‘The Exorcist III’ or — The Tenth Configuration?
‘The Exorcist III’ (1990) shares a lot in common with ‘Psycho II’ (1983) and not just because they are sequels to highly influential films which demanded no further continuation, as not only do they both stand up surprisingly well compared to their originals but exceed their predecessors in one specific aspect — a deeper humanity.
‘The Exorcist III’ follows Lieutenant Kinderman (a good man?), this time played by George C. Scott, investigating a series of brutal murders. The killings seem unconnected with different fingerprints at each scene yet Kinderman feels the slayings fit the profile of the Gemini Killer. The only problem is the Gemini Killer was executed seventeen years previously and the only other possible suspect is imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. How can these crimes be committed by someone in a locked room or long dead? It’s enough to shake your belief and test your faith, isn’t it?
As an atheist I don’t share William Peter Blatty’s religious belief, something that’s evident in nearly all of his work, but I do adore and admire how he uses that prism to ask the big questions in life, to get straight to the core emotion of what it means to be human. He wrestles with our mortality, our separateness, our capacity for evil and love and achieves all this with enviable eloquence, intelligence, warmth and humour. All these ingredients are here in ‘The Exorcist III’ and whilst these elements might not have seemed so apparent in the original ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) that’s because, even though it was scripted by Blatty, it was directed by William Freidkin. Friedkin is an incredible director but he’s also a heartless fucker; Blatty is nothing but heart. Friedkin can’t help but strip much of Blatty’s emotional tenderness out simply by his shooting style alone. Whenever I watch ‘The Exorcist’ I can never believe it was written by the same guy who wrote ‘A Shot In The Dark’; when I watch Blatty directing his own scripts it makes total sense and I can make the connection. That, for me, is the big difference here.
For ‘The Exorcist III’ Blatty, not surprisingly, completely ignores ‘The Exorcist II’ (1977) as this film is in no way shape or form a sequel to Boorman’s atrocity. Yet neither does it truly feel like a sequel to ‘The Exorcist’ in tone. Why is that? With Blatty directing you can’t look at ‘The Exorcist III’ without factoring in its true predecessor and the film that’s closest in spirit to it — ‘The Ninth Configuration’ (1980). Both were written and directed by Blatty and both tackle with the same existential and emotional issues with a heavy dose of theology. Both films function, primarily, through their stunning dialogue (and has anyone delivered Blatty’s deeply heart-felt dialogue better than Ed Flanders?), awe at the immensity of existence, off-beat humour and, most strikingly, the capacity for emotionally contained men to weep. No one writes crying men better than Blatty.
Not that Blatty is a slouch as a visual director. Notice the opening of ‘The Exorcist III’ — is that the outline of an angel the three helicopters are making in the water? Symbolism abounds, uncanny and unsettling images permeate our imaginations and the overwhelming sense of intelligence driving everything makes us take events all the more seriously. We’re not fucking about here, folks, no matter how silly everything gets. There’s people crawling on the walls, bodies being meticulously emptied of blood and cloaked decapitating figures appearing out of nowhere but the issue being wrestled with here is the meaning of our existence in an infinite Universe… and you don’t get much scarier than that.
A good example is the story of the fish in the bath George C. Scott delivers near the start. On the surface it’s a throw away gag or piece of characterisation, but in Blatty’s hands it functions on a theologically intense level getting right to the heart of things. Not only that but it stems naturally from the story he is telling; it doesn’t just feel crow-barred in because it’s a cool line. It shit like this that makes Blatty fans such suckers for his writing.
The film does have a few deficiencies, not quite holding together as tightly as it could as well as Nichol Williams’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin inspired Father Morning feeling he’s simply been thrust into the camera from off-stage because we need an exorcism to take place. Yet even though it contains an exorcism that’s blatantly tacked on it doesn’t harm the film overall as much as you might expect. Yes the Director’s Cut is purer and contains more Brad Dourif (who is fantastic) plus that wonderful Blatty dialogue but considering the climatic exorcism was a studio mandated re-shoot it works well enough.
‘The Exorcist III’ is an excellent, highly unsettling, intelligent horror film. It beats with a huge, aching heart, asks questions as fundamental as they come and yes, it does contain possibly the finest jump-scare put to film.
You don’t need to be a believer to be deeply affected by this movie. God and the Devil might not exist… but our pain most certainly does.