Exorcist III

Georgetown, 1990. 15 years to the day after Father Damien Karras was pushed / threw himself down Those Steps. A rowing four is just finishing practise on the lake and walk past a thoughtful priest. Suddenly we cut to some familiar steps. On the soundtrack we hear the opening bars to Tubular Bells.

Every year on the anniversary of his friend’s death, the priest, Father Dyer, goes with his friend Lieutenant Kinderman to see the impossibly hopeful It’s a Wonderful Life. Kinderman’s a detective who’s working on a case. A 12 year old black boy has been beheaded, had his head replaced by a Jesus statue in blackface, and been crucified on a pair of oars.

The killings continue. Dyer is murdered in his hospital bed and his body is fully drained of blood, which is collected in vessels next to the body, save for some which is used to smear the message “It’s a Wonderfull Life”. Another priest is murdered while taking confession. Later a woman will be disembowelled and her internal organs replaced with rosary beads.

The killer appears to have an MO. The victims all share a first name beginning with K. They are mutilated in the same way as the victims of the Gemini Killer 15 years ago (though details of the mutilation was not public knowledge – police had leaked false information to the press to filter out the cranks). And messages were left where words like “wonderful” were spelled with a double l, as if they were titles of Go Between albums.

Yet the Gemini Killer had been electrocuted. Kinderman knows this as he was the detective who tracked him down. And the evidence pointed towards the victims being killed by different people – the fingerprints found at each murder scene are different. But can it be a coincidence that the Gemini Killer was executed at exactly the same time that Father Karras died?

Kinderman visits a psychiatric hospital and meets someone who is the spitting image of the late father Karras. In occasional moments of lucidity, the patient (known as Patient X) explains that he is the Gemini Killer and talks about the killings in great detail. And yet, Patient X is kept in a locked and guarded room where he is unable to escape. What is going on?

This must be the first time I’ve seen Exorcist III. I only really watched this sort of film as a teenager, when they were known as “video nasties” and friends who had a video at home would show them when their parents were out. Films were chosen more for the level of blood and gore than for any development of plot and character.

Yet if you use this description, Exorcist III is not “this sort of film”. The script is intelligent, assuming from its audience not just a working a knowledge of Macbeth, but also of Titus Andronicus. It is also regularly hilarious, with jokes which depend so much on preparation and context that I’d ruin them by trying to repeat them here. And it’s not even bloody. Most of the carnage takes place off screen.

There is the inevitable exorcism towards the end of the film, but this is extrinsic to the plot and feels tacked on (which indeed it is – it wasn’t included in William Peter Blatty’s original screenplay, but the film company suits complained that you can’t have a film called Exorcist without an exorcism). The main point of the film – like the original – is to muse on religion and faith, and it expects us to engage. The exorcism stuff is just to fulfil contractual obligations.

I came to the film expecting a schlocky B-movie which would be kind of fun but didn’t attempt to say anything interesting. Boy was I way off on this one. And not only did the film expect us to keep our brains in gear while watching. It paid no attention to the usual crowdbaiting rules that you fill your cast with good looking teenage stars. Just about everyone in the film is ageing and looks very tired.

So, do try and find this in your local Multiplex. Ok, it’s 30 years old and doesn’t have any Hollywood A listers, but maybe if they keep delaying the James Bond film for long enough, they’ll finally have to show stuff like this. Trust me, it would be worth it.

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