In all honesty, I have had a lopsided feeling about the theatrical releases of these films for a long time. Watching them with you today helped right the ship a little bit. For the longest time, the movie in my wheelhouse had been the awkward but well acted Exorcist III. The reasons included the fact that the film came out right around the time we graduated and, frankly, I just grew warm to Scott’s and Flanders performances. There also was the feeling that it must be a pretty good film, given the person who wrote and directed it intended it to be the one true sequel to the original, Oscar nominated film. And really, even then I kind of felt like Friedkin was a little full of himself.
Time has made clear which is the superior film overall, when at many of its best points, the sequel mimics the ambiance of the original, right down to the sparse, almost non-existent score. So many films that have followed the original Exorcist have amped up the same themes, only more obvious and lacking much of the nuance.
Really, though, it’s amazing to consider this film as subtle. At the time, many thought it should have been given an X-Rating. The shock is there, to be sure. Many of the things that happened to and came out of the 12-year-old Linda Blair have not been seen on-screen since. That’s not what I am talking about, though.
One scene that differentiates it for me is when Fathers Merritt and Karras (von Sydow and Miller) take a break after their first, particularly brutal session together with Regan (Blair) and the Demon (McCambridge). Merrick decides to leave the room and Miller is set to leave with him. Instead, the camera stays with him as he tries to collect himself. A lesser film would have turned on the music to a creepy tone and seen the possessed turn to him and say something. Instead, we get his facial expression and her back. The result is more disconcerting than anything we’ve seen. It’s a man in complete turmoil over a crisis of faith.
Similarly, the Blatty directed sequel has effective moments of solitude. In particular, Father Dyer and Kinderman (Sanders and Scott) have a lunch in a Washington restaurant including such luminaries as Larry King and C. Everett Koop. When discussing the murder of Thomas Kintry, we see the camera move back and forth between the two men. We don’t need music to understand the wincing (starting at 1:10). These are hardened old men who still feel pain in the suffering of others. This is acting one doesn’t ever see in a horror film, and it’s one reason why this film which is at least 50% works as well as it does.
I have always been a fan of the original movie, but every time I see it I notice more of its nuance. This hardly qualifies as a horror movie as they are considered by today’s standards. It has more subtlety and sentiment than any other movie of the genre that comes to mind. I just wanted to mention a couple of the things that I noticed for the first time, watching it this time.
First of all, there are several scenes involving doctors, specialists, and psychologists. They administer some tests that look medieval by today’s medical standards, and they attempt to rationalize and explain everything. Every specialist is quick to offer a theory. When Father Merrin arrives, he does not theorize, he does not ask questions. He just begins putting on his garb, like a soldier of God girding up for battle. The way Father Merrin is used in the movie is quite brilliant. First of all we get the prologue in Iraq. Here we are shown, through a series of images with very little dialogue, that Father Merrin is uneasy. He senses some disturbing presence, and it is one he recognizes. Any other film would have had five minutes of exposition in which Merrin explained how he had performed an exorcism in the past, and so on. We get the pleasure of reading of his past experiences in his eyes, as he watches two dogs fighting, as he stares at a strange horned statue.
Then Merrin disappears for over an hour. We almost forget his existence, the rest of the story is so compelling. When the church consents to the exorcism, they do so with the caveat that Merrin attend, because he is the only priest with known experience. We then get a wonderfully filmed scene which shows a young priest run to Father Merrin and hand him a letter. Obviously this is the letter summoning him to the exorcism. He holds it in his hands for several seconds, turns it around, his body slumps a little in resignation, and he puts it in his pocket, unopened. This is done in one uninterrupted long shot. He doesn’t need to open it, he’s been preparing for this moment since he left Iraq. His arrival at the house is made all the more iconic by the fact that he has been unseen for over an hour.
In Exorcist III, we also get moments of great subtlety. The best scene in the movie plays out in a long shot, over several minutes, with almost no dialogue. Blatty was taking a page out of Friedkin’s directorial book. However, in several other scenes Blatty uses extremely conventional camera-set ups and cutting, and I think they diminish the film’s potential in a few cases. Perhaps it is because he was a novice director, maybe he didn’t trust his ability to let scenes play out in long shots, over several minutes. Maybe the studio’s re-cutting of the movie had some effect. But the elements of a very good movie are all here, and the spirit of the original movie can be felt in moments.
Yes, the elements are there. And it’s very frustrating. I enjoyed this film a lot more before re-watching Friedkin’s masterpiece. This time, it a little embarrassing. Especially the scenes surrounding the confessional. The priest’s cheesy reaction at hearing the confession is one thing, but the hysterical screaming of the lady being consoled almost comically by the man while the two kids looked on is laughable. It’s like something out of the files of Police Squad! and completely takes you out of the mood of the film.
Counter this with the long shot scene at the hospital with Nurse Keating, when we get to see the tension unfold almost helpless to do anything at all so far away. It’s like a different director entirely.
The one thing Blatty was most successful in carrying over is the sparse soundtrack. Both films do an excellent job of setting the mood just by allowing the shock of characters to settle soundlessly. If there is one thing that makes these films so directly connected to one another, it is this. The Keating scene is a wonderful example of this, all the way to the end, when you get one blaring tone which really brings home the shock.
Jason Miller is one actor who is in both films and he is excellent in both. He gets more to do in the first one. Really the film is as much about his journey as anything. The movement from assured member of the clergy to someone who doubts everything to one who makes the most Christ-like decision of self-sacrifice. The path is harrowing and it shows on his face.
We see an older, haunted face in the second film and it completely resonates. His spirit is drained, for the most part. Once more there is a journey, but this time it’s Kinderman who is pushing forward.
Which brings me to one awkward point between the two stories. There is an insistence that Kinderman and Karras were good friends, even going so far as to show them in one of those awkward mash-up pictures one only sees in movies. Since Kinderman only met Karras in his investigation of Burke Dennings, and Karras dies maybe a week later, it would stand to reason that they were never close. This friendship doesn’t serve the story at all, since Father Dyer could have been the “close friend.” It really is only there to ratchet the tension once we meet “patient X.” I would think a passing resemblance to someone he knew but was not close to might have been as effective, if not more so. It’s an artificial bridge that I don’t think was necessary.
Yes, I hadn’t noticed that strange implication that Kinderman and Karras were close friends when I watched the movie before, and it really makes no sense. The truth is that Father Dyer and Kinderman became friends through Karras’ death. A minor detail, but a strange decision nonetheless. You talked about the haunted of face of Jason Miller and I think that is a great way of putting it. One of the things that struck me in both films is that all of the priests have a world-weariness about them. These are not the movie priests one is used to seeing, with kind, benevolent smiles. They have grim, tired looks of resignation. Somehow this helps with the overall tone of the movies. This certainly doesn’t mean that the priests are bad, but rather that the world is bad. These are priests who have seen evil, in forms both large and small, but find ways to carry on.
I have always been a big fan of Ed Flanders as an actor, and he had that quality of resignation and resolve in every role he played. His Emmy-winning portrayal of Dr. Donald Westphal on TV’s St. Elsewhere is for my money the best performance ever in a dramatic show. And his Father Dyer here has the same qualities. This is a man who thinks the world is a pretty dark, foul place. But he’s going to try to do a little bit of good, in his short time here, because it’s all he knows to do. One wonders how much of that world-weariness was acting in the case of Ed Flanders, because he took his own life in 1995, shortly after his 60th birthday.
The absence of musical score is something that today’s filmmakers could learn from. Audiences have become so conditioned to an aural assault, that moments of quiet are actually more intense by contrast. I also noticed this time how little we hear the famous “Tubular Bells” music in the first film. It is so closely associated with the movie, and yet it is only heard three times through the entire course of the film, primarily over the closing credits. And it is never used in a moment of terror, or fright. The first time we hear it, Ellen Burstyn is just walking down the street on a sunny winter day. Just that few seconds of music goes a long way in setting the tone of what is to come. William Friedkin actually hired Lalo Schifrin to score original music for the movie, but when he heard it he fired Schifrin. Snatches of this rejected score can be found online. Friedkin made the right choice; Schifrin’s score lacks subtlety, and to me is a blatant rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho score.
Ultimately watching both films in succession shows for me the difference between an experienced filmmaker and one that is creative, while maybe not as seasoned. Blatty only directed two films in his life. This was to be his last, and understandably so, if we take into consideration the amount the film was messed with during and after production. There is a clear set of scenes that seem tacked into the film and have no sense of space. I know a few of the scenes, like the exorcism with Father Morning, was not intended originally. I am thinking this is just a result of input given from a studio to a person who lacked the gravitas to push back.
Friedkin, on the heels of his Academy Award win for The French Connection and directing his 6th movie, was never going to wield his power as effectively again. This film is as pure a vision as one could imagine. The film feels lean compared to today’s standards. The only places that seem out-of-place now are a matter of taste, perhaps. It’s not even the standards of decency which caused such a stir back when the film was released.
If perhaps they’d only swapped Regan out with the doll more fleetingly, or perhaps given us a glance at the actual death of the detestable Burke Jennings. It works exceptionally as it is, though.
I understand your desire to see Burke die, he is such a pompous ass. But I kind of like the way that Burke’s and Father Merrin’s deaths happen off-screen. I think it gives more weight to Karras’ sacrifice, which we do get to witness.
So we are left with a film that is a classic, by pretty much any standard, and a film (with Exorcist III) that is full of moments that don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole. Maybe the director’s cut will help to fill in some of the missing pieces.