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

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) had been one of the most successful and best horror films ever made. John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was a less so on all counts and when William Peter Blatty, writer of the novel on which he’d based the screen play for the first film, found his proposed sequel adrift in the early 1980s when Friedkin decided to pass on the project, he adapted it into the novel Legion (1983) which very wisely gave the events of Boorman’s film a very wide berth. The film rights to Legion were snapped up by Morgan Creek who put a screen version into production with Blatty directing and although it’s a compromised film that struggled through a nightmarish production, it emerged as not only a worthy successor to the original film but one which almost – almost – equals it.

It’s fifteen years since the exorcism of Regan McNeil that led to the death of Father Damien Karras. On the anniversary of the event, Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders) and Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) get together for their annual day of remembrance. Kinderman is investigating a series of murders, including that of Thomas Kintry (James Burgess), a young boy he knew, but the fingerprints at the crime scenes do not match, suggesting that the police are hunting several killers, though the modus operandi fits that of James Venamun (Brad Dourif), known as “The Gemini Killer”, a serial killer executed fifteen years earlier. During his investigations, Kinderman is told by Dr Temple (Scott Wilson), the head of a psychiatric ward, of a mysterious man who was found wandering the streets fifteen years ago suffering from with amnesia and eventually came started claiming to be the Gemini Killer. Kinderman is horrified when he recognises the patient as Damien Karras (Jason Miller) though as he interviews him, the patient’s appearance keeps switching between Karras and Venamun. After a series of deaths of people whose names include the letter “K” (Joseph Kevin Dyer, a nurse named Amy Keating (Tracy Thorne), a priest named Father Tom Kanavan (Harry Carey Jr)) Kinderman learns that many of them were related directly or through family to the McNeil exorcism. Meanwhile the patient claims that Venamun was allowed to possess the body of Damien Karras at the times of their simultaneous deaths. The church sends Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) to exorcise Karras while Kinderman tries to protect his family from Venamun and the other agents of evil…

The climactic exorcism, flash and effects packed as it is, is entirely superfluous and indeed wasn’t originally in the film, When Blatty turned in his quieter, more thoughtful film, titled Legion, there was no exorcism at all. Morgan Creek felt that it would help their promotion of the film to retitle it The Exorcist III but that, they argued, would need an actual exorcism. Having shot a completed film, Blatty was despatched to shoot new material featuring Williamson and Miller (neither of who had been in Legion) and to spruce up the ending with the exorcism.

Loathe though one is to admit it, they may have had a point. A reconstruction – itself incomplete and compromised – of Blatty’s version made for home video using videotape of the rushes reveals a smarter film, but one that might have confused and alienated too many of its potential audience. In Blatty’s cut, we only ever see Dourif as the Gemini Killer so it’s initially not at all clear why Kinderman sees him as Karras and the ending, in which Kinderman simply shoots Venamum/Karras in his prison cell, is a damp squib. It needed something to allow the film to go out with a bang, but that exorcism wasn’t it. The cross-cutting between Miller and Dourif is effective, but the exorcism comes out of nowhere, Morning is perhaps deliberately useless (Blatty might have been getting back at Morgan Creek by having his new exorcist almost immediately put out of action even before he gets going) and the special effects, though impressive for their day, badly date the film. For his part, Blatty stood by the changes, noting later that “It’s still a superior film. And in my opinion, and excuse me if I utter heresy here, but for me… it’s a more frightening film than The Exorcist.”

But the rest of it is so damn near perfect that it’s easy to overlook the film’s failings. There are moments here that resonate long after the end credits have rolled: a surreal dream sequence that opens with a falling snow globe and rosary beads, a reference to both Citizen Kane (1941) and The Exorcist perhaps (elsewhere there are tips of the hat to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Child’s Play (1988), both of which also featured Dourif, and Blatty’s own The Ninth Configuration (1980)) and ends with a chilling closing line (“I’m not dreaming”); the brilliant interplay between Kinderman and the Gemini; the old woman scuttling around the ceiling of the psychiatric ward like a demonic insect; and of course there’s that moment involving an agonisingly long static shot, a hospital corridor, a nurse and a pair of bone cutters, one of the finest shock moments ever filmed.

Blatty is aided and abetted by Gerry Fisher’s gorgeous photography but more particularly by the stunning sound design, all demonic growls and inexplicable effects that worm their way under your skin from the very first scenes. Composer Barry De Vorzon commendably knows when to keep things quiet (and when to let snatches of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells work their eerie magic), the silence of that corridor scene working up unbearable tension before a synthetic blast of noise and a well-placed camera zoom deliver the killer blows.

In front of the camera, Scott is as terrific as you’d expect as the aptly named Kinderman (he’s a much kinder and gentler character here than he was in the shape of Lee J. Cobb in the first film), Scott has always been a firm favourite round these parts, but his harassed, world weary cop is one of his finest turns. Blatty’s script is often very funny, an often overlooked quality, and it’s Scott’s hangdog cynicism that gets the most out of silly stories like a carp in the bath tub or the back and forth between Kinderman and Dyer. Batty’s script also gives him plenty of room to convey emotion in the smallest gestures as well as the broadest strokes – see his appalled, barely contained anger when he visits the hospital to examine Dyer’s body or the oft-quoted “I believe” speech which only turns up here due to the reshoots, so we have that to thank the studio meddling for at least.

Ranged against him, Dourif is frankly terrifying, his sudden rants and explosions of rage neatly undercut by Veneman’s odd sense of humour (“gracious me… was I raving?”). Dourif was, if anything, even better in Blatty’s original version, more restrained, his increased screen time meaning that he didn’t have to grandstand quite so much for attention. The scenes between Scott and Dourif – wordy, witty and often philosophical – are truly electrifying. Ed Flanders is excellent too. The relationship between Dyer and Kinderman is charming even if there is some rewriting of history going on – at the end of the Director’s Cut of The Exorcist they are seen wandering off together to become friends but that shot Is missing from the theatrical cut so their friendship made little sense in 1990 (“The Version You’ve Never Seen” was still a full decade away at the time of The Exorcist III‘s release). And since when were Kinderman and Karras “best friends” as Kinderman claims here? They barely knew each other…

For all its flaws, The Exorcist III is still a quite remarkable film. The 1990s weren’t great for horror on the big screen. There were the odd gems here and there but it wasn’t until the end of the decade until the genre would regain much of its mojo but The Exorcist III got the decade off to the best possible start and remains one of the best films of the decade. It’s certainly flawed, compromised by studio interference but its also in its own peculiar way, rather brilliant. Yes, the exorcism is entirely unnecessary and Morgan Creek might have been better off allowing Blatty to release his cut with just some small changes to the climax to give it more of a kick, but what we got is head and shoulders above the dismal Exorcist II: The Heretic and comes within a hair’s breadth of matching the brilliance of the original film.

Exorcist III was followed by a prequel, another deeply troubled production which ended up being released in two different forms, one each from the two directors who had a crack at it – Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005) – and a television series co-written by David Gordon Green & Peter Sattler, both of who were, at the time of writing, involved in a pair of Exorcist big screen outings. Friedkin and Blatty set them such high bars that one can’t but feel that much hard work is cut out for them just to keep up…