Exorcist III: Legion – changes I would make

Legion is the only true Exorcist sequel, penned and directed by the author, William Peter Blatty. The film is different in several essentials from its parent novel, Legion. Blatty’s first screenplay was closer to the book, whose story assumed – as did The Exorcist before it – that the virtuous Fr. Damien Karras went on to his heavenly reward after having taken a demon into himself, thus saving the life of the possessed Regan MacNeil. However, Morgan Creek Studios demanded a re-write from Blatty, one that would include an exorcism which would supposedly justify the “Exorcist” of the title. Thus Blatty re-wrote the screenplay, brought poor Fr. Karras “back” from the heaven he had attained in the Exorcist and Legion novels, and stuffed him into his own resuscitated corpse, along with the soul of the dead but still vicious Gemini Killer – who uses Karras’ body to commit atrocities while Karras, trapped inside and helpless, is forced to look on helplessly. This unconventional but creative device is Blatty’s way of working in an exorcism, one which is now aimed at casting out two spirits – one back to hell where it belonged, the other into the heaven out of which it had been cheated. I’m a big fan of the film, yet I haven’t entirely lost my head: for me it remains a guilty pleasure. Having said that, however, there follows a series of items that I would – if I were Cinematic God – change, add or delete.

(Obviously, this post will probably appeal mostly to fans of the film.)

1. Better-establish the Fr. Paul Morning character, who is “the Exorcist” of this story. Let Kinderman’s phone call to Morning at Georgetown actually result in a personal meeting of the two characters. Nothing long or drawn-out. Perhaps Morning mentioning the nature of possession as he experienced it in the Philippines, and, if not stretching too much, mentioning a personal acquaintanceship with The Exorcist’s Fr. Merrin, or at least familiarity with Merrin’s stature, along with Morning’s special insights into Merrin’s “death by exorcism” in the first film.

2. Drop the “distracted Kinderman waiting for the hospital elevator” … while ignoring the decapitated bust of Christ sitting not four feet away from where he’s standing.
Instead, show Kinderman getting into the elevator, slowly pan in reverse down the hallway, show the elevator doors closing, still panning backwards, turn a corridor corner … and then show the Christ bust, which was all the time out of Kinderman’s line of sight, thus exonerating the detective of not noticing it. As currently shot, the scene makes the sharp-as-a-tack Kinderman look remarkably unobservant, even though we are to understand that he’s “very distracted”.

3. Drop the “Alice delivers the university president’s speech” scene, with its no-payoff “scares”, especially the silly morphing of statuary. Instead, keep the “stopped clock pendulum” as a resonance to Merrin’s observation of a clock stopping in the original film; keep the demonic giggle and “Regan whisper”; show the office door opening on its own, with Kinderman and the priest-president looking at it warily; then have Kinderman get up, firmly close the door, and get on with his possession-themed conversation with the president. This would prevent the literally show-stopping,  narrative-killing scene with “Alice”, yet preserve the sense of a “close-by demonic presence”.

4. Eliminate the opening credits entirely, or miniaturize them FOR THE CRUCIAL PURPOSE of CLEARLY revealing the “Running Priest” whose cassock-clothed figure runs twice across the street as the camera slowly moves in toward the MacNeil house and the top of the Hitchcock Steps. The Running Priest is an extremely chilling figure, resonating as it does with the cassock-wearing Damien Karras’ death that occurred very close to the very house that the camera is showing us.  Smaller, or deleted, credits would show both the mysterious priest, and the old familiar MacNeil house. It is unfortunate that many viewers miss both priest and house because of these distractingly large credits.

5. Early on, Dyer is saying Mass. His liturgical citation, however, is strictly from the Advent (pre-Christmas) liturgy and the film is obviously shot in the Spring, so an appropriate – say, post-Easter – liturgy should be read.

6. Drop the “menacing” lion growls from the soundtrack. They are cheap, distracting, and un-scary.

7. Begin the film, as originally planned, with the “dead” Fr. Karras at the bottom of the Steps, just as in the original film. Show Ed Flanders as Karras’ friend, Fr. Joe Dyer giving Karras absolution, just as in the first film. Makeup/cgi could make Flanders look younger in this scene. The scene would not even necessitate Miller’s presence, since in the first film, Miller-Karras’ face is not clearly visible, as it is angled in such a way to be out of the viewers’ sight. Thus an inexpensive stand-in or body double could be used for this flashback scene of the younger Karras’ dying moments. Ditto with loading him into the ambulance, his face conventionally sheet-covered – an extra /body double could “handle the part” perfectly.

Then – also as originally planned – have Kinderman in the autopsy room to say, “Goodbye, Damien”. For continuity’s sake, have GC Scott wearing Lee J Cobb’s hat and trenchcoat from the original scene in Regan’s room immediately after Karras’ fatal leap.
And, yes, give Scott Cobb’s moustache – which, along with the hat, could be dropped for the sequel’s action that takes place 15 years later. People’s styles change over time, but I would keep hat, coat, and moustache for that one beginning, establishing/resonating scene, which would solidly anchor and revive the audience’s memories of,  and feelings about, the original film. And again, there is no need to show Karras’ face in this autopsy table shot. We already “know” who it is who is supposed to be lying on the slab. I.e. just hang on to the same extra who was used at the base of the Steps and in the ambulance.

8. Drop the two silly “nuns in the hospital corridor” – one of whom is wearing a really ridiculous – pre-Vatican II – piece of headgear, shades of The Flying Nun; and another who indulges in incomprehensible hand gestures and head shaking. This is neither funny nor creepy, and adds nothing to plot advancement.

9. This would be considered heresy by some fans, but: Lengthen the slapped-together, controversial exorcism scene so that it doesn’t feel so much like a tack-on. Make it more psychologically than physically damaging to exorcist Morning (whom we now know much better as a person from his earlier interview with Kinderman).
Show how the demon wants to rip Morning’s soul even more than damage his body. Drop the “hellish” fires/flames and the Big Snakes (cobras) but keep the Little Snakes. Let Morning be flung against the cell wall with such force that he passes out – but do not, as is currently shown – throw him to the ceiling and peel off his skin.

10. Keep Williamson-Morning in the cell at all times – remember, in this fantasy re-working, we have all the time we need and all the money necessary to pay for Williamson’s complete presence. People notice that Morning disappears from the cell during the demon’s torment of Kinderman. A little more time and money can allow us to see Williamson laying unconscious on the cell floor even while Kinderman is pinned to the wall.
Then, as filmed, we can see “God’s Light Beam” awaken the stricken Morning, who raises his crucifix to Karras and encourages him to “Fight, fight him, Damien”. This penultimate effort exhausts Morning, who falls back into unconsciousness, but it releases Scott-Kinderman from his “wall crucifixion” long enough to “free” Damien via bullet-mercy.

11. Just before Kinderman’s lethal, final gunshot, perhaps we can give Miller-Karras better lines, e.g., “Oh … Bill … thank you … we’ve won. [long, deep sigh] … ‘Save your servant, who trusts in You, my God’ … Release me now, Bill. Send me home.” Then the final gunshot. Damien passes into the reward the vengeful demon had been cheating him out of for these past 15 years.

12. Make the final scene clear that old Brother Fain’s body, which Gemini-Karras had “traded” by putting it in Karras’ coffin while Gemini-Karras ran free, has indeed been found and removed … and that Damien Karras’ body has finally been properly put to rest. That is, let the viewer know that this scene of Kinderman and Adkins standing over the grave really does mean that this is Karras’ real, final burial.
Some think that the scene represents opening the grave to test the “Fain Exchange” theory, but this does not give closure. I much prefer to think of it as placing the seal of eternal peace on the beloved memory of Damien Karras, with the two cops being the only laity there to honor him,  with the university president and a smattering of Jesuits looking on to witness Damien being laid to rest.

There are other modifications I would make to this quirky little gem of a film, but the ones I’ve outlined here would satisfy me greatly.

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