Sequels are always a risky gamble, especially in the horror genre. In the case of The Exorcist, it was always going to be impossible for any sequel to be as ground-breaking as the original 1973 film. No film prior had shown such unspeakable evil befall a 13-year-old girl, from head spinning, to vomiting, to levitation, to strings of curses that would make a sailor blush. I’ve always felt that the real horror in The Exorcist occurs in the first act, when Regan (Linda Blair) talks about her friend Captain Howdy and claims to hear scratching in the walls of her bedroom. Those unseen elements and that creeping dread that something is not right still unnerve me whenever I re-watch the film.
The film was followed by the god-awful Exorcist II: The Heretic, one of the worst sequels in horror history, two prequels, and a recent TV series by Fox that was canceled after just two seasons. Recently, I re-watched The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) in preparation for watching and reviewing the Irish horror flick The Devil’s Doorway. The third film in the franchise, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the novel The Exorcist and its sequel Legion, is really the only sequel in the franchise deserving of attention. It is drastically different than the original, but in some ways, far more haunting, philosophical, and interesting.
When speaking about The Exorcist III, Blatty once said that he was more interested in creating “creaks and shadows” than the “head-spinning” elements of the original film. Set in Georgetown 15 years after the original film, Legion follows the story of hard-boiled detective Kinderman (George C. Scott), who is jaded from years of investigating murders. The only thing he’s sure of is that evil does indeed exist but it has no supernatural elements; rather, it exits in the cruel actions of humans. At one point, he tells his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) that God can’t exist because there is too much suffering in the world and humans are too imperfect, prone to self-destruction and diseases, such as cancer.
Kinderman is called to investigate sacrilegious murders in Georgetown, which have some connection to his friend Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priest from the first film who saves Regan by asking the demon to possess him in the film’s closing minutes, before lunging out the window and falling down a set of stairs.
Jason Miller returns in Legion and stars as the mysterious Patient X, who looks like Father Karras, but how can that be, Kinderman wonders, since Father Karrass died 15 years earlier. Miller’s role is juxtaposed with that of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who possessed the body of Karras and spent years regenerating his brain. Dourif, most famous for voicing Chucky, is phenomenal in this film. He verbally spars with Kinderman, recounting, in gruesome detail, the murders he committed, and then speaking of his “friend,” “the master,” who made all of the murders possible. Dourif is given long monologues when he’s on-screen. Spittle flies when he talks, and his eyes become wide and impassioned.
Initially, Miller was not available to shoot the film because he was on the West Coast, but once he returned East, the studio insisted that he be included in the film. Blatty did not want Miller in the film, and his director’s cut only features Dourif. That said, the film is much better for having Miller in it, whose sunken, sad eyes speak to the torment of Father Karras’ possession.
Unlike the original film, much of the horror happens off-screen, the “creaks and shadows” that Blatty mentioned. Most of the murders are recounted either through the Gemini Killer’s monologues or through Kinderman’s detective work. When the viewer is about to witness a murder happen on screen, the camera often pulls away and we’re only given the gory details once Kinderman arrives on the scene later and gathers the facts and evidence. This is effective because it leaves much to the imagination.
The Exorcist III also contains one of the greatest jump scares in cinema in the last third of the film. Without giving too much away, I’ll merely state that it involves a nurse and the angel of death. You’ll know it when you see it.
Blatty didn’t want an exorcism to occur at all in the film, but the studio demanded it. The exorcism occurs in the final act, and it feels rather silly and ham-handed compared to the rest of the film, which relies on atmosphere, mood, and tone to establish its unsettling horror. Legion varies so much from its original predecessor because of all it doesn’t show and the way it uses light and shadow. The scenes when Kinderman is alone in a cell with Karras/the Gemini Killer, specifically the use of light and shadow, are incredibly effective.
Patient X (Jason Miller) and Kinderman (George C. Scott)
Had the awful Exorcist II never been released, maybe The Exorcist III would have done better at the box office and garnered the attention it deserves. At least it currently has a cult following and has generally aged well. Miller and Dourif’s performances alone, coupled with the philosophical questions posed about the nature of evil, make it one of the best horror sequels.