"The Exorcist III" (William Peter Blatty, 1990) An odd little experiment in horror, more compelling than William Friedkin's chest-thumping original,* with more humor—Blatty had written some 60's screenplays for Blake Edwards—and some genuinely unnerving moments that may not make one jump out of one's seat (well, one thing will), but will certainly creep one out.
It begins with a little bit of catch-up and two fine actors who did not appear as these characters in the original "Exorcist"—but probably should have. Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) is meeting up with old friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders). It has been 15 years since the events of the original "Exorcist," and the two men have had a steady friendship with shared lunches and grousing about their work-lives—Scott and Flanders are so good that they milk laughs out of lines that are as dry as a dessicated bone. When we see them, they're both trying to cheer each other up, remembering their mutual friend, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller). It's an off-kilter, unnerving way to start a horror movie, a little bit like starting a speech laying off your employees with a joke. And that odd humor occurs often, with stray one-liners and the bizarre visual touch, sometimes lurched into the foreground, sometimes folded into the cracks of a frame. It walks arm and arm with Blatty's atmospherics of weighted...pauses in conversations, shifting shadows, slight zephyrs of wind, and the occasional breath of laughter. Odd and unnerving are the two words that best describe "The Exorcist III."
Kinderman is investigating a bizarre series of murders that has ties to the exorcism of Regan McNeil, that bear the un-publicized M.O. of "The Gemini Killer" executed 15 years before. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the murderer leaves behind a different set of finger-prints each time. There is more than one killer with secret knowledge, and the investigation soon zeroes in on Georgetown's Catholic hospital, where in the bowels of the psych ward sits a chained amnesiac, named "Patient X." When Kinderman's investigation takes him to this room, he finds his friend, Fr. Damian Karras.
The film was compromised somewhat by the studio's insistence that there be an actual exorcism (by Nicol Williamson's cameo priest), thereby muddling up the finale, but the film up to then is disquieting and in a far less bluntly hammering way than Friedkin's head-revolving original. Blatty's direction makes you not trust the film, and to be wary of what awaits on the other side of every edit of the film (and just when you think you have his pattern figured out, Blatty will do something different).
He's not afraid to exploit Scott's penchant for showing untethered behavior, but the kudo's for the best performance of the film belong to Brad Dourif. Quick as mercury, quirky as Hell, his performance as "Patient X" (a role shared by Miller and the voice of Colleen Dewhurst, the former Mrs. Scott), is a tour de force played mostly to the camera in long unbroken takes, with the odd touch of a tear that slides down the left side of his face, and the electronic manipulation of his voice to drop it into the lower depths. The movie starts to fall apart once Dourif departs, but for most of its running time, it manages to rise above the other films in the series.
If you think you can take it, you can watch "The Exorcist III" (in 11 parts) on YouTube, starting here.
* And miles ahead of John Boorman's "sexy beast" movie, the deservedly reviled spawn of satan: "The Exorcist II: The Heretic."