(As the title warns, this is an unusually lengthy rumination on The Exorcist and the late William Peter Blatty’s self-directed movie sequel to his original novel.)
There seem to be quite a few misapprehensions about William Peter Blatty’s filming of his novelistic Exorcist sequel, Legion. This essay hopes, as best it can, to re-adjust some of the prevalent distorted takes on the film.
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1. The demon from The Exorcist – both the novel and the film – is definitely still active in the Exorcist III film – “he” is referred to by James Vennamun/the Gemini Killer (played by Brad Dourif) as “the Master…on the other side”, and also as a “certain party” who trapped Father Damien Karras in his own body, thus forcing the priest to watch as the Gemini mutilates and kills people who were involved in Karras’s earlier exorcism. “…Oh…. Let’s call it revenge”, says the Gemini. All too frequently, viewers claim that they have no idea of who the demon is, whereas the screenplay makes it clear that it is the same demon of the original novel and film. “He” is out for revenge against Father Damien Karras, and others who were involved in the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil.
During the exorcism, the Gemini personality disappears and is fully replaced by the demon itself, who tells exorcist Father Paul Morning, “This time, you’re going to lose” (exactly what the same demon told Father Merrin in Blatty’s original Exorcist novel – and therefore a confirmation that we are dealing with the same demon), and who has been tormenting police lieutenant William Kinderman (played in the original by Lee J. Cobb, in the present production by George C. Scott). The demon indeed actually does emerge as itself alone at the climax of the film to taunt Morning and Kinderman. The demon still remains the supernatural villain of the piece, just as it did in Blatty’s original story and in the Blatty-Friedkin film.
2. Kinderman is always, only, seeing Karras’s/Miller’s face and body. Only the audience sees the Gemini/Dourif as Miller and Dourif alternately perform the role.
We know this because the Gemini asks Kinderman, “Look at me, Lieutenant, and tell me what you see”, and Kinderman replies, “I see a man who looks like Damien Karras”, to which Vennamun furiously replies that he is James Vennamun, the Gemini Killer. This is later confirmed because Kinderman requests a dental records-profile of Karras – whom he can see is the only physical entity in Cell 11.
So the film contains: Only one body, occupied at first by two personalities – Karras and the Gemini – and at the end, after the Gemini personality has receded – only by Karras and the original demon itself. Kinderman can only look on with shock and dread…because, as the Gemini speaks, he succeeds in convincing the detective that the he, the Gemini, has truly, really, come back to life as a parasite living within Karras’s body … and, even more shockingly, is now forcing Karras’s resuscitated body to “rip and tear and mutilate” various victims.
3a. The ceiling-crawling old lady is not the lady who is lurking behind the door. That lady is actually the Gemini-possessed patient with the bag carrying the wannabe Kinderman-killing surgical shears. In fact, both women are in the same scene: while the old lady ceiling-crawls, the nurse exits the door behind Kinderman, who finds that the “nurse” is possessed by the Gemini, and has incapacitated a real nurse and donned her uniform as a disguise so she can travel to the Kinderman residence incognito.
3b. The individual who attacks the nurse in the corridor is not a phantom, or a Christ statue come to life, as many viewers mistakenly believe. The figure is only one of the hospital patients who the Gemini temporarily possesses, for whatever reason covered by a white bed sheet, and wielding a pair of “missing” (Gemin-stolen) surgical shears.
4. The MAJOR change from the Exorcist and the Legion novels, vs. Exorcist III :
In the both the Exorcist and the Legion novels, protagonist Damien Karras has succeeded in saving Regan MacNeil – and has spiritually triumphed and gone on to his heavenly reward. End of story.
And, consistent with that theme, in the Legion novel, Karras is not at all present as a living personality. Assumptively, he is in heaven. Nor is he possessed, because he is not occupying his resuscitated body in the first place. Rather, it is only that empty carcass which the demon regenerates and which the Gemini inhabits. Karras himself, as a person or as a soul, is not even there to be possesssed-and-saved.
However, for the Exorcist III film …the studio demanded an exorcism scene, on the principle that because they’re calling the film an Exorcist sequel, of course, it must contain an exorcism. This unexpected imposition caused Blatty to hire Jason Miller – who had recently become free to do the project – to replay the role of Damien Karras. So Blatty re-engineered his original story of Karras’ sacrificial heaven-tending death in the following way:
Instead of having Karras immediately going to heaven, Blatty invented the new scenario wherein the demon caught Karras’s soul while it was still “on his way out” of his battered body, and stuffed him back into his nearly-dead corpse – along with the recently-executed Gemini Killer.
That is the revenge that the Gemini talks about. Thus, the exorcism in the film has a twofold purpose: to expel the Gemini, AND to rescue Karras from the demon’s grip.
In fulfillment of this new scenario, the film’s climax presents two exorcists:
1) the official exorcist, Fr. Morning;
2) the unofficial “exorcist-by-gunshot” Detective Kinderman.
Thus, Karras, the former liberator of Regan MacNeil in the original story, is now himself the victim who needs rescuing.
5. Regarding the supernatural “church invasion-distrubance” scene at the film’s opening, those flying bits and pieces are not locusts swarming into the church.
First – such a scene would, contrary to both reason and good taste, connect the film to the monstrous John Boorman production, Exorcist II: the Heretic, wherein locust swarms and a preternatural “Good Locust” largely and painfully figure.
Second – the objects in question are not insects, but rather street-and-sidewalk leaf debris, probably meant to be driven by “the Pazuzu wind” which in the first film starts to blow when Fr. Merrin confronts the Pazuzu statue across a rocky chasm.
Third, it is extremely likely that the scene as a whole is not to be taken literally, but rather as part of the opening narration, which itself seems to be an amalgam of the trapped Karras’s and the possessing Gemini’s garbled memories of the night of Karras’s “death”.
It is likely that the viewer is being invited to think of this opening narration as a kind of fever dream that is shared by both of the personalities – Damien Karras and James Vennamun/the Gemini – occupying the same resuscitated body. So it would seem doubtful that we are meant to take the debris-storm and the eye-moving crucifix as literal physical facts. If we do accept them as physical facts, this would be an unlikely case of the demon ineptly giving itself away – and that far too early and publicly by clumsily “outing” itself through an out-of-character, even ham-thumbed self-revelation.
6. Again: In Exorcist III Damien Karras DOES NOT SAVE THE DAY. HE HIMSELF NEEDS SAVING.
The saintly priest’s soul has been trapped inside his own body and is the helpless witness of the Gemini’s depredations. It is Kinderman and Morning who save the day – Morning by attacking the demon via exorcism ritual and brandishing the crucifix at the beast – and Kinderman by providing the means of the merciful death that finally sets Karras free.
7. Father Paul Morning was a tacked-on character, but Blatty was careful to show that this new exorcist doesn’t quite, exactly, “come out of nowhere” as an annoying intrusion into the narrative. Blatty takes care to give Morning a brief, prior exorcistic history, and poetically sketches the aging priest’s character in a gentle, wordless introductory scene that shows that he has been caring for an injured bird; finds that the bird has suddenly died;and then encounters the presence of the old demon when he witnesses a crucifix fall off the wall, the sky darkening, while the demonic “Pazuzu wind” begins to blow through his room.
Blatty also shows Morning praying in the campus chapel – in another wordless scene, except for Morning’s vocalized prayer, which ends with a scriptural citation, “men of violence seek my life …my life…” – an explicitly foreshadowing hint that, like Father Lankester Merrin before him, Morning himself “must soon face an ancient enemy”.
8. A final, very important (for those who care about spiritual matters dramatically expressed) theological notation:
Exorcist III is the first and (as far as I know) the only one of Blatty’s religious works in which the formerly hidden deity emerges into the material world to perform an act of divine intervention – for which we have that much-disdained added-in exorcism scene to thank.
This is worked out by showing a mysterious beam of heavenly light shining into the Gemini cell, which awakens the unconscious Father Morning, thereby permitting him to yell encouragement to Karras to break the demon’s hold – which Karras momentarily succeeds in doing – which in turn permits Kinderman the chance to free Karras by a lethal use of his service revolver.
In that final moment of clarity, Karras shouts, “Shoot me, Bill! Shoot now! Kill me now!”. Kinderman swiftly obliges the priest’s request. Karras’s final words are: “We’ve won… Now, free me.” Kinderman delivers a final shot, which permits Damien Karras at last to ascend to the heaven from which the vengeful demon had, for a hellish period, prevented his entry.
By this device, Blatty’s formerly hidden God has finally been permitted to reveal his presence on the scene – still invisible, but at last as a positively active Presence within the world – and this in a manner completely new to Blatty’s former theological contemplations about God’s absence from the world. A hopeful note on which Blatty ended his creative involvement in the Exorcist franchise.