Here we have yet another picture nearly destroyed by studio interference. Based upon William Peter Blatty's novel, Legion, and directed by Blatty himself. Wisely, the film completely ignores John Boorman's laughably bad sequel, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. You know what? Despite the incompetence of 20th Century Fox, this is a damned fine horror film (although, without their "help" it would have been a masterpiece). It's completely underrated and, coupled with Blatty's earlier film The Ninth Configuration, proves that the man deserves more work behind the camera. As a writer, he's got an exceptional way with creating unique and interesting dialogue that feels real. He certainly knows how to build a scene into something that can either be funny, poignant or, most of all, terrifying. In fact, the studios really don't know what they're doing when it comes to these exorcist pictures. Paul Schrader's recent film, Dominion: The Exorcist Prequel was a tense psychological chiller with interesting characters. Unfortunately, the film was taken from him and given to Renny Harlin (He of Cutthroat Island fame) who crapped out something almost as bad as the Exorcist II. Apparently, there is enough footage out there of The Exorcist III to present us with Blatty's definitive cut. Unfortunately, since I picked this DVD up used for $3.99, I can't imagine there's much demand for such a thing. In a way, we suck almost as much as 20th Century Fox.
George C. Scott stars as Lt. Bill Kinderman (the role originated by Lee J. Cobb). Fifteen years have passed since the events of the first film. Kinderman remains close with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders taking over for William O'Malley) and the friendly ribbing between the two provides some of my favorite moments. It's the anniversary of Father Karras' death and they cheer each other up by attending a movie (usually, It's A Wonderful Life). I loved the dialogue in these scenes, especially when Kinderman relates to Dyer about the carp his mother-in-law is harvesting in his bathtub (and one of the reasons why he's so reluctant to go home); "I haven't had a bath in three days. If I see it swimming, I'll kill it." I'm just going to come right out and say it. This is one of my favorite Scott performances. His character can barely contain the rage bubbling underneath the surface. He's funny, sad, and prone to angry outbursts (Often, within the same scene). His eratic behavior is a product of his current case, a homicide that is eerily reminiscent of one he investigated fifteen years ago.
I'm actually not referring to the case of the possessed little girl. Fifteen years ago, there were also a series of murders that took place in the Georgetown area, a series of violent killings attributed to the Gemini killer (clearly inspired by the Zodiac killings in, and around, San Francisco). In this case, a young black boy has been slaughtered; "the killer drove an ingut into his eyes, cut off his head and replaced his head with a head off the statue of christ." Shortly after the killings begin, Father Dyer is admitted to the hospital for chest pains. While visiting his friend, Kinderman finds himself in the mental ward where he encounters something strange. An inmate who looks just like Father Karras. How can that be since he flung himself out the window, down those infamous steps, and to his death after saving little Reagan's life all those years ago? Is it a coincidence that the Gemini killer was brought to justice and executed at the exact same time that Karras met his demise? Is this Pazuzu's idea of a fucking joke? The man who looks like Karras was admitted into the ward approximately fifteen years ago. Again, coincidence? He was found wandering the streets, in a catatonic daze with no identification. Just recently, at about the same time the new killings began, he started to awaken.
I've seen this movie twice now. The first time back in 1990 and again, just recently. It still manages to creep the shit out of me. Sure, the plot is a little too elaborate, the coincidences a little too unlikely. Still, Blatty knows his way around fucked up imagery. Bleeding Jesus statues, Jesus statues opening their eyes, old insane women crawling along the ceiling (again, with the creepy old broads. how i hate them so). He presents us with one of the craziest dream sequences in recent memory, a sequence that features cameos from Fabio, Larry King, and Patrick Ewing (as an angel of death)!! Thankfully, the cameos are wordless.
Somewhere in the middle of this picture is a night-time hospital scene as jump startling scary as anything you have ever seen (I promise you). The camera is basically stationary for about five minutes, looking up from ground level as a nurse goes about her business (alone and doing paperwork, etc). I'll just say that for years after first seeing this picture, I have always peeked over my shoulder when turning my back on an "empty" room.
The supporting performances are all first rate, with special notice to Scott Wilson (The Ninth Configuration) and Brad Dourif (yet again, playing a crazy person!). Wilson is the head of the hospital's mental ward. His office contains a plaque bearing the following expression; "a psychotic is someone more neurotic than his doctor." There's a great scene in his office, as he's waiting for Kinderman so he can tell him the identity of the man in the isolation cell. He keeps rehearsing what he's going to say and how he's going to say it ("the man in the isolation tank, the one you looked in on..."). It's the only way to convince himself it's true. What can I say about Dourif? He plays a "version" of Father Karras locked in his isolation cell. Let's just say he's the evil version (Jason Miller reprises his role as the good version), the kind of guy that would claim Titus Andronicus is the best Shakespearean play. I'm sure you can figure it out. Blatty had fun with one scene where immediately after Dourif says "Child's Play, Lieutenant", he cuts to a young red haired boy that looks just like Chucky! No way is that unintentional.
The ending is problematic. Originally, Blatty wanted to simply call the picture Legion, but, of course, the studio wouldn't go for that. I'm not sure why? It's not like The Exorcist II set the world ablaze or anything. Still, they'd be damned if the film wasn't going to be called The Exorcist and even more damned if it wasn't going to feature an honest to god exorcism! So, in steps the great Nicol Williamson (Merlyn in Boorman's excellent Excalibur) as exorcist-extraordinaire, Father Mourning. The final exorcism is the only gory set piece in the film as the gateway to hell appears and Mourning has to peel his face off the ceiling. Actually, up until this point the movie was terrificaly successful at generating tension and real, genuine scares. Then the studio handed Blatty a kitchen sink and demanded he throw it against the set. It didn't kill the movie because everything that led up to this point was too good. Normally, as I'm sure most of you are aware by now, I'm a fan of the kitchen sink approach. But, only when it's applied to the entire film. The recent Doomsday comes to mind. Still, Legion: The Exorcist III holds up as well today as it did all those 18 years ago. Based on it's poor box office showing, I know you guys didn't see it the first time. There's still time to rectify that glaring omission from your personal film history. It's perfect viewing for a rainy spring night. I trust you'll be thanking me afterwards.