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Blu-ray Review: The Exorcist III (Collector’s Edition)

THE FILM

“I have dreams of a rose, and falling down a long flight of stairs.”

For more than fifteen years Police Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) has been haunted by the death of his friend Father Damien Karras. Now, on the 15th anniversary of the exorcism that claimed the priest’s life, Kinderman’s world is once again shattered when a boy is found decapitated and savagely crucified. It’s just the beginning of a nightmare series of bizarre religious murders. The brutal murders bear the hallmarks of the infamous Gemini Killer…who died in the electric chair fifteen years earlier. But when a psychopath claiming to be the Gemini Killer reveals intimate, gruesome details that only the true killer could possibly know, Kinderman is confronted with a horrifying truth that he cannot explain…and that will shake him to the core.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_12 Morgan Creek, the mini studio that may or may not exist anymore, has had kind of a bad run with their Exorcist sequels over the years. Much more highly publicized, the studio famously tapped writer/director Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame to write and direct the official prequel to The Exorcist, following the death of the studio’s first choice, director John Frankenheimer. Originally shot as The Exorcist: Dominion, studio execs were shocked at what Schrader eventually delivered — something light on scares, heavy on drama, and very, very stupid. In panic mode, and after deducing that mere reshoots would not be enough, they then tapped director Renny Harlin, known more for B-movie action films, for his own take. The Exorcist: Dominion soon became The Exorcist: The Beginning. Horror was upped, the drama somewhat sidelined, but was — again — very, very stupid. However, even stupid movies get to be right once in a while, and The Beginning actually manages the odd feat of being more entertaining (not better, mind you) than Schrader’s original cut, which was eventually released straight to video under the title Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist.

However, before all this came to pass, Morgan Creek waged a similar battle, only this time it was against the novelist and screenwriter of the original Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, during production of Legion, a semi-sequel that he was adapting and directing for the screen. Though less publicized than the Dominion debacle that would come later, Legion, eventually retitled as The Exorcist III (despite the outry from Blatty), soon became well known as a muddled-with  and corrupted final product, with which its writer/director wasn’t quite happy.

For years, talk of this alternate cut became well known, and the boom of consumer Internet soon joined together a horde of horror fans who goaded each other’s desire to pontificate on if the proper, restored cut would ever come to pass. For a long time, it seemed as if that would never happen.

Enter Shout! Factory, who restored as much of Blatty’s original cut as possible, relying on every possible original film source. But, more on that in a bit.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_11The Exorcist III (Theatrical Cut) — 4.5/5. One of the great underrated sequels of the horror genre, The Exorcist III, it goes without saying, had huge shoes to fill — not just because The Exorcist was so good, but also because The Exorcist II: The Heretic was so bad. But in spite of the battles Blatty faced, The Exorcist III is actually damn good. The braver horror fans among us would point to it being their preferred entry in the Exorcist series, even over the original (I join them in this), and even if you don’t agree, it’s easy to see why.

The Exorcist‘s bit characters return to comprise the major focal point of The Exorcist III. Lieutenant William Kinderman (played by George C. Scott here, and Lee J. Cobb in the original), presented in just a few scenes during the original as investigating a mysterious death, is the lead. (Cobb had died long before The Exorcist III went into production, in fact having died three years after appearing in the original.) Kinderman’s good friend, Father Joseph Dyer (played by Ed Flanders, taking over for non-actor/priest William O’Malley), who again appeared in just a couple scenes as well the poignant ending, embarks on a significant role, though with…er…less screen time. And following along with an odd but perfectly acceptable slight retcon, Kinderman and Dyer — two men from the original film who never met or shared a scene — are very good friends these many years later, both of them still mourning the death of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, then and now), in another slight series retcon. (Kinderman and Miller never seemed to matriculate beyond interrogator and interogatee during the original film, but the men somehow became “best friends”.)

Because of all this familiarity, but differently envisioned, The Exorcist III feels familiar at the same time it feels oddly different. More of a mystery/thriller with horror elements, rather than the out-and-out horror film the original quite handily was, The Exorcist III somehow feels like it belongs to the series at the same time it doesn’t. Random and truncated use of “Tubular Bells,” which later became known as The Exorcist theme, as well as shots of those long, unending steps down which Karras threw himself at the end of the original film, will, of course, trigger certain feelings and recollections. But with every character that appears in both The Exorcist and The Exorcist III being recast except for Father Karras, and with a different director at the helm whose tone could not be more different from original director William Friedkin, The Exorcist III (not to come off at all disrespectful) often feels like excellent fan fiction. And that’s because, especially when it comes to the horror genre, sequels don’t just resurrect concepts and conflicts, but the characters that come with them, and when those concepts and conflicts suffer the degradation of sequelitus, the characters often do as well.

Not the case here.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_13Yes, it’s odd to see Kinderman and Dyer acting like best friends despite never meeting during the original film, and yes, it’s even odder when Kinderman talks about Father Karras being “his best friend” and that he “loved him,” even though we, the audience, remember that their time together during the original was short and lacked anything beyond formalities. Nothing about them suggested they became friends during their few shared scenes, and in fact their dynamic sometimes bordered on hostile toward each other, but again, it’s the strength of Blatty as a writer and director that we easily accept that these men were all very close to each other.

The Exorcist III shares a lot of familiar faces with the director’s previous effort, The Ninth Configuration (based on his previous novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane,” itself rewritten and released in a different form bearing the name of the film adaptation). Jason Miller as Father Karras, Ed Flanders as Father Dyer, Scott Wilson as Dr. Temple, Nicol Williamson (who nearly starred in Configuration but quit at the last minute) as Father Morning, and George DiCenzo as Stedmen eagerly return to work under Blatty’s direction, working in large or small parts. And joining them are George C. Scott as Kinderman and Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, both of them easily handing in performances that would have assuredly achieved at least acting nominations at that year’s Academy Awards, had the organization not had (and still has) such a prejudice against the genre. Scott and Dourif, by themselves, do tremendous work, but seeing them together is like fireworks. Dourif, especially, is saddled with, essentially, exposition in the form of long, almost Shakespearean monologues, during which he confesses his life of murder. He screams spit at the camera closing in on him, unleashing an energy and fury that many actors don’t have the confidence to showcase. It might be one of the best performances ever in a horror film.

And being that this is, of course, a horror film, Blatty doesn’t miss the chance to sprinkle in some intensely eerie imagery. From the old woman impossibly spider-walking across the ceiling over an oblivious Kinderman to perhaps the most famous jump scare in horror history — the hallway corridor scene — The Exorcist III proves that Blatty’s ability to terrify his audience isn’t just limited to his words on the page, but with his uncanny knack for disturbing visuals.

The theatrical cut more than holds its own against the original, achieving the status of being the only good sequel in the five-film series, and in some circles, the best entry of them all.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_18Legion (Director’s Cut) — 3.5/5. In the same way Morgan Creek had it right to entirely reshoot Schrader’s Dominion and release The Exorcist: The Beginning instead, they were also (mostly) right to tinker with Legion. Sadly, after all this time in which fans ruminated on what may have been, The Exorcist III (called Legion on this disc) is finally presented in nearly its original vision. And it’s not the revelation that most fans have been wanting.

Identical in plot and mostly in construction, there are some notable absences — mostly in the form of Jason Miller and the third-act exorcism scene (performed by Nicol Williamson’s Father Morning). I’ll join in the chorus when I say that, yes, the exorcism scene featured in the theatrical cut feels very tacked on. The great irony in this was Blatty’s original insistence that the film be called Legion so that the audience would judge it apart from The Exorcist legacy, only for the studio to decide to capitalize on The Exorcist brand name, and then later, decide that the film needs an exorcism scene to justify the title. But the presence of this unnecessary scene in the theatrical cut doesn’t do near the same amount of disservice as Blatty’s original choice in having Dourif fully play the part of Karras along with the Gemini Killer. Whereas in the theatrical cut, footage of Miller and Dourif are intercut to show that Karras has been possessed by the Gemini Killer since that night he tumbled down those steps, in the director’s cut, the intention was that Dourif had simply been cast to play the Father Karras role. Normally this wouldn’t feel so strange, being that Kinderman and Dyer had also been recast, but beyond a framed photo on the wall of Dourif in a priest’s garb, we have no indication that this recasting has taken place. It feels foreign, and strange — especially after Miller’s work in The Exorcist III has become so well known (and especially since Miller’s name still appears in the opening and closing credits of this cut, even when following the alternate title of Legion). 

By comparison to what eventually came to be, and even though Dourif still offers strong work, Legion is simply the lesser of the versions. Replacing the tacked-on exorcism scene is a very anticlimactic confrontation between Kinderman and the Gemini Killer. Legion ends before you even have a chance to realize what’s happened, and the ending feels too slight and quick in favor of the bombastic finale that would come during reshoots. And man, once becoming familiar with the theatrical cut, you really really miss Jason Miller. Between that, and scenes of Dourif whinnying like a horse or whistling like a train, well, the director’s cut fails to live up to the reputation it’s amassed during the previous near-30 years.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_17Legion still unfolds the same as The Exorcist III and hits all the same beats, but it would seem the theatrical cut we’ve had all along really is the stronger version of the two. Ironically, being that The Exorcist III is one of the most underrated horror sequels in the genre, it’s additionally ironic that the version we’ve had all this time was the superior one, all while we dreamed about something better.

THE PICTURE

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_5The Exorcist III (Theatrical Cut) — 4/5. Even if the long mooted director’s cut of The Exorcist III didn’t live up to its reputation, we can at least look to this release for the much improved video presentation of the theatrical cut, which blows Warner Bros.’ previous release way out of the water. Though the film still very much shows its age, clarity is better, colors are brighter, and it boasts a much more naturalistic filmic presence. While the presentation could still be better, and the grain can be heavy at times, the picture is improved enough that this release should be an easy upgrade based on this alone.

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_1Legion (Director’s Cut) — 3.5/5. A lower score for this cut was inevitable, being that many different sources were tapped to present this alternate cut, most of which were VHS dailies from the director’s personal collection. So, if you’re one of those folks who were bothered by Shout!’s recent splicing efforts with their presentation of the Manhunter director’s cut, in which alternate scenes were spliced in using standard definition sources and unconverted into high-def, well, run, screaming, for your life. Otherwise, as would be expected, the footage shared between the theatrical and director’s cuts are identical; the ones unique to the director’s cut are much less impressive.

 THE SOUND

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_2The Exorcist III (Theatrical Cut) — 3.5/5. To my ear, the audio presentation included on this release doesn’t sound that different from the initial Warner Bros. release, which, to be fair, wasn’t that great to begin with. This really seems odd to say, but…there really isn’t that much difference between the 5.1 DTS and the 2.0 stereo. Dialogue still sounds fine, though slightly muted, and the unusual musical score by Barry Devorzon works the way it was intended — just under the surface, and unmusical in design — but the 5.1 sadly lacks… “oomph.”

Legion (Director’s Cut) — 3/5. Everything above, but with even lesser audio oomph during the VHS splices.

 THE SUPPLEMENTS

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_16I imagine most people who opt to buy this release will flip right to the second disc in support of the director’s cut version to get down to the nitty gritty on just what went wrong during the production of Legion. For those individuals, start with the audio interview between Michael Felsher and writer/director/novelist William Peter Blatty. Though it plays over the director’s cut, it’s not a commentary so much as an in-depth discussion on Blatty’s career, early iterations of Legion/The Exorcist III that almost made it to screens (John Carpenter nearly directed), and the battles he faced making his vision the victor. (He shares an amusing anecdote in which Paul Schrader picked him up and took him to the movies to see the Harlin version of The Exorcist: The Beginning, where they laughed quite a bit. As they should have.)

The remaining (video) interview segments on the disc are compiled together in a massive making-of featurette, although every interview segment plays independently. (There is “no play” all option.) Nearly everyone still living involved with the film’s production has seemingly been tracked down (although, curiously, Blatty does not appear on camera for any of the interviews). When it comes to definitive retrospectives on a cult film, this is it for The Exorcist III. 

The complete list of special features is as follows:

DISC ONE: The Exorcist III (Theatrical Cut)
— NEW 2K Scan Of The Interpositive
— Vintage Featurette
— Deleted Scene/Alternate Takes/Bloopers
— Deleted Prologue
— Vintage Interviews (Featuring Behind-The-Scenes Footage) With Writer/Director William Peter Blatty, George C. Scott, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Grand L. Bush, Executive Producer James G. Robinson, Production Designer Leslie Dilley, Larry King And C. Everett Koop
— Theatrical Trailers
— TV Spots
— Photo Galleries
DISC TWO: Legion (Original Director’s Cut) 105 minutes
NEW Audio Interview With Writer/Director William Peter Blatty
NEW A “Wonderfull” Time – Interviews With Producer Carter DeHaven, Actors Clifford David And Tracy Thorne And Production Assistant Kara Reidy
NEW Signs Of The Gemini – An Interview With Brad Dourif
NEW The Devil In The Details – Interview With Production Designer Leslie Dilley, Assistant Designer Daren Dochterman And Illustrator Simon Murton
NEW Music For A Padded Cell – An Interview With Composer Barry DeVorzon
NEW All This Bleeding – A Look At The Re-shoot And Makeup Effects With Production Manager Ronald Colby, Editor Todd Ramsay, Effects Artists William Forsche, Mike Smithson, Brian Wade And Actor/Body Double Charles Powell

TECH SPECS

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_10STUDIO: Morgan Creek Films
DISTRIBUTOR: Shout! Factory
GENRE: Horror/Thriller
RATING: R
THEATRICAL RELEASE DATE: August 17, 1990
VIDEO STREET DATE: October 25, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 5.1 DTS-HD; English 2.0 Stereo
SUBTITLES: English
RUN TIME: 110 mins (theatrical); 105 mins (director’s cut)
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
REGION: A

 OVERALL 4.5/5

exorcist_3_legion_blu-ray_review_covWell, it’s finally here: the original cut of The Exorcist III that we’ve all spent years ruminating on with like-minded horror fans and across online forums. Obviously there will be two schools of thought on the matter regarding which cut is better, with most people likely opting to side with Blatty on his director’s cut. But if you ask me, tacked-on ending aside, the theatrical cut remains superior. As good as Dourif is during the director’s cut, he’s even better in the theatrical, and having Jason Miller reprise his role to bring some humanity and familiarity to this undervalued sequel has made it a stronger effort. Shout! has pulled out all the stops and resurrected something that most people wrote off long ago as never coming out for legit release. The massive supplements and improved PQ from the previous blu-ray alone make this an easy purchase, but finally having close to Blatty’s cut is the real selling point, regardless of how you feel about it.

THE DISTRIBUTOR

Shout!/Scream Factory, LLC is a diversified multi-platform media company devoted to producing, uncovering, preserving and revitalizing the very best of pop culture. Shout! Factory’s DVD and Blu-Ray™ offerings serve up feature films, classic and contemporary TV series, animation, live music and comedy specials in lavish packages crammed with extras.  


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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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