Oh, sequels. While they’re often satisfactory to fans of their respective franchises, they almost always pale in comparison to the first film. It seems that for every Empire Strikes Back there’s a dozen or more Blues Brothers 2000s to put a bad name on sequels. It’s quite rare for sequels to be better than the original film, though it does happen from time to time. One such sequel that lives up to – and arguably surpasses – the original film is William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III.
The threequel follows detective Kinderman, the policeman who played a minor role in the first Exorcist film, who sets out on a murder investigation. What begins as a routine case winds up bearing ties to a 15-year-old case involving a now-deceased serial killer known as the “Gemini Killer.” Things get even stranger when Kinderman encounters a mental patient who strongly resembles Father Karas, the priest who died during the exorcism of the first film. As Kinderman unravels the mystery, the victims pile up and shocking revelations come to light about the two supposedly-deceased men. The thrilling film is part police-procedural and part supernatural horror, and it works brilliantly. While many fans will justly say that the original Exorcist is a masterpiece that cannot be topped, a case can and should be made for the surprisingly superb Exorcist III. Here’s why this underrated sequel may be better than the original film.
One aspect that makes The Exorcist III unique among supernatural thrillers and other films in the Exorcist franchise is its heavy focus on character. Sure, there’s both a murder-mystery and a scary ghost story driving the plot, but it’s the film’s more grounded and realistic approach to the characters and situations that allow the film to hold its own against the original Exorcist. The key to making this work is the plethora of fantastic performances. Celebrated actor George C. Scott turns in one of his best-ever performances as detective Kinderman, bringing a fragility and pathos to the role that is thoroughly enthralling. Ed Flanders plays Kinderman’s old friend Father Dyer, and does an equally great job, making their every scene together feel warm, genuine, and conversational. Simply put, it’s a joy to watch these two friends banter back and forth with each other, which gives the film an intense emotional weight once their lives are endangered in the supernatural proceedings. As the mystery weighs on Kinderman, Scott does an excellent job portraying the havoc that the violent case has wreaked upon his soul. Acting opposite him is Brad Dourif, who plays the Gemini Killer with a perfect balance of derangement and realism. His is a powerhouse horror villain performance, and one that certainly rivals the possessed Linda Blair of the first film.
The Exorcist III was directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the original Exorcist novel and the screenwriter for the first film. Although he would certainly know his own material better than anyone else, making a sequel to Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is frequently cited as one of the worst movies ever made, was a bold choice for Blatty. Not only was there the negative reception of the film’s predecessor to worry about, but Blatty had only ever directed a film once, and that was 10 years prior. Clearly Blatty had a knack for directing, however, because with Exorcist III the novelist – who dabbled in comedy writing for the bulk of his career – displayed a level of skill and confidence for directing horror that is unmatched.
Yes, William Friedkin’s direction in the first film is about as perfect as it can be for the material, but the same can absolutely be said for Blatty’s direction in III. The way that he lingers on shots to build up an unbearable feeling of dread is pure genius, and when he eventually hits you with a scare, it’s more terrifying than anyone could expect. Blatty’s devout Catholic upbringing no doubt affected his choice of imagery, as he presents religious environments with immense reverence, then bastardizes them with unfathomable sacrilege. His predilection for comedy gave him a flair for timing, which works great for both Kinderman’s sarcastic dialogue and the shocking scares.
Although a sequel to one of the greatest genre-defining films of all time is unlikely to ever get the credit it deserves, The Exorcist III offers something totally different but equally horrifying as the original film. The Exorcist has a cold and sterile air to it, with much of it playing out as a kind of medical drama gone supernatural. The Exorcist III, with its heavy focus on its characters, tells a more personal story in the context of a police procedural. Though the film is decently well-regarded, it might have gone down in the history books as one of the greatest horror films ever made had it not been unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor. As Den of Geek reminds us, The Exorcist III “had an overall tone quite unlike anything else coming out of Hollywood.
It was the film he [Blatty] wanted to make, and most important of all, title aside, it was not an Exorcist sequel.” Indeed, the film was never intended to be an Exorcist movie and was originally titled Legion. It was a separate story – a supernatural-tinged murder-mystery – that just happened to take place in the same city and feature older versions of a few characters from The Exorcist. Unfortunately, the studio forced Blatty to stuff in an unrelated exorcism sequence to tie it into the franchise, which resulted in Blatty having to scrap his entire original vision for the ending. Although a “director’s cut” now exists that restores most of Blatty’s original vision, it’s a shame that Legion was never given the chance to stand up on its own.
Just as The Exorcist is fondly remembered as the scariest film of its day, The Exorcist III can easily lay claim to being the scariest film of its time. In other words, the ‘90s didn’t see a more terrifying picture than this one. The famous hospital jump scare alone is enough to verify the claim, as the scene is arguably more well-known than the movie itself, and is the subject of numerous articles, breakdowns, and video essays, like this one from Film School Rejects. Although the hospital jump scare is the best known scene from the movie, The Exorcist III is loaded with effective scares and a chilling atmosphere, and is just as terrifying as – if not more than – the 1973 classic.