Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Exorcist III

In refusing any involvement in ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, William Peter Blatty’s opinion was “Karras fell down the steps; he’s dead – the story is over”. However, despite Boorman’s sequel doing the equivalent of a particularly eager kamizake pilot at the box office, Warner Bros were still keen on a third film. Blatty prepared a treatment intended, despite their differences over the final cut of ‘The Exorcist’, for Friedkin to direct. Friedkin’s ideas for a sequel diverged from Blatty’s and the project came to nought.

Blatty reworked the treatment into a novel, ‘Legion’. Arguably a more accomplished literary work than ‘The Exorcist’, it’s a measured, challenging and cerebral work that channels Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ in its enquiry into the nature and reality of evil offset by mankind’s facility for redemption. ‘Legion’ was published in 1983. Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer are the principal characters. The novel does not contain any scene of exorcism.

In 1980, Blatty made his debut as director with an adaptation of his earlier novel ‘The Ninth Configuration’, an offbeat but curiously mesmerising story set in a military psychiatric unit. Part parable, part satire, entirely unexpected, ‘The Ninth Configuration’ is a true one-off. Little shown and largely overlooked, it’s a film ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

A decade later, with production companies Morgan Creek and Carolco vying for the rights to ‘Legion’, Blatty went with the former (Carolco had suggested script changes Blatty wasn’t happy with) and ‘The Exorcist III’ went before the cameras with Blatty directing for the second (and thus far last) time in his career. It wasn’t to be plain sailing.

With Lee J. Cobb dead and Father O’Malley too busy to reprise his role as Father Dyer, Blatty cast George C. Scott and Ed Flanders respectively. Scott suggests Kinderman rather than impersonating Cobb’s characterisation, but Blatty seems unable to rein him in at times and he hams it up a bit too much in some key scenes where underplaying would have proved more effective. Ed Flanders fares much better, making Dyer his own, but …


… shuffles off his mortal coil about a third of the way in. Early, slow-moving, dialogue-heavy scenes between Kinderman and Dyer, which seem to have no narrative function, pay off with Dyer’s demise: Blatty gives over enough screen time to the two men’s relationship to make the audience care. Kinderman, already investigating a series of murders which Dyer’s killing seems inextricably linked to, takes things personally …


… but when his investigations lead him to a mental hospital, the case takes on a supernatural element. An unidentified amnesiac, known only as Patient X, eerily resembles Father Karras (Jason Miller). When Kinderman quizzes him, his appearance changes to that of a notorious mass murderer, the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). He knows things that only Karras could know; things that only Kinderman could know; and things, most chillingly, that only the Gemini Killer could know. Also, he knows all about the string of murders that have ravaged Georgetown. And he knows exactly how the murder was done that’s most upset Kinderman.

Brad Dourif is the ace up Blatty’s sleeve. Next to two scenes of exquisite, squirmy, Hitchcockian tension – one involving the hospital corridors by night (a scene as brilliantly constructed and shocking in its payoff as anything Hitch put his name to), the other taking the old saw of ‘the race against time’ and injecting a palpitating urgency into it – ‘The Exorcist III’ really delivers when Dourif is onscreen. His is a portrait of eloquent, mocking, sardonic, seductive evil that’s worthy of comparison to Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Dourif is simply frickin’ magnificent and makes the film buzz with devilish energy.

Shortly after Blatty delivered his final cut, the working title of the film flitting between ‘The Exorcist 1990’, ‘Exorcist: Legion’ and ‘The Exorcist III’, the producers started fretting that here was a film with “exorcist” in the title (Blatty felt that, like the novel, it should simply be titled ‘Legion’*) that didn’t actually feature an exorcism. Against his better judgement, but working on the assumption that if he said no, they’d only bring in some hack to film it anyway, Blatty consented to reshoots including an all-out, effects-driven exorcism scene.

‘The Exorcist III’ would be close on a masterpiece if it weren’t for the exorcism. If only Morgan Creek had taken the long view that they didn’t even need the fucking word in the title. Imagine the poster, iconic enough with a shadowy picture of the steps down which Karras plunged, a tie to the original film already established in the tagline “dare you walk these steps again?” – all they needed was a banner saying “The story of ‘The Exorcist’ continues in … ‘LEGION’.” Job done. Simple as that. But, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, this wasn’t to be the last time Morgan Creek made a fundamentally bad decision vis-à-vis the ‘Exorcist’ franchise.

In order to shoehorn the exorcism into the narrative Blatty wrote in a new character, Father Morning (Nicol Williamson). Never mind that Williamson has the kind of gravitas, seriousness and granite-like presence von Sydow evinced in the original, he gets just one scene prior to the exorcism, seemingly turns up out of nowhere to conduct it, and the taunts Patient X subjects him to – visions of snakes slithering over him; the crucified and suffering Karras surrounded by the Gemini Killer’s victims – have no real impact since we learn nothing about Morning. Is he afraid of snakes? Was he a friend of Karras’s? In ‘The Exorcist’ the demon attacks Karras by using his guilt over his mother’s death; he does so to drive Karras out of the room so that an old score can be settled with Merrin. This gives the original film its power. ‘The Exorcist’ is only superficially a film about a young girl who’s possessed. It’s actually about a demon who possesses a young girl in order to destroy two priests.

If the exorcism weakens the film – and with footage excised from Blatty’s original version now lost, there seems little hope of a director’s cut – there are a couple of inconsistencies that niggle. Kinderman describes Karras as “my best friend – I loved the man”, when in fact the two men barely knew each other in the first film and it’s Dyer with whom Kinderman strikes up a friendship. Also, a young black boy murdered early on is described as the son of the woman who figured out that the tape recordings made by Karras of Regan MacNeil speaking in tongues were English being spoken backwards. But in ‘The Exorcist’ the sound engineer who determines this is a caucasian male, not an African-American woman.

However, there are enough moments in ‘The Exorcist III’ that are genuinely shocking, creepy, powerful and thought-provoking to outnumber thoroughly its flaws. In a photo-finish with ‘Dominion’, it’s joint second best entry in the series and so confidently and consummately crafted it’s a shame that Blatty didn’t dabble in directing more often.

*From The Gospel According to Mark: “And Jesus asked him, “What is thy name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

‘Legion’ by William Peter Blatty (Simon & Schuster, 1983)
‘The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows’ by Bob McCade (Omnibus Press, 1999)

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