Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: The Exorcist III (1990)
Legion: The Exorcist III
Release Date: August 17 1990
Starring: George C. Scott, Brad Dourif, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Nicol Williamson.
Written and Directed by: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel Legion.
Review by: D. S. Ullery
I have a list I’ve compiled over the years consisting of movies I feel were grotesquely underappreciated in their initial release. Not too long ago, readers read an earlier piece I wrote about one such title – the late Tobe Hooper’s fantastic science fiction horror opus Lifeforce (you can read that article here).
The film I’m discussing today isn’t merely on that list, it holds the top spot. The Exorcist III (originally titled Legion: The Exorcist III after the novel it’s based on, but shortened to just The Exorcist III on screen and in later promotional materials) is the definitive example of a sequel hampered by both the poor reputation of an immediate predecessor (which this film thankfully ignores entirely) and a cinematic climate that didn’t really have much room for this sort of film at the time. In a bit, I’ll break down some of the specific reasons why I regard this film not only as an equal to the original but a masterpiece in its own right.
First, a brief synopsis: Some seventeen years have elapsed since Father Damian Karras tumbled to his death down the unforgiving concrete steps behind the McNeil home at the climax of The Exorcist. As the story opens, it’s the anniversary of his passing. Damian’s surviving friends Detective Kinderman (George C. Scott, inheriting the role from the late J. Lee Cobb and making it entirely his own) and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders, taking over from William O’ Malley, the sad eyed priest who we last saw watching the McNeil’s drive away before taking a look look down those fateful steps in the final moments of 1973 film) mark the occasion by meeting for their annual tradition of seeing a movie and cheering one another up.
While the plot thread about the friendship between the detective and priest is introduced, we also learn a series of gruesome, ritualistic slayings are occurring in Georgetown. Kinderman recognizes the style of the killings as the work of a long-since executed psychopath known as the Gemini Killer, a case he personally worked on. Even more baffling, fingerprints at the crime scenes reveal different people committed each murder.
After Father Dyer falls ill and is hospitalized, he is targeted by the killer(s). This leads a devastated Kinderman to investigate the hospital. While there, he is approached by one of the doctors, who explains to the detective an unidentified patient -who was found wandering in a catatonic state seventeen years earlier- has recently awoken from his stupor, reacting violently and claiming to be the Gemini Killer.
Kinderman meets with the man (referred to only as “Patient X”) and makes a horrifying discovery: By all outward appearances, the stranger is the presumably dead Damian Karras.
As if all of that weren’t enough plot for at least two films, there’s yet another sub-plot involving another priest with the same diocese as Karras and Dyer (Nicol Williamson), who receives a series of supernatural warnings indicating he will soon be tasked with battling the forces of evil.
This sounds like the film is overstuffed and, on paper, one can see where Legion would appear to be biting off more than it can chew. Except it doesn’t. Blatty does a terrific job crafting a tightly wound, measured screenplay that’s equal parts dramatic tension and terrifying supernatural horror. The same goes for his direction, which is on a par with the work William Friedkin put in behind the camera on the first movie. Every one of those plot points come together, delivering a conclusion that’s as intellectually satisfying as it is emotionally rewarding.
The cast is sensational from top to bottom, with everyone treating the material with respect, allowing their performances to carry a necessary degree of gravitas. Scott and Flanders in particular do a fine job of conveying a sense that these are indeed the same men, only with seventeen more years of life experience since we last saw them. Jason Miller – who reprises his role as Karras- does a tremendous job of investing his character with a sense of anguish while avoiding an overstep into caricature.
That’s important, because Legion isn’t some teen-oriented slasher flick or an exploitation piece splashed with gore. I suspect that’s part of why it initially received mixed reviews and only performed modestly at the box office. In 1990, horror was coming off the slasher boom and, in many circles, was regarded as something of an embarrassment. Movies like Silence of the Lambs (which, let’s be honest, is clearly a horror film) were released with marketing that presented them more as psychological thrillers. Horror had become disreputable. Late entry horror sequels – particularly one following the dumpster fire that was the awful Exorcist II: The Heretic – were seen as a particular waste of time.
And therein lies the problem. Legion is so much more than that, but most moviegoers of the time didn’t give it a chance and dismissive critics sank it before it could find a broader audience. The truth is, this is a perceptive, deliberately paced, absolutely terrifying adult horror film exploring the concepts of God, the devil, faith and human nature. It’s both a clever detective thriller (as Kinderman uncovers the motivation behind the murders, the direct connection to the events of the original film becomes much more obvious and it is thoroughly chilling) and a top notch fright flick.
Blatty had been involved with several film productions by the time this was made (other film credits he boasted were screenwriting work on A Shot in the Dark and The Ninth Configuration) and his understanding of how to cultivate atmosphere is evident in every scene. There’s an eerie, ominous quality to much of this film. In one brilliant sequence (which has in the years since been singled out as as setting up one of the greatest scares in horror film history), Blatty uses the general unease most people feel towards hospitals combined with an extended scene shot in almost complete silence to put the audience on edge. This is a lot more sophisticated than that III in the title suggests.
Not everything in the movie is a bulls-eye. The sub plot with Father Morning (the aforementioned priest receiving the dire visions of the evil to come) seems thrown together to fulfill the exorcism promise of the title (indeed, this is precisely what Blatty claimed the studio did when discussing the film years later). Although Nicol Williamson does the best he can, he really isn’t given much to do besides walk through fairly standard exorcism flick cliches. I didn’t find his story line nearly as absorbing as those of Kinderman and Patient X/Karras.
And that leads me to the greatest joy this movie delivers. Some of you reading this are already fans of this movie and I’m guessing you’ve been waiting for me to address the performance of one actor in particular. Of course I’m referring to Brad Dourif.
Yes, that Brad Dourif. The voice of Chucky. He delivers a terrifying, utterly mesmerizing turn as The Gemini Killer, who – we’re told – Kinderman can see in his true form instead of Karras if he looks with the eyes of belief. This leads to the most compelling moments of the film, a series of emotionally charged conversations between the men where the Gemini- now graced with a young Dourif’s face- confronts Kinderman and taunts the detective in regards to his disbelief.
I consider it to be one of the most egregious oversights in the movie industry that Dourif received no award recognition of any kind for this role (though Blatty did win a Saturn award for his work on the film). His presence works in the same capacity as Anthony Hopkins in the Silence of the Lambs – with limited screen time, Dourif manages to create the most memorable character in the movie. His acting in these scenes operates on such a higher tier than anyone could reasonably have expected that I’m willing to point at his complete lack of specific recognition as proof there has been a long-simmering bias toward horror on the part of mainstream Hollywood. In a fair and equitable industry, Dourif would at the very least have been awarded a Golden Globe. No, that isn’t hyperbole because, yes, he really is that damned good in the part.
Don’t take my word for it. Rent or buy a copy of the film and see for yourself. I recommend the terrific Scream Factory Blu Ray release from a few years back. That includes an alternate extended directors cut as well (for the record, I prefer the theatrical version).
Legion had a long and difficult road to the big screen. It went through several potential directors (at one point both William Friedkin and John Carpenter were considered for directorial duties) before Blatty stepped in. Conceived by the author early in the 1980’s first as a screenplay, then developed by him into a novel which he again adapted into a screenplay, it was sadly met with relative indifference at the time of its initial release.
The film has developed a strong and well-deserved fan base in the years since. This is not some cash grab, lackluster, throwaway sequel. What we have here is a smart, scary movie honoring the legacy of the original while carving out its own identity. Of all the films to carry the name, this is the one that operates as a true equal to the 1973 classic. Horror fans in search of a frightening experience in solid cinematic storytelling should make it a priority to check this one out.
****1/2 stars out of *****
D.S. Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow Melts; Creature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things: Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian, he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.
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