“It’s The Smiles That Keep Us Going” : “The Exorcist III” at 30

The Exorcist III

William Peter Blatty’s third entry in the vaunted horror series had a rocky road to the screen and deserves its own stab at salvation.


Back in 1990, anyone with the idea of making a third film in the Exorcist franchise needed to face up to two extremely daunting legacies. The first, of course, was the still-significant shadow cast by the original 1973 film, one of the most popular and controversial films ever made, one whose influence on popular culture could still be felt. 

The second was the lingering memory of Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), John Boorman’s wildly audacious sequel. It so confounded and angered viewers expecting a straightforward continuation of the first that it quickly became one of the most reviled and derided films in Hollywood history. 

One person who clearly recognized this was William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the original novel The Exorcist and its Oscar-winning screenplay. For this third entry, he went to great lengths to try to avoid those comparisons—not only was the word “Exorcist” nowhere to be found in the title, but there was also no exorcism to be found in the film itself. 

Of course, that didn’t last too long; when Blatty’s film was released in theaters, it not only bore the title The Exorcist III but contained a wildly rejiggered final third that did indeed involve a long and expensive exorcism sequence. Predictably, it had a decent first weekend, presumably based entirely on brand familiarity. before dropping off quite sharply. It was largely ignored by most critics, who sensed it was a troubled film being dumped by its distributor and acted accordingly. 

Brad Dourif in “The Exorcist III”.

Much less predictable is that The Exorcist III proved to be, even in its compromised form, an unusual and strangely effective work. It riffed on the original film in interesting and sometimes terrifying ways without ever being beholden to it. That version eventually developed a cult following that was rewarded for their faith when, against all odds, a new version that restored Blatty’s initial vision was made available.

Although Exorcist II was considered to be a disaster from the moment it hit screensit still did well enough at the box office to encourage Warner Brothers to contemplate another sequel. At the same time, Blatty, who had turned down Exorcist II, came up with an idea for a story and even reportedly got William Friedkin interested in doing it as well. 

Before long, however, Friedkin left the project over creative differences and the project fell apart. Blatty then took the screenplay idea and turned it into the 1983 bestseller Legion. The success of that book got Hollywood interested again, and Blatty turned it back into a screenplay. At one point, John Carpenter was discussed for the director’s chair but left over a key creative difference with Blatty. He also presumably realized that Blatty (who by then had directed the strange cult favorite The Ninth Configuration (1980)) wanted to make it himself.

The central character this time around is Lieutenant William Kinderman, the gruffly skeptical Georgetown cop (played by the late Lee J. Cobb in the original, replaced here by George C. Scott). As the film opens, Georgetown is being rocked by a series of gruesome murders, complete with sacrilegious undertones, that feature all the hallmarks (including some never related to the public) of a mass murderer known as the Gemini Killer. 

The Exorcist III proved to be, even in its compromised form, an unusual and strangely effective work.

This is especially upsetting as the Gemini Killer was executed seventeen years earlier—the very same night as a certain exorcism of note that resulted in the death of Father Damien Karras. Kinderman, who worked the original Gemini case, begins following this one.  He eventually winds up at a local asylum where, an unknown man (known only as Patient X) turned up before falling into a deep catatonic state from which he has recently begun to emerge, claiming that he is the Gemini Killer.

This is where things start to get complicated. In Blatty’s original version—the one presumably approved by the producers—Patient X was played by Brad Dourif throughout (and, more significantly, there was no exorcism). This was one of the key reasons why Carpenter turned down the project—he felt that audiences would be expecting an exorcism and would feel cheated if they were denied. 

After viewing Blatty’s cut, the producers felt the same way and demanded significant overhauls. For one, Jason Miller (who played Karras in The Exorcist) was brought in for some reshoots that had him alternating the Patient X role with Dourif. The implication was that Karras was being punished eternally for his role in the exorcism by hosting the spirit of the Gemini Killer. The other change was that Blatty’s brief, brutal and powerful final scene was replaced by a long FX-heavy sequence, Nicol Williamson turning up at the last second as a priest trying to exorcise Patient X with all the usual noise and fury.

After years of rumors of the movie that might have been, a version hewing much closer to his original take was cobbled together via outtakes and deleted scenes that had been preserved on VHS cassettes, and released on home video in 2016 as Legion. Although this cut can’t be considered definitive thanks to the rough quality of the new material, it makes for a different and more valuable experience than the theatrical version.

Here, the real dramatic fireworks come not from visual pyrotechnics but from the intense discussions between Scott and Dourif, the latter turning in one of the most effectively creepy performances of his entire career. This version also subtly shifts the material so that it plays out as a more personal story for Kinderman, which made the impact of the original finale so powerful that viewers might not have even noticed that there was no exorcism to be had. 

Even though it veers away in key regards from Blatty’s original intentions, the recut also happens to be an uncommonly effective and interesting film that only steps wrong during the perfunctory climactic exorcism. Instead of aping the grimly realistic tone utilized by Friedkin in the original or the go-for-baroque looniness used by Boorman, Blatty negotiates a path between the two extremes that proves to be just right. 

On the one hand, he gets fine and effective performances from Scott and Dourif, whose exchanges in the asylum are absolutely mesmerizing. (Granted, neither one is particularly subtle or restrained here but their performances are controlled just enough to keep things from going overboard.) 

At the same time, Blatty injects some welcome instances of oddball humor (including a bizarre Spaceballs (1987) reference) into the proceedings and throws in a number of supreme ”WTF” moments. The strangest of these has to be Kinderman’s vision  of the afterlife, one which features cameos from basketball star Patrick Ewing and ‘90s relic Fabio as angels. And don’t forget a moment where Kinderman greets a young victim of Gemini with the deathless line, “I’m so sorry you were murdered, Thomas.”

In case you were worried that Blatty was too busy turning the story into some kind of weirdo cult project, there are plenty of genuinely chilling moments on hand, ranging from Dourif’s nightmarish monologues to one of the most effectively staged fright moments I have ever seen. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just know it involves a nurse investigating noises in the asylum, and a killer false scare and expertly-deployed payoff. You know what? Just watch below.)

Granted, both The Exorcist III and Legion have flaws that harm them when considered as individual works. But when seen in tandem, they make for an undeniably fascinating viewing experience that is far more interesting and unique than one might expect from a third installment in a horror franchise. The end result may not be perfect, but it’s infinitely more original and unnerving than one might have inferred from its initial release and is definitely worthy of rediscovery.

The Exorcist III Trailer:

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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