31 Days of Horror: Day 21- The Exorcist III (1990)

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Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror.  For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: The Exorcist III.

The Exorcist is such an excellent horror film that anything following it would almost immediately be a disappointment. The second film didn’t involve the original writer (William Peter Blatty) nor the director (William Friedkin) of the first film and it suffered because of that. But the third film was written and directed by William Peter Blatty and while it does not contain the sheer terror of the first film it is still a lot of fun. For a writer he’s a stylish filmmaker (as can be seen in his other feature The Ninth Configuration). The Exorcist III is full of amazing imagery involving lots of religious iconography. At times it goes so crazy that it’s just enjoyable in an “I can’t believe this is happening” sense but it’s also surprisingly scary too. I’m not a fan of jump scares but The Exorcist III has one of the greatest jump scares of all time and for that alone it is worth seeing. George C Scott (making his second appearance in this series after The Changeling) helps keep it all together by bringing a lot of pathos to the madness with his performance. It straddles the line between hilariously crazy and legitimately scary, making for a really entertaining watch.

On the anniversary of the death of his old friend Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller from the first film), Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) mourns. He has to first investigate the murder of a young boy he knew, who was crucified, and afterwards he indulges in his yearly mourning tradition. He and another friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) go see a film, their favourite film It’s A Wonderful Life. Soon afterwards a priest is beheaded in the confessional and Father Dyer is hospitalised. These murders continue and Kinderman starts to see a trend, they all appear similar to a ritualistic serial killer from years ago. The thing is, that killer died. Clearly something is up and to add to this there is a psychiatric patient in a hospital who looks exactly like the late Father Damian Karras. Kinderman has to solve these murders before it’s too late, but the answer may just bring more horror.

One of the main things that separates this film from the original is that it’s more of a murder mystery than it is a film about exorcisms. There is an exorcism but most of the horror is derived from Kinderman’s lack of knowledge of demonic presences and how they take form all around him. He isn’t a priest and is barely a religious man so all of this it new to him. On top of this it is unlike the original in that there is more than one threat. There is a possessed person but there’s also shears-wielding nurses, wall climbing old folk and dreams of awakening Jesus statues. So many different concepts are thrown out there and just the sheer number of different horrors makes it a good time. Every setpiece has Kinderman up against a different peril. Sometimes it doesn’t work as a horror film but it definitely works as a piece of entertainment. Blatty has an incredible imagination and it’s evident here. Religious iconography pops up throughout the film taking on sinister forms, the answer to this mystery is around Kinderman at all times but he just doesn’t see it. Then towards the end of the film things get full blown insane and it is amazing. Everything comes to a head in an awesome sequence of flames, snakes, demons and more. Some moments will have you guffawing in disbelief but then it’ll do something genuinely chilling or shocking to pull you right in. It balances the two so well making it a unique departure from the original while still tying itself to that film in cool ways.

What helps to tie it all together are the great performances. Particularly from George C. Scott and Brad Dourif. Dourif in particular really gets to chew some scenery as a possessed man and a couple of his monologues are brilliant. Scott on the other hand is much more subdued (except for the brief moments where he gets to flip out) and he really grounds what could otherwise be written off as silly. He’s still haunted by the death of his friend Karras and you can see it in his performance. The macabre murders all around him just add to this, especially when they involve people he knows. He’s put through the emotional gauntlet making his acts of heroism feel completely earned. The combination of wild visuals with serious performances really pays off. There are so many moments that are fun but the actors are always a reminder of the reality of the situation. It is quite a feat that a film this bonkers can retain any sense of reality but that’s just how good the dialogue and performances are.

Had this film just been released under its original title of Legion then I think it could have made more of a splash. It is so tied to its masterpiece of a predecessor yet it is a vastly different film. If you can divorce it from the original Exorcist then I think you could have a blast with this film. There are so many novel images and concepts throughout the film and every actor gives it their all. In recent years the exorcism sub-genre in horror has become pretty stale. Yet here we have a film from the 90’s that is constantly surprising. You will not be as terrified as you were during Friedkin’s original but Blatty’s follow-up is a great time with a few astoundingly good scares.

James M Macleod