I tried to explain my film theory to my wife once. She merely smiled and nodded. Even though we had both seen the risible Exorcist II: The Heretic, I tried to make clear that the blatant cash grab we saw didn’t exist. I informed her that the real Exorcist trilogy involved different movies. You subtract the first sequel. You add in The Ninth Configuration (1980), and finally you add Exorcist III.
It is through these films that the connective tissue runs deep. Through this makeshift trilogy, you see William Peter Blatty, creator of the source material of each, exploring the very essence of sin and evil. But while the William Friedkin helmed The Exorcist (1973) is a shotgun blast of a horror movie, Blatty’s directorial efforts of his works were more meditative by nature. The kinetic brutality exhibited in The Exorcist was replaced by texts which were far more reflective. The Exorcist III, based on Blatty’s novel Legion, plays out like an echo of the original movie. And it smartly sidesteps whatever nonsense that John Boorman was doing in that ill-fated sequel.
As dark and cynical as David Fincher’s Seven was five years later, Exorcist III shifts the focus away from the MacNeil family – although they are mentioned – and concentrates on Lieutenant Kinderman (George C Scott) who is investigating a series of murders which fit the M.O. of the notorious Gemini Killer. Where the problems lie however is in the fact that the Gemini was executed 15 years previously. Around the same time, a young priest fatally fell out of a young girl’s bedroom window.
Exorcist III is a strange beast to grapple. It holds one of the greatest jump scares of all time in its arsenal, and yet it never becomes an out and out horror film in the way you would think. Despite this, it’s a film that is at times even more potent in creepiness than its predecessor. The film’s fascination with language has its middle-aged cast speak in hushed tones about grim deaths in gruesome detail, painting horrific pictures in a viewer’s mind. Blatty also tries to eschew more typical horror effects, finding more traction from a thick, creeping pool of blood running on the floor than spider walks and pea soup. The much loved “nurse” sequence is effective not because of any quick cutting, but by the irregular stillness which Blatty gives the moment. It’s a particular use of form which not only makes Exorcist III stand out against other films of its type, but it also highlights what film can do that a medium like television is not allowed to try. Save for perhaps if it’s created by David Lynch.
Blatty’s writer sensibilities did not gel well with the suits at Morgan Creek. This is a director with a singular vision and his lack of classical training allowed him to create a film that moves at its own tempo, with a mind of its own. It allows its characters to reel off large descriptive monologues or veer into conversations that seem uninterested in pushing the plot. That’s the film’s charm, and something the studio heads were not prepared for. The effect-laden climax at the end of the film feels at odds with what had gone before it. It’s no surprise that the Blu-ray’s main extras spend a lot of time debating the issues held with the extensive reshoots for the film’s end. While much of the footage shot may now be lost forever, Arrow Fim’s Blu-ray release has an assembled cut which is slightly closer to Blatty’s original vision.
The main bonus feature, a warts and all making of the film with existing members, is an eye-opening account full of telling reveals. Blatty’s desire to hold all the cards along with Morgan Creek’s wish for an “Exorcist movie” clearly created a tense atmosphere on set. It’s a documentary in which we see crew members who, while diplomatic, clearly didn’t always see eye to eye with their visionary director.
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Nevertheless, it’s through Blatty’s bloody-mindedness that we get one of the most unsettling and effective whodunnits of the 1990s. The Blu-ray package is two discs big with good reason. There’s so much about the film’s construction that is genuinely enthralling to pore over: vintage interviews in which Blatty informs that the film (along with The Ninth Configuration) are experiments in which he is “working out” his existential provocations; and a new commentary by number one fan of all things Exorcist Mark Kermode, along with Kim Newman, in which they share their dealings with the material. Everything hands itself to a film which was hard done by because it wasn’t like the original.
To say this writer likes the film is as understated as the film itself. This high definition remastering is beautiful to look at and is a perfect feature to coincide with not only the original Exorcist film, but with Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration, which recently found itself on Blu-ray. Both films tackle faith, sin, and mortality in a way that may never be seen again. Blatty, who passed away in 2017, may no longer be with us, but he’s left a legacy to be proud of.
The Exorcist III is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Films.