(I pitched this review to Slant Magazine, but never got a response—with the disc having been out for nearly two months at this point, I have my doubts that Slant will be picking it up, so I figure I’ll get it some air by posting it here.)
Beneath the shocking effects of the original Exorcist, there rests a simple story about the power of faith in our lives, and the means through which we confront evil. When William Peter Blatty—writer of the novel and screenplay upon which William Friedkin’s film is based—decided to take a crack at adapting his follow-up novel, Legion, for the screen, it was this aspect of the story that he chose to highlight. The novel is an examination of what Blatty calls “the problem of evil”—why it exists, what purpose it serves, how an ostensibly good and righteous God can allow it—wrapped up in the trappings of a supernatural murder mystery. It is quiet and contemplative where The Exorcist is abrasive and visceral.
The film version, written and directed by Blatty and ultimately titled The Exorcist III, is, until its climax, similarly constructed. The Exorcist III is a film of ideas and dialogue, of men of various levels of faith wrestling with the often ugly realities of the world they inhabit. Lt. Bill Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original film; George C. Scott here) is a Washington, D.C., police detective investigating a series of gruesome murders that bear a striking resemblance to killings committed fifteen years earlier by the since-executed Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). Details indicate that the current spate of killings is not the work of a copycat. Kinderman’s investigation—and the trail of murders—leads him to a hospital where, in the mental ward, he discovers a patient who may very well be Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, reprising his role from the original)—a patient who forces him to confront long-buried demons and reassess his own beliefs.
Blatty handles this material with the confidence and sure hand of a seasoned director, despite having directed only one previous film (the Golden Globe–winning The Ninth Configuration in 1980). The Exorcist III is heavy on atmosphere and masterfully conveys a sense of dread—particularly during a justly famous scare scene that is shot almost entirely from one camera set-up in a hospital corridor. The performances are roundly excellent—especially those of Scott and Dourif, who bring life to exposition-heavy dialogue scenes that might have dragged in the hands of lesser actors. Also of note is Ed Flanders in the role of Father Dyer, whose friendship with Kinderman offers both a welcome source of levity in a film preoccupied with such serious concerns and an opportunity for Blatty to indulge in the sort of humorous writing that was his bread and butter early in his career (before The Exorcist cast him as a serious horror writer, Blatty wrote comic novels, and co-wrote A Shot in the Dark with Blake Edwards).
Production company Morgan Creek was less enamored of Blatty’s quirky, quiet vision, and puzzled that a film entitled The Exorcist III (against Blatty’s wishes) did not contain an exorcism scene. Either Blatty was forced to shoot one himself, or one was shot without him (stories differ), but as a result, the climax is a special effects extravaganza that sits uncomfortably next to the remainder of the film. Nicol Williamson is hastily shoe-horned into the proceedings as Father Mourning, who heroically confronts the evil (as well as snakes, an exploding Bible, and some flesh-ripping) until Kinderman can arrive for an explosive, rain-drenched denouement.
Studio tinkering turned The Exorcist III into something it was never meant to be, but in spite of this, what remains—however flawed—is a thoughtful and creepy film that has achieved cult status and garnered its share of critical appreciation by relying on suspense, ideas, and creative direction.
Shout Factory’s Blu-ray is an upgrade from the previous Warner Bros edition of the film, but not a significant one. Flesh tones are warmer, and the contrast is stronger, but the transfer is darker, particularly in indoor scenes. On the audio end, Shout Factory offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both of which provide great fidelity, though the surround track seems strangely focused on the front and center, only periodically dipping into the side and rear channels, which is disappointing for a film with such great and often hair-raising sound design.
Disc 1 of this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of The Exorcist III includes a new 2K scan of the inter-positive of the theatrical edition, as well as a vintage featurette and interviews, TV spots, theatrical trailers, and deleted and alternate scenes. But the biggest news here is the long-awaited release of a Director’s Cut, included on Disc 2. According to Shout Factory:
We conducted an exhaustive search through a pallet of film assets from the original shoot to re-create William Peter Blatty’s intended vision. Unfortunately, that footage has been lost to time. To that end, we turned to VHS tapes of the film’s dailies to assemble the director’s cut. However, even some of that footage was incomplete, so scenes from the theatrical re-shoot were used to fill in the gaps. This director’s cut is a composite of varying footage quality from the best available sources.
Shout Factory has done a commendable job in its creation of this version of the film, and it is certainly a must-watch for fans, but the variable nature of the image quality has the unfortunate effect of hurting the atmosphere that is one of the film’s primary strengths. As a result, the Director’s Cut is more of an interesting curio than a revelation, though it is instructive to see how Blatty originally structured the film, particularly for those familiar with the novel, Legion; besides the alternate climax, some scenes are rearranged, and much of Brad Dourif’s performance (which was reshot for the theatrical version) has here been replaced with takes from the dailies. Also, in both versions, the final shot leaves the film somewhat open-ended, though in the Director’s Cut, the implications are much different.
A far-reaching interview with Blatty that touches on the production, his relationships with several of the actors, his thoughts on filmmaking and writing, and his faith can be played as a commentary over the Director’s Cut.
Additionally, Disc 2 includes a recent interview with Dourif in which he discusses the intricacies of his performance during the original shoot and his lingering discontent with the released version of the film (he essentially had to recreate his entire performance in a different location on very short notice), as well as his relationship with Blatty and his opinions on the various controversies surrounding the production.
A featurette about the reshoot relies on interviews with production manager Ronald Colby (who was brought into oversee the filming of the new climax) and editor Todd Ramsay, neither of whom was particularly impressed with Blatty’s original version of the film and whose commentary offers an interesting counterpoint to the mostly pro-Blatty slant of the other features (though much of their criticism of Blatty as a director indicates that neither is aware that he had previously directed a film).
Also of note is a featurette devoted to composer Barry DeVorzon’s chilling score.
William Blatty’s The Exorcist III is a smart, scary, and atmospheric thriller that, despite its flaws, manages to step out of the long shadow of the original classic. The release of the Director’s Cut sheds long-awaited light on Blatty’s original intentions and highlights his oft-overlooked strength as a filmmaker.