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.
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