‘The Exorcist III’ Knows We Don’t Need It

March 3rd, 2023 | By Wang Sum Luk

The Exorcist III Brad Dourif

Out of everything we love to hate Hollywood for, unnecessary sequels are high on that list. But what happens when a sequel is aware of how unnecessary it is? The Exorcist III explores this question, in a way modern Hollywood might want to learn from.

The Exorcist III waged an uphill battle in being made. Despite 1973’s The Exorcist being universally acclaimed, its sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic — released in 1977 — was critically panned. And yet, thirteen years later, the franchise returned for a third outing. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty, it adapts his 1983 novel Legion (with significant deviations), ignoring Exorcist II. This film follows Lieutenant Kinderman (a delightfully grouchy George C. Scott), a supporting character in the first film originally played by Lee J. Cobb, investigating serial murders which replicate those of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), a man executed fifteen years ago. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the demon Pazuzu is pulling the strings, having implanted the Gemini Killer’s soul into the body of the supposedly dead Father Karras (Jason Miller).

A key innovation of this movie is its choice of genre. The original Exorcist was primarily grounded in religious and psychological horror. However, this sequel has much in common with crime films like Se7en or No Country For Old Men. Like those films, The Exorcist III considers how law and religion seem impotent against new forms of evil. Its aging protagonist must reckon with the possibility that he is — to quote a different fictional policeman — too old for this shit. But, while compelling, this shift in genre makes the plot elements inherited from the original movie feel particularly incongruous.

This incongruity is in part due to Blatty’s clashes with the studio. His original novel was more philosophical, delving into the killer’s psychology and ruminating on religion. But Blatty faced requests from studio executives to reshoot the ending with an exorcism scene. 20th Century Fox and Morgan Creek, the film’s production company, also insisted on including “The Exorcist” in the title. Blatty protested that this would only remind audiences of Exorcist II’s poor reception, but was overruled. The end result: a film which received a mediocre box office, mixed reviews, and was later criticized by Blatty. 

Modern reappraisals have been kind to The Exorcist III. Any online list of great jump scares in horror will feature the scene in which a nurse walks through a hospital ward, the camera following her from a detached, objective distance. Nothing happens for an excruciatingly long time. But the camera’s patient distance forces the viewer to peer closer, anticipating the inevitable — and truly startling — scare. And unlike The Exorcist’s choice of largely realistic visuals, Blatty introduces hallucinatory dream sequences (which also feature some strange cameos: look out for NBA star Patrick Ewing and romance-novel cover model Fabio, both briefly appearing as angels) and surreal images, such as an elderly woman scuttling across a ceiling. The Gemini Killer also gets some scene-stealing monologues, where he rants chillingly at Kinderman as only Brad Dourif can. The movie’s foreboding atmosphere and stylish direction remains a treat for horror fans.

But The Exorcist III’s awkward, studio-imposed finale is a difficult-to-ignore flaw. The villains are defeated when a minor character, Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson), exorcizes Father Karras. While the scene has visual flair, with conjured visions of fire and serpents, it lacks emotional heft. Whereas the first film delved into Karras’ flaws and fears, Father Morning has barely any characterization. This exorcism, instead of concluding an emotional arc, feels like a mere plot device.

But what if we’re more generous in considering this movie? What if we view The Exorcist III’s awkward ties to its franchise as a feature, not a bug?

The Exorcist III is full of motifs of age and frailty. This doesn’t just come through in the world-weary cynicism of Kinderman’s characterization. Its latter half is set in a hospital full of dementia patients, whom the killer’s soul puppeteers to commit crimes. These motifs are — intentionally or not — reflections of the franchise itself. There is no better proof of how long in the tooth the franchise had gotten than the fact that this film was rush-released to avoid competing with Repossessed, a parody of The Exorcist starring Leslie Nielsen. Once, The Exorcist was shocking enough to make viewers faint and vomit, but by now, the series had grown familiar enough to be safely parodied. It’s hard not to see Kinderman’s fears of obsolescence as reflecting the franchise’s struggle to stay relevant.

To reveal how this theme develops, an explanation of the villains’ rather convoluted scheme may help. The demon Pazuzu, to torture his enemy Karras, kept the latter alive despite his presumed death in the first film. Karras’ body is used to host the Gemini Killer’s soul. The Killer, in turn, commits murders to fulfill his urge to symbolically kill his father over and over. Karras’ torment finally ends when he briefly breaks the demon’s control, allowing Kinderman to shoot him and free his soul. The final shot of The Exorcist III shows Karras’ gravestone with the year of his death marked “1975” (the movie having retconned the events of the first film as occurring in 1975 rather than 1973).

It’s either incredibly coincidental or incredibly self-aware that the villain’s plan is to unnaturally prolong the first film’s conflict. And the Gemini Killer’s motive is another motif of cyclical repetition, a single murderous story he retells ad nauseam. In this light, the final exorcism scene bleakly underscores themes of sequel repetition. Its mimicry of the original evokes just how Sisyphean the battle against evil is. The characters are trapped, enduring the same challenges and sacrifices encountered fifteen years ago. There is no escape from this cycle, The Exorcist III implies. Evil will enter the world, and good will do battle with it. A person is possessed, a heroic exorcist dies, and evil is driven back — for now. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, from the beginning of time and presumably until its end.

The happiest ending in The Exorcist III is reserved for Father Karras. He gains the victory of finally escaping this cyclical universe — and, implicitly, this franchise. I can’t help but see the final shot of his gravestone as a metafictional admission that the franchise, like Karras, should have been allowed to die when the first movie’s credits rolled.

Nowadays, we’re awash in sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots. But The Exorcist III is the rare sequel which questions whether its existence is necessary. In doing so, the movie breaks intriguing thematic ground. The constant struggle of good against evil aptly reflects the recycling of plot points common to long-running franchises. Similarly, the characters’ exhaustion is an effective metaphor for the struggles of creatives against studios and audiences. The Exorcist III isn’t perfect, and certainly isn’t as striking as the original. However, it deserves recognition not just for its well-crafted scares, but its exploration of the nature of sequels themselves.

Wang Sum Luk

Wang Sum Luk is an undergraduate at Oxford University who recently served as the Deputy Editor of Cherwell, Oxford's oldest student newspaper. He writes about all things to do with film and culture.

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