In 1975, a young girl named Regan MacNeil was afflicted by a rare and bizarre condition. Fifteen years later, a police lieutenant investigates a series of ritualistic, horrific killings, but the only suspects are a man who was executed fifteen years earlier, and a priest who fell down a long, long flight of stairs. Evil walks again in William Peter Blatty The Exorcist III (1990), based on his 1983 novel Legion and the third film in the Exorcist series.
Lt. Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott) is haunted by the savage murders that plague Georgetown: a young boy is found decapitated; a priest in a confessional booth suffers the same fate; and Kinderman's good friend, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) is found dead in hospital, his body drained of every drop of its blood. The murders are reminiscent of the reign of terror perpetuated by the Gemini Killer, who was executed the same day Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) was killed when he assisted in the exorcism of Regan MacNeil, fifteen years prior. A man (Brad Dourif) in the psychiatric ward at the hospital claims to be the killer, and when Kinderman goes to see him, he's confronted with an evil beyond explanation and hell bent on revenge.
The Exorcist, as written by Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, carved itself into the hearts of horror buffs for all time with its imagery, of a pretty young girl turned inside out by the demon that possessed her. We all remember the pea soup, the spider-walk, the head-turning, the bloody masturbation scene. It was shocking, it was horrifying, it was revolting, and maybe that's why the more subtle The Exorcist III has no choice but to exist in its grandfather's shadow. There's virtually no gore in Blatty's film, save for the end (which was forced on him by Morgan Creek Productions, aghast that a movie in the Exorcist series had no exorcism). Instead, the evil is of a more cerebral, silent quality: blood that slowly seeps along the floor, instead of being splashed across the screen; voices in the dark that whisper of Satan, instead of a demonic roar that mocks our mothers and our daughters. There are a few cheap scares (even if the nurses' station murder is a brilliant guilty pleasure), but Blatty serves us the horror by delicately layering it, and not unloading it like Friedkin did in The Exorcist.
Complementing the more aesthetic approach is George C. Scott's masterful and powerful performance as Bill Kinderman (taking over the role from Lee Cobb). Scott channels the rage, horror and sadness at the insanity & evil that claimed his friends, and now his family, so well that he owns every scene he's in, demons and all. Brad Dourif turns from a sneering serial killer into a raving, possessed vessel at the drop of a hat, and Miller takes his troubled Karras from The Exorcist and makes him an ancient, mighty creature of evil, that can incinerate a Bible and strip the skin from your flesh with a blink of his eyes. It may not be "Your mother sucks cock in hell", but voiced by Colleen Dewhurst, "This time, you're going to lose" may be even better.
The Exorcist III will never dethrone the original, and that's probably as it should be. The Exorcist is a truly frightening, great film, but was equal parts makeup and psychological horror; The Exorcist III almost jettisons any traditional horror trappings in favor of its more intellectual approach. I say "almost", because even though the exorcism at the end was imposed by Morgan Creek and makes little sense in the context of the movie, it's quite well done (if wrapped up too quickly). There are times The Exorcist III feels slow-paced, and the sight of a crucified Karras rising from hell is a jolt of adrenaline that takes the horror from the surreal into the terrifying.
Purists will always swear by the original, and well they might. But The Exorcist III is a worthy successor of the legacy, and a far cry better than Exorcist II: The Heretic, or either of the prequels. Like any good sequel, it's not perfect; it may not glue you to the edge of your seat, but it serves as an intriguing and thoughtful conclusion to the story of The Exorcist. 4.0/5.0