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“No one ever gets used to nightmares,” Mark Z. Danielewski wrote in his monstrous, unforgettable romantic horror novel House of Leaves. That’s what The Exorcist and its direct sequel The Exorcist III – the two best films of this long running franchise – feel like: nightmares. Sure, watching The Exorcist II: Heretic or one of the prequels can dull the sensation quite a bit but once you return to William Friedkin’s original or William Peter Blatty’s sequel – adapted from his own 1983 novel Legion – then you’re right back to feeling like you’re in a bad dream you can’t wake up from.
17 years after Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) and Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) performed an exorcism on 12-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), strange events once again begin to occur in and around Georgetown, Washington DC. Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott) is investigating several murders that match the methods of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) who was executed around the same time as the demon Pazuzu was exorcised from Regan. Kinderman begins to suspect that the Gemini Killer is somehow possessing the body of an amnesiac known as Patient X who bears a striking resemblance to Father Karras.
Pay close enough attention to several scenes in The Exorcist and you’ll catch sight of a face. The grotesque visage of Pazuzu only appears for a few frames, less than a second really, but it will stick with anyone that catches sight of it. Friedkin inserted these few frames to create a dream-like feeling as the movie headed towards its climax. It worked. Even without seeing the face of the demon it’s clear that the initial concrete reality of The Exorcist is starting to come apart at the seams in its third act. Now imagine a film that maintains such a feeling from beginning to end. The Exorcist III feels like being trapped in a dreadful dream, one where no matter how hard you try waking life always remains just out of reach.
Of course the film tries to lull the audience into a false sense of security before dunking them in and holding their heads under. It does this in a pretty surprising way too. The Exorcist III, for as horrifying as it is later on, is pretty funny to start with. William Peter Blatty mostly wrote scripts for studio comedies in the 60s before he broke new ground with the publication of The Exorcist in 1971. That early talent for back-and-forth wit shows in the first act of The Exorcist III. A conversation between Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) – another holdover character from the first film – and his fed-up superior Father Riley (Lee Richardson) reveals that Dyer’s favourite film is It’s A Wonderful Life while Riley’s is The Fly. I’ll let the film’s funniest and most bizarre joke speak for itself below:
What the above scene illustrates, beyond Scott’s proven ability at wrangling a difficult comedy monologue, is that Kinderman and Dyer have been great friends for years. At the end of The Exorcist Kinderman invites Dyer to a film and that sparks a 15-year friendship. That friendship is evident throughout the first act and it feels real because the characters – a cynical, acerbic detective and a humorous, offbeat priest – feel real and the relationship feels genuine. That’s mostly just to soften up the audience for the blows that come next.
The nightmarish imagery of The Exorcist III is at once as subtle as a scalpel and as blunt as a sledgehammer. When Kinderman visits with Father Riley all the lights go off and, echoing the film’s opening, dark shadows race throughout the Georgetown seminary and the face on the statue of a saint changes into a fanged parody. Other moments, like flies orbiting a nurse and a crucifix weeping blood are more in keeping with Catholic parables and bible stories.
It’s the Gemini murders that hew the closest to real world imagery however. Although the killings are not similar in method Blatty based the Gemini Killer on real life serial murderer the Zodiac Killer who claimed to be a fan of The Exorcist in his letters to the press. It’s hard to imagine the Zodiac being more famous than he is now but had he practiced the same methods of mutilation as the Gemini maybe he could have been.
The Gemini Killer was pretty prolific in his time and death just meant that he took a 17 year break. Initially he kills and crucifies a young black boy before following that up with an equally gruesome beheading of a priest in a confessional booth. Next is Father Dyer whose entire blood supply is neatly drained except the amount needed to write “It’s a wonderfull life” above his exsanguinated corpse. This lights a fire under the jaded Kinderman and, like every great George C. Scott character, he springs into action prepared to wrestle the Devil himself into submission.
The film rests jointly on the shoulders of George C. Scott and Brad Dourif from then on. Although Scott brings as much grit and gravitas and empathy to the role of Kinderman as he does to a similar role in The Changeling it’s Dourif who gives the more complex performance. It’s partly because the character is pretty complex as well. Consider it: his body is that of a priest dead for 15 years possessed by the soul of a serial killer saved from hell by an immortal demon. Not exactly one dimensional is it? Still if Dourif does one thing well it’s play murderous psychopaths.
From voicing Chucky in Child’s Play to slithering into the role of Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Dourif made deranged characters his own. Hell his very first film role was his Oscar nominated turn as anxious mental patient Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So it’s safe to say he had the resume to play the grandiose, booming role of the psychopathic Gemini Killer. The body the Gemini Killer possesses – that of Father Karras – never leaves its padded cell. Instead the Gemini’s soul flies out and possesses the bodies of weakened, elderly neurology patients which leads to some unforgettably brilliant jump scares. There’s very little action in scenes with Dourif onscreen but whenever he is it’s like watching a lit dynamite taper burn towards its end.
At the end of the above monologue, one of many spat in bellowing rage by the Gemini, it’s hard not to stare slack-jawed at the screen. As Dourif’s mouth twists in snarled rage his eyes radiate grief-stricken pain and he drips sweat like the padded cell is being heated by the fires of Hell. It’s the Gemini speaking, his voice amplified by Pazuzu but it’s Father Karras’ mouth they’re using and it’s easy to see the dead priest’s trauma at being locked into his own body reflected in Dourif’s eyes. It finds an echo in Scott’s own lined, tired face as memories he thought were dulled by time reveal themselves as razor sharp when confronted by the warped mirror image of his long dead friend.
Towards the end of the film, just after a studio mandated exorcism scene by the studio mandated character of Father Morning (Nicol Williamson), Kinderman gets his own little monologue and it’s a pretty accurate summation of the themes that The Exorcist III presents from frame one. Whereas the first film was ultimately about the faithless and the faithfully challenged finding or renewing faith in institutions and the people that represent them The Exorcist III recognises that the ugly cold truth of evil is that defeating it is never simple. Damian Karras couldn’t beat it, instead he offered himself in place of an innocent child but Kinderman recognises that defeating evil is not as simple as holy water and self-sacrifice.
Kinderman knows that although two Catholic priests could trick a demon and that the Georgetown police department could catch the Gemini it takes a different kind of faith and discipline when both are in the one body. A Catholic priest cannot stop a serial killer much the same as a detective can’t stop a demon and it’s in this realisation that Blatty puts his film to merciful, bittersweet rest with a mix of spiritual release and physical death. The Exorcist III is the scariest film of the franchise but it is hard to call it the best as without the original its sequel wouldn’t exist at all. The two walk hand-in-hand.
Where Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a draining film that ends with faith renewed in an all-powerful conservative institution (not that demonic possession is any better) Blatty’s sequel feels more modern in its attempts to scare and shock. Though it references several of the original’s smaller scares its biggest ones are of the jump scare variety and others come in the form of special effects sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in an early Sam Raimi knock-off. It’s a film that’s caught between paying homage to the cold, cruel nightmare that came before it and keeping up with the new nightmares, like The Silence of the Lambs, we were busy creating for ourselves. Strange as it sounds it works. Like clawing your way from a nightmare into waking life the journey is hard and the destination uncertain but the effort in doing it is always worthwhile.