Gabby: The Indefinsibles investigated a mental asylum to defend…
Jeremy: The Exorcist III. IT’S FINE!!!
Jeremy: If you’re new to this site, the three of us get together and each pick a movie we want to defend set around a certain theme. Well, usually around a certain theme – ’cause we’re getting back together for the first time in 2017 with a free-for-all. First up is my pick, the theatrical cut of Exorcist III.
I wanted to pay tribute to William Peter Blatty, who passed away earlier this year. He’s responsible for some of the greatest horror stories of the 20th century. On top of that, as an American, I was looking for a film that reflected my current fears about the mess we’re currently in. Exorcist III is a perfect fit for that: it’s about making sense of the world while surrounded by the evil we’re capable of.
Another reason I have a particular fondness for it: I was twelve when this premiered on HBO. This was soon after my parents realized I wasn’t starting fires or performing unnecessary surgery on the pets and let me start watching whatever I wanted. This wasn’t my first R-rated movie or anything – but possibly my first full-on R-rated horror movie. Exorcist III rocked my world.
At the time, the first hour of this film felt like a living thing… sinister and coiled, waiting to strike. I had trouble getting to sleep for days afterward. And even back then, movies rarely scared me.
As an adult, the seams from all the studio-enforced reshoots are obvious, but the first hour is almost without equal among horror movies – especially the way it balances characters, themes, and scares. And man, there are scares here.
I’ve avoided the movie for years. Bad reviews and tales of the forced-at-gunpoint reshoots. The story of a cop chasing a copycat serial killer who turns out to be a ghost would be a major second act reveal… if it wasn’t obvious that it’s about g-g-g-ghosts right off the bat with the title.
It’s a pretty decent movie, but it has a pacing issues.
I remember seeing an interview with a horror writer in the ’90s. She had built her career from werewolf and monster stories, but she was just starting a new series about serial killers. She said serial killers were the monsters for the ’90s. She had her finger on the pulse there. I feel like there was a hell of a lot of serial killers in the ’90s.
Jeremy: When we were planning this round of movies, you mentioned never having seen this. Based on the previous movies we’ve covered, I figured you’d be lukewarm on it. I get the impression that supernatural horror isn’t your thing.
I think you – and just about everyone else – would prefer Blatty’s original novel, Legion, or his director’s cut. There’s not an exorcist or exorcism in sight. It’s much closer to being a supernatural mystery the whole way through, without all the cheap theatrics in the theatrical cut.
Brett: I would be interested in seeing the original cut. Isn’t it available somewhere?
Jeremy: It’s available with the Scream Factory re-release. The excised footage could be only recovered from VHS tapes of the dailies, so the movie constantly cuts back and forth between a beautiful Blu-Ray remaster and rough – even by VHS standards – 4×3 footage.
If nobody minds having it spoiled, we can discuss the differences.
Brett: I don’t mind. I am curious to know what tinkering went on.
Gabby: Before we move on, I wanted to add that I really like supernatural horror when it involves more than jump scares. And this movie definitely has more on its mind, though I enjoy the supernatural aspects of it. It would have had an easier time being its own thing without the title. I enjoy some of the ties to the original through exorcisms and exorcists (when not included the last section of the film). It gives an added layer of unease and a unique link between the victims of the killer.
Jeremy: So let’s talk about the changes. The opening scenes have more character beats and clearer exposition for where the story was originally headed. It’s established that Brad Dourif was Father Karras before he sacrificed himself at the end of The Exorcist.
Jason Miller, who originally played Karras, is not in the film. This recasting – and the addition of Father Morning – comprise most of the reshoots. The basic idea – that the Gemini Killer is possessing senile patients to do his work – is the same. The difference is the spirit of the real Father Karras moved on the night he fell down those steps. All that remains inside his body is the transplanted soul of the Gemini Killer. There’s no need for an exorcism or all the ridiculous pyrotechnics in the theatrical cut.
In both versions, the Gemini wants Kinderman to go to the press and report that the killings have resumed. After the attack on his daughter (holy shit, that scene…), Kinderman returns to the Gemini’s cell and just unloads his revolver into him. He doesn’t say a word. Cut to credits.
There’s probably something missing here – because not all the footage could be recovered – but I think you’re supposed to infer that the only way to stop the Gemini is to kill him. Similar to how Karras sacrificed his life in the original film, Kinderman is most likely sacrificing his career, if not his freedom.
It’s a better movie, but the ending is as anti-climatic as the theatrical cut is overblown. The problem with both cuts is the same: once Kinderman discovers “the man in cell 11,” most of the second hour is the killer telling us how he did it. There’s more procedural work in the Director’s Cut, but each version shifts into low gear and rarely gets back the suspense of the first hour. There are a few exceptions, like the attack on Kinderman’s family. And, of course, the hallway jump scare. Probably the best jump scare there is.
Brett: That’s a good jump scare, mostly because it’s not a fake scare (like a cat or something) and it gives our imagination a gory image to invent. I was impressed with the restraint the movie shows, considering they could have coated the walls with blood.
Jeremy: I love the restraint here, which is something I want from horror movies aiming to scare you. It’s one of the main reasons the film remains creepy on repeat viewings. I’m curious if that was because Blatty knew he couldn’t top Friedkin or this was just Blatty being allowed to do things his way.
It’s shot more like a film from the ’70s. Paced that way, too. That out of time feeling adds to the unsettling tone. Even if this isn’t as flashy as The Exorcist, it’s effective at getting under your skin.
Gabby: I also agree about the restraint. Very impressive. Especially from a sequel to a horror movie.
The first hour is so well-balanced, I agree Jeremy. The characters are defined and I did really jump at one point (yes it was that jump scare). But it was more the unsettling feeling it evoked that is somewhat similar to some nightmares I have had.
I agree with Brett in what he said about restraint and how it lets our imaginations get to run riot. Blatty understood something really important with the human psyche, we can dream up the most terrifying things with our imaginations. And the film lets you go down that road on your own, by setting up something other than ‘horror’ and letting you fill in the blanks.
As Jeremy said, the ’70s pace does add that unsettling tone. There is sometimes a slight lingering on scenes when they seem like they have ended, with a moment or two in silence. When Kinderman is with the dead body of Father Dyer for instance. There are a just a few moments near the end of the scene added where someone else might have cut away. Kinderman is standing with his hands together. He looks uncomfortable, scared, angry, grief-stricken and the silence in the room allows you to know there is a lot more to come.
Jeremy: I love the sound design. This is a surprisingly effective movie to put on to show off your sound system. The scene you mention wouldn’t work half as well without the silence between the dialog, which grows into a low, rumbling thunderstorm as the scene builds. Like you said, it’s more muted than you would expect from a film like this.
Now let’s get to something that isn’t muted. What does everyone think of George C. Scott? Too much ham?
Brett: It feels like the right amount for the material.
Gabby: At times, it is too much. But I like it when he is bubbling away before he shouts and slams the desk. It might have been more effective if he had got close to boiling but didn’t. And then eventually explodes.
Jeremy: One of the big draws for me here is George C. Scott as Kinderman. Even on paper, it’s a big character. But you’re right – there are choices he made where less would’ve been more. Most of that is in the scenes immediately after Father Dyer’s murder, when Kinderman is a wreck.
The majority of the time, it works. And I love this character. He’s a good man with a hard job, and his life is obviously not just the job. He’s world-weary, not burnt out. There’s love in his life. Almost any other writer would make Kinderman a divorced, deadbeat dad with a dirty secret the Gemini could exploit.
I appreciate that Kinderman is allowed to be an older man. He’s likely close to retirement, but it’s never mentioned. (Something else I appreciate.) I see a little of my grandfather in the character – at least in terms of a man who used to be able to hold it all in, but these days the tears and frustration and love just pour out.
Also, how crazy is it that this movie starts with two older men marking the time since they lost a friend? Not only does George C. Scott headline a movie in 1990, there’s only two speaking parts, I’m pretty sure, from characters under 25. That’s a statistical anomaly for a Hollywood movie courting the usual Friday night crowd. I‘m guessing we got that (and everything else you wouldn’t expect from a movie in 1990) because of the first movie’s clout, along with the trainwreck that was Exorcist II – which I’ve still never seen, despite owning the entire series.
Brett: I have seen video reviews of it online. That seems to be close enough for me.
Jeremy: I’ve avoided reading or watching anything about it. I know there will come a night where I can’t sleep. In that restless, magic time, around 2 a.m. – when bad ideas suddenly become good ideas – the time will be right to put it on. When that time comes, I want to go in fresh.
On the Scream Factory special features, Brad Dourif starts to talk about Exorcist II, hesitates, and then calls it a piece of shit. It’s glorious. Speaking of Dourif, are there any other performances we want to talk about?
Brett: Okay, Dourif. I felt his performance matched Scott’s pretty well. That’s probably why I didn’t feel Scott was over the top, he matches the person who he spends the most time talking with. I found using two actors to portray what is essentially the same person a very interesting choice.
Jeremy: It works way better than it’s supposed, given the crazy story behind it all.
Brett: What was the story? I thought it was a stylistic choice.
Jeremy: From the way Dourif tells it, not at all. Again, Dourif is originally cast to play the Gemini Killer, whose spirit is in Karras’ vacated body. The studio decides to recast the role entirely and have Jason Miller return.
I’m guessing the studio felt like someone from the first movie had to come back. It’s actually a studio note I get, at least to a degree. A lot of the movie hangs on Kinderman’s affection for Karras. There’s a better chance audiences will share that affection with the original actor in the part.
Brett: Ahhh, good old studio interference…
Jeremy: Sadly, Miller was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism, and he couldn’t do all the speeches and long takes. Then, and only then, is Dourif brought back in. That’s how we get what’s in the movie. Jason Miller is Karras – the actual Karras – but when the personality of the Gemini comes forward, it’s Dourif.
It all works surprisingly well. The “legion” isn’t just the psych ward as originally intended, it’s also the warring forces inside Karras. That lends some emotional stakes the original cut didn’t have. On the other hand, the Father Morning scenes don’t work. Not in the slightest.
Brett: No, that’s a disaster. You can see the new pages of the script right on the screen when he shows up. Hell, you can tell the ink is still wet on those pages.
Jeremy: The only benefit to the reshoots is Kinderman’s arc. He gets a moment with the real Karras. Also, the “I believe…” speech pays off Kinderman’s existential crisis at the beginning of the film: he can only rationalize evil in a world without gods or monsters.
At least, that’s the way I read it. Even if I like some of the theatrical cut’s climax, it wraps everything up too neatly. Removing all the exorcism noise but keeping some of the emotional payoff would be my preferred version of the film.
Gabby: I agree, I think that speech is powerful and respectful to the character. It would have been great to have an ending that had the balance you suggest Jeremy.
Brett: I kind of thought we didn’t get studio interference like this anymore, but Rouge One and Suicide Squad are two major examples.
Jeremy: Really? I see it as being worse – or at least more public. And it seems more common that directors get taken off their films during post-production. Take Rogue One. Rumors suggest that a third to a half of that movie is reshot footage, possibly made with or without Gareth Edwards’ involvement.
From what I can gather, though, Blatty did all the rewrites and reshoots here.
Brett: I hadn’t seen many stories for a while and then last year we got two major examples. One turned out okay, the other was a disaster.
Jeremy: I’m curious how much of that has to do with the modern concept of reshoots.
Brett: A fair amount I suspect. Marvel seems to have a pretty good reputation for letting things happen.
Jeremy: Just the fact that almost every big movie just pencils that into the budget, like it’s an inevitability that weeks of reshoots will happen. But, yeah, Warner Bros. seems especially bad about panicking over rough cuts and taking insane measures such as we see here. This is a studio that spent $30-$40 million on an Exorcist prequel, then spent as much money again to reshoot the entire film. And if I understand things correctly, Suicide Squad was finished by a company that makes movie trailers. That’s insane.
Brett: And to what end? They always seem to lose. Save for Rogue One, I can’t think of a situation where heavy-handed interference led to a better movie. Wizard of Oz? I guess?
Maybe when it’s a big hit you don’t hear about it.
Gabby: The Wizard of Oz comes from the era of the studio movies. Where studios ran everything and had to be really smart to try and outmaneuver the inevitable. It still ended up as a perfect movie, despite all of that in the background. We are supposed to be in a more free society artistically speaking and democratically by now. But I feel that movies in the American New Wave were less oppressed than some now. Let’s hope for a further rise of the independent movies and a growing group of diverse and liberally minded studio executives to give us more studio films like Moana and Frozen. Films that know what they want to say and use the studio system to further it, by hiring cultural historians and artists for instance, to form something powerful.
Jeremy: And I hope we get a clear understanding of what Rogue One was before the reshoots. I have a feeling it was rougher around the edges but had a more personal vision. It’s a movie I want to cover here. I think it falls under the type of movies we talk about.
And with that, anything to add before we get to our final thoughts?
Brett: I found I liked what this movie wanted to be, but I didn’t love what it actually turned out to be. It’s not bad though, and
Gabby: I think the first half is beautifully made, especially with the slow pacing and the escalation the eerie mood. Even though it has its flaws because of the supernatural elements, I still really like some of those aspects of the movie. Overall, I really recommend people see this one.
Jeremy: I’m already on record as being a huge fan of this series. It’s probably my favorite horror franchise outside of classic Universal Horror. If the second half was as good as the first, this would make my all-time top ten – a perfect combination of excitement and substance. As far as the movie we got, I still love it. Possibly more so because of its imperfections.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with a pick from Brett, Ichi (2008). In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below. Until then, go watch a movie.