At the dawn of the ’90s, few would have expected a sequel to The Exorcist.  For starters, the original film had moved into the realm of the untouchable classic – and that reputation was supported by the huge critical and commercial failure of John Boorman’s utterly bizarre Exorcist II: The Heretic.  However, William Peter Blatty exor3-poswrote a good pseudo-sequel novel in the early ’80s called Legion and subsequently got the nod to adapt it for the screen.  The studio tampered with the results but what remains, even in a compromised form, is an oddly personal statement dressed up as a horror sequel.

Exorcist III focuses on the character of Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott), who is investigating a strange and ritualistic series of murders in Georgetown as he mourns the anniversary of the death of Father Karras (Jason Miller) from the first film.  It gets personal when his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) is killed during a routine hospitalization – and Kinderman begins to entertain a bizarre theory that the killer might be an old serial murderer known as the Gemini Killer.

Said killer is supposed to be long dead but there’s a patient (Brad Dourif) in the hospital’s psychiatric ward who claims to be the culprit and resembles the Gemini Killer.  He also claims to be in possession of Karras’ soul, forcing non-believer Kinderman to face the idea of a showdown with a demon to save his old friend.

The film’s producers worked overtime to make the result a commercial affair, resulting in lots of edits and the addition of a new character, Father Morning (Nicol Williamson), so they could awkwardly shoehorn an exorcism sequence into the finale.  The latter element feels gratuitously grafted on, as do the sudden bits of grue and large-scale special effects seen in these moments.

That said, Exorcist III is otherwise a daringly non-commercial and low-key affair, all the more shocking when you consider its sequel status.  Blatty’s approach is willfully out of tune with the commercial horror ethos of the time, focusing exclusively on middle-aged adult characters who spend as much debating theology and grappling with mortality as they do fulfilling the film’s supernatural mystery plot.

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The off-kilter approach works like a dream, at least when the producers aren’t monkeying with it, because Blatty was a brilliant and unsung stylist.  He was a crack screenwriter long before he got behind a camera and the dialogue here overflows with snappy rhythms, a very mature sense of wit and thoughtful yet clever ruminations on life and death.  The plotting has a compelling, skillfully crafted verve to it, with artful misdirections and unique rhythms that create tension without following a standard Hollywood story progression.

Blatty’s direction is similarly crafty, with an artful and carefully-controlled style that carefully deploys bursts of flashiness for maximum effect.  It conjures a taut, creepy atmosphere from the opening frames and has some impressive setpieces, including a deadpan/surreal dream sequence where the waiting room for Heaven is envisioned as a train station and a terrifying attack in a suburban home den that echoes the big fight scene from Blatty’s other film, The Ninth Configuration.  It’s also worth mentioning that this film has one of the greatest “jump scares” in horror movie history.

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Finally, Blatty gets plentiful mileage out of a unique and very skillful cast.  Scott’s lead performance is kind of like the film itself, exuding a coiled intensity that makes you sit up and pay attention when he raises his voice.  His ability to project world-weary gravitas is effortless and he handles the humorous portions of Blatty’s dialogue with skill, showing off his underrated knack for comedy.

A gallery of stellar performances act as support to Scott’s star turn.  Flanders provides fast-witted support as his best friend, adding an element of light to balance out his darkness, and Nancy Fish is a scene-stealer as a nurse who is cranky enough to go to toe-to-toe with Kinderman.  Dourif has played psychos for years but he’s rarely been as intense or terrifying as he is here – and he makes a meal of the profuse, intricately crafted dialogue Blatty gives him in several extended scenes with Scott.  Even the bit players are great: Don Gordon, George DiCenzo and Zohra Lampert are among the fine actors who add some color around the narrative’s edges.

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In short, Exorcist III might be a studio-compromised piece of work but even the forced finale cannot dull the talent and singular personality of Blatty’s work.  If you love The Exorcist, this is an important companion piece, warts and all.