Picks and Pans Review: The Exorcist III

updated 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

George C. Scott, Brad Dourif

As a movie writer-director, William Peter Blatty is like David Lynch's good twin. He is eccentric, original, funny and daring, but he also has a sense of taste, pace and restraint. Which is by way of saying that this is one of the shrewdest, wittiest, most intense and most satisying horror movies ever made.

Roman Numeral Three has none of the head-swiveling, bile-spewing extravagances of the first Exorcist, which Blatty wrote but William Friedkin directed. Instead it has Scott, moving through the film like a heavy cruiser as a Washington, D.C., cop facing a series of murders that remind him of killings that happened 15 years ago.

Most of the film, in fact, is played as a straight murder-case thriller. Only at the end does Dourif, as an executed murderer who has become a born-again fiend, brandish his supernatural powers.

While he's waiting to give the Devil his due, Blatty, whose only other directing job was on the intriguing The Ninth Configuration, sets up a craftily written relationship between Scott and Ed (St. Elsewhere) Flanders, as a priest who reads Women's Wear Daily to keep up with what his parishioners are into. Flanders is the sort of priest who tells one wealthy but disagreeable member of his congregation, "Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you're an a———."

The Flanders-Scott exchanges are as close as mainstream movies ever get to provocative philosophy, with Scott complaining about a deity who allows vicious murders: "There you go, blaming God again,' retorts Flanders. "Who should I blame," asks Scott. "Phil Rizzuto?"

Blatty uses long scenes, full of close-ups (the better to make Scott seem more imposing). The baby-faced Dourif, who has inhabited the body of Jason Miller (a good priest killed in the original film), makes an ingratiating demon incarnate. Scott (The Right Stuff) Wilson adds a nice turn as a chain-smoking shrink who has a sign on his office wall that says, A PSYCHOTIC IS SOMEONE MORE NEUROTIC THAN HIS DOCTOR. And the ageless Viveca Lindfors contributes a startling bit as a mental ward inmate.

By minimizing onscreen violence, Blatty builds the tension with a skill reminiscent of Hitchcock's Psycho. The ending is almost an anticlimax, or it would be except for the two stars' vigor. In the final confrontation, Dourif interrupts a tirade to say, "Oh, gracious me. Was I raving? Please forgive me." And after Dourif asks, "Have I helped your unbelief?" Scott goes into a darkly poetic monologue that begins, "I believe-in death and disease and misery and human torment," continues along those lines for a couple of minutes and ends, "I believe in slime and stink and every crawling thing, and corruption, you son...of...a...bitch."

Exorcist III is that rare modern horror film that's full of both fun and thrills, with gallons of malice aforethought. (R)

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