Saturday, April 26, 2008
#35: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)
In one of my alternate fantasy lives, I'm a film programmer for a large repertory theater in a major city. For that theater, I program an annual series showing films that are either the only or one of a very small handful of films made by their directors. These directors are usually moonlighting from their day jobs (actors, writers, musicians, photographers, etc.) to realize a pet project no one else will touch. Usually, the film is their sole directorial credit, but sometimes they get to make two or three. I'd show Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, David Byrne's True Stories, Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade, Barbara Loden's Wanda, L.Q. Jones' A Boy and His Dog, James William Guercio's Electra Glide in Blue, Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil, Walter Murch's Return to Oz, Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, Tim Roth's The War Zone, James Bond III's Def by Temptation, and Neil Young and Dean Stockwell's Human Highway. (Let's all forget about Perry Farrell's Gift.) Audience participation: If anyone has any others to add, I would love to hear them.
William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III fits right in with this series. Blatty is a writer of mediocre supermarket novels, including The Exorcist, and only reluctantly stepped into the director's chair twice. In 1980, he filmed his own novel, The Ninth Configuration, and ten years later, he filmed another of his novels, Legion, under the producer-mandated title of The Exorcist III after John Carpenter turned him down. Fortunately, Blatty makes a much more interesting director than a writer, and this second sequel is a weirdly effective mess. Sometimes people who don't really know how to make a movie end up making better, freer, more creative films than the pros. (Speaking of pros, great director John Boorman made the second Exorcist, one of the most notorious flops in film history. Long considered one of the worst films ever made, Boorman's sequel is worth checking out for the absurdity value alone. The film looks fantastic visually, but features possibly the dumbest screenplay ever written. Richard Burton amps his performance up to insane heights, Ennio Morricone provides a fantastic score, and James Earl Jones wears a giant locust costume. The film enraged Blatty and baffled the first film's director William Friedkin. Audiences booed. Both Martin Scorsese and famously contrarian critic Pauline Kael preferred it to the original. Scorsese called it his "favorite guilty pleasure.")
Blatty has assembled a great cast, including George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, and Scott Wilson. They keep the exposition-heavy, character-based film from imploding and know exactly when to underplay and when to kick the motherfucker into scenery-chewing overdrive. Scott's monologue about the carp swimming in his bathtub is alone worth the price of a rental. Blatty avoids much gore, but supplies three or four truly creepy shock scenes. Combining two of my favorite horror staples, serial killers and Catholics vs. Satanic demons, this sequel pleasantly surprised me. Jason Miller returns as Father Karras, but otherwise the story veers away from the original, despite a studio-mandated exorcism scene near the film's end. The film's priests aren't stereotypical, and the location-shot Georgetown setting provides a lot of atmosphere. I like it.
By the way, this film has some of the weirdest celebrity cameos I've ever seen. A restaurant scene features Larry King and C. Everett Koop, and a Fellini-esque dream sequence includes Fabio, Patrick Ewing, and Samuel L. Jackson. Huh?