideline in Friedkin's film, where he's played by the great Lee J. Cobb. Cobb died in 1976, so Kinderman is played in THE EXORCIST III by George C. Scott, whose interpretation is much more sarcastic and blustery than Cobb's more soft-spoken and easygoing portrayal. The film also features the minor character of Father Dyer, played in Friedkin's film by church technical advisor Rev. William S. O'Malley, and here by Ed Flanders. The character of Father Damien Karras, the troubled priest who sacrifices himself by jumping out of Regan MacNeil's bedroom window and tumbling down the famous steps to his death, makes in improbable return in THE EXORCIST III. It was Blatty's initial wish to have his old friend Jason Miller, who received an Oscar nomination for his work in THE EXORCIST, reprise the role but for various reasons (more on that below), Miller was replaced by Brad Dourif. The plot has Kinderman investigating a string of brutal killings where the victims all have at least tenuous ties to the original exorcism of Linda Blair's Regan MacNeil. The methodology follows that of James Venamun, aka "The Gemini Killer," a Zodiac-like serial killer who was executed in the electric chair 15 years earlier, the same night of the MacNeil exorcism. Kinderman's investigation leads him to the locked-down psych ward of a local hospital, where he sees a patient who looks exactly like the long-dead Father Karras. The priest is possessed by the spirit of the Gemini Killer. Karras' soul was taken from his body at the moment of death by what Venamun describes as "The Master," who was angry about being exorcised from Regan MacNeil and decided to put the Gemini Killer's spirit into the body of Karras. After a decade and a half of rebuilding his strength inside Karras' body, the Gemini has been leaving Karras and possessing elderly folks in the dementia ward, who are then able to escape the hospital and continue his killing spree 15 years after his presumed death.



It's an admittedly hokey story that works because of the unique elements Blatty brings to the table. It plays like a supernatural police procedural, with plenty of Blatty's trademark eccentricity, dark humor, and verbose repartee, particularly in the spirited and sometimes oddball conversations ("The carp...") between Kinderman and Dyer (Cobb and Miller were able to bring a little of that to THE EXORCIST, but there's much more of it here) and the bizarre character quirks, like twitchy, chain-smoking Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) having stacks of newspapers ("I like to read the science articles") and nudie mag pics plastered on his office wall. THE EXORCIST III is very dialogue-heavy and at times feels like more of a companion piece to Blatty's only other directing effort, the 1980 cult film THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, which also featured Miller, Flanders, Wilson, and George DiCenzo from this film. But when Blatty turned in his cut of LEGION (or whatever it was called at the time), the studio wasn't happy. Their biggest concern was that there was no exorcism, but they also didn't like the idea of Dourif in the role of Karras and insisted Miller be summoned to reshoot all scenes involving the character. That was Blatty's original intention, but as Dourif explains on Shout! Factory's new two-disc Blu-ray set, Miller was suffering from severe alcoholism at the time, with everyone agreeing that he wasn't up to the demands of the role. The idea of replacing Miller with Dourif wasn't too hard to fathom, especially since they already had Scott replacing Cobb and Flanders in place of O'Malley. Morgan Creek didn't budge. They wanted someone from the original EXORCIST, so Miller was brought in and Dourif was informed by Blatty that his entire performance was being scrapped. But, as Blatty feared, Miller started showing signs of not being up to the task, so a decision was made to reduce his workload by having Dourif return to essay the role of just the Gemini Killer, instead of both Karras and the Gemini-possessed Karras. So in what was ultimately released as THE EXORCIST III, when Kinderman sees Karras, the priest is played by Miller, but when Karras is overtaken by the talkative, ranting Gemini Killer, the audience sees Dourif, who returned to reshoot half of his scenes, meeting the demand of the producers that Miller play Father Karras and satisfying Blatty's wish that Dourif still be in the film. It's an initially jarring effect, but it works for the most part. Nicol Williamson was cast as Father Morning, a character exclusive to the reshoots, who arrives for a climactic exorcism that comes out of nowhere and looks like a hastily tacked-on afterthought even to those not in the know about the film's troubled production. For starters, Karras is suddenly possessed by the devil for the climax (the uncredited voice provided by Scott's two-time ex-wife Colleen Dewhurst), which is filled with loud, gory special effects (Morning's skin peeling off as he unsticks himself from the ceiling) that are completely at odds with the serious, understated tone of the first 95 minutes of the film.


THE EXORCIST III opened to middling reviews but its reputation has improved over time. It remains a flawed mess but has so many effective moments throughout that the good far outweighs the not-as-good. The long, static hallway shot of the nurses' station culminates in one of the greatest jump scares in horror movie history. The nature of the Gemini Killer's murders and Kinderman's investigation ("the victim had an ingot driven into each of his eyes, then the killer cut off his head and crucified him on a pair of rowing oars") are profoundly disturbing and get under your skin in ways that prefigure the likes of David Fincher's SE7EN and help make this film as terrifying as THE EXORCIST in its own way. It's worth noting that all of these creepy scenes and the incredible hallway jump scare were in the LEGION cut, which built up a mystique over the years, with rumors always swirling that Blatty wanted to assemble a director's cut. But extensive searches yielded little and the footage was was never found, leaving LEGION a title regularly mentioned with other Holy Grails of lost films, like the never-to-be-assembled original cuts of Erich von Stroheim's GREED (1924) or Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). The original prints of LEGION have been lost to time for now, but we've got the next best thing on Shout!'s Blu-ray: in addition to the theatrical version, there's a composite assembling of Blatty's original vision using VHS dailies combined with footage from THE EXORCIST III that remained from the original cut of LEGION. Because they were part of the studio-mandated reshoots, neither Miller nor Williamson are in LEGION, so other than incidental bits (like shots of photographs) reinstated to indicate that Dourif was indeed playing Father Karras, most of the big differences start around 50 minutes in when Kinderman first visits Karras' cell and Karras is only being played by Dourif. The cell is different in LEGION, which was shot at the DEG Studios in Wilmington, NC, while the reshoots were done in Los Angeles on a different set, which necessitated Dourif filming his scenes a second time. It's easy to see why Robinson and Roth were unhappy with LEGION. As brilliant as it is at times, it's got one of the most abrupt and anti-climactic endings you'll ever see. Dourif's memorable performance is more hammy and his voice electronically altered a bit in THE EXORCIST III, but the actor prefers his slightly more restrained LEGION interpretation and remains dissatisfied with the released version.





As incongruous as the exorcism is in a film called THE EXORCIST III, it's the best of two imperfect ways to end the movie, and it's the only cut that includes Scott's incredible "I believe!" speech, which wasn't in LEGION. Even with Blatty's original version now newly-assembled for fans to finally see, it still doesn't explain the inconsistencies with the 1973 film. The biggest of these is Scott's Kinderman repeatedly referring to Karras as his "best friend," when, going by their relationship in the first film, they had one testy but generally good-natured conversation before Karras' death. When did they have a chance to pose for a happy photo on what looks like a fishing trip? Kinderman's friendship with Father Dyer makes sense, especially considering the reinstated ending on the 2000 "Version You've Never Seen," where Cobb's Kinderman and O'Malley's Dyer walk away from the MacNeil house with Kinderman quoting CASABLANCA's "beautiful friendship" line (faithful to Blatty's novel, but unnecessary in the film). And it's still hard to accept that a detective as observant as Kinderman, even in a state of concern over his friend Father Dyer being hospitalized, would fail to notice a headless statue right in front of him by the elevator. Also, in LEGION, Dourif's possessed Karras has an ability to mimic sounds, like roars and train whistles, a concept that was wisely dropped for THE EXORCIST III. Another key difference is that the closing scene of THE EXORCIST III--Kinderman and cop Atkins (Grand L. Bush) standing over the grave of Father Karras--actually comes much earlier in LEGION, when they're exhuming Karras and discover the remains of Brother Fain, an elderly Jesuit who vanished in 1975. In LEGION, the Gemini Killer reveals that Fain was tending to the burial of Karras when the possessed-by-the-Gemini Killer priest awoke and crawled out of his coffin, inducing a heart attack and scaring Fain to death. The explanation is also in THE EXORCIST III, but it makes little sense without Fain's backstory and the exhuming of Karras' remains.


While not adhering to the tone or style of Friedkin's 1973 classic, LEGION is a film that still gets under your skin, demonstrating some distinct similarities to MR. FROST, a little-seen and now-forgotten 1990 supernatural thriller that was also released not long after THE EXORCIST III, with Alan Bates as a cop dealing with chatty serial killer Jeff Goldblum, who claims to be Satan. EXORCIST sequels seem to be a doomed lot, as shown again 14 years later when Paul Schrader's EXORCIST prequel DOMINION was shelved entirely for EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, a completely reshot version directed by Renny Harlin, with both starring Stellan Skarsgard as a young Father Merrin, Max von Sydow's character from the original. Similar to LEGION in that it was a thoughtful look at the nature of evil rather than a conventional, head-spinning and green-barfing possession movie, DOMINION eventually got a limited release before appearing on DVD. but was further evidence that no one was sure what they really wanted out of an EXORCIST movie. Still, even with its problems, THE EXORCIST III is easily the best of the bunch after Friedkin's original trailblazer. Shout!'s Blu-ray is packed with extensive vintage and new supplemental material, including an audio interview--played over the LEGION cut as a commentary track--with the now-88-year-old Blatty who, not surprisingly, hasn't directed a film since.



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