Third Times a Charm: How ‘The Exorcist III’ Redeemed a Doomed Franchise

“The Exorcist” franchise is one best described as a rocky road. “The Exorcist,” released in 1973 and directed by William Friedkin, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. It was hailed as a horror classic, and gained notoriety for its graphic scenes of exorcism and demonic possession.

Then came along it’s sequel, “The Exorcist II: Heretic.” Friedkin did not return to direct, William Peter Blatty — the author of the novel which “The Exorcist” was adapted from — was no longer attached to the screenplay and thus, the film received no awards. In fact, it was laughed at by Blatty when he first saw it. In addition to all of this, it features James Earl Jones as a horrific stereotype of an African tribesperson. Make of that what you will. 

In the 2000’s the franchise got two prequels in an attempt to revitalize its image, both of which received negative reception. And so, “The Exorcist” franchise died with a whimper.

In this recount of history I — like so many others, for whatever reason — forgot to mention “The Exorcist III,” released in 1990. It’s one of the most underrated and terrifying horror movies ever made. 

“The Exorcist III” acts as a direct sequel to the first “Exorcist” film, completely ignoring the original sequel. It was directed by Blatty and adapted from his sequel novel to “The Exorcist,” “Legion.” The film follows the exploits of Lieutenant Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott), the detective from the first movie, as he investigates a series of murders that have the hallmarks of the Gemini, a serial killer who died 15 years prior.  

So what makes this movie so horrific? The style, for one thing. It’s one of the coldest movies ever shot on film, done so in a very clinical, deliberate manner. Movies often make you feel like you’re placed in the story, following the protagonists on their journey. “Exorcist III,” though, is shot in a static way, often focusing on whomever is speaking or details of the unfolding murder case. For the most part, you feel like an objective observer to the whole affair, watching helplessly as Kinderman tangles himself deeper and deeper in the web of the supernatural Gemini Killer.

The editing, however, perfectly contrasts and works in tandem with the cinematography. It is sharp and fast. You constantly feel off kilter, adding to that feeling that you’re simply an observer. 

Early in the movie, a possessed woman confesses to a priest about 17 murders she has committed. The priest looks through the confession window in fear; he knows what’s going to happen. Cut to stained glass windows. Cut to statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Cut to a woman screaming into the arms of her husband and children watching blood pour under the door of the booth, and the possessed woman slipping out of the church. This all happens within a span of 20 seconds — there’s no time to breathe.

Revisiting the coldness of the movie, violence is rarely shown in this film. It’s often just described, or we are shown what happens before or after the implied, horrific violence. This actually works to the film’s advantage, as it allows your mind to fill in the blanks of what occurred. 

This brings me to the dialogue, characters and performances. For a film that was the third entry in a franchise viewed as a joke, EVERYONE is bringing their A-game, even for bit characters that get a limited amount of screentime. George C. Scott portrays Kinderman — a man on the verge of a violent, psychotic break — perfectly. He is one of the most pissed off characters to ever exist in film. He hates the needless and incomprehensible cruelty in the world, and it manifests as either righteous and terrifying fury, or cold resignation; both of which Scott nails. 

There’s a great scene where Kinderman is talking to his best friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), a priest from the first “Exorcist” film, about the immortality of the soul and the human spirit. Dyer, as a priest and an optimist, believes in the goodness of people. He himself is an easy going and funny guy. Kinderman goes on to describe a hate crime he’s investigating, where a young black boy from the Police Boys Club was decapitated and crucified by the waterfront, his head replaced by the head of Christ’s statue made up in blackface. The two performers sell the scene, with Flanders’ face just collapsing as Scott coldy monologues the case. 

And who could forget Brad Douriff as the soul of the Gemini. He is far and away one of the most despicable villains to ever grace the screen. He possessed the body of a priest, and was deliberately placed in that body by an evil entity as a mockery of the priest and his faith. His performance is perfect. He enthusiastically describes decapitating his victims and having their heads face their body, coldly proclaiming, “It’s a little extra I throw in for no added charge.” He screams, spits, rants, raves, chats and laughs with Kinderman, much to his horror and ours. 

Finally, I want to give kudos to the sound design. It’s a minor technicality on paper, but it plays an incredibly important role in the film. All the sound effects sound crisp and sharp, whether that be for minor things — like a steel door slamming shut or footsteps echoing down a long corridor — or for the more horror oriented sound effects, like howling wind, the fires of hell or bone shears opening and snapping shut. The effects added to the Gemini’s voice are amazing. It has the staple echo-like quality to it, and Douriff’s voice is dropped a few octaves to really drive home the fact that he’s an evil spirit speaking through a once noble priest. Or in some scenes,  it’s bumped up a few octaves, or rises and falls as he speaks. Really uncomfortable stuff.

There’s a lot more I can say about the movie, but this is simply an overview of what makes it so special. If you’d like to see for yourself, it’s cheap to rent online from a number of distribution services. Because of its nature as a sequel, it’s best to watch “The Exorcist” before jumping in, though I’m sure the movie can still be enjoyed in a vacuum.