Watching the new Blu-ray disc of William Peter Blatty’s director’s cut of Exorcist III, “Legion”, I’m feeling slightly disappointed. Not just because the original shoot’s footage is faded and full-frame, culled from a VHS source, and integrated with pristine, widescreen footage from the theatrical cut…but because the director’s original choice to have Father Karras played by Brad Dourif, instead of Jason Miller from The Exorcist, just doesn’t work.
Though, on the Blu-ray’s special features, Dourif insists his initial performance (in the Legion footage) is superior to his reshot performance in Exorcist III, his acting wasn’t as strong or as focused the first time around. In both versions, Dourif’s screen presence also isn’t as creepy as Miller’s.
Even though Miller is said to have been suffering from ‘wet-brain’ as a result of his alcoholism and unable to deliver his lines properly, the acting moments that Miller was able to deliver are genuinely compelling and spooky. Dourif’s interpretation (in the original footage) lacks something and his personification of the character(s) isn’t nearly as magnetic.
Having two actors play the dual character of Father Karras/The Gemini Killer in the theatrical release, though a curious choice, was more effective. It kept the audience off-balance within each scene and more effectively reinforced the concept of a good man (Karras) being forced to share the same body with an evil man (The Gemini Killer), which also helped underscore the confusion of the Kinderman character (George C. Scott), since he found himself addressing both, depending on the supernatural/demonic whims of the Gemini.
I haven’t yet made it to the end of the director’s cut, but, so far– and I never thought I’d say this– I’m more impressed with the acting and the atmosphere of the theatrical version. I’m sure my opinion will change a bit once I reach the original’s ending, which has to be an improvement over the theatrical version’s hokey ‘exorcism’ ending. Even with that silly ending, though, I’m more convinced than ever that Exorcist III is not the Bad Movie so many Exorcist fans said it was.
Leave that designation for John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic. Not this movie.
UPDATE: Having finished watching this version of the film, I have to say the original ending, after everything I’d read about it through the years, played better in my imagination. It was interesting to the story end without the overblown, Hellraiser-like exorcism scene, but, in terms of pacing and dramatic intensity, the original’s final scene was too abrupt. Almost anti-climactic.
Either way, the George C. Scott character’s in big trouble. I mean, it’s one thing for a police officer (in motion pictures) to gun down an unarmed murderer outdoors in front of other cops (for example, Charles Bronson in 10 To Midnight), but to execute an unarmed psychiatric patient– wearing a straitjacket, no less– in a solitary confinement cell…
I imagine it would be kind of hard to get out of that situation with a phony cover story (“He rushed me! Just ask all these other cops!”). The theatrical version of Exorcist III ended with a shot of Scott and another cop standing over Father Karras’s grave, as though it all turned out for the best, that Scott’s character never got in trouble for what he had done, which I never bought. This one doesn’t end so unbelievably, but it is undeniably bleak.