Blatty: The Exorcist III (1990)
The early 1990s represented a watershed moment in cinematic depictions of the serial killer. By this point, the generation who grew up with the emergence of serial killers – or the classification of serial killers – in the 1970s had come of age. Combined with the growing taste for forensic pathology, this produced a wave of films that formally introduced the serial killer as a distinct type and trope – distinct from the slashers that had cornered the cinematic market for spectacles of mass murder over the previous two decades. Audiences became fascinated with crime scenes that exuded a different and more demonic agency from those of earlier crime films – scenes that evoked a networked killer, and a serial network of crimes.
While The Silence of the Lambs was the figurehead film of this moment, no film encapsulated it quite as concisely as the third film in the Exorcist franchise, the third adaptation of the Zodiac killer’s crimes, after The Zodiac Killer, the hastily constructed film that was designed to bring him out of hiding when he was still active, along with the first instalment in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry quintet. Zodiac actually referred to The Exorcist in a coded letter that is now known as the “1974 Exorcist letter,” where he referred to William Friedkin’s film as one of the greatest satires ever filmed. The Exorcist III takes this reference full circle, focusing on a serial killer – the Gemini killer – who is clearly based on Zodiac’s esoteric modus operandi.
Of course, The Exorcist III also has to contend with the first two films in the franchise – especially John Boorman’s sequel, which for almost two decades seemed to put all thoughts of a third film to rest. This time around, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel, and the original screenplay, had complete control. He wrote, directed and drew from Legion, his own sequel to The Exorcist, which he first pitched as a direct screenplay sequel to be helmed by Friedkin himself. One thing led to another, Friedkin drifted away from the project, and Blatty reimagined his idea as a novel, before translating it back to a screenplay again here.
In that sense, The Exorcist III plays more like a sequel than the third film in a trilogy, especially since it entirely ignores the events of the second film, picking up fifteen years after the events of the original. We’re back in Georgetown, where Lieutenant William Kinderman, played by George C. Scott, is charged with investigating a series of murders that recall the Gemini Killer, a serial killer, played by Brad Dourif, who was executed around the same time that Regan MacNeil was possessed. As Kinderman investigates the crimes, his friend Father Joseph Dyer, played by Ed Flanders, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he is suddenly murdered.
This leads onto a supernatural procedural that mainly takes place in and around this hospital, where Kinderman discovers Father Damien Karras, played Jason Miller, who assisted with Regan’s exorcism in the first film. Father Damien is now simply known as Patient X, and claims to have channelled the Gemini killer periodically since he was executed, as the behest of Pazuzu, the demon from the first two films, although he is never named as such here. Gradually, Kinderman realises that Damien, or Patient X, has been acting as a conduit for other members of the institute, as channels for Gemini, and Pazuzu, to commit the murders.
In other words, there are several layers of possession here. Pazuzu takes the form of the Gemini Killer, and then possesses Damien, who in turn possesses other people in his immediate vicinity. Rather than a single possession, we’re presented with something closer to a network of possessions, which is what gives Blatty’s novel its title – Legion. Pazuzu here is also legion, occupying a variety of different people and platforms, most of whom relate to the original exorcism in some way, even as they now disperse and distend the exorcism too.
It’s at this point that you start to see the influence of Exorcist 2: Heretic. While Blatty does his best to ignore Boorman’s film narratively, he can’t escape its influence in the visual scheme of the film, or in the way he directs it. That’s partly a result of how radically Boorman reshaped the spatial style of the franchise as a whole. In Friedkin’s film, we were presented with an intensely claustrophobic vision, all revolving around the MacNeil house, and Regan’s bedroom. Yet Friedkin also evoked a different kind of space, a more agoraphobic possibility encapsulated both in the MacNeil’s address – Prospect Street – and the Georgetown steps, which abutted the house, and periodically propelled characters into a more amorphous flux.
Exorcist 2 was effectively an interpretation of these two spatial schemes, pulling us far away from Georgetown – to New York, and then to Africa – and immersing us in the globalised networks that fuelled Friedkin’s films of the early 70s. These networks, Boorman seemed to suggest, were at the heart of the strange spatial disjunction between Regan’s bedroom and the staircase outside. Up to a point, Boorman tried to restore the hermetic containment of Regan’s room, through two broad trajectories that converged on Georgetown in the closing scenes of the sequel. Yet these trajectories dispersed space as they converged, producing a total spatial schism when we returned to the MacNeil residence – an involution, a rupturing from within, that left us without any clear spatiotemporal coordinates to anchor the ending.
To some extent, the opening sequence of The Exorcist III strives to repress these eerie implications of Exorcist 2. Rather than struggling to return to Georgetown, we start in Georgetown, where Blatty doubles down on the continuity with the original film. He returns, immediately, to religious imagery, and to classical Catholic horror, which was largely lacking from the sequel. He also tries to rescue space, reinvesting it with awe through a series of extreme low-angle shots that become the basic syntactic unit of the film. Finally, he evokes this continuity through the character of Kinderman himself. We learn that Kinderman was on the scene at the end of the first film, when Father Merrin was propelled down the steps, while his own family home is similar enough to the MacNeils that it tacitly restores Prospect Street.
In a way, then, we’re back – and yet in a way we’re not. While Blatty makes a valiant effort to rein in the spatial schism that involuted the end of the sequel, space feels displaced from the very outset here. Even or especially when The Exorcist III claims to have resolved this schism, it’s still mediated through it. That paradox is encapsulated in the centrepiece of the opening scenes – a tracking-shot from the perspective of some entity as it prowls the streets of Georgetown. We gradually learn that this is a POV shot from Pazuzu himself (or itself), operating through the Gemini Killer, who is operating through Father Karras (or Patient X) who is himself possibly operating through one of his vast legion of different human platforms.
Of course, there’s no way we can know all this in the opening tracking-shot – it’s complicated enough when we have all the narrative details. What ensues, then, is a new kind of opaque emptiness for the franchise, as Blatty’s camera takes us through a series of foggy, wind-blown streets, largely devoid of people and looming with spatial prescience, until we end with the camera tumbling head-over-heels down the Georgetown stairs, as if capitulating after all to the spatial schism of the second film. Space here is more pellucid and transparent than in either the first or second film, but that very transparency comes with a new intensity, density and opacity – a sensation that everything brims with connectivity, presences we cannot see.
This paves the way for the second visual signature of the film – long POV shots from the perspective of Pazuzu. These shots are inherently discontinuous, and inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, they take place as flamboyant continuity shots, emphasising the fluid porosity between different spaces. On the other hand, they embody a multitude of gazes, a legion of presences, which offsets any conventional sense of continuity, making it remarkably difficult to discern whose viewpoint we’re experiencing for vast swathes of the film, which never quite dissociates itself from this multiplicitous point of view. Even as these shots evoke a dramatic continuity, they evoke the “killer” as a radical discontinuity, until space itself is disoriented, disrupted and discorrelated from human perception, thick with glitches, blind spots and atonalities, even or especially when we appear to have a clear command of space.
This produces the best scene in the film, and possibly the best scene in the franchise. It takes place late at night in the hospital, and starts with a long shot down the main corridor to the welcome desk, where the receptionist and security guard move in and out of a series of administrative tasks. The receptionist hears a series of noises, and goes to investigate, as Blatty holds the shot, which is meticulously framed, clear in its sightlines and panoramic in its command. Lest we feel too trapped in this shot, however, he periodically cuts away and back to it, removing any residual claustrophobia, and building an even more comprehensive overview of the space. Yet this spatial command doesn’t correlate with the noises the receptionist hears – not just because they’re hard to discern, but because they exist on the cusp of the scene’s diegesis, often appearing to come from just beside or behind the camera.
Only when the receptionist appears to have exhausted and explored every part of this space – like the camera itself – does the killer strike. We never find out the origin of the sound that draws her to his room, meaning that sound and image remain discorrelated as he suddenly emerges and decapitates her. This is one of the most terrifying seconds I’ve seen in a horror film in a long time, and I think it must be because of how elegantly Blatty panders to our need for spatial autonomy, and to the franchise’s need to put the spatial dissolutions of the second film behind it, only for all that dispersal and distention to return severalfold as ritual violence.
While The Exorcist III may try to overcome the second film, then, Boorman’s dispersed spatial scheme is already baked into its putative naturalism – and into the killer’s own modus operandi. While Gemini produces many discrete and different crime scenes, they all revolve around discorrelated perception, and traumatic abstractions of the eyes from the rest of the body. In one scene, he recalls how he drove a pair of ingots into a young man’s eyes, while the young man was still conscious. In other, he tells an anecdote about timing a decapitation just right so that he could hold up the victim’s head, and then force him to gaze upon his headless body, fully conscious, for a full twenty seconds before he finally and horribly “died.”
As moments like this might suggest, Blatty has a genuine taste for arcane imagery – imagery that is genuinely scary by virtue of its profound strangeness. While Exorcist II was interesting, it wasn’t really scary, and certainly not profoundly scary, so Blatty sets out to remedy that here, packing his scenes full of luridly terrifying touches, imagistic and elliptical transitions, that evoke a broader restlessness, a need to seek out terror in any and every way imaginable. Sometimes the results are ridiculous, and sometimes the results are on the very verge of being ridiculous, like so many of the baroque horror films that were released in the early 90s, before Wes Craven created a new self-referential era with New Nightmare and Scream. But they land as often as they fail, while that weird space between genuine terror and high camp is part of what gives The Exorcist III such an emergent tone, and such an uncanny atmosphere.
In particular, Blatty doubles down on the iconographic style of the original, making especially scary use of crucifixes and statues, culminating with a doctor’s surgey that’s clad with an exotic and incongruous array of figures, from religious icons, to x-rays, to pin-ups. All of the characters feel somewhat iconographic as well, since most interactions revolve around religious institutions in some way, even if they’re slightly skewed in the process. In fact, it’s probably true to say there are no normal interactions full stop in The Exorcist III, which works brilliantly with Scott’s screen persona by this point in his career – the melodramatic everyman, trying to convince himself that an uncannily intensified normality is “just” normal.
Blatty’s iconographic style also extends to language, especially when Scott delivers his lines, but also through a series of phrases that are scrawled on walls by the killer(s). These macabre graffiti fuse word and image, mirroring dialogue that is always on the cusp of breaking away from bodies to become sentient in itself, as if the screenplay were a form of speaking in tongues, perpetually poised to overtake the actors who are delivering it. The Exorcist III is writerly, but writerly in a weird way, flinging out words as the last threshold of, but also the first index for, an uncanny spatial field that contains legions of utterances at any one moment.
Perhaps that’s why sound itself feels slightly discorrelated from the outset. Every scene seems mildly dubbed, which is off-putting at first, but makes the dissonance between sound and image eerier later on. Pazuzu first manifests itself in the confession box, as a disembodied voice, and then speaks to (or from) people through snippets of language that are never discernibly inside or outside the scene. Instead, they exist on the very cusp of the diegesis, like the sounds in the hospital corridor scene, paving the way for the weakest part of the film – a series of interviews between Kinderman and the Gemini Killer in prison. These are the wordiest parts of the film, especially in the concluding scene, which by all accounts wasn’t Blatty’s decision. Yet the disconnection between sound and image prevents this ever feeling like mere wordiness – more like Kinderman’s desperate efforts to restore a stable sonic field.
Watching the film is thus a profoundly dissonant experience in itself – like listening to several planes of sound at once, or engaging with several discrete visual fields. The result is a sublime maximalism, as if Blatty wanted to make sure that he adapted every image from his book, which becomes a kind of legion object in itself, forcing Blatty to become a legion of directors in turn, as he cycles through a dizzying array of different styles and registers, all of them bounded by the same underlying and profound strangeness. In that sense, the novelist-turned-director role ultimately works to his advantage, since while this may not always be the most expertly directed film, Blatty’s unfamiliarity behind the camera makes the spaces in front of it seem even more precarious and volatile – and more alive to emergent possibilities.
This produces a serial killer, and a crime procedural, that is legion as well. Trying to figure out the arcane religious dimensions of the crime becomes tantamount to trying to piece together the pattern and intention of a serial killer. While Exorcist II couldn’t quite figure out how to frame the spectacle of exorcism in a new way, The Exorcist III thus draws upon the serial killer as the critical new ingredient. Catching a serial killer is a kind of exorcism here, a dark art every bit as arcane as that of performing an exorcism, which perhaps explains why The Exorcist III is so obsessed with serial killing as an art. Gemini asks Kinderman, “Did you know that you are talking to an artist?” while confiding that “I sometimes do special things to my victims – things that are creative.” Here, as in The Silence of the Lambs, framing the serial killer as an aesthete is a tacit way of presenting them as gay. But you also sense something else – the early 90s director trying to broker the serial killer’s supreme sense of spectacle in the way that directors of the early 00s (particularly Nolan) would do with terrorist spectacle.
In that sense, The Exorcist III often feels like more of a precursor to Hannibal (the series) than The Silence of the Lambs itself. Like Hannibal, Gemini is fascinated by perverse gestures of taste – he concedes that deciding which artery to sever is a matter of personal preference in the same way that Lecter recalls eating a victim’s liver with fava beans and Chianti. Yet the sheer insatiability of The Exorcist III when it comes to crime scenes is much closer to the rhythm of Hannibal than The Silence of the Lambs, as Blatty rotates through a vast series of vividly macabre tableaux. Even Gemini has two disctinct modus operandis – one fed to the media, and one known only to the police – while Pazuzu uses him for a radically different crime scene each time he strikes, with the one common denominator that they all distort perception in some way, or subject their victims to distorted perception, just before they die.
Yet the more vividly and viscerally described, the more disembodied and notional these crimes seem to be, as if the victims are simply absorbed back into the hospital-network that Pazuzu and Gemini use for their pool of hosts. That’s ultimately why the hospital corridor scene is so scary – we only see the slightest hint of ultra-violence before it’s all absorbed back into the hospital-network, which becomes a kind of digital hive-mind by the third act of the film. Most of the patients here are catatonic on the outside, but connected beneath the surface, which means that Kinderman’s exorcism finally involves shutting down a hub of connectivity. The film visualises this in the final showdown as Gemini pins Kinderman upon the wall of his prison cell, and sends ripples across his body, like’s he glitching a digital image.
From here, Kinderman is crucified on the wall, and confronted with a legion of hands, before Gemini is finally destroyed. But this conclusion, which was apparently forced upon Blatty, is oddly anticlimactic. Sure, Kinderman might have killed Gemini, but Pazuzu still exists, meaning he can set up another network, another hub, another hive-mind, wherever and whenever he wants. The film only partly concedes this possibility, via one of the most pervasive Hollywood metaphors of the early 90s – blackness as a forerunner of networked life. We first saw this connection in Exorcist 2, when Father Lamont, played by Richard Burton, had to travel to Africa to discover the origin of Pazuzu, where he encountered Kokumo, played by James Earl Jones. Through the interactions between Lamont and Kokumo, Boorman evoked globalisation as a networked force that didn’t colonise Africa, but emerged from the very heart of Africa.
That spatial logic continues directly into The Exorcist III, which might seem to repress the second film in its opening tracking-shot, but still centres that tracking shot on Thomas Kintry, a young African-American child, played by James Burgess. Thomas is the only person who seems to see Pazuzu, and is the last person Pazuzu sees before tumbling down the stairs, while he returns as the centrepiece of Pazuzu’s final iconoclastic tableau – crucified on a cross that rises on the floor, but with his head replaced with that of a Christ statue, which is itself made up in blackface minstrelsy. This crucifix is carried by the hive-mind legion, just as the only black professional we see in the film delivers the autopsy results on Thomas’ death, who is Pazuzu’s first victim in the guise of Gemini, and thus plays the pivotal role in his seriality.
These lingering associations between blackness and connectivity evoke something that remains outside the film’s purview – and something that remains unresolvable within it. After all, the space that dissolves over the first two films is that of white bourgeois life, meaning the network that emerges is, at its most banal, the possibility of human connection outside middle-class strictures. And The Exorcist III is perhaps even more terrified of that prospect than the first two films, turnings its terrors inwards, until it feels like a networked object despite itself – a haunted text that just accrues strangeness as it continues to remain somewhat lost to time, or lost in time, like the events of the film it can never quite recapture.
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