Nearly 50 years after its release, The Exorcist remains a classic horror movie. None of its ability to shock has faded. Four years later, Hollywood followed up with Exorcist II: The Heretic. Lightning didn’t strike twice. Director John Boorman took the sequel in a very different direction with disastrous results. Today, critics and fans alike regard the sequel as one of the worst movies ever made. Thirteen years later, original Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty decided that if you want something done right, you had to do it yourself. In addition to writing the screenplay, Blatty got behind the camera and directed The Exorcist III. At the time of its release, however, horror fans considered The Exorcist III something of a disappointment.
The Exorcist III Diverges From Traditional Horror Sequel Formula
Mainstream slasher franchises, like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, dominated the 1980s. As such, the horror sequel template was well established by 1990. Take what worked in the first movie, repeat, and increase the body count. Like Boorman, William Peter Blatty had no interest in making a formulaic sequel. Though The Exorcist III follows from the original movie’s story, its narrative goes in an entirely different direction.
…Blatty brilliantly connects this seemingly unrelated story back to The Exorcist.
Blatty mixes possession horror with police procedural to huge dividends. Specifically, The Exorcist III intertwines the new story of ‘The Gemini Killer’ with the institutionalized ‘Patient X’. The Exorcist IIII connects these two dangling threads by a series of brutal ritualistic murders. Similar to a neo-noir detective movie, Blatty dangles clues to the connection between the murders and Patient X. Moreover, Blatty brilliantly connects this seemingly unrelated story back to The Exorcist. Reportedly, studio executive forced Blatty to tack on a traditional horror movie exorcism. And it’s this part of the sequel that feels most like a traditional sequel. Not surprisingly, this scene sticks out awkwardly from the rest of the movie. Yet in spite of this conventional climax, The Exorcist III still feels like a natural extension of the first movie rather than a rehash.
Grim Sequel Soaked in Often Unbearable Tension
Several years before David Fincher directed Se7en, The Exorcist III reminded audiences that sometimes what you don’t see is more disturbing than what’s on screen. During its climatic exorcism, The Exorcist III is more overtly gruesome. Comparatively, for most of the movie, Blatty relies on psychological horror, trusting the audience’s imagination. Neither Thomas Kintry’s nor Father Dyer’s murders are shown. Instead, characters describe the murders, which is almost more chilling. The details of the ritualistic murders are gruesome, and The Exorcist III gets under your skin by forcing you to use your imagination. Barry De Vorzon’s ominous score delivers a big assist.
…The Exorcist III delivers one of the best jump scares in horror movie history.
Most of The Exorcist III relies on grim atmosphere. There’s a quiet sense of doom that hangs over the proceedings from the opening scenes. But there’s nothing wrong with the occasional jump scare. And The Exorcist III delivers one of the best jumps scares in horror movie history. To his credit, Blatty sets the scene up perfectly. Though you initially know something is going to happen, Blatty draws things out long enough to have you second-guessing. Just enough fake-outs and benign things transpire to convince you to let your guard down. What happens next is so sudden – punctuated by De Vorzon’s score – that it feels like someone has grabbed you from behind.
Quirky Characters and Idiosyncratic Dialogue Background Highlights
As a sequel, The Exorcist III shifts gears by focusing on smaller characters from the first movie – Lt William Kinderman and Father Dyer. One of the reasons Jaws worked so well is that its main characters made the ‘land-locked’ scenes engaging. In The Exorcist, Kinderman and Dyer are two of the quirkier characters. But as a matter of necessity, they’re regulated to the back of the first movie. Put front row and center, Kinderman and Dyer make for compelling characters. Moreover, the characters are better fits for Blatty’s idiosyncratic dialogue. The quick back-and-forth conversations between Kinderman and Dyer are some of the movie’s best moments. It doesn’t hurt that George C Scott plays Kinderman.
An underrated character actor, Dourif’s ‘Gemini Killer’ brings an intensity to the sequel.
Another welcome addition to The Exorcist universe is Brad Dourif. An underrated character actor, Dourif’s ‘Gemini Killer’ brings an intensity to the sequel. Dourif’s monologues later in the movie are chilling. His ability to instantly switch from calm to fury is more terrifying than any CGI horror trickery. The performance gives even more depth to the psychological nature of the movie’s horror. Among his extensive filmography (Alien 3, Halloween, Child’s Play), Dourif’s performance in The Exorcist III stands out as one of his best.
The Exorcist III A Movie Deserving of its Critical Re-Evaluation
At the time of its release, audiences and critics dismissed The Exorcist III. Today, horror fans and writers have reconsidered Blatty’s sequel. Though not everything in the movie works, The Exorcist III disturbs, scares, and cleverly spins off from the original movie. Like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, this is another maligned 90s horror movie that has earned its critical re-evaluation.