Pop Optics Extra: An Incidental Exorcist III Analysis

The Exorcist III would have been brilliant if it were just George C Scott and Brad Douriff starring in William Peter Blatty’s supernatural take on My Dinner With Andre.

It’s a “tortured genius” kind of brilliant, nonetheless. As far as horror sequels in general go, it is not the worst, and it has the reputation of being the better of the two sequels of The Exorcist. I have little to say in defense of the film but I’m not here to put it on trial. I want to share my thoughts on how bizarrely quaint it is and probably demystify its appeal, which isn’t exactly going to be a Quixotic attempt on my part. The film does a lot of the hard work for me.

The story goes that William Peter Blatty, author of the original Exorcist novel which he adapted for film, was approached to turn his sequel novel Legion into a third Exorcist film. He not only assumed screenwriting duties but also directing and when the studio saw his finished product, they were bewildered as to why an Exorcist film had no exorcism.

The Exorcist III, you see, is not about the power of Christ, the conflict that arises from guilt and its manifestations both physical and psychological. It’s about a cop screaming at people and harassing hospital staff about who killed his one priest friend and why his other priest friend who is supposed to be dead, alive but also possessed by the soul of a serial killer he helped catch and saw executed.

The studio didn’t balk, but they did ask if Blatty could, you know, include an exorcism. So a subplot about a priest who is haunted by a previous exorcism was squeezed in and the climatic finale reshot to have their damned exorcism. The results are… questionable to say the least. The film didn’t need to have an exorcism and it didn’t need to be titled The Exorcist III. I recently ordered the collector’s edition of the film from Shout Factory, which includes the director’s cut, which runs five minutes shorter than the theatrical. I think that tells you how much difference there really is between the two.

The film is chock-a-block of obvious metaphors and over the top characters. In a nutshell, Exorcist III is a story about a common man’s belief having been tested and very fragile after years of pressure. This common man is Lieutenant Bill Kinderman, played by a very tired and very irritable George C Scott, he of having been gaslit by Stanley Kubrick fame. Scott has two modes in this film: calm indifference and “fuck this” shouting. Every conversation he has with another character is a scene where Kinderman is on the verge of either breaking down and snapping or just incredibly indifferent. I wonder if at some points Scott just couldn’t be bothered, thinking back to when he was tricked into delivering an over-the-top performance in Dr. Strangelove and deciding “I’ll give them a taste, but just a taste, and only when it doesn’t make sense.” The fact that he plays a cop with any self control to the point that he’s not pulling out his gun and waving it in everyone’s face as if this were Bad Lieutenant: Exorcism is surprising. It’s incredible. It would probably have made for a far more disastrous but entertaining film. It would elevate it from mere train-wreck to Hindenburg status, that’s for sure.

Kinderman was a friend of one Father Damien Karras, the young priest who perished down a long flight of stairs in The Exorcist, and the pain of his friend’s death still stays with him some fifteen years later. That death is also on the mind of fellow priest Father Joseph Dyer, who is played by Blatty regular Ed Flanders. His portrayal of Dyer is of a priest who is cynical but not jaded, if that’s possible. He’s seen it all, is not afraid to mince words (early on he’s accosted for having called a generous benefactor of Georgetown an asshole), but still retains a sense of humor in the face of waning faith where some of his fellow priest are purely jaded and can’t be bothered to keep up appearances if it weren’t for the donations.

The thinnest of themes present in the film, incidentally, is that of faith. Kinderman has seen his faith in God worn down from having been a cop for so long, seeing the absolute worst society has to offer in the corruption of morals be it violence, rape, murder, or rearranging strangers’ furniture. Father Dyer merely has had his patience tested to the point that he’d prefer to be flippant with his responses, knowing that not everything he says needs to be a succinct or profound pontification. Plus, answers regarding faith and belief shouldn’t come easy. Those are topics that require much meditation and reflection. As a former Catholic, this resonates with me, but it didn’t set me on an introspective journey like some other heady horror films have.

The Exorcist III is not here to make you think. It doesn’t get a chance to. This film has more dialog than action. One would say that makes for a very lousy horror film, but just one year later, a film also based on a novel that concerns an officer of the law having conversations with a ruthless killer would be released to critical and commercial acclaim. Am I saying that The Exorcist III beat The Silence of the Lambs to the punch? No, but I just wanted to call attention to that.

This isn’t the first time Blatty adapted his own novel for the screen. He had done this about a decade earlier with The Ninth Configuration, a film that also featured much of the same cast as Exorcist III (Flanders and Jason Miller, as well as George DiCenzo and Scott Wilson). The Ninth Configuration centered around a military psychiatrist who was assigned to work in a repurposed castle full of soldiers afflicted with varying degrees of trauma. It’s hinted throughout that the psychiatrist (played by Stacy Keach) also suffers from PTSD and has a murky past. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it was Shutter Island nearly 30 years before that film saw light of day. The themes in that film are much more clear, revolving around points of authority, service, free will, and guilt. The characters play well with each other and you often doubt how truly disturbed anyone is, whether much of it is an act, but when you see just how fractured the psyches are and how fragile their conditions, it becomes clear that the only act is the one to appear normal.

I do think it’s a better film than Exorcist III just by story alone, however it is not nearly as rewatchable as Exorcist III. That’s not to say you can’t watch Configuration more than once – it is worth seeing at least twice – but it is the kind of film you have to be in the mood for, much like Blue Velvet. Exorcist III, on the other hand, is the kind of film that you don’t have to be in any mood or put much thought into while you watch it. It can just be.

Exorcist III has a lot of lovely setpieces and designs. You can tell Blatty was trying to craft an atmosphere. The hospital has long, tall hallways, almost like tunnels and are dimly lit. The rooms of the isolation ward, where Kinderman has his conversations with a possessed Father Karras, resemble dungeons, with a near absence of light save for what floats through the lone window, and sparse furnishings. Everything is drab, gray, and grim. Stone walls like a prison and the constant dripping of a leaky faucet. Any scenes with priests features lots of browns and reds, be it in the furniture or the decor, bringing to mind a stately church (which of course).

The film has a charm for sure. For an ex-Catholic, it’s one that reminds me of the agony of having to sit through another Sunday morning mass. The reminder that life is meant to be an endurance test in order to be rewarded with eternal life when we die. That everything will make sense in the end. That judgment will pass once you do. And that you must have George C Scott screaming in your face before you find peace.

Among its charms is the surreal imagery that pops up here and there. It isn’t consistent, but there are scenes where what is being depicted has a certain dissonance from the rest of the film, whether or not it’s on purpose. Surreal might be the wrong word, because what we see often isn’t a distortion of reality but rather just the odd juxtaposed with the typical.

The best example of this is a dream sequence in which Kinderman finds himself in what appears to be the terminal of a train station, but where these trains depart to is the afterlife. Everyone here is the recently deceased waiting to be transported to their final destinations. The station is run by angels; there’s a priest trapped in a glass case; there’s a Glen Miller type band performing in one of the wings, also a trio of grinning golden girls and playing their own brand of waiting room music. We have what is perhaps the most inappropriate greeting ever committed to cinema, wherein Kinderman meets a young boy he once knew in real life. This boy named Thomas was murdered at the beginning of the film, and here he is, dead and waiting to depart. He sees the Lieutenant and happily greets him, which Kinderman does in kind and Scott says the following line as though these two were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in ages, not just one having had their head cut off: “I’m so sorry you were murdered.”

I’m so sorry you were murdered.

As I reflect on that line, it becomes more obvious to me that this wasn’t meant to be a serious line in any regard. Scott smiles as the words leave his mouth and slip past his lips. I think this scene is meant to feel dissociative – Kinderman isn’t experiencing something real or, at least, this dream has no basis in reality other than being populated with people from his reality. And when he approaches his friend Father Dyer, drawing cards from a tarot deck with an angel that bears a striking resemblance to Patrick Ewing, it is here that Dyer informs Kinderman that this isn’t a dream for both of them.

The beauty of this film truly is in the eye of the beholder. Though released in 1990, it still feels like something leftover from the 80s. If it weren’t an Exorcist film, this could have easily been any other crime thriller of that decade. I think what helps to elevate this film above those kinds of films and above its own mediocrity is the performance from Brad Dourif. Dourif plays the disembodied spirit of the Gemini Killer, James Venamun, now possessing the shackled body of the long-thought dead Damian Karras. Except, maybe it isn’t. Though, it is. Or maybe not. Kinderman isn’t sure. Sometimes he sees Karras, but mostly he’s talking to Venamun, and there’s no certainty if the hospital staff know exactly what this patient looks like. 

When Kinderman first encounters this man in isolation who claims to be the Gemini Killer, he sees Father Damian, weathered and broken like a shipwreck flung ashore (which isn’t far off from how he was found). Their conversations are calm but terrifying because Karras lets slip little details of past Gemini killings that only Kinderman would know, to prove to him he is who he says he is. Or maybe he’s fucking with him. Hard to say. Soon the charade is dropped when Kinderman keeps insisting that the Gemini Killer is dead, the one thing he still believes, and right before our eyes the ragged priest transforms into the fresh but spiteful Venamun, who spits his rage and insolence with the lieutenant. Dourif’s acting here is sublime. He knows just when to pull back on his affectations as to balance the character between playful and predatory without going right over the top. It’s a shame that Dourif isn’t more highly regarded beyond horror circles because what he does with being confined to a straightjacket while chained to a bed is more captivating than what most actors do when they’re free to roam about the screen. 

Dourif fills Venamun with gobs of venom and pain; he’s angry with Kinderman because he stopped him from carrying out his life’s work. Serial killing is an art to him, not just his trade. It isn’t a hobby. He wants to share his pain with Kinderman. He taunts him with possessing the body of his friend, his friend who he believed was dead, but apparently not and with a catch. It’s an interesting “twist” that makes the film compelling because you actually want more scenes where Scott and Dourif exchange sharp glances at each other while the other monologues about fate and belief. The Exorcist III is a lot like Zodiac, a film that operates as a thriller where the majority of the action plays out in small rooms and the characters just talk. Same thing here, with Scott and Dourif getting the most of their time together in a small room and they do nothing but talk. The idea that this film needed an exorcism is close to overkill if you didn’t think this could be a horror film. Again, Blatty didn’t intend for this to be an Exorcist film in that regard; it was focusing on a few peripheral characters from the first film, with the only direct link being the presence of maybe Father Karras.

The film keeps circling the theme of fate; that our actions are guided by some other purpose unbeknown to us. Our decisions are not wholly ours, they’re informed by preternatural instinct. This then feeds into how we believe. Our beliefs are shaped by our experiences – what we see, what we do, and by extension, what we know. If we know something to be true, then it is and anything that challenges that belief is antithetical and must be contested. The film circles these ideas but it never quite lands on them. It skids a little off the runway and gets stuck. It doesn’t crash or tip over into a ditch, it just doesn’t have the smoothest landing. It’s bumpy but other than feeling a little shook up, you’re not hurt. I don’t know why I kept rolling with the airplane metaphor. Felt right, though.

It can’t quite stick to landing because of the tacked-on ending involving an actual exorcism. I don’t think the film itself would have been better without it, but it is just fluff compared to how the rest of the film plays out. That there are people being possessed would likely require some sort of ritual intervention to expel the spirits within, but that there was never meant to be an actual exorcism scene in the original draft just makes it feel rather silly. And it is pretty silly, given that it is nowhere near as compelling or mesmerizing as the exorcism scenes from the original film. There’s no tension, no sense of dread. The priests in the first film were completely on defense, reciting passages in desperation. In this film, the priest appears in the cell door like an action movie hero ready to kick ass in the name of the Lord and exorcise demons with a vengeance. It’s definitely a choice.

The proper ending of the film is also quite anti-climatic. The actual exorcism scene only gets about five minutes of screen time. The true finale focuses on Kinderman confronting the possessed Karras, now longer speaking as Venamun but instead dubbed over by another actor trying their best Mercedes McCambridge impression, but not quite nailing it. Kinderman gets slammed around the walls, screams about his belief in infidelity and slime until Karras is able to break free and plead for Kinderman to end his suffering and take the shot. So, spoilers Kinderman shoots Karras a few times, gets up, walks over to Karras’ limp body, points the barrel at his head as the film cuts away to the echo of the kill shot.

If you ever avoided The Exorcist III because you dislike horror sequels, thought the first film was too intense, or have heard bad things about it, then I hope you reconsider. It’s a fine film that isn’t worthy of much other than being an unnecessary sequel, but it’s reputation should be that it’s a showcase of some odd acting choices that you have to see to believe. Incidentally, I hope I helped you with your unbelief.