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The Exorcist III: Redemption of a Failing Series

The Exorcist (1973) is a horror masterpiece. Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, the film shocked audiences with its graphic content and controversial subject matter. Regardless of the controversy, The Exorcist earned the distinction of being the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film received 10 Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound. The film has been terrifying audiences since 1973, spawning two sequels, a prequel, and a TV show. I consider The Exorcist III (1990) the true sequel to the first and I think many horror fans would agree that The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) is a cinematic disaster. Neither William Friedkin nor William Peter Blatty was involved in the making of Exorcist II. The Exorcist III redeems the series—even though it has its snags (spoiler alert!) and. is based on Blatty’s novel, Legion (1983). Blatty also wrote the screen adaptation and directed. Even with its blemishes, the story is a well-written horror tale and crime thriller.

The story picks up 15 years after the first ends with Father Damien Karras’ death. Two characters from the original film are reintroduced, homicide detective Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott) and Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders). Kinderman became involved in the original story with the investigation of film director Burke Dennings’s death. Dyer was a friend of Karras. During the investigation, Kinderman became close friends with Karras. Since Karras’ death, Kinderman has become close friends with Dyer. Anyone familiar with the original film will recall that Kinderman is a big film buff. He and Father Dyer make sure to meet for dinner and a movie annually in remembrance of Karras’ death.

An elderly man looks off camera in the foreground. In the background, a woman clings to the ceiling, like an insect, watching him.t
Who’s that on the ceiling? Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) believes that the killer he seeks is human. Mrs. Clelia (Mary Jackson), watching him from the ceiling, is one of many perpetrators.

Kinderman is investigating a series of grisly murders—one victim is a 12-year-old boy and the other a priest killed in a church confessional. Kinderman notices a shocking similarity between the murders. Fifteen years ago, convicted serial killer James Venamun (Brad Dourif), dubbed the Gemini Killer, was executed in the electric chair. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a copycat murder, but these murders have the true mark of the Gemini Killer. Kinderman reveals that investigators purposely gave the press false details about the Gemini murders to weed out false confessions. The press was told that the Gemini severed the middle finger of the victims’ left hand and carved the zodiac symbol of Gemini on the victim’s back. In reality, it was the index finger on the right hand and the symbol was carved on the left hand. The victims in his current case have the true marks of the Gemini.

Things get personal when Kinderman’s close friend, Father Dyer is killed in his hospital room. All of the blood is drained from his body neatly into rows of small cups left on the tray near the bedside. Kinderman questions the nurse working the floor at the time of Dyer’s murder and she tells him that an elderly woman was passed out by Dyer’s room. Kinderman is directed to the psychiatric ward to interview the woman who is suffering from dementia. Kinderman talks to the head of the psychiatric ward, Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson), who tells him about another “Patient X,” a man who was picked up by police 15 years ago wandering around aimlessly. Until recently, Patient X has been catatonic, but has suddenly become violent and claims to be the Gemini Killer.

When Kinderman goes into the cell to talk to “Patient X,” he finds himself face to face with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Karras’s appearance changes to that of Venamun as he talks about the murders. He claims responsibility for all of the killings. A nurse is murdered that night and Dr. Temple commits suicide. Kinderman goes back to pay Karras another visit. Venamun tells Kinderman that he can possess Karras’s body and continues to kill with help from “The Master,” the demonic spirit who possessed Regan MacNeil. Angry at being exorcised, the demon helps Venamun commit the murders as a way to torture Karras. The “Master” makes it possible for Venamun to leave Karras’ body and possess another host to commit the murders.

A close up of a disheveled man with a distressed look on his face.
Once presumed to be dead, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is possessed by the spirit of the Gemini Killer as revenge for exorcising the demon Pazuzu 15 years earlier.

Venamun describes Karras’ brain as being “mush” when he first possessed him, entering his body while in his coffin. He laughs at the memory of a priest’s reaction when he climbed out of it. This “mush” state accounts for Karras’ amnesia and catatonic state. Venamun says it took him 15 years to finally revive Karras’ brain. Karras’ consciousness is still present and can only watch as Venamun kills. The demon helps Venamun possess Karras, and continues to kill as revenge against Karras for exorcising him from Regan. Venamun gets to satisfy his desire to kill, while Karras is tortured by having to watch. Venamun also tells Kinderman that his “unbelief” or lack of faith is another reason for the killings. When the evidence is analyzed, it’s determined that the crimes were committed by different perpetrators. The fingerprints lifted from a cup in Dyer’s room match the elderly woman that Kinderman interviewed. Kinderman has no choice but to believe what he probably first took to be the ravings of a madman.

Venamun decides to get even more personal by threatening and coming very close to killing Kinderman’s daughter. So, as a viewer, I’m wondering what’s Kinderman to do to stop a supernatural force. This is where the story hits a major snag. Enter Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson)—out of nowhere. He’s dropped into the film briefly where he’s a couple of lines of backstory and appears in one scene. Morning performed an exorcism years before that turned his hair white overnight. There’s a scene where he senses a presence in his quarters that causes the door to fly open. Morning shows up in the psych ward at the very end to perform an exorcism on Karras. Morning is beaten up but succeeds in exorcising the demon. Kinderman arrives and puts an end to Venamun by putting a physical end to his host body (Karras). After Morning successfully exercises the demon, Karras’ voice comes through and pleads with Kinderman to end his life.

An elderly priest, dressed in his vestments, stands in a dark room reading from a Bible.
Who’s this guy again? Father Morning (Nicol Williamson) jumps in at literally the last minute to save the day.

What’s the deal with Father Morning? He seems dropped in the film almost as an afterthought. He’s given a brief backstory and appears in one scene. We have a great horror/detective story until this undeveloped character suddenly plays a major role at the end of the movie. The character is barely there throughout the rest of the film. I found that Father Morning was added in after Blatty completed filming. Four months after filming was done, Morgan Creek Productions contacted Blatty and told him that he had to add in an exorcism in the film.

According to Wikipedia, “Blatty said that ‘James Robinson, the owner of the company, his secretary had insisted to him that this has nothing to do with The Exorcist. There had to be an exorcism.’ 20th Century Fox put up an additional $4-million in post-production to film an effects-laden exorcism sequence featuring Nicol Williamson as Father Morning, a character added just for the new climax.”

A white face with elaborate black and red makeup around the eyes peers menacingly from the dark.
The Master of Mayhem. The demon Pazuzu (Eileen Dietz) exacts his revenge by tormenting those who dare get in his way.

Blemishes aside, the story is a good horror tale with the bonus of a great cast that works well together. Now that I’ve spoiled the film, or rather forewarned those who haven’t seen it how it did get spoiled, I want to dive into the themes. The Exorcist III also fits in seamlessly with the rest of the films because it explores the same themes. The Exorcist films all have characters who question religious faith and are challenged by the inevitable demonic possession and paranormal activity that goes with it. In the original, Father Damien Karras sees himself more like a psychiatrist than a priest in the beginning, even suggesting that Regan MacNeil be put under observation in a psychiatric institution instead of having an exorcism. Karras eventually performs the exorcism with the aid of an elderly priest, Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow). Merrin is a devout believer in demonic possession after having performed an exorcism many years before. The demon even senses Merrin’s presence and shouts his name when he enters the MacNeil home.

There’s also consistency with the demon’s vengeful, vindictive nature in Exorcist III. The demon taunts Merrin during the exorcism, enjoying the opportunity to cross paths with Merrin again. In Exorcist III, the demon helps Venamun to continue killing in the afterlife as a way of torturing Karras for successfully exercising him from Regan. Kinderman is the skeptic in this story. Venamun tells him that part of the reason why the Master helps Venamun continue his killing spree is because of his “unbelief.” Kinderman’s skepticism is expressed from the beginning. When he’s at dinner with Father Dyer, he questions God’s existence because of all the horrible things that happen in the world—things that, as a homicide detective, he’s exposed to every day.

The prequels, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), repeat the same theme as we explore Merrin’s backstory. Lankester Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard), much like Karras, is questioning his faith. He takes a sabbatical from the church to concentrate on his study of archeology. His experience on an expedition in Africa, when a collector asks him to recover the relic of a demon, leads to Merrin stepping back into the role of a priest to perform an exorcism.

While it’s not a perfect film, The Exorcist III does have an interesting plot that mixes elements of horror with the elements of a good detective story. I think it’s the most interesting of the films following the original. I admit that I’m biased being a fan of both crime thrillers and horror. While nothing can top the original, blemishes aside, I still think it’s a great follow-up.

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Written by Melissa Bastek

I've had a longtime love of horror and the paranormal --- in both books and film. I enjoy writing fiction as well as researching the stories behind my favorite films and books. I also have an interest in true crime and forensic science and psychology. Besides fiction, I like to watch documentaries --- everything from behind-the-scenes about a film to true crime cases.

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