Friday, October 28, 2011

Overlooked Gems #12: Exorcist III: Legion

Grade: 66 (B)

William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is rightfully revered as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. A moody, nerve-jangling film, The Exorcist was released in 1973 to overwhelmingly positive reviews (it was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards) and briefly became the highest grossing film of all time. It is not surprising, then, that Warner Bros. wanted to make a sequel. But Friedkin and star Ellen Burstyn weren’t interested, so they turned to acclaimed English director John Boorman. The result, 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, was one of the worst sequels ever made, an incomprehensible, badly acted mess that chose to christen the unnamed demon from the first film “Pazuzu”, officially the least scary name ever. After the failure of Exorcist II, it stands to reason that any other film bearing the Exorcist name couldn’t be anything other than spectacularly awful. But 1990’s Exorcist III: Legion, written and directed by The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, is a worthy successor to the original film, the sequel The Exorcist deserved in the first place.


Years after the events of the first film, police Lt. Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott taking over the late Lee J. Cobb’s role) is haunted by the death of Fathar Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Having struck up a friendship with Karras’ friend Father Joseph Dyer at the end of the first film, the two accompany each other to the movies every anniversary of Karras’ death. Kinderman is investigating a series of murders identical to that of the notorious Gemini serial killer, a serial killer executed years ago. But the Gemini’s specific M.O. was never revealed to the public, so something is amiss. The investigation becomes more personal after Dyer is killed. It gets stranger: evidence points towards a nearly catatonic elderly woman. And there’s a man in one of the isolation cells. A man who claims to be the Gemini Killer. A man who looks like Damien Karras.

First, let’s get a few things out of the way: this is not as good as the original Exorcist. There are some strange flaws to Exorcist III: Blatty’s slow, methodical direction gives the film a dreamlike feel, but the film’s editing is sometimes bizarrely amateurish, likely due to studio tampering. There’s an exorcism late in the film that, while not bad, feels a bit tacked on (studio interference again). The film sometimes feels a bit too talky, even if there are no real howlers or dull stretches. And the film revises the relationship between Kinderman and Karras early in the film: Kinderman describes Karras as his best friend where they were merely friendly in the original film (perhaps Blatty decided to follow his novel?).

But the film works anyway. Scott’s grounded performance gives a much needed earthly quality in the face of outlandish circumstances, and the dual performances of Miller as a possessed Karras and Brad Dourif as the spirit of the Gemini Killer. Dourif is particularly strong as a gleefully sadistic monster, one whose rants are only half as frightening as his insane musings on his “artistry”. Blatty is often more concerned with dialogue than with action (no doubt the writer in him takes over), but he has a great showcase as a director: a set-piece as strong as the finest moments in the original film, involving a static shot of a hospital hallway drawn out to an almost interminable length as a nurse goes about her regular business. If there is one takeaway from this film, it should be a scene as masterfully crafted as this.

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