Despite a bevy of problems and missteps (mostly due to studio meddling, which I've written more about here), The Exorcist III is probably my favorite horror film of all time. In case you avoided it because you were unfortunate enough to see Exorcist II: The Heretic, do yourself a favor and check out Part 3. It's really good.
For the record, I'm writing this article on the assumption that you've seen the movie, so I won't be breaking down the kind of confusing plot. There will be spoilers, but I will warn you before we get there.
Well, after 26 years of us being told that the original footage was lost, Shout Factory has finally cobbled together — to the best of their ability — a cut that is much closer to screenwriter and director William Peter Blatty's original vision. The original footage was indeed lost, but the studio managed to find old dailies on VHS tapes. The film opens with this caption:
As I wrote above, I'm a big fan of the theatrical cut, but I've been wanting to see this version for at least 15 years. It didn't disappoint. My only big issue with this edit is the fact that they used VHS footage to fill it out. Obviously, the quality is not great, but it is clear enough to see and hear what is happening. The big drawback is the that newly added footage is a 4:3 aspect ratio (like old school television), while the remainder of the film is 1.85:1.
Or, to really put it in perspective:
My only real problem with this is that the transitions are jarring and somewhat distracting, which is unfortunate as the film doesn't rely on gore or jump scares, but uses atmosphere to build the tension and dread. These transitions did take me out of the film a little, but considering that this was the only opportunity to see the original vision, I was able to look past it.
I will be getting into spoiler territory below and discussing how this cut differs from the theatrical, so if you want to be surprised, stop reading after this paragraph. But before you go, let me tell you that if you haven't seen #Exorcist3 (either cut), check it out. If, like me, you dug the original version, this cut is absolutely worth your time, aspect ratio issues aside. And now, the spoilers.
How The Director's Cut Differs From The Theatrical
Still here? Cool.
The first change is that this film isn't called Exorcist III. It is titled Legion, which was the name of Blatty's novel upon which this film is based.
While the theatrical cut opened with a voice-over from actor Jason Miller's Father Damien Karras ("I have dreams of a rose, and of falling down a long flight of steps."), here, the voice is not Karras, but Brad Dourif's James Venamun, The Gemini Killer.
The theatrical cut (I keep rejecting the idea to call it "the original," as one could make the argument that the director's cut is, in fact, the original) shows us that the man that Detective William Kinderman (George C. Scott) finds in the cell of the hospital's disturbed ward — known as Patient X — is the body of Father Karras, though perhaps possessed by the spirit of the Gemini Killer. We see both Miller and Dourif sharing the role. In the director's cut, while receiving a credit in the opening (possibly just the originally released opening), Miller is nowhere to be seen.
This cut does suggest that Kinderman sees his old friend Damien, but we, the viewers, only see the Gemini. This means more screen time for Dourif, and that's always a good thing.
The first act is very similar to the theatrical cut, only changing a handful of moments. It's in the second act, when we meet Patient X, that things really start to become different. It is, however, the final act that truly changes the film.
In the theatrical version, we learn of Father Morning (Nicol Williamson), who is tasked with performing an exorcism on Karras/Venamun. This was one of the sequences mandated by the studio to make the film less of a psychological thriller and more "exorcisty" (my words, not theirs). It's an awful sequence and it doesn't fit at all. It gets really gory (gore doesn't bother me much, but it also doesn't really scare me), which doesn't work in a film that is otherwise quite gore-less. Kinderman enters the cell just after Father Morning dies, and Damien gets control of his body for a brief moment to say to Kinderman "Now! Do it now!" Kinderman shoots Patient X, and the film ends.
It's not a terrible ending, but it is pretty cheesy. The director's cut is much better. There is no mention of Father Morning; instead, we learn about Brother Fane (I'm guessing on that spelling), a priest whose body was used to replace that of Karras's in the grave after Damien was reanimated by "certain parties."
Gone is that fairly ridiculous exorcism scene. Instead, after the Gemini possesses the old woman dressed as a nurse in an attempt to kill Kinderman's daughter, the detective returns to the cell to confront Patient X. The Gemini says that it was a waste of effort, but "we'll get her [Kinderman's daughter] next time." Kinderman simply says "pray for me Damien, you're free", and shoots Patient X, killing him and ending the film.
This cut is most certainly an improvement upon the theatrical version. I would have loved to see it in all its original glory, but hey, until a few days ago, I didn't think I'd ever see anything remotely close to this cut, so I'm happy. Aside from the distracting changes in quality, this is very clearly the better cut of the film. It's less silly, a little more unnerving, and much closer to the novel it is based on. For those who have never seen The Exorcist III (and who are still reading this for some reason), I might recommend watching the theatrical cut first, simply because it is a more cohesive film, visually. However, if you like the original, give this one a go; it's a rewarding experience.
What do you think? Have you seen this movie? Either cut? How do you rank them among Exorcist films? Whatever your thoughts, comment below, and let's discuss. As always, thank you for reading.