Saoirse’s Cult Corner #20: The Exorcist III (1990)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week, we take a look at Australian the much maligned sequel to a horror classic, The Exorcist III

Horror sequels tend to get a bad reputation. We’ve already talked on this column about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors  which in many ways suffers from similar problems to The Exorcist III in whether or not fans of the first films are necessarily receptive to watching these third instalments. The fact is, for all our horror lives we are taught by most cultural osmosis that it’s the film like Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, and A Nightmare on Elm Street that are the real and only classics of horror, and the sequels are all, every one, the nadir of cinema. Now, while there is good foundation for this belief, the fact is as soon as you actually see Friday the 13th you realise what a load of bunk that is on the most fundamental level. Then you discover that it’s ripping off films like A Bay of Blood, a masterpiece of darkly comic terror, and stripping everything interesting from it. You then realise that a few of its sequels are half decent and much better than the original. They someone tells you give the sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street & The Exorcist, two classics that you love, whose sequels had always been reviled by the fandom, a go. Then you watch the sequels and they’re both shite, nonsensical, fever dreams that shit all over the originals. You then realise that really respected writers had taken cracks at third instalments that continued the continuity of the originals, ignoring the continuity of the second instalments. For A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the writer is famed Stephen King adapter and Zombie TV person Frank Darabont, and for The Exorcist III, it’s original author and Oscar winning screenwriter for The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty. Now, it’s not like The Exorcist III was exactly celebrated upon release, huge studio mandates lead to disharmony in the making of the film that’s lead so supposed ‘superior’ cuts that have been allegedly lost to time, (for the time being anyway), but you watch A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and it’s not tonally similar but it’s a fine spiritual sequel and a delight in its own, unique way, so you give The Exorcist III a watch. 

It turns out to be a fucking masterpiece. 

The Exorcist III follows the original story 17 years after the original. There is the ret-con that it claims Detective Kinderman, here played with stout grit and avuncular pathos by George C. Scott, was always best friends with Jason Miller’s Damian Karras, which he wasn’t, but their scene together in the original is charming enough that when you’re watching The Exorcist III of a weekend with no real temporal relation to the last time you watched The Exorcist your brain kind of goes with it. Kinderman sees Father Dyer, one of Karras’ actual closest friends from the original, who you see, importantly to this movie, desperately trying to save his friend’s soul at the end of the original film, again played by a different person, a wonderful sparky Ed Flanders. They see each other every year on the anniversary of Karras’ death to go to the movies, this year they’re going to see It’s A Wonderful Life, again, importantly. This is all before Kinderman’s quest to track down a killer who’s killing according to methods of a long dead serial killer, borrowing methods that no one but the police knew about leads him to investigate the same hospital his friend Dyer is forced to say at, and things get… well… funky. 

One of the creepiest things is in the hospital he finds a patient, in the insane ward, under heavy surveillance, that looks just like Karras, and when he gets mad, he looks just like that dead killer, (called The Gemini Killer), played on a never-better Brad Dourif. His casting and character are interesting in many ways. I mean, let’s get this out of the way upfront, Dourif has always been a great actor. Just watch John Houston’s Wise Blood for a searing yet understated performance from Dourif where he keeps his usual explosive rage inside and is all the better for it. He too often just gets pigeonholed into the role of “Crazy Brad”, typecast through roles like Child’s Play. I mean, look, I love Crazy Brad as much as the next guy, and The Exorcist III is definitely “Crazy Brad” at his most Crazy Brad. The way he eats these monologues like it’s a prime steak. You could argue it’s scenery chewing but who cares when it tastes so good? All this, and all his lines, all of them, take place in one room, with one window, from behind a straight jacket. The most scary stuff in this absolutely terrifying horror film is just Brad Dourif talking from behind a straight jacket. How was this film reviled? How didn’t he get an Oscar nomination? This is also interesting because he had to do his performance twice and was also called in at the last minute. Look, Jason Miller was always more of a playwright than an actor. It was just after he’d won the Pulitzer for one of his plays that Friedkin asked him to act in The Exorcist, he had that New York grit that only a psychiatrist for men of the cloth who boxed could possess. As it was with many great playwrights, by the time the time came for The Exorcist III, Miller was too in the grip of alcoholism to perform with the energy necessary. On the bright side if did help him look like he’d just crawled out of a grave. So they wrote in the narrative contrivance of him taking the appearance of The Gemini Killer unless you’re looking through the eyes of faith, (it works), and metaphorically airlifted in Dourif. He gave one astonishing performance, then the studio mandated changes, and he basically had to give the same performance all over again. 

That’s not to denigrate the other performances in this movie. George C. Scott channels his Hardcore performance for a career highlight role. The way he sometimes stumbles through sentences, grimaces, and sort of shows his irk at other people is so believable, and well observed, and real, and then when he’s filled with existential terror and hate, he sells it so well. He bounces off Flanders like a pinball and the two’s dynamic is so sparky and full of loving antagonism that you buy into the film first and foremost as a drama about these two friends before slowly sinking its horror hooks into you, and then it gets all the more tragic… 

The real horror in The Exorcist III comes from its serial killer element though, which only becomes exacerbated by Dourif’s ramblings. In Se7en famously the horror comes from looking at the aftermath of some fascinated, deranged killer, who then presents himself to the detectives only to monologue in even more sinister and religiously influenced ways, which is evidently lifted, as great as Se7en is, directly from The Exorcist III. Andrew Kevin Walker was clearly ahead of the pack in celebrating The Exorcist III… In the same way, for example, the serial killer cutting off the head of a young black boy, or taking every drop of blood out of a priest, or George C. Scott’s lengthy and increasingly chilling description of the exact modus operandi of the killer in question whilst trying to prove that maybe, he’s risen from the dead. None of this violence is anything you see happen, you just see the aftermath is causes. It’s just horrifying in the way that sits in your stomach like a bad hangover where you wake up still drunk. Especially when after a very important murder, the name of It’s A Wonderful Life is written across the crime scene in the victim’s blood… 

The film intersperses these more harrowing literal moments with, out and out, balls to the wall, crazy surrealist sequences. Not least the climactic exorcism which is gory, insane, painful, and deeply symbolic. For a studio add on this is one of the most challenging cinematic sequences that was ever a result of a studio mandate maybe ever put to fucking celluloid. There’s also a key dream sequence that seems to take place in heaven, or maybe it’s actually in heaven, because very key things happen that Kinderman couldn’t have known that come true. Is it a heavenly premonition, a dream, or just a temporary detour to somewhere where we all end up in the end..? It’s also just a fascinating depiction of heaven that is like no other depiction you’ve seen, but also, if you were to arrive in heaven I think, and it was to look like this, you wouldn’t really be surprised. 

So, I’ve already gone on for much longer than I normally do. Probably because this film is so rich and full of meaning and quality. So what else is there to unpack? Probably the single most important thing, the key to understanding the whole movie. Why does the film keep coming back to It’s A Wonderful Life? I’ll preface this by highlighting a couple of key moments in The Exorcist III. Kinderman is the non believer whose best friend is a jaded and cynical priest. At one point The Gemini Killer tells him that he can help Kinderman with his non-belief. Then, towards the end, Kinderman shouts, at the end of a long monologue, “I believe in slime and stink and every crawling, putrid thing… every possible ugliness and corruption, you son of a bitch. I believe… in you.” It’s maybe the best moment in the film. So, one of the key things William Peter Blatty, rest in peace, wanted to convey with the original is the idea that if the ultimate evil exists in the form of whatever was possessing Regan, then logically there must be the presence of the ultimate good, at least through a Christian framework. With the presence of The Devil, there must be a God. This incidentally lead to many of the biggest conflicts and changes between the different cuts of The Exorcist. We really have in the original, William Friedkin’s vision of The Exorcist, and in the newer cut we have William Peter Blatty’s. So what about The Exorcist III? It’s A Wonderful Life is a film about George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. He’s ready to kill himself because his life has fallen apart and at least this way his family can collect on his life insurance. An angel, that being a variety of celestial being, then shows him why life is worth living and that he is full of good. In the same way, in The Exorcist III, what we have is a being delivered straight from the Devil, to come to Kinderman to convince him of belief through convincing him of the power of pure evil. It’s the mirror image of It’s A Wonderful Life. “I believe in you”. That’s the real gut punch of the film. In order for Kinderman to find God, and do what is necessary, he has to be shown the Devil. It’s haunting, and unlike the pure good versus evil battle in The Exorcist, there’s no reassurance here of the presence of any good at all. 

There is a cut of The Exorcist III that has finally seen the light of day since I first saw The Exorcist III. Well it was already available on Shout Factory in America but Arrow Video have now put it out as a bonus feature on their blu-ray of The Exorcist III in the UK, my home country. I have not seen it, but I’m aware of what changes in it. No exorcism, Kinderman just walks into the room and shoots his old friend where he sits. It’s a more nihilistic and bleak ending, which in some ways is more appropriate, but I like the visceral realisation, tumbling headlong into the bleak and desperate that we see in the original version. The Exorcist III is a masterpiece of horror, shot through with a visceral emotion, character, and charisma, that grounds it in your heart before that heart is ripped out of you. It has very deservingly found a cult following now after all these years of derision. It is in no uncertain terms a masterpiece.

Please seek it out. 

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