In horror cinema (and movie-making generally), the iron rule is that sequels stink, and the numerically further they get from the original, the worse the stench becomes. Everybody knows such efforts can be morbidly fun to watch, if only to snigger at how utterly un-creepy, un-frightening, and un-entertaining they often are. So one can imagine, then, the traumatic experience in store for those swaggering teenagers going into the theater to see The Exorcist III: Legion, expecting something even more dumb, schlocky and ham-fisted than The Exorcist II: Heretic (as if there could be such a thing) and coming out having seen a genuinely terrifying movie. It is one thing to see a terrific horror movie and be scared by it, knowing what one is in for. It is another thing to watch a movie expecting to run color commentary from the third row and to walk out shaking. That is precisely what The Exorcist III delivered; a completely unexpected masterpiece and one of the most underrated horror movies produced in living memory.
The story takes place 17 years after the events of The Exorcist. Lieutenant William Kinderman is a Washington, D.C. policeman who was involved peripherally in the exorcism of Regan MacNeil, a 12-yer-old girl whose possession ended with the death of Father Damien Karras. Kinderman is now investigating a string of grisly murders that is clearly the work of a serial killer, but the evidence somehow points to different people acting in concert, and the methods mimic those of the Gemini Killer, a murderer who was executed many years before. When Kinderman gets a lead that a committed psychiatric patient is claiming to be the Gemini Killer, he discovers that the patient appears to be Father Karras, somehow returned from the dead. Kinderman, a stalwart soul who has seen enough worldly horrors that he does not rattle easily, realizes his case is quickly entering much deeper waters than expected. He seeks help from an ally from the clergy, Father Morning, and he tries to piece together what exactly he is dealing with in the psych ward. Whatever is inside Karras’ body, it is both punishing the righteous and preying upon the weak, fueled by a rage that gives it the power to strike out wherever it wants, however it wants. As Kinderman and Morning gird themselves to confront this dark presence among them, they know that just like a certain exorcism 17 years before, not everybody is going to make it out of this one alive…or even on the right side of the Pearly Gates.
The Exorcist III is one of those sequels that simply hand-waves away its predecessor as having never occurred. Back when the story was called Legion, it was an easy enough matter. But when the studio bolted on The Exorcist to the title, thereby giving the movie a certain kiss of death, it inadvertently gave this story the strangest gift of all: the power to surprise as well as frighten. Written and directed by the original Exorcist author, William Peter Blatty, Legion maintains a strong through line to the kind of cerebral, verbose treatment of its subject matter that relies a whole lot less on jump scares and viscera than it does on explaining a certain set of metaphysical rules that become more frightening the more one thinks about them. Yes, this movie is perhaps best known for one of the most effective jump scares ever filmed—and make no mistake, the whole scene is a master class in building an almost unbearable sense of tension before it finally explodes. But the movie has just that one. It is all it needs. There are a few other truly WTF moments that raise the hairs on one’s neck. But otherwise, this is as talky a horror movie is ever going to get. And it is all the better for it.
The first Exorcist trades on the horror of seeing an innocent girl targeted by a malevolent force that refuses to let go of her. But there is an inherent limitation to that kind of evil, we eventually discover. In Legion, that evil takes a brash step forward, no longer content to torture one girl in her bedroom, but an entire city. And that is worrying enough. The surface plot of the movie is not far different from any garden variety serial killer movie. But where things get rough is when we find that the entire thing is an elaborate form of vengeance upon those with the strength and righteousness to face evil in its purest form and not flinch. Such heroism forms the morality myths we tell ourselves to make sense of a world that often seems governed by evil, or absent of a central good. To see such a myth spat upon in the vilest of terms is off-putting to anyone, but especially those who meditate upon it, as Kinderman does.
Kinderman is the kind of cop who, by dint of his age and experience, doesn’t run around and kick in doors. He observes quietly, he asks only the questions that are worth asking, and he thinks deeply about the crimes he is committing, the true nature of their heinous cruelty, and somehow balances all of that with a weary sense of goodness that feels like it has been on its last legs for years, but just never quits.
The moment of truth, then, comes at Kinderman’s darkest hour, when he gives a kind of confession that only a man who has witnessed a lifetime of depravity and carried the weight of doubt can give. It is a brutally powerful soul-baring, the lament of a mortal caught between Heaven and Hell and who can no longer tell the difference which is which, but is expected to choose one over the other. We all know the feeling. We just don’t care to say it out loud. Perhaps we should. Perhaps that way lies a path to true salvation.