31 Days of Hell: New to Blu – Exorcist III: The Director's Cut

Morgan Creek Productions was on quite a dubious roll in 1990, taking should-have-been-great horror films by iconic author/directors and mangling them with ill-conceived reshoots and recuts. Within that same year the meddling studio took artistic control of both Clive Barker's Nightbreed and William Peter Blatty's Exorcist III, and made massive structural and narrative changes to both films. Barker and Blatty both wound up notoriously disappointed with the heavily-altered theatrical cuts, and in both cases Morgan Creek's interference backfired, with the messy final products disappointing at the box office. Exorcist III survived the meddling a bit more gracefully than the resounding flop of Nightbreed, and managed to go down in history as a pretty solid film that is heads and shoulders above Exorcist II or The Beginning (not that that’s saying much). But even so, fans have long mourned the loss of William Peter Blatty's director's cut, which became the stuff of myths and legends over the years, even as everyone (including Blatty) assumed that it was gone forever. But as of this month it is a myth no longer, as Scream Factory continues their good work of repairing Morgan Creek's horror-related mistakes of decades past. Just as they did for Nightbreed two years ago, everybody's favorite North American genre distributor has at last rediscovered and reassembled William Peter Blatty's director's cut of Exorcist III, and they are releasing both versions of the film on a beautifully restored blu-ray set just in time for Halloween.

It is fifteen years after the events of The Exorcist; events which left police lieutenant Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott) a bitter existentialist, still haunted by the suffering and death he saw that night. Now Kinderman is facing a new set of horrors as he investigates a series of brutal ritual murders... murders which bear the distinct trademarks of a serial killer he sent to the electric chair fifteen years ago. When a patient in a psychiatric hospital (Brad Dourif) claims to be that killer resurrected, it is clear that Kinderman's past has come back to haunt him... and in more ways that he might have expected. This is more or less the plot of both cuts of the film... but with one big difference. In the theatrical cut, the mystery patient who claims to be the long-dead Gemini Killer isn't Brad Dourif, but Jason Miller (the original Exorcist's Father Damien Karras)... who sometimes morphs into Brad Dourif, as he is possessed by the killer’s spirit. This odd and needless change was made at the behest of Morgan Creek, who felt (after the whole film was already shot) that the movie needed a returning star from the original to make it feel more like a direct sequel. Not only is this a weird and confusing choice that cuts Dourif's performance by more than half (and badly misuses Miller), it directly flies in the face of William Peter Blatty's intentions for the film. Blatty didn't intend for this to be straightforward sequel in the conventional sense, but rather a revisitation of the first film’s themes and an expansion on one of its secondary characters, transposed into a new type of supernatural mystery. It was intended to be a sequel in the same way that Prometheus was a prequel to Alien, which is to say that it certainly does function that way, but also stands on its own, and feels like a very different sort of film. He really didn't want it to be Exorcist III, since he famously hated Exorcist II with a passion; if anything, this was meant to be an alternate part 2. In keeping with these intentions, the title was supposed to be William Peter Blatty's Legion (no Exorcist in the title at all), until Morgan Creek had other ideas.

"Who put this statue of the Joker doing a Castlevania cosplay in here?"

Here at last is Legion as it was meant to be seen, with the original title and all. Gone is the shoehorned-in return of Jason Miller, and gone are a couple out-of-place special effects sequences that the studio added to the third act to make it feel more like a mainstream blockbuster. Restored is a more grounded, existentially bleak tone, an approach to the material that is more drama/mystery than outright horror (and all the more creepy for it), and a whole lot more of Brad Dourif's intense performance as the Gemini Killer. This is a major case of less-is-more: by ditching the theatrical version’s effects-and-gore-filled climax, the film as Blatty originally wrote and shot it packs way more of an emotional punch. Cerebral and personal rather than visceral, the author/filmmaker’s vision is a haunting one that will stick with you long afterwards. Its horrors are largely implied, or described but left offscreen, because the literal acts of violence aren’t the point. The point is the philosophical horror stirred in Kinderman by these events; a cosmic dread along the wavelength of the existentialist philosopher/authors like Sartre and Camus. One of the first scenes in the film is a philosophical debate between Kinderman and his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders, St. Elsewhere), about whether the horrors they’ve witnessed both here and in the first Exorcist prove that either there is no God, or that God is essentially cruel. Dyer holds on to his belief that despite these horrors God and the world are both basically good; Kinderman is ever more certain that existence is defined by suffering, and we’re on our own with no sense of reason to the madness. This debate sets the tone for all that is to follow, as the mystery of the murders mirrors the larger mystery of Kinderman’s search for a sense of meaning among the chaos, and a way to make up for all the deaths he’s investigated after the fact, but been unable to stop. 

"Insanity, or a career full of Chucky sequels...
I'm not sure which is more horrifying!"
While the theatrical version is decidedly less ambiguous (ambiguity makes mainstream studios nervous, after all), the director’s cut avoids easy answers, and devotes its emotional energy to exploring the troubling complexities and philosophical implications of these big questions. This is a film dripping with moody atmosphere and packing a few very effective scares, but by far its most haunting parts are conversations between its characters, which get at horrors of a more metaphysical kind. In particular the backbone of the film is a series of conversations between George C. Scott’s Kinderman and Brad Dourif’s Gemini Killer: simply shot one-on-one dialogue scenes in a small room, which often turn to extended monologues from Dourif, while the camera sits on him in long unbroken shots. With their intimacy, technical simplicity, and focus on Blatty’s strong writing and Dourif’s powerhouse acting, these scenes are incredibly powerful and chilling. That none of them made it into the theatrical cut intact is that version’s biggest failure. It is a testament to the quality of Blatty’s writing that he was able to create such haunting scenes with such minimalist cinematic trappings, but it is even more of a testament to these two actors that they were able to pull it off. Scott, of course, is great: an imposing, larger-than-life figure with the gravitas to play both the gruff detective and the tortured philosopher. But Brad Dourif is the one who really impresses here: while he has become best known as a horror icon, he reminds us just what a great dramatic actor he is. Outside of his Oscar-nominated One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest performance this is probably one of his finest roles, crackling with intensity and menace.

As a director, Blatty creates a great visual style for the film. His sets are often dark and atmospheric, filled with religious iconography twisted into creepy, dreamlike images of horror. He knows how to handle tension very well, and creates a few very effective slow-burn sequences which build up to impressive shocks. He also provides a couple unexpectedly surreal dream sequences (one of which has a momentary appearance by an early-career Samuel L. Jackson). These visuals greatly benefit from Scream Factory’s beautiful 2K restoration. As usual, the studio does not disappoint, giving great love and care to a film that had previously been shown only apathy by Warner Bros. They present both versions of the film across a two-disc set, and pack the set with extras detailing the film’s production, re-cutting, and eventual redemption. It’s wonderful that they were so thorough, and remastered both cuts of the film for the sake of completeness, but it is clearly the director’s cut that is the version to watch, and the reason to buy this set.

Unfortunately, the director’s cut has one major technical inconsistency, 

which was totally
"This is the weapon that the studio used
to cut this film..."
unavoidable (and which was probably a factor in the decision to include both cuts side-by-side, rather than just the Legion version). An exhaustive search by Scream Factory to find the original negatives instead turned up a tragic reality: in the twenty-six years since the film’s release, the negatives and any prints of the director’s cut footage were destroyed. Only one copy of Blatty’s original footage was found to exist: a set of VHS tapes of the film’s dailies. Scream Factory used these tapes for all material exclusive to the director’s cut, relying on their 2K remaster of the theatrical cut footage wherever possible. They matched the VHS dailies to the rest of the film as well as can be expected, doing whatever color correction and remastering they could; for what it is, the footage looks and sounds good. A bit of awkwardness is unavoidable, though, as the director’s cut switches back and forth between gorgeously remastered blu-ray picture and sound, and VHS. However, I found that I quickly stopped being distracted by the transitions between the two sources, as the quality of the director’s cut got me so engrossed in the story that I was just happy I could see it told as Blatty intended. There is no question: seeing the film at last restored to an artistically pure form more than makes up for the technical imperfections. The VHS footage does, however, serve as a bitter reminder of how badly this film was harmed by Morgan Creek’s shortsighted meddling; it is like a collection of battle scars left by the studio butchery that it endured.

Even in this technically flawed reconstruction, this presentation of Legion is far better than the alternative: that even the VHS dailies could have been lost to time, and this director’s cut would have been gone forever. Given what they had to work with, Scream Factory did a commendable job on this restoration; even with the uneven quality of the source elements, this is the definitive version of Exorcist III. What we have here is a redemption of a movie not unlike what the distributor previously did for Nightbreed. A moderately well-liked but obviously flawed film has been restored to an intelligent, philosophical, and suspenseful slow-burn that is absolutely worthy of the Exorcist name. This is one of the must-see horror releases of this Halloween season.


- Christopher S. Jordan