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30 Years Later: The Exorcist III

10 October 20 words: Michael McCarroll

Looking for a cult classic horror to sink your teeth into this Halloween? Michael McCarroll reviews The Exorcist III in celebration of its 30th anniversary...

Director: William Peter Blatty
Starring: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller
Running time: 110 minutes

The Exorcist III has become something of a cult classic since it premiered back in 1990. It was obviously going to be incredibly hard to follow up from one of the best horror films (and one of the best films) of all time, especially after the box office disaster that was The Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Written and directed by original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, and further adapted from his own novel Legion, The Exorcist III centres around Lt. Kinderman (played here by George C. Scott, but briefly played by Lee J. Cobb in the original film) as he investigates a spate of murders that resemble those of the ‘Gemini Killer’, who was executed 15 years earlier. His investigation leads him to the psychiatric ward of Georgetown Hospital where Patient X (Brad Dourif) resides, claiming to be Gemini.

The film, for me, lingers long after viewing it. It’s not a sequel to the original classic you might expect. In fact, most of the horror elements happen off screen, leaving any ghastliness for the viewer to conjure in their imagination.  The biggest scare is a carefully structured build of tension and release, lulling you into a false sense of security, and there’s a reason it’s gone down as one of the best scares in horror film history.

Dialogue is rich, with characters just sitting and talking, delivering wonderful monologues you absolutely wouldn’t find in a conventional horror film. It’s clear Blatty is first and foremost a writer, his priority leaning towards character defining conversations than scares - he didn’t intend for this to be an out-and-out horror film.

When the film works, it really works

George C. Scott shines as Kinderman, who takes centre stage as a cop-on-the-edge, capable of exploding with rage, but who is also a kind, caring, family man. His chemistry with his long-time friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) is incredibly genuine and a pleasure to watch, you really feel like you’re catching up with old friends, as they mourn the loss of their friend Father Damien Karras, who fell to his demise at the end of the first film. Brad Dourif, who had already broken into the spotlight with his iconic portrayal of killer doll Chucky in Child’s Play, gives a career-best performance here as Patient X, commanding such incredible screen presence and rawness, leaving a lasting impression.

But the film is far from perfect, and it’s far from what Blatty envisioned for his beloved screenplay. Originally to be entitled 'Legion' and a direct adaptation of the novel, the film originally featured no exorcisms whatsoever. It was intended to be a slow burning whodunit, a psychological horror/murder mystery that crawled under your skin, where the battles between good and evil were conversations, not epic show-downs.

The studio demanded changes. They needed links to the original film, a true Exorcist sequel, which this wasn’t. The title was changed, the dark, brooding finale scrapped and replaced with a tacked on, special-effects-heavy exorcism scene that feels massively out of place with the tone and pace of the rest of the film. Jason Miller, who played Father Damien Karras in the original film, was cast to role-share with Brad Dourif, and a mysterious priest (Father Morning played by Nicol Williamson) with no backstory was cast last minute to ensure an exorcism scene happened.

The Legion Cut of the film is available to buy here in the UK courtesy of Arrow Video. While the additional scenes are sourced from poor VHS copies (Morgan Creek studios allegedly lost the original dailies), it’s the closest thing to a complete original cut of Blatty’s vision, and a must-own for purists. It’s rather unfortunate, because when the film works, it really works. But you can really see where Blatty lost control and succumbed to the powers that be. As it stands, it’s absolutely worth seeing. Fantastic performances, incredible dialogue and a couple of genuine frights make this an incredibly underrated sequel that was robbed of being something truly great.

Did you know? The film features cameo appearances by basketball players Patrick Ewing and John Thompson, model Fabio, ex-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, television host Larry King, and an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson in a dream sequence.

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