Lost in Translation: 'The Exorcist III: The Heretic' Review
And so, our venture into the fetid underbelly of horror cinema begins with the third film in a franchise you thought ended with the first - The Exorcist III.
Studios, it seems, have always been enamored with stretching a single successful film into a long line of watered-down, half-rate ripoffs to squeeze what little box office revenue and shreds of artistic dignity it has left out of it. I’m sure if you look hard enough, you’d find this pattern of money-minded decision making in every genre, but it seems especially evident in horror.
But, where other franchises would rehash ideas with little preconceived notions of success (see: Insidious), The Exorcist seemed relatively committed to producing a legitimate spiritual successor to its namesake. Because that is essentially what it is: a spiritual successor with contrived on-screen callbacks to the original film. What it most definitely is not is, despite the name, a sequel.
An adaption of director William Peter Blatty’s 1983 novel Legion, The Exorcist III follows Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) as he investigates a string of ritualistic murders in a small, Jesuit town. Puzzled by the murderer’s modus operandi (the same as a dead serial killer from 12 years ago), the film explores Kinderman’s investigation as he talks to various nurses, doctors, and priests. What may seem like the beginnings of an enthralling, hard-boiled, character study is in practice, a slogging snoozefest of randomly organized scenes connected only by the gargantuan amount of time they devote to dull, uninteresting conversation.
That would have been okay; I suppose if the film had done anything with its barely coherent, always reaching, never-ending, eye-rolling setup. But, instead of one large sequence of events linked through Kinderman’s personal struggles culminating in a chilling revelatory statement on human nature (as it had been in the book), the film ends off with a few cheap jump scares and a terribly directed final act.
Though I haven’t read the book myself and am by no means a “the book is always better” advocate from the few chapters I have read and the summary of the novel, it seemed that Blatty wrote it to be a very personal story taking place mostly in the thoughts of Kinderman - a type of novel that is immeasurably hard to translate on screen. In fact, one of the most famous examples of this is from another horror film: The Shining.
Stanley Kubrick’s classic thriller was adapted from Stephen King’s legendary horror novel which dealt less with the supernaturality of the hotel and more with the inner demons that clawed at Jack Torrance. Some of the best moments in the book take place entirely in Jack’s mind as he struggles to fight off his anger, painful memories of his teaching career, and the uncontrollable rage that swells inside him at the slightest annoyance. It’s an exceptional book not because it sends you into a teeth-chattering nervous breakdown, but because Jack’s thoughts are both deeply morbid and frighteningly relatable. Kubrick’s adaption (a fine film in its right) was a terrible adaption - one that King still resents to this day. Personally, I don’t blame Kubrick, he understood the reasons behind The Shining’s success and couldn’t contrive a way to force Jack’s mental torment into the film. So, he instead concerned himself with the visual aspects and sometimes terrifying grandeur of the hotel itself. A different, ultimately reasonable approach but in no way a good adaption.
The Exorcist III failed when the director (and author of the novel basis) failed to realize that some things cannot be carried over actually from one medium to another. Instead of looking for a different approach to telling Lieutenant Kinderman’s tale, he resorted to cheap scare tactics and droning conversation as a way to “have the best of both worlds.” Unfortunately, it probably didn’t help that the studio was breathing down his neck and forcing him to include artificial connections to the original Exorcist film, resulting in more cinematic mayhem. Quite honestly, being the author of the novel, Blatty should have just had the good sense to leave it alone; not all successful stories require the ever ephemerally appropriate silver screen treatment.