Despite having a reputation as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was never really able to find its footing as a franchise, despite the best efforts of Hollywood executives to make it happen. Each of the three sequels in the series experienced major post-production woes: Exorcist II: The Heretic was recut by director John Boorman after its premiere. Paul Schrader’s Exorcist sequel, intended to be the fourth film in the franchise, was so poorly received by studio execs that it was largely reshot and recut with director Renny Harlin at the helm, released in 2004 as Exorcist: The Beginning. Schrader’s own version came out one year later as Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, making what I think is the first (and only?) time in history that two completely different versions of the same movie were released in theaters. Neither was a success.
Even 1990’s The Exorcist III, written and directed by original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty and now available as a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, didn’t escape the sequel curse unscathed. Based on his book Legion, Exorcist III picks up with detective Kinderman (now played by George C. Scott) 15 years after the events of the first movie. He’s investigating a recent rash of murders that follow the methods of the Gemini Killer, a serial killer believed to have been executed. Kinderman’s investigation leads him to a mysterious man who has been locked away with amnesia for many years—a man who may or may not be Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priest who gave his life to save young Regan MacNeil at the end of the original film.
While it’s a movie at war with itself (for reasons that become clear watching the bonus features on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray), there’s no question that The Exorcist III is the best of the Exorcist sequels and maybe the only one worthy of the brand name at all. Director Blatty (whose only other credit behind the camera was The Ninth Configuration ten years prior) follows Friedkin’s original edict to ground his supernatural events in the real world, creating characters who feel very much like real people who have real concerns and real conversations.
At the same time, he’s not afraid to go more abstract than the Friedkin film, most notably in a dream sequence that features cameos from the New York Knicks’ Patrick Ewing and Fabio. The eccentric flourishes Blatty instills in the movie give Exorcist III its own personality and visual style, making it feel like its own thing despite being one of four sequels. It is a beautifully made film, artful with just the right amount of pretense. Pity that Blatty did not direct more often, as he clearly has a knack for the form.
It’s the performances that bring me back to Exorcist III, and will continue to bring me back years from now. George C. Scott’s portrayal of Bill Kinderman is one of my favorites in the genre. He feels so lived-in and human: he is a good cop and a good friend (to Ed Flanders as Father Dyer, whose scenes with Scott are my favorite in the movie), but also capable of being short-tempered and world-weary. The moment in which he explodes when talking to a nurse (“It is NOT in the file!”) is the culmination of a man whose belief in the order of the world is arriving at the end of his rope, frustrated at his own inability to make sense of a case. My favorite scene in the movie, though, comes when Scott has to stop talking to one of the hospital’s doctors (Ken Lerner) for a moment because he is overcome with grief and actually begins to cry. So few movies, especially horror movies, consider the human cost of death or allow their heroes such vulnerability. It’s such a powerful scene.
The longer the movie goes, the more it falls apart—again, not a surprise given the fact that it’s the third act that was messed with most in post-production. The exorcism stuff feels shoehorned in because it was, and though it’s cool to see George C. Scott and Jason Miller (who does good work despite being in poor health at the time) share the screen together, it’s not the story that Blatty seems interested in telling. The climax feels bigger and more conventionally thrilling than the rest of the film, with some special effects and a bit of gore thrown in to appease the crowds, but the movie loses its way in the process. What begins as an exploration as to the nature of evil gives way to a more simplistic tale of a revenge-minded demon settling a score. The movie works better when it’s dealing with ideas than when it exists to tie together threads.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Exorcist III is everything a fan of the film could ask for. The theatrical cut of the movie is presented in 1080p HD from a brand new 2K scan, which means it looks even better than the previous HD release of the movie on Warner Bros.’ Exorcist: The Complete Anthology box set released in 2014. The new transfer retains fine detail while improving on contrast and more stable black levels, which is important for a movie shrouded in as much darkness as this one. Lossless audio mixes are offered in both standard stereo and 5.1 surround sound. The first of two discs contained in the set also contains a handful of bonus features; in addition to the usual trailers, TV spots, still galleries, and interviews, there is a vintage EPK featurette, plus a prologue cut from the film and about five minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes.
The major selling point of Scream Factory’s new release of Exorcist III is that it includes, for the first time, William Peter Blatty’s original 105-minute cut, presented here as Legion. The alternate cut, contained on the second disc, has been culled together from the best available elements, and though the AV specs aren’t up to the 2K quality of the theatrical cut—this isn’t a full Nightbreed-style restoration, as some of the scenes switch to what appears to be a VHS master—the important thing is that it can be seen at last.
It much more closely follow’s Blatty’s original novel. The major changes surround the inclusion of Jason Miller’s Father Damien Karras, who is referenced but not really seen in the Legion cut, as well as a very different third act that contains none of the exorcism stuff found in the theatrical cut. Legion is more of a spinoff than it is a direct sequel, following one of the main characters from The Exorcist and referencing the events of that film, but standing very much on its own as a mystery. It lacks the fireworks of Exorcist III and might disappoint fans looking for a concrete continuation, but it’s also more of a single piece—the detours and wild tonal shifts are absent, making for a more consistent movie. It also gives Brad Dourif a lot more screen time, as he no longer splits his character with Miller (whose reasons for not originally being cast in the film are explained in the making-of documentary included on the disc). Many viewers may view Legion as mostly a curiosity, but I happen to think it’s a stronger movie.
There’s a great five-part retrospective documentary that runs nearly feature-length and covers the movie’s very unusual production history, from its beginnings through its difficult post-production editing process and release. The stories that are told are great and it’s clear that everyone wanted to do what they thought was best for the movie, but the differing opinions about just what that should be help explain what really happened with the finished film. Also included is a lengthy audio interview with Blatty, who discusses his work and his experiences making the movie.
Scream Factory’s release of The Exorcist III is essential viewing for fans of the film and of the franchise, as well as any horror fan looking to understand how some studio interference and a handful of changes can result in a totally different experience. The long-awaited release of Legion is one of the highlights of the year for horror fans—another of the genre’s Holy Grails that can be checked off the list thanks to Scream Factory. It’s too bad that the heavily compromised Exorcist III is what went into theaters back in 1990, but at least this release helps right that wrong. There will be those who prefer the theatrical cut and those who prefer Legion. I’m happy to have both.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5