A young boy has been brutally murdered at the start of The Exorcist III. Hardened police lieutenant George C. Scott (in a typically gruff performance) knew the 12-year-old victim as a member of the Police Boys Club. They were friendly. At first, the killing appears to be the work of a disturbed racist possibly obsessed with religion. But as the film progresses, it’s clear that racism isn’t really a factor at all.
A stark improvement over the muddled, sometimes silly Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is wrongly considered one of the worst films of all time (it’s bad, but not that bad), how unfortunate that despite being better it’s still not good enough to recommend.
Scott has never really gotten over the death of Father Karras (Jason Miller), the young exorcist who sacrificed his life at the end of the overrated original. Every year on the anniversary of his fatal tumble down the stairs, Scott goes to the movies with another priest, an old friend named Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) to see It’s A Wonderful Life. Both do it to cheer each other up.
Their conversations are overly jokey (when they’re not spiritually philosophical) which would’ve been fun if they produced a lot of laughs. One example: Scott grumbles about his visiting mother-in-law’s eccentric method of cooking carp. She buys it alive and has it swimming in his bathtub for three days before frying it. He hasn’t bathed at all during that time. Who gives a shit?
In the meantime, there are more unexplained murders: a priest in a confessional and, after being hospitalized for what he says are routine tests, Dyer, himself. The killer has drained the entire blood supply from Dyer’s dead body into over a dozen small plastic jars. Early forensic reports reveal that one person wasn’t responsible for all the killings which deeply puzzles and troubles Scott and his loyal team of investigators.
That leads him to the mysterious Patient X. Locked up in chained cuffs in a secure wing of the hospital while connected to a device that monitors his brain activity, he was brought in 15 years ago after being found wandering around with no ID. He has been catatonic during his entire stay. When Scott gets a good look at his face (after hearing his name called out), he is startled. Patient X looks uncannily like Father Karras. How can this be? And how did no one else notice this before?
But then, while inside his dimly lit cell, X often transforms into Brad Dourif, who looks uncannily like The Gemini Killer, a depraved serial murderer executed by the state 15 years ago. Dourif claims that he was given a second chance at life thanks to his unnamed “master” who somehow slipped him into Karras’ body without detection. It has taken him years to become the new host. He proudly takes responsibility for all the murders through long, admittedly entertaining diatribes. (Dourif doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his anti-hero charisma and conviction.) Scott loses his cool at one point and breaks his nose. Yep, this act goes unpunished. He’s a cop, after all.
Eventually, we learn how The Gemini Killer, through Father Karras’ body, is able to continue his signature killings (decapitations, chopped off middle fingers, zodiac symbols carved into palms) without escaping his cell. When you think about it, it’s rather clever. Too bad it’s doesn’t produce a lot of decent, original, visual scares. The walking on the ceiling routine we’ve seen before.
I’ll say this for The Exorcist III. It is considerably restrained. The most disturbing moments are often described, not shown. That makes it more effective when it operates as a supernatural police procedural rather than the uneven horror film it ultimately turns out to be. Its fatal flaw is that it refuses to divorce itself from conventionality. Stripped down to the bone, it’s basically a so-so slasher movie with a twist.
The Gemini Killer threatens to escalate if Scott, a lifelong skeptic, continues to refuse to publicize his return to crime. (Like Donald Trump, he craves press notoriety.) At one point, even Scott’s teenage daughter is at risk.
This all leads to a rather disappointing finale that is heavy on the special effects and light on profound terror. If that’s all it takes to win the day, then why didn’t it happen sooner?
By contrast, the original Exorcist is without a doubt incredibly frightening. After seeing it in the theatre more than 40 years ago, my Dad, who is literally afraid of nothing, had to sleep with the lights on for an entire week. It was only after going back to see it again that he eventually turned them off for good.
But when it isn’t scary, it isn’t interesting. Regan, the possessed girl, is just another young damsel in distress with no real memorable character traits of her own. (Only the devil makes her compelling.) I don’t care about her mother’s acting career or divorce, nor Father Karras’ guilt about his mother’s death. The only story that holds my interest is the ongoing battle between Max Von Sydow, the older exorcist, and Pazuzu, the demonic spirit that uses Regan’s physicality as a weapon. When The Exorcist focuses on that part of the story, it’s terrifyingly brilliant. When it doesn’t, the movie loses its edge, creating an infuriatingly uneven experience.
The Exorcist III is less frustrating to watch because it doesn’t aim for greatness. (This is my second time seeing it having previously caught it at the theatre back in 1990.) Its agenda is to make you forget all about Exorcist II and its baffling scenes of blinking lights, cascading sonic tones, James Earl Jones in a locust costume and Richard Burton’s blank stare. On that level alone, it surely succeeds, which is a low standard to achieve. Certainly, it’s less confused about its motives than the John Boorman fiasco. Plus, it’s more intelligent despite going down familiar terrain. It also contains this sharp zinger: “Jesus loves you. Everybody else thinks you’re an asshole.” And a welcome reference to Spaceballs.
But like the earlier sequel, it faces the impossible task of justifying its own existence, a common problem for horror franchises that refuse to die. Based on writer/director William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion (incidentally, he died earlier this year), which dropped years after The Heretic, how could it possibly compare to the madness of William Friedkin’s disappointingly flawed original?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 24, 2017