The Exorcist was never meant to be a franchise. William Friedkin’s 1973 horror masterpiece shocked and awed when it came clawing and spitting onto the screen, and audiences lined up around the block to see it. It was a bonafide hit: grossing $160 million in an era when the average movie ticket cost $1.77. Studios see money like that as a sign from God (or perhaps the devil), and believe there’s only one logic course of action: a sequel.
Warner Bros. went to the source—William Peter Blatty, who had penned the original Exorcist novel and the screenplay adaptation. To Blatty, coming up with a sequel was a dubious task. In the writer’s mind, there was no credible way to continue the story. But credibility never stopped a movie studio, and they forged ahead with 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic—a film so abysmal that even the presence of James Earl Jones dressed as a giant grasshopper wasn’t enough to keep things interesting.
Blatty, meanwhile, kept mulling over the idea of an The Exorcist follow-up. In 1979 he released the novel Legion, a pseudo-sequel that followed several characters from The Exorcist, but forged its own unique path. It was a mix of murder mystery and demonic horror, and it was inevitable that someone would want to turn it into the movie. Exorcist II may have been a disaster, but the Exorcist brand name would always have a bit of power. Blatty agreed to sell the movie rights under two conditions. The first: the film would be shot on location in Georgetown instead of on a studio backlot, to add credibility to the proceedings. The second: Blatty would direct the film himself.
A sequel can inspire confidence, but a sequel to a sequel rarely suggests great things to come. If anything, the viewer likely expects more of the same—the familiar, the recognizable, the tried and true. But through divine or infernal forces, Blatty defied the odds and created an exceptional work of modern horror. And he did it by mostly ignoring the elements that made The Exorcist so iconic. “This is my idea of terror,” Blatty said in the production notes for the film. “This is what frightens me—creaks and shadows, not turning heads and all the rest, which have their place, but not in this film.”
Exorcist III, or Legion as it’s known in its director’s cut form, focuses on grizzled, sardonic police detective Kinderman, played in the film by George C. Scott and by Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist. Kinderman was more of a bystander to the events of the original film, but they still haunt him, fifteen years after the fact. The past comes roaring back with bloody vengeance—there’s a serial killer on the loose, and the murders seem to be connected to a mysterious patient locked up in a hospital psychiatric ward. And that mysterious patient just happens to look exactly like the deceased Father Damien Karras, one of the exorcists from the first film, who met an untimely end after launching himself out a window and tumbling down a particularly steep flight of stairs.
There are two distinct cuts of Exorcist III, both of which can be viewed on the new Blu-ray release from Scream! Factory. Both contain the same eerie tone, the same reliance on the prevailing sense that something is dreadfully wrong here. The main difference between the cuts is casting: when Blatty initially filmed Exorcist III, Jason Miller—the actor who played Karras in the original Exorcist—was not available. So Blatty cast Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play films) as the tormented, possessed Damien Karras. Since his untimely death, Karras’ body has been taken over by the soul of a serial murderer nicknamed “The Gemini Killer.” Dourif may be primarily known for voicing a sentient, killer doll, but he’s a fierce, intense, and at times even spellbinding actor, and his work in Exorcist III is terrifying. He rants and raves, spittle flying from his lips, veins popping on his neck. It could’ve easily gone into over-the-top territory, but Dourif keeps it somehow grounded within all the madness. But when Miller became available after shooting had initially completed, Warner Bros. insisted Blatty go back and find a way to put the actor into the film. Blatty was faced with a problem: Dourif’s performance was too good to cut completely. So he compromised. When the mysterious “Patient X” (as the character is referred to in the credits) is lucid, and placid, he’s played by Miller. When Patient X slips into the rants and raves of The Gemini Killer, he’s played by Dourif. It works brilliantly, though Blatty may disagree. In the Scream! Factory director’s cut, all of Miller’s scenes have been removed, replaced with the original, somewhat deteriorated footage of Dourif.
Blatty says he believes the film works better with just Dourif, and while Dourif’s work is indeed worthy of praise, the film truly does work better with both Miller and Dourif doing double-duty. Miller, a strong character actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, tended to lend a remarkable air of gravitas to whatever he appeared in. With his hangdog face, and deep, haunted eyes, the actor lends a weary, doomed quality to the possessed Patient X which perfectly contrasts against Dourif’s manic, wild-eyed lunacy.
Then there’s the ending. When Blatty delivered his initial cut, the studio pointed out what they considered to be one glaring error: there wasn’t actually an exorcism in the film. This wasn’t a problem for Blatty—his book was called Legion, after all. It had nothing to do with exorcisms. But for the sake of brand recognition the film was stuck with the Exorcist III title, which meant there had to be an exorcism. A new, gory, sound-and-fury ending was shot, featuring Nicol Williamson as an exorcist. The studio-mandated ending doesn’t quite work, but it’s at least more dramatic than Blatty’s ending—which involves one character nonchalantly shooting another before cutting to credits—is so anticlimactic that it feels like a goof.
Upon release, Exorcist III drew mixed reviews and subpar box office. Critics and audiences were not in the mood for yet another Exorcist sequel. But in the years that followed, thanks to home video release and obsessive horror fans, Exorcist III found the cult following it truly deserved. Where Friedkin’s original film was a psychological assault on faith, boiling over with body horror and shocking revelations, Exorcist III is more poetic, more reserved. The film contains one of the most famous, and effective, jump-scares in horror history (involving a nun and a rather large pair of scissors), but for the bulk of its runtime, the horror is subtle. It’s a horror born more out of conversations, and reflections. George C. Scott, with his gravely voice and weary stare, does not make for your typical horror movie hero. He’s a practical man, not a man of God. The only faith he has is the faith in things to go terrible wrong.
The Exorcist III is the strangest of sequels. Unbeholden to continue on the original film’s storyline, content to exist in its own warped universe. Blatty does not attempt to ape Friedkin’s directing style; he has a style all his own, relying on takes that feel as if they’re on the verge of going on too long. Blatty’s direction is more fanciful than Friedkin’s, willing to embrace the surreal in ways the grounded Friedkin was not. Horror is a genre that produces a cavalcade of subpar, bargain basement sequels. Even The Exorcist franchise would go on to spawn two separate prequels—both of them dreadful, and not in an intended way. But Exorcist III stands alone, one of those rarest of birds: a horror sequel with ideas of its own.