Revisiting LEGION: EXORCIST III

(This article was originally published in Cemetery Dance #62)

AN INVITATION TO THE DANCE

LEGION: EXORCIST III

I remember when the commercials for Legion: Exorcist III first started showing on TV screens in Ireland. I was fourteen years old, and although I hadn’t yet seen The Exorcist, thanks to the whole “video nasty” ban—that insidious restriction imposed by the church and browbeaten politicians (here’s looking at you, Mary Whitehouse) in order to protect impressionable children from what they deemed inappropriate material, I was well aware of the movie. It had, like so many of those movies blocked from our shores, gained something of a mythical quality by virtue of its banning. We would talk about it at recess, embellishing the things we’d heard to make it seem even more torturous to have been denied its horrors (I recall one kid telling us that there was a scene in the film in which a baby’s head explodes and a cat crawls out!).

I had, however, seen Exorcist II: The Heretic, which, considering the larger-than-life reputation of the first film, came as a great disappointment to all of those gathered there with the curtains drawn in my friend’s house one sunny Sunday afternoon. It confusThe_Exorcist_3ed us, made us wonder if perhaps we have built up the first film a bit too much in our febrile young minds.

But when those first trailers showed up on TV for the third installment, it looked like a completely different animal, and ample justification for our delight. But despite the many ad spots for Exorcist III, the film never hit the theaters on our side of the pond. Instead, it was relegated to the video stores and all but forgotten. Even then, it was hard to find.

Once adulthood starts lurking like a thief on the borders of adolescence, it’s rare that anything you were ever excited about delivers the same level of gratification. But years later, on a Bradburyesque Halloween night, I attended a midnight showing of the director’s cut of The Exorcist, digitally remastered, and I fell in love with it. It lived up to all my expectations (despite the conspicuous absence of the exploding baby), and I emerged into the crisp night air buoyed by the experience.

There is much that I can say about that night, and that movie, but The Exorcist has endured so steadfastly in the public consciousness that there is little I can add that hasn’t already been said, and said better, in the past, so let’s leave it at that and return to the point of this essay.

Inspired by that midnight screening, I hunted down a copy of Legion: Exorcist III. Unlike the original, I had few expectations when I sat down and slotted that VHS tape into the machine. As I’ve said, I believed nothing could come close to mirroring the sheer mind-blowing experience of the first film, but I had read the novel Legion, and was encouraged to see that it had been directed by the author of the book, so I kept my misgivings in check.

And I’m glad, because William Peter Blatty’s Legion (which is how I’m going to refer to it from this point on) is a terrific film, and has grown to become one of my all-time favorites.

In the company of horror fans, all you need do to indicate the movie you’re thinking of is mention one scene: a long static shot of a hospital hallway, silence broken only by the soft squeak of rubber-soled shoes and the muted crackling of ice melting in a glass. Then, an unexpected zoom-in on a figure shrouded in white wielding an oversized pair of stainless steel shears as it bears down on a pretty young nurse. It’s an incredibly frightening and masterfully crafted scene, and it has become an enduring memory for all those who’ve seen it. And it is only one of many notable scenes in a movie unfairly criticized at the time of its release.

The deranged lady crawling like a spider across the ceiling…

That voice in the confessional…(“…it’s a problem I’m working on, Father…all this…bleeding.”)

The jarring, incongruous faces on some of the religious statues (look carefully and you’ll spot them…)

The bizarre dreams of Heaven…

Had the movie been released bearing only the title of the novel upon which it is based, it might have been rightfully considered a solid, superbly written, and genuinely scary exercise in existential horror rather than a disappointing sequel to a seminal classic. It seems that audiences who went in expecting more crucifix masturbation, projectile vomit, uncouth demon spawn, or spinning heads, left somewhat chagrinned that the third installment in their beloved series had, much like the dreadful second entry Exorcist II: The Heretic, failed to emulate the original.

But to compare Legion to the original is to miss the point. There are of course, similarities, particularly in the nature of the protagonists in both movies (Father Karras in The Exorcist, and Lt. Kinderman in Legion), who believe more in Evil than Good because the evidence of the former seems more prevalent in the world they see around them, a perception that forces them to question their beliefs. But for all the questions and moral dilemmas raised in first movie, Legion takes it a step further. All the theological and spiritual questions are there, but rather than solely documenting the age-old struggle between Good and Evil, it almost seems to propose that evil may already have won.legion

Lieutenant Kinderman (the late George C. Scott, filling the shoes of the late Lee J. Cobb) is a decent man who has seen the worst the world has to offer over and over again and it has left him with a distorted view of the world, one in which the idea of devoting oneself to the worship of a higher power seems preposterous while children are being brutally murdered in direct mockery of that same devotion. Some of the best scenes in the movie center around the banter between Kinderman and his closest friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders, taking over for Reverend William O’ Malley). Kinderman takes no small delight in goading Dyer, in poking fun at his friend’s faith, but the humor is borne of the detective’s disgust with the world in which he exists, and nothing will convince him otherwise. And by the time the movie reaches its climax, the only revelation that Kinderman experiences is that he was right.

As is typical of Blatty’s work, both on the page and on the screen, the grim proceedings are offset with wry humor. Perhaps my favorite exchange takes place at the entrance to the movie theater where Kinderman and Dyer meet once a year every year to watch It’s A Wonderful Life. Kinderman’s anecdote about the carp (“if I see it moving its gills, I’ll kill it”) is hysterically funny but Blatty does not allow the light-hearted tone to last long, and immediately follows this scene with one in which Kinderman numbly relates to Dyer the gruesome details of a young boy’s murder. There are rapid switches in tone throughout Legion (though fewer in the third act), and they only make the humor and the horror more potent as a result.

The performances are uniformly excellent, from supports to leads, with Scott in top form as the embittered Kinderman. He is truly convincing as a man grasping at the last straws of his faith not only in God, but in humanity itself. His one and only breakdown in the movie is, though brief, a truly heartbreaking moment, and as mentioned, his scenes with Ed Flanders are worth the price of admission (or rental) alone. The late Jason Miller, as Karras (the only cast member featured in both the original and sequel) is not on screen for long, but when he is, we are told all we need to know by the deep lines in his face and the pallor of skin, the death in his eyes. Kinderman’s old friend is suffering.

But special mention must go to Brad Dourif (a favorite among horror aficionados) who delivers a wonderfully manic and terrifying turn despite being forced to sit in the same spot in a straightjacket for the entire time he appears onscreen. His sneering, seething, direct-to-camera diatribes are another of the movie’s highlights. We believe he is insane. We believe he takes an almost childish delight in being permitted to carry on his heinous work. We believe he is the Gemini Killer.

Legion is well-written, beautifully shot, and for the most part a great adaptation of the novel. But the movie’s greatest deviation from the source material becomes its biggest flaw. Apparently under pressure from the studio, Blatty altered the ending to include an exorcism and was forced to tack “Exorcist III” onto the title of the movie. Whether or not this was the case, the final sequence with Father Morning (Nicol Williamson) seems like an afterthought and somewhat cheapens what is to that point, a solid, cerebral and scary supernatural thriller. It is not, however, enough to ruin a great film. It just leaves one wondering what might have been had the producers been savvy enough to let Blatty ride his own train to the very end.

In the end, Legion is a thoughtful, well-executed study of man’s everlasting struggle against overwhelming darkness. And nowhere is it better emphasized than in that dark cell, when The Gemini Killer speaks to Kinderman. The old detective’s expression only further compounds one of the underlying messages at the core of the story: We, like Kinderman, will never fully understand why God allows monsters to roam the earth, or why terrible things happen to good people. We are never certain if there even is a God, or a Heaven. We only know what we’ve been told and shown, and led to believe.

Faith is fragile. Evil is certain

There are no immediate answers.

Maybe later.

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting LEGION: EXORCIST III

  1. One of my favourites as well. In the book, when Kinderman outlined his “little theory”, I got chills. Legion always seemed so much above and beyond the Exorcist. I was mostly pleased with the movie – but disappointed that Kinderman’s idea was left out. You’re right, the movie (and the book) really deserve to be experienced without the link to the first novel/movie. Great summation.

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