Exorcist III’s Exorcism

Author William Peter Blatty wrote the novel Legion as a summation of his ideas for a screenplay for a sequel to his novel, The Exorcist. He filmed the story in a way that very closely paralleled the book. However, on viewing the film, the distributor, Morgan Creek Studios told Blatty that if the film was to be a real sequel to the first film and novel, it must contain an exorcist and an exorcism: they demanded a re-write. The understandably disgruntled Blatty went back to the drawing board, and crafted a new story in which the saintly soul of Fr. Damien Karras had been captured by the vengeful demon (“Pazuzu”, if you will) of the original story, and plunged back into his nearly-dead body – along with the recently-executed soul of serial murderer James Vennamun/”the Gemini Killer”. Jason Miller, who had originated the role of Damien Karras, had become available, and Blatty recast him in the role, along with Brad Dourif. The combination of the two very well presented and explicated the notion of Karras’ resuscitated body carrying both the tormented Karras and the venomous Vennamun (with the vengeful demon itself emerging during the film’s climax). All that was left was to invent an exorcism scene and cast an exorcist, who was eventually played by veteran actor Nicol Williamson in the new part of Fr. Paul Morning. The remainder of this post addresses Blatty’s choice in this matter.

By way of preface, it is of course obvious that Morgan Creek Studios should have more or less left Blatty’s version alone. But they didn’t, citing the unmarketability of a possession film – “an Exorcist film!” – without an exorcism, and Blatty dealt with it as best he could under the circumstances. In my analysis, Blatty did an admirable job, given the unpleasant new conditions under which he was forced to re-write his film.

1. It is important to consider that it was not the studio that added the character of Fr. Paul Morning – or the exorcism scene – to the script. The studio only demanded that Blatty rewrite it to include an exorcism. Morning was entirely Baltty’s own creation. And, to my way of thinking, a fine creation it was.

2. For instance, consider Blatty’s poetic, wordless introduction of Morning. First, the camera shows the Georgetown campus area where Morning is living. Doing this immediately returns us to the neighborhood of the Friedkin film, with Dahlgren Chapel (in front of which Karras and Kinderman strolled, talking murder and movies); the beautiful fountain in front of the chapel; and, viewed through Morning’s open window, the residence where Karras was living and where Kinderman parted company with him , making the “you look like Sal Mineo” joke. Thus, Blatty’s camera work deftly places us back in “Exorcist territory” in just two simple shots.

3. The camera lingers briefly on simple personal and religious objects in Morning’s room which indicate his own simplicity and piety – an immaculately kept sink, a small figurine of the angel vanquishing evil; a Rosary on a desk; a photo of what is probably an infant Morning with his parents; an injured bird on the window sill that Morning has been kindly attending to.

4. The bird’s sudden silence lures the Breviary-meditating Morning to the window. Blatty’s camera – as did Friedkin’s when following Merrin from behind as he approached the one-eyed blacksmith – also follows Morning’s shadow from behind as it reveals a wall plaque reading, What We Give To The Poor Is What We Take With Us When We Die – a reference to the original novel, where Karras carries in his wallet a “holy card” featuring the identical words. All of this has unfolded in silence, except for the birdsong, without any utterances from Morning.

5. Morning finds that the bird has gone silent – in death. No sooner does he notice this, than his crucifix falls off the wall “by itself”. Frowning, Morning approaches the crucifix, only to find it mysteriously bleeding. The the sky darkens, the room is plunged into shadow, and “the demon wind” – so familiar from the Friedkin film – begins to howl through the room. Like Merrin, Morning stands stalwart, facing this new surge of the demonic, courageous and alone. This is pure Blatty; pure “Exorcist”.

6. Later, Morning prays alone in a chapel, which includes the line, “men of violence seek my life…”  Morning simply repeats the grim phrase…“My life…” and we realize that he is certain that he, like Merrin before him, “will soon face an ancient enemy”. And the next time we see him, he enters the Gemini’s den in the violent psychopath ward, to do just that.

7. Blatty’s solution to the studio-demanded exorcism was, for many, much too over the top, but it needs to be borne in mind that his style of presentation is completely different from Friekin’s. Friedkin had an entire film to create demonic manifestations and a violent climax in which they were finally put to an end. Not so Blatty, who had to do a hurried rewrite and create his own exorcism scene – and confine it to a period of about five minutes.

As mentioned, Blatty’s style differed from Friedkin’s gritty, documentary “take”. Instead, Blatty focused on the psycho-spiritual-symbolic aspects, which is why he has lightning bolts chew up Cell Eleven’s floor, a symbolic crucified Karras surrounded by tormenting demons rising up through the shattered concrete, Morning, and then Kinderman, “crucified” repectively to the ceiling and the wall, hissing slithering venomous serpents, and hell-fire.

Taken literally, it might seem ridiculous.  But taken metaphorically but as real (real to Morning and Kinderman) visualizations of the demonic and of Karras’ torture, they function well. I suspect that most audiences – expecting a “real-world” set of physical effects – missed this allegorical-symbolic-visionary aspect and therefore found the exorcism not only unnecessary, but embarrassingly garish. However, the opposite is true when consideration is given to the fact that immediately after Karras – with Morning’s and Kinderman’s assistance – throws off the vengeful demon and the Gemini, Cell Eleven returns to normal: all the snakes, broken concrete, and pyrotechnics were real, but mental, phenomena, not physical events – which underscores their metaphoric/symbolic truth, if not their actual, “external world” factuality.

So: yes, the film should not have included Morning and the exorcism at all. But:

Fact: it does so for the simple, stark reason that the studio demanded it.

Fact: Blatty rewrote the script because he was so instructed/coerced, but I, for one, applaud his imagination in working it out on screen, and on his creation of a wonderful new exorcist-figure in the person of Fr. Paul Morning, who is a kind of “silent knight of the Cross” who gladly sacrifices his life (“My life…”) for Damien Karras.

Karras, the hero and rescuer of the first film and novel, has now become the object of rescue, and Morning and Kinderman become his rescuers. To me, that schema – although an unnecessary result of an unexpected, last-minute and perhaps unfair studio demand – falls well within the parameters of Blatty’s already well-established “demon possession and its conquest through redemptive suffering” narrative, and –  even as a post-production appendix – fulfils all requirements for belonging in the “canon”.

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