Monday, April 22, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Do You Dare Walk These Steps Again? (Exorcist III)

A reader named Chuck writes:

“First, I am a huge fan of your blog (as I write while reading it instead of doing work at my desk). Second, I realize that the answer to my question my already exist in your book Horror Films of the 1990s, which I confess I do not own (though 1970s sits prominently on my shelf).

But, anyway, here goes: I was having a conversation with a friend in my LCS, and I told him that, in my opinion, The Exorcist III was one of the best, scariest, movies no one ever talks about. This immediately led down the road to “no, The Exorcist was too good to ever need a sequel in the first place” or “Exorcist 2 was horrible, and the prequels were bad too”, etc., etc.

I am interested to know what your feelings were/are regarding William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (which was based on his book “Legion” I believe).

But more importantly, I am just curious as to why no one seems to have caught-up to how good it was (in my opinion—I realize you may disagree) so many years later. Was it too long? Was it that the previous sequel was just so bad? Or was it because it was so different from the original film, people just don’t know what to make of it?

To me, you just have to completely divorce yourself from the word “Exorcist” in the title, and look at it as a distinct, original film. The Exorcist is really just back-story here. I always loved how the really scary elements were never actually shown on-screen. Instead, you were more-or-less forced to imagine them in your own mind (although the old lady crawling on the ceiling still makes me uneasy). Plus, the acting quality is obvious. That initial dialogue scene where Detective Kinderman (George C. Scott) “meets” The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) in Cell 11, was something marvelous. In fact, I would love to hear your thoughts on that scene in particular.”

Chuck, this is a great question and a timely one indeed, since only recently I read (on The Huffington Post, I believe), commentary from William Friedkin -- a director I deeply admire -- diminishing the Exorcist follow-ups, including Exorcist III.

I do review Exorcist III (1990) in Horror Films of the 1990s, and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I agree with your contention that it is a superb horror film, and, in fact, a worthy follow-up to The Exorcist (1973).

I write in Horror Films of the 1990s the following about the film:

“Deliberately eschewing flash and hipness, this modest sequel embodies the age-old cinema virtues of seriousness, good performances and spooky atmospherics. When considered together, the elements forge an overriding sense of doom and gloom, of autumn fast approaching, of judgment day on the horizon.

Close-ups of flickering lights, a clock that stops suddenly, and disturbing Christian iconography may not sound like the ingredients of a successful 1990s horror film, and yet such touches contribute mightily to Exorcist III’s aesthetic gravitas, aptly voiced in the film’s exhortation that “the whole world is a homicide victim.”

Indeed, Exorcist III obsesses on an old, aged world, one cracking and tearing at the seams because, once more to quote the intelligent dialogue, “everything’s relative” and there appears to be a worrisome numbing of the globe’s “moral sense.”  As evidence for this assertion, we see the Devil (or at least his minions) seep effortlessly into the ruined bodies of the old and infirm at a grand, gothic Georgetown Hospital…”

I also point out in the same review that the line of dialogue “It’s very late” is repeated in the film twice, and that it seems to be the core idea of the movie: there’s nothing new left on Earth but atrocity and more atrocity, and accordingly, all the characters are grappling with ghosts; ghosts of the past; ghosts of friends, and the ghost, of course, of the Gemini Killer.

For me, Exorcist III works for the very reasons I enumerate there.

It’s as if Kinderman (Scott) and the world itself are exhausted -- even crushed -- by the horrors they witness on a seemingly routine basis.  That exhaustion is spiritual, but also reflected in many characters’ physicality. Scott looks old and drained and tired, as do other performers.  The idea here is that those who have lived a long life in this “rotten” world grow so weak and vulnerable that the Devil uses their doubt…and slips inside them.  It’s a great idea for a horror movie, and an intriguing reflection of the “child possessed” that we see in the original Exorcist.   Here, it’s not someone representing tomorrow who suffers, but someone who has lived through all our (difficult) yesterdays.

The specific scene you discuss -- a lengthy back-and-forth between Kinderman and the Gemini Killer --rewards patience and attention, and works on at least two levels.  The first level is a policeman/suspect interview, of course.  The second level is a spiritual one, involving a mortal and an immortal, a demon, hashing things out.  The performances are strong, as you would expect from Dourif and Scott, but what few critics have mentioned is that this very scene in essence paves the way for many similar sequences in horror films and TV programs throughout the 1990s. 

The lengthy sit-down interview between a law enforcement professional and serial killer who seems more-than (and less-than) human is a dramatic, narrative device that later dominated The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and even one of my all-time favorite shows, Millennium (1996 – 1999).  Sure, there are antecedents other than Exorcist III -- like Michael Mann’s Manhunter in the late 1980s -- but the exact dynamic of serial-killer-possible-demon-in-wait seems to emerge from this particular film.

Why didn’t Exorcist III find more critical acceptance then, in 1990?  And why hasn’t it now?

Back in the 1990s, the old critical guard was still in control of mainstream media, and by-and-large this group treated every sequel as a meritless cash-grab.  The same critics also treated virtually every horror film as “beneath contempt.”

Today, I suspect we’ve gone too far in the other direction, with Internet-based critics bending over to welcome every fan-boy sequel without thought or reflection as to its artistic merit or social value. 

But Exorcist III fit into the pre-existing narrative of “sequels = bad; horror film sequels = worse” and paid the price.  The fact that Boorman’s The Heretic (1977) was also poorly received made the narrative even more appealing, especially to stressed-out reviewers on a deadline.

I also suspect that a core group of horror fans were also disappointed that this sequel didn’t follow in line with more Exorcist-style head spinning and pea soup vomit.  Still, the jolts in Exorcist III are considerable. You mention the old lady on the ceiling, but there’s also that brilliant jump scare involving a distant, cloaked figure emerging suddenly from a patient room to claim a victim.  These jolts, however, are not exactly graphic or gory in nature.  I suspect a certain contingent of Exorcist fans wanted buckets of puke and other nasty manifestations of Old Scratch rather than a quiet, intelligent film about the nature of evil. 

I feel that Exorcist III is more appreciated today than it was on release, but all films possess an historical context that surrounds them like a bubble.  Only few films escape the shape and form of that bubble, or see a re-consideration, after the fact, of their reputation. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is one such film, but so far, Exorcist III hasn’t been hauled out and re-examined as fully.  Writing Horror Films of the 1990s, I also learned that some hardcore horror fans hate the era 1990 – 1999 in film history, and don’t revisit it as frequently as the 1970s or 1980s…or even the 2000s.

Yet I would argue that The Exorcist and Exorcist III actually work rather well in tandem.  By my estimation, The Exorcist works so well because of Friedkin’s documentary-style approach.  The travel sequences in Iraq and the (terrifying…) visit to a metropolitan hospital in 1970s New York enhance the picture’s reality, which comes in handy for the final act, with its levitating beds and other pyrotechnics.

Exorcist III, in a different way, feels like a lengthy philosophical debate about man and mortality.  To some extent, The Exorcist is a visceral experience as a realistic, near-documentary/travelogue, and Exorcist III is a cerebral one, contextualizing the earlier events and shading their meaning more deeply and thoroughly.

I admire both films, to tell you the truth, though for different reasons.

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at


  1. Anonymous5:57 PM

    John excellent analysis of Exorcist III.


    1. Thank you, my friend. I really enjoy the film, and feel it deserves a better reputation.

  2. I saw a fan-edit at a horror con last year, where the exorcism scene (the producers felt it needed an exorcism scene, and it was done despite protests from director/writer Blatty) was cut and it was all better for it. Although, I find it rather slow, it's more a character piece...but once we know what's going on and closer to the end, man, it does pick up the pace and gets exciting.

    It sure is an underdog of a movie. Not for everyone. Still, it's a well made film.

    1. Hi Josef,

      Interesting comment. I'd definitely be curious to see a version of the film closer to Blatty's intention. That said, I also very much like the theatrical release, and feel that the film is a strong one. It has at least two "killer" jolts, and I still remember jumping from my seat on at least one occasion...

  3. Compromised or not, Exorcist 3 is still better than most Horror films back in the 1980s/90s or even today.

    1. Hi David,

      I like the film very much, and feel happy that it is getting some love here tonight. I think it's a well-made film, and it is probably better for avoiding scenes that smack of its celebrated predecessor, The Exorcist.

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Your commentary on this film is spot on. I actually saw this film before I saw "The Exorcist". Still not sure how that happened. Anyway, what struck me about the film was how the horror was more idea based than visceral and in your face. I really enjoyed it, and remember recommending to a few folks at the video store I worked at, especially when they were looking for horror films that were a bit different. But to be honest, I got a lot of mixed reactions with that recommendation. Lots of people thought it was way too slow. I haven't seen it in many years, but you inspired me to seek it out again.

    Your comment about a hatred for horror films of the 1990s is interesting. I've run into that too. And hatred is not overstating it. When I mentioned that I thought "Scream" and "Blair Witch Project" were a couple of my favorite horror flicks - you'd think I'd shot someone's dog and did unspeakable things to it. The conversation pretty much ended with the statement that no horror film made during that decade was worth anything, and it was a black hole in the horror genre. And this opinion was shared by several folks. I was honestly very surprised.

    But I've seen a backlash like this for other films and series from that decade. And I wonder if it falls in line with a theory one of my professors had. Folks in a current decade think anything from the previous decade is crap and anything from two decades ago is gold. So in the 1990s, everything made in the 1980s was crap and anything made in the 1970s was gold. If she was right, then we should be heading into the everything in the 2000s is crap and everything in 1990s is gold. So maybe these horror flicks will start to receive some respect. :)

  5. I think you know I remain a BIG fan of this totally unappreciated film. And yes, it is based upon William Peter Blatty's LEGION novel. Great look at this film, John.

  6. Anonymous4:25 AM

    I saw this back when it was released in the theatre, and has remained on my "scariest films" list ever since. There are some truly unnerving scenes in this film, like the creepy dream sequence. There are some very disturbing images in this film. Also this film contains one of the most effective jump scares I have ever seen, and it still gets me every time I see it (those who have seen this film knows what I'm referring to). The whole film has a thoroughly dark feel to it. And the acting is superb.

    This film is actually rather different than it was intended to be when it was shot. The studio insisted that some new scenes be re-shot to actually have an exorcism at the end - originally there wasn't supposed to be one. Some scenes were cut, and some new scenes filmed, which ended up getting inter-cut between the Gemini killer and Father Damien during the conversations in the prison. This is why we literally see Father Damien, then he's the Gemini killer, then back, etc. - this is due to some re-shoots. Unfortunately all the cut footage was lost, so there's no way to actually see how it was originally screened. I've heard it was superior to what was ultimately released.

    Still, even with studio mingling, it's a great film, and I'll never get how more people aren't aware of it. I guess most people assume it's just got to be bad since it's a sequel, and not even the first sequel. I made a friend watch it years ago on DVD when he said he was in the mood for something scary he hadn't seen before. He doubted me when I told him we would watch this, but when it was over, he couldn't stop talking about how good it was.

  7. Anonymous11:22 AM

    On the topic of audience reception, I cannot think of any other film that is more sampled in the death metal genre and its variants than Exorcist III. I always found it interesting that the extreme metal community embraced this film throughout the 90s when horror communities and critics did not (which also happens to be a period of growth and refinement for extreme metal). Hail Satan.

  8. I've never viewed this film in it's entirety, but it seems that cerebral horror was more a 70's staple and a 90's exception.


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