The problem that William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist III" (citywide) presented Morgan Creek Prods., which held off its press screening until mere hours before the film opened to the public last Friday, was one of expectations rather than quality. For "III" is far more a philosophical debate over whether or not God exists than a jolting thriller of the supernatural, although it tries to be that, too, rather half-heartedly.
This sequel's appeal is intellectual rather than visceral, which is a tough sell indeed. 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the film, has on its hands a handsome, classy art picture with a cast of exceptional distinction that's thought-provoking rather than scary.
Unless you've seen the original film recently you may not realize that "III" takes up where "I" left off. ("II" was a baroque, over-the-top business in which Blatty was not involved.) At the end of "I" a demon cast itself into the body of the priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). When Father Damien was killed in a mysterious fall down a flight of stairs, the demon then apparently inhabited the terrifying Gemini Killer.
Long ago, this especially vicious and twisted serial murderer was caught and executed, yet Georgetown has again been hit by a series of grisly killings that bear the distinctive markings of the Gemini Killer's murders, much to the consternation of Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott in the role created by the late Lee J. Cobb), a veteran police detective. Very soon Kinderman, a brilliant, incisive agnostic, finds himself face to face with a young mental institution patient (Brad Dourif) who seems clearly to be the Gemini Killer--when he's not turning into the alternately tormented and demon--possessed Father Damien himself (again Miller). The workings of all this supernatural stuff tend to be murky and vague, but Blatty makes his point clearly enough, which is to confront a non-believer with the devil himself.
For a while it looks like Blatty may just pull off a tour de force in which "III" emerges as simultaneously a murder mystery, a tale of the supernatural and a struggle between good and evil which yields a spiritual awakening. But Blatty allows the film to slide into a protracted discourse between Dourif and Scott.
Even though "III" is something of a letdown by conventional dramatic standards, it is intellectually stimulating, suggesting effectively that only faith in God can truly combat evil.
Blatty has written a bravura part for Scott, the kind which allows him to exude a cracking, dry authority--and which he hasn't had in far too long. Dourif, a specialist in playing demented types, has a field day here, and the large, seasoned cast includes such accomplished players as Lee Richardson, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Nicol Williamson, George DiCenzo, Don Gordon and Harry Carey Jr. And when did you ever expect to find Viveca Lindfors, the late Barbara Baxley and Zohra Lampert all in the same film? (It's Nancy Fish, however, as as flinty nurse, who has the key female role.)
"The Exorcist III" (rated R for violence more described than seen) doesn't completely work but offers much more than countless, less ambitious films.