I love October. I like to treat the whole month as one long Halloween and that includes watching horror movies. For the last several years I’ve done 31 Days, 31 Horror Movies as a sort of personal horror film festival. It’s way to get me to watch more horror and write more at the same time. There ARE a few rules I try and follow, which are:
- I try and watch a movie a day, but I might not get to write it up for a day or two.
- And then I try and write up some rambling, barely coherent post about it.
- It’s got to be a horror movie (straight sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries are generally out, though rules are made to be broken).
- No set watch-list. I’ll decide that day what I’ll watch (and I’ll take recommendations under consideration). The only exception is if I get an itching for a particular film and I don’t currently have access – I’ll plan around when I can rent/borrow/buy it.
- I’m planning to do theme weekends. Creature Feature is the staple, and we’ll see what we can come up with for the others (last year I did Random Hammer Dracula Movies on a bargain DVD and yet another Bigfoot Double Feature.)
- Probably should go without saying, but there are bound to be spoilers galore.
Enough rules talk! Let’s get to the first movie.
” The whole world is a homicide victim, Father.”
While I didn’t appreciate the original Exorcist for a very long time I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Exorcist III: Legion (which I’m just going to call Legion – mostly – for the rest of this). I think at the time the film came out I was fascinated by serial killers and the whole Gemini Killer angle drew me in where the possession aspect wouldn’t have. I think that’s the only thing that could have encouraged me to watch the film after the mess that was Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Legion treats Exorcist II as if it didn’t exist, which is probably for the best. William Peter Blatty came up with the original story after The Heretic bombed. It was originally intended to be a film with William Friedkin once again returning as director, but ‘creative differences’ between the two men quickly scuttled the project. Blatty eventually turned the idea into a successful book, Legion, which topped bestseller lists in 1983. Eventually interest in another Exorcist sequel waxed again in Hollywood and Blatty found himself in the position of turning a book based on a screenplay back into a screenplay again.
He also found himself in the director’s chair. At one point John Carpenter had been attached to direct, but backed out when it became clear that Blatty had his own ideas as to how the film should be directed. Blatty wasn’t a total novice, having directed The Ninth Configuration in 1980 (which I’ve seen, but damned if I can remember anything about it), but studio nervousness led to some changes between the screenplay and the final film. Blatty has been pretty vocal about studio interference – including the title, entire subplot about Father Morning and the special effect laden exorcism finale – souring him on the whole experience. He hasn’t directed another film since, which I think is too bad.
Legion did not set the box office on fire, though it made its budget back, and Blatty attributes that to lingering memories of Exorcist II. (He apparently wanted to keep the simpler book title.) There were two more sequels after this, but I haven’t seen either of them and have no real interest in doing so.
One final aside – despite my lack of interest in the other sequels, my wife and I very much enjoyed the Exorcist TV show. I think we liked season two even better, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of connections to the original film. (Plus John Cho was fantastic.)
I watched Legion on Amazon, but it’s available on any number of streaming sites right now (Including Vudu and Tubi for free, with ads.) It’s in HD on Amazon (as well as Shudder and Vudu) and the picture quality was good. I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up the Blu-ray from Scream Factory, but my understanding is that the extras (including a roughly restored version of Blatty’s original ending) might be worth it.
Legion starts off by introducing us to the primary players. First we see Father Dyer (St. Elsewhere’s Ed Flanders) in Georgetown, stopping by the iconic stairs where his friend Father Karras had died many years before. Then we see Police Lt. William Kinderman (George C. Scott) working at home – he too finds Karras on his mind. The anniversary of the priest’s death is approaching. Finally, something… else moves through the nighttime streets. A rumbling growl betrays a presence that invades a church, blowing out candles, scattering hymnals and causing an icon of Christ to open its eyes. Here is our third main character – though whether it too is a familiar one or not is yet to be determined.
Legion is a slow film, almost languid, like the carp that swims up and down in Kinderman’s bathtub. There are a lot of lingering steadycam shots of wet streets and hospital halls. Even the conversations are drawn out and full of pauses. The dialogue between Kinderman and Dyer – long time friends – is humorous and sharp, but weirdly stilted – almost like a stage reading sometimes. Fortunately for us (and for Blatty) George C. Scott could make the phonebook sound interesting, and while the dialogue is occasionally too writer-cute it’s always delivered well.
Much of the bulk of the film, despite its lineage, is more police procedural than possession horror filck. Kinderman investigates a series of killings that emulate the MO of the long- dead Gemini killer – down to certain details kept secret from the press. When his friend Dyer is killed in a hospital he locks the place down, hoping to find some detail that will allow him to crack the case. His interviews lead him first to a geriatric ward and then to the psychiatric ward. And Patient X.
The first time I saw Legion I was startled when Patient X turned out to be the same actor who played Father Karras in the original Exorcist film. In my memory that connection was more tenuous, a little more ‘is he or isn’t he,’ but it’s spelled out pretty explicitly. This IS Father Karras. His body anyway. Who or what is inside that body is another matter.
The cat-and-mouse game between the investigator and the killer is a staple of crime fiction and film, of course, but the twist here is that that the killer is already incarcerated. And yet still he kills. Because the entity in Karras’ body isn’t truly trapped there. And there’s a reason the fingerprints at the crime scenes are all from different people. How do you stop a murderer that’s capable of being someone else?
Legion is long on mood and short on scares for a horror film. Blatty prefers to unsettle us, to let us imagine things. Instead of showing us a gory corpse he’d rather let George C. Scott tell us the details of the murder and let the words and the man’s face let us know how horrific it is. This subtlety has the effect of making the few true horrific moments stand out in relief. There’s an elderly lady who crawls on the ceiling for instance. And a really standout sequence in which a nurse goes about her duties at night. Blatty doesn’t do any editing at all – it’s one continuous long shot that’s so innocuous you begin to lose focus… just in time for a nightmare in white to jump the crap out of you.
The scenes with Kinderman and the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) are amazing – just fantastic pieces of dialogue/monologue and almost worth the price of admission on their own. They’re too many and too long, slowing the pace even more, but so good you almost don’t notice.
The ending is a bit of a letdown, unfortunately – a special effects extravaganza involving an unrelated priest and his attempt at exorcising what infests Father Karras. This was one of those things insisted on by the studio. It’s shot and handled well enough, but as an audience we have no connection with Father Morning and there’s no emotional resonance to his fate. As a result of all that noise and brimstone the actual finale loses a bit of its punch. Had it been what Blatty intended – a final, bleak act of love that both proved a man’s faith and broke it at the same time – it would be a stronger film.
There’s still a lot to love, though – including a number of strange vision/dream sequences with blink-and-you-miss-them cameos from famous folks of the day (including, bizarrely, the Joker from DC Comics). They contribute to an atmosphere of strangeness and dread that lingers long after the film is over.
The Bottom Line
The Exorcist III: Legion is a bit more stiff and bombastic than I remembered – there’s far less ambiguity to the plot and far more intense one-on-one conversations with a madman – but it’s still a decent horror film. Does it reach the heights of the original? No, but it’s still well worth a watch.