Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
John Donne’s sonnet is, as its collection title asserts, a Divine Revelation. It’s the wisdom of the gods, exposing Death for the powerless entity it is. To a mortal population that has endured tragedy after injustice after plague, Death is more of a merciful release than a titan to fear. William Peter Blatty echoes the sentiment in his 1990 sequel The Exorcist III, and it still rings true thirty years later.
As Police Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott, taking over the reins for Lee J. Cobb from the first film of the trilogy) conducts a homicide investigation in Georgetown,, he notices similarities between the current murders and the M.O. of the already-executed Gemini killer (Brad Dourif). A hospitalized mental patient claims to be Gemini, but at times takes on the appearance of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest Kinderman knew who died during the events of the first Exorcist film. As the body count rises, Kinderman races to find the connective tissue and stop the murders once and for all.
Kinderman’s introduction (after the cold open) is one of exasperation. He asks for the autopsy report on a homicide victim and Det. Steadman (George DiCenzo) replies, “Tomorrow,” to which Kinderman finishes the unintentional Macbeth quote, “and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it aside that slyly illuminates his world as the Bard laments, creeping in its “petty pace from day to day.” That fatigue seeps through nearly every interaction he has throughout the story. In a chat over drinks with close friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), he laments, “The whole world is a homicide victim, Father. Would a god who is good invent something like death?” He lists the beasts of scourge and suffering that plague the earth, and Dyer gleans that he is stressed from his job. Kinderman knew the homicide victim whose death he investigates: Thomas Kintry. Though Kintry’s body is never shown, like most of the deaths in the film, it is described and it’s clear that the heinous nature of the murder and those that follow wear heavily on Kinderman’s psyche. He is a man of little hope but heavy grit, a proto-Detective Somerset, who sighs in Seven, “‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
As the story focuses acutely on male faith, masculine emotions come under the microscope. The majority of cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s shots are from the chest-up, intimate. The world is lived-in, with characters not so much finishing each other’s sentences as reading and responding to each other’s thoughts. It’s apparent with Kinderman and his family; as his daughter Judy quickly kisses him hello, the detective smiles, “…and goodbye?” The dynamics are especially evident in the rapid-fire roasts between Kinderman and Father Dyer. An increasingly agitated Kinderman remarks, “You make everyone nervous,” to which Dyer replies, “Only sinners.” Their affinity leavens the macabre narrative with intentional humor; “It’s the smiles that keep us going, don’t you think?” quips Gemini. Dyer is acerbic and quick-witted, the kind who lets his opinions be known, but in such a way that you may not even catch that you’re being insulted. Male friendship is given ample space on screen, giving way to visceral male grief for other male loved ones.The movie opens with a single word, uttered by Lt. Kinderman: “Damien.” The story itself visually begins with two men: Kinderman and Father Dyer, both mourning the death of Father Karras years after the events of the first film.
Possession films are, at their core, about faith and the lack of it. Where women’s bodies are often the battleground upon which men fight brawls with their convictions (including the first Exorcist film), Exorcist III concerns itself corporeally and internally with the faith of men. The women who are killed are incidental, according to the Gemini Killer: “I kill at random; that’s the thrill of it, no motive.” As Gemini speaks to Kinderman later in the film, he states that he considers himself an artist. He finds beauty in suffering. He crucifies a paralyzed Thomas Kintry on a pair of rowing oars in a mockery of Georgetown’s pastime. He pretends to be an old woman giving confession and vocally relishes prior kills before dispatching a clergyman. He scrawls the name of his victim’s favorite film, It’s A Wonderful Life, in their blood above their body. The cruelty is the point; no wonder Kinderman tires of this world so.
Rather than the straight demonic possession of the first two films, Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel creates a nesting doll narrative– a person is possessed by the evil spirit of another. That spirit is of a serial killer who is so evil that he might as well be a demon. Eventually, the detective finds himself in the same room as the murderer, due to the efforts of the neurotic Dr. Temple, played by a scene-stealing Scott Wilson (no small feat in a film full of career-high performances from several veteran actors). Kinderman does not see Gemini sitting opposite him, however– he sees Father Karras, and so does the audience until Kinderman says the Gemini is dead. That’s when Brad Dourif steps in front of the camera and screams, “No I’m not, I’m alive! I go on! I breathe! Look at me! Look at me! What do you see?”
“I see a man who looks like Damian Karras.”
Gemini leans back, sinking into condescension. “If you looked with the eyes of faith, you’d see me.” A vocal lack of belief by Kinderman equals “issuing a clear invitation to the dance” according to Gemini, one he’s tested on for the rest of the film.
There’s a patient eye and cadence of the film that leans in to whisper its secrets. Once Karras/Gemini grace the screen with their presence, the bifurcated performances work in tandem to deepen both theme and the story’s emotional language. At first, it’s simply two men in a room, the only movement the dusty vapor within twin beams of window light that pour into the space like the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, surveying the tainted creation below. Miller’s performance is still and calm, matching the tenor he delivered seventeen years prior in William Friedkin’s adaptation of Blatty’s novel. According to Brad Dourif, he came onto the project when Blatty realized that Jason Miller would be unable to memorize his lines as the Gemini speaking from within Father Karras’ body (the Shout! Factory blu-ray includes unused production footage of Dourif going even further with the role). In playing Gemini, Dourif infuses the evil of the character with humanistic elements that depart from the cool evil that Miller transmits. After Kinderman claims that the Gemini is dead, Dourif kicks the door in like the Kool-Aid Man and steals the entire show. Tears streaming down his face, Dourif (as Gemini) possesses the role as much as a demon possesses its vessel. His unblinking glare and feral facial expressions turn on a dime, glistening with sweat, snot, and drool.
Coming in on the heels of Miller’s quiet monologues, Dourif’s hysterical ravings underline the larger “Death Be Not Proud” tapestry: any lofty airs Death puts on is a front, and He is vulnerable to those whose suffering makes them already weary of this world. To quote the Shakespeare that Gemini loves so much, he is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Death is proud. In the same sense that the Candyman thrives on the creedence people give him and, to a smaller degree, Freddy Krueger is defeated by Nancy’s lack of belief in him (at least in the first film), fearful faith has a steroidal effect on the entity of Exorcist III.
The film’s bombastic climax confronts Kinderman with his own world-weary internal struggle. Pinned to the cell wall amid apocryphal lightning and roars from the depths of Hell, he cries out,“Yes, I believe… I believe in death. I believe in disease. I believe in injustice, and inhumanity, and torture, and anger, and hate. I believe in murder. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty, and infidelity. I believe in slime, and stink, and in every crawling, putrid thing, every possible ugliness and corruption, you son of a bitch! I believe… in you.”
Unfortunately, the theatrical ending of The Exorcist III is exhaustingly incongruent with the quiet restraint of the 100 minutes preceding it. While the “I believe” monologue matches Dourif’s theatricality (a compliment), the aesthetics are clearly a pander to gore-hungry test audiences. Skin is visibly flayed from the scalp, pyrotechnics let fly, and a blatant callback to the original ending throws salt into the sweet cocktail overall. It stinks of the desperation of a lit student who has to come up with a concluding paragraph on the fly, a stink that follows intrusive movie studios to this day. The Shout! Factory Blu release of the film mercifully features Blatty’s original ending in addition to the theatrical one; unpolished as the footage is, it still presents the most fitting conclusion to the possession saga.
Even with the sour ending, The Exorcist III stands tall as a formidable forerunner among ‘90s horror cinema, capturing hopeless souls wandering a hopeless world and seeing it for what it is– and still fighting to save it. Death, Blatty asserts, should not be proud; in a world that’s a homicide victim, Death is neither “mighty” nor “dreadful.”
The Exorcist III is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.