“The Exorcist III” begins in Washington, D.C., with a priest walking around Georgetown, stopping to observe a steep staircase.
These are the famous steps where Father Karras (Jason Miller) plunged to his death at the conclusion of the original film.
By the way, the “Exorcist Steps,” as they’re referred to, are located at the corner of Prospect St. and 36th St and a major tourist attraction.
The priest is aware of the events of “The Exorcist” and observes this sight the same way we do -- with a feeling of dread.
The power of “William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III” (the film’s onscreen title) is that this artful, surreal horror film maintains that unease and is every bit as profoundly scary as the original.
The priest is Father Dyer (played by Ed Flanders in a great, lively turn) and he’s meeting his friend Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original, here played by George C. Scott). Kinderman is still haunted by the events of “The Exorcist,” as well as his efforts years earlier to stop The Gemini Killer.
Suddenly, copycat murders are popping up all over town, and Kinderman, against all logic, ponders whether the crimes aren’t from the original serial killer.
Blatty authored the novel, “The Exorcist,” and won the Oscar for his screenplay adaption. He’s also a Golden Globe winner for the screenplay to “The Ninth Configuration” (it’s a brilliant, textured and wholly original piece of work).
It’s this latter work, with its haunting visuals, drop-dead funny one-liners and earnest exploration of theological longing, that has a strong correlation to “The Exorcist III.”
BOX OFFICE ROUNDUP
“The Exorcist”: (1973) -- $232 million
“Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) -- $30 million
“The Exorcist III” (1990) -- $26 million
Note a moment early on in “Exorcist III,” where an altar boy (a young Kevin Corrigan, our audience surrogate) asks Dyer about the events of the first film. Dyer politely brushes him off and then, in a thruway line, dismisses him with “May the Schwartz be with you.”
The late Flanders, in a great performance, has a way with Blatty’s snappy one-liners that bring to mind his howlingly funny work on “The Ninth Configuration.” Blatty’s sense of humor is visible in his camera choices, too- note how an eerie shot of nuns in a hospital cuts to a stuffed penguin. Scott also scores in the first act with a wonderful monologue about a carp.
Blatty’s decision to build character, linger on the dialogue and allow the camera to hold on arresting imagery makes this, in the best way, feel like a work from the 1970s.
The temptation is to compare this to director William Friedkin’s unbeatable “The Exorcist” and John Boorman’s unintentionally funny (but admittedly ambitious) “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (which neither Friedkin nor Blatty had anything to do with).
The reality is that “The Exorcist III” is a stand-alone film. It references the events of the first film, both visually and verbally, so that audiences don’t have to see the original to follow what’s going on. Obviously, prior knowledge makes Blatty’s twisted detective story, an only sort-of faithful adaptation of his 1983 novel, “Legion,” more satisfying in the way it connects to its predecessor.
Still, for a movie that went through a lot of titles (like “The Exorcist: 1990” and “The Exorcist: Twenty Years Later”), they would have been better off just calling it “Legion.” Blatty synergizes the 1990 film with Friedkin’s in an unforced and clever way.
“Tubular Bells” makes only a brief reprise at the top of the film, as Barry De Vorzon’s brooding, genuinely scary music score dominates.
Scott is great, his bluster and slow-burn used to great effect. He’s absolutely moving during the big scene where he describes how he knows the supernatural nature of the crimes have a horrible, authentic detail. In addition to Flanders and Scott Wilson, a returning Jason Miller (his role a dark twist on his character from “The Exorcist”) is a key figure in some of the most arresting moments.
There’s bizarre, blink and you’ll miss them cameo appearances from Larry King, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (!), Patrick Ewing, Fabio (!!) and, with his voice bizarrely dubbed, Samuel L. Jackson.
Finally, Brad Dourif plays The Gemini Killer, in a terrifying performance full of lacerating monologues. A year later, Sir Anthony Hopkins went from a reliable film actor to a mega-movie star for giving a similar performance. In a just world, Dourif would have had the same trajectory, as his work is that startling.
Cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s lensing is artful, patient and, at the same time, playful. That famous jump-scare in a hospital, which I won’t describe, is the best movie jolt of its kind since Alan Arkin lunged at Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark.”
The editing (by Todd Ramsay and Peter Lee Thompson) makes abrupt choices that sometimes signal studio interference but also suggest a momentum as bumpy and jarring as Kinderman’s mindset during this horrifying investigation. The heavily re-worked third act, with its spectacular and overdone exorcism, feels like a last-minute way of rousing the audience.
And you know what? It works.
Still, Nicol Williamson’s role as the heroic exorcist, added late after filming and just before the film’s opening, is smoothly edited into the existing film.
Blatty’s screenplay is smart and blood chilling, with pre-“Silence of the Lambs” serial killer details that are as diabolical and inventively twisted as anything conjured up by Thomas Harris.
There’s one truly wacko sequence, both striking in its setting but campy in its presentation, in which Kinderman dreams of meeting murder victims who are stuck in purgatory. It’s either a misstep of Blatty boldly attempting something whimsical or proof that Blatty was confident he could balance contrasting tones.
Far better are the key sequences that have made this a cult favorite: a confession in church with a horrible finish, the old woman who pays tribute to Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” and the aforementioned jump-scare-to-end-all-jump-scares, all jaw dropping and imaginative in their staging.
An early exchange between Kinderman and Dyer over lunch sums up Blatty’s overall statement. Dyer fleshes out the central idea at hand, that there is no knowing the unknown, grasping God’s law or the random cruelties of the universe, until the very end.
Dyer maintains his love and faith in God, despite the evil slithering through his town. Dyer is a man of God who can’t claim to know the reason for the horrors he and Kinderman witness. It’s a refreshing quality, as Dyer doesn’t condescend to Kinderman in the same way Blatty doesn’t to his audience.
In the big climax, however, Kinderman, who initially begins the case as a skeptic, declares his faith in the supernatural. It isn’t, however, what you’d expect, as he shouts that his witnessing the cruel, unfair, debased and unnatural qualities of the world around him are what have driven him to believe. It is, then, the darkness of evil, and not the mercy of God, that has strengthened and illuminated his faith, an ultimately cynical, somber reflection.
In a 1999 article touting the arrival of “The Blair Witch Project” Entertainment Weekly rightfully recognized “The Exorcist III” as one of the scariest movies ever made.
It’s an unpopular thing to declare, as Friedkin’s original was history-making, wildly influential, perfectly constructed and a massive success, the equivalent to horror what “Star Wars” was to sci-fi.
However, its reputation as the Grand Daddy of Horror feels too built in, a result of trying too hard. When a young girl is depicted masturbating with a crucifix, it’s shocking, yes, but also a movie attempting to outrage us.
The remarkable restraint of Blatty’s “Exorcist III” (even during its grand finale), the way it allows descriptions of unholy desecrations to haunt our imaginations and not actual imagery, is admirable and rare. “The Exorcist III” wouldn’t exist without Friedkin’s legendary original, but it is the better film and, indeed, much scarier.