Towards the beginning of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III, Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott), an old police lieutenant shares a meal with his close friend, the priest Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders). They bicker warmly for a while about the existence of God and the problem of evil, but Dyer can sense something else eating away at his companion’s mind. After some needling, he is able to coax the details out of him. What follows is an agonising recount of a recent homicide – a young boy has been decapitated, with a seemingly racial motivation involved. They have no leads.
This sequence typifies why the film is so compelling: from Scott’s performance we can see his character tearing at the seams with sorrow and impotent rage, the graphically detailed nature of Blatty’s dialogue congeals in his mouth, conjuring up inescapably horrific imagery. It is a powerful scene, bolstered by the cuts to Flanders’ meekly sanguine reactions, yet the trick lies in the contradiction that the audience is never even shown the killing, nor the victim’s remains. The late William Peter Blatty, writer of the original Exorcist novel and subsequent film, took on screenwriting and directorial duties for The Exorcist III, opting to ignore the maligned second feature which pays off greatly.
It is very much a movie directed by a writer for there is an incredible restraint to every sequence. Blatty, like any great magician, creates terror through suggestion, and suggestion through incredible dialogue invigorated by an exceptional cast and the addition of experimental editing and cinematography. As a priest is taunted by an unseen assailant, the screaming of the woman discovering his body in the next scene plays prior to the cut. Later, an adult hospital patient’s voice is dubbed over by a singing child- just two examples of an approach to editing that is surreal in all the right places. Detailed environmental shots of statues and crucifixes, amongst other curios, are frequently interspersed through most scenes to establish a prevailing mood, as well as character. They often appear in the place of violence or bloodshed which, when coupled with the unsettling use of audio, results in a sense of tension unparalleled, an atmosphere so imperious it seeps into your soul.
Unfortunately for Kinderman, there are more slayings to come: an orderly is decapitated and stuffed with rosary beads; a hospital patient has all the blood in his body drained. But these are no random acts of brutality, owing to the inclusion of certain details (restricted from public knowledge) that link them to the “Gemini Killer”, a serial murderer executed fifteen years prior.
You read that correctly. The second sequel to The Exorcist is a crime film, starring two supporting characters from the original (both of whom have been recast) essentially trying to apprehend the Zodiac killer. What follows is one of the most inventive, strange, and creepy mainstream horror films ever created. Its influence on subsequent films like Fincher’s Se7en is gigantic yet, for so long unacknowledged.
The Exorcist III is about how our institutions fail us and a tired old man trying to help others in an apathetic system. “It’s a play about the numbing of the moral sense” Kinderman speaks of Macbeth to his colleagues at the precinct, but one cannot deny how keenly the statement applies to the film itself. With his exception, the entire police force is detached, prejudiced and ineffective in their pursuits. Kinderman is incapable of making any positive institutional reform, forever worn down, irritated, and incapacitated by his cohorts and the protocols they adhere to. Their flippant attitude toward a murdered young African American boy, even one who was a proud member of the ‘Police Boys Club’ exposes an unsettling hypocrisy within the film’s police force: they are willing to enforce their identity onto minorities in their community, but in turn show no regard for their wellbeing.
Similarly, Exorcist III is scathing in its handling of religious and healthcare institutions, which are just as clinically concerned with bureaucracy and reputation over individual human lives. Kinderman struggles to reconcile the traditional dogma of a loving God with the evils he sees in the world, while simultaneously grappling with the desire to do good in an amoral police force.
Unlike your usual horror leads, this film is anchored by two tired old men, a priest and a police officer, institutional figures jaded by their organisations, exhausted from failing the people they are supposed to protect. Kinderman in particular is a spectacular lead: gentle at heart but numbed by daily exposure to unimaginable cruelty. Murder, mutilation, societal antipathy, and bigotry swirl around him until he snaps. This unlikely protagonist’s battle with a literal manifestation of these evils is as cathartic as it is enthralling.
The Exorcist III is not overbearingly grim, however. Blatty’s dialogue in several exchanges is delightful – “Jesus loves you, everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.” His skill with words also extends to the sinister, best typified by Kinderman’s interactions with the mysterious ‘Patient X’, a dual role for both Brad Dourif and Jason Miller. These protracted sequences channel the same energy as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s parley in The Silence of the Lambs but are fused with rich spiritualism and sense of spellbinding macabre.
Blatty works one final miracle at the film’s climax wherein his pent-up restraint is let loose, yielding glorious results. The final exorcism is a miasma of violent imagery, pain and flames, serpents and lightning until, finally, there is only silence. It is simply astounding.
Alas! Poor Exorcist III, few movies as unfairly misunderstood. Perhaps it was the stink of being a horror sequel, or perhaps it was too weird for audiences at the time (I haven’t even mentioned the trippy dream sequence which features a cameo from Samuel L Jackson and the fashion model Fabio). Luckily in recent years, it has seen some reappraisal, though the review aggregate sites still have it pinned as unremarkable, leading to one of the most inventive and powerful films of all time slipping through the cracks.
If you’re looking for a suspenseful, discomforting and thoroughly memorable film to watch this Halloween, you will never find a film more fitting than The Exorcist III.
It has my highest recommendation.