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Film / The Exorcist III

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"I have dreams... of a rose... and then of falling down a long flight of steps..."
Opening narration

The Exorcist III is a 1990 supernatural horror film and the second sequel to The Exorcist. It was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the author of the original 1971 Exorcist novel, and based on his 1983 sequel novel Legion.

Set fifteen years after the original film (and ignoring the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic), the film centers on a character from the first film, Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (played by George C. Scott this time around), as he investigates a baffling series of murders in Georgetown that appear to have a satanic motive behind them and furthermore have all the hallmarks of "The Gemini" (Brad Dourif), a deceased serial killer.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • Georgetown University's President, played by Lee Richardson, states that his favorite movie is The Fly (1986). About a year before this film, Richardson starred in the sequel.
    • When asked how he is able to get in and out of jail without being seen, The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) replies: "It's child's play." The camera cuts to a young, red-headed boy who looks a lot like the Chucky doll.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Kinderman seems to alternate between rage and low level anger throughout the film - he certainly does a lot of shouting, and responds to almost everyone he talks to with a sarcastic, cutting remark. This is in contrast to the calm, mild-mannered, and avuncular Kinderman of the novel and in the first film.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the novel, Dr. Temple is an egotistical jerk who, among other things, withholds valuable information from the police out of jealous spite. The film's Dr. Temple is a rather strange but generally pleasant man who failed to be more helpful to the police because of his fear of the Gemini Killer.
  • Adaptational Villainy: While the Gemini Killer in the novel is just as much a sadistic killer as in the film, the backstory about his TV Evangelist father physically and emotionally abusing him and his mentally retarded brother for years (leading indirectly to the latter's death) provides him with a Freudian Excuse for his depraved mind and actions. He also stops killing after his father's death, and wants nothing more than to be reunited with his brother in the afterlife. The film skips the backstory almost completely, apart from Kinderman mentioning that the killer hated his father for unspecified reasons.
    • Additionally, the Gemini Killer and the Demon subject Karras to a much crueler fate in the film than in the novel. In the novel, Karras' spirit had departed (presumably to Heaven), only his reanimated body was used by the Gemini. In the film, Karras's spirit is helplessly trapped inside of his body and forced to watch the Gemini in action.
  • Adapted Out: The film cuts out a major sideplot involving a doctor named Vincent Amfortas figuring out how to communicate with spirits from what is implied to be Purgatory (described as looking like how Kinderman sees it in his dream) as he deals with a terminal illness and morphine addiction, but that storyline didn't have a whole lot to do with the overarching narrative, hence the most likely reason it was cut altogether from the movie.
  • Alpha Bitch: Nurse Allerton, and isn't shy about it.
    Kinderman: You're most kind.
    Allerton: I'm a bitch.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • Father Karras, due to being the host of the Gemini Killer.
    • What the Gemini does to his victims. He drugs them with succinylcholine so they're paralyzed yet fully conscious while he does all sorts of horrific things to them.
    • Happens to the Gemini Killer himself. Karras' dead body was almost beyond the point of being salvageable when he entered it, forcing him to spend fifteen years trapped in a catatonic body until Karras' damaged brain recovered enough for it to become active again.
  • Ascended Extra: Kinderman is now the main character, new actor notwithstanding. Kinderman had a much larger role in the original book, as he had a growing friendship with Karras.
  • Arc Words: It's a Wonderful Life.
  • Back from the Dead: Father Karras didn't die at the end of the first film. His comatose body was possessed and regenerated by a legion of demons. Death be not proud, indeed!
  • Badass Boast: "This time, you're going to lose."
  • Berserk Button: When Kinderman states, "The Gemini is dead," Patient X screams, "NO! I'M NOT! I'M ALIVE! I GO ON! I BREATHE! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!
  • Big "NO!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: Kinderman defeats the legion and exorcizes Karras, but only at the cost of Karras's life, and only after the Gemini has killed many people, including Father Dyer.
  • Blackface: Kinderman relates how the Gemini chopped off the head of a black boy and put the head from a statue of Jesus in its place, painted to look like it was in blackface, "like a Minstrel Show."
  • Bluff the Impostor:
    • One of the most bizarre examples ever. Kinderman offers to repair a dementia patient's delusional radio.
      Mrs. Clalia: I just knew you weren't really a radio repairman. That's a telephone I'm holding.
    • Kinderman tells of one for people who claimed to be the Gemini Killer. The information the police released about the serial killer to the press was deliberately false. Someone claiming to be the Gemini would repeat the wrong info, and that's how they knew the loon was a fake. Truth in Television, of course — police in Real Life do the same thing to weed out imposters in famous crimes.
  • Body Surf: The Gemini Killer has "old friends" who allow him to escape his cage.
  • Brick Joke: A truly ghastly example when Kinderman and Dyer go see It's a Wonderful Life together. Later, the Gemini Killer writes the movie's title on the wall in Father Dyer's blood.
  • Broad Strokes: How the film treats its much-reviled predecessor. It never technically contradicts the events of those films, carefully avoiding showing the iconic house from the original film, which was destroyed at the end of the second. Since the film maintains a 'III' moniker, this was likely to avoid confusing audiences.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Fr. Dyer is quite the contrast to the dour Fr. Karras. He's impish, and when he's at the hospital he's reading fashion weeklies and begs Kinderman to get him more recent magazines so he can keep up with the latest fashions.
    Kinderman: Mother India is calling you, Father.
  • Call-Back: "I have dreams of a rose... and falling down a long flight of steps."
  • The Cameo: Basketball player Patrick Ewing appears in the Dream Sequence as the Angel of Death.
    • Then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson, Larry King and C. Everett Coop all appear in blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos.
    • Model Fabio Lanzoni has an uncredited bit part as an angel in the dream sequence as well, though he was only a prolific male model rather than a household name at the time, making it an overlap of Retroactive Recognition.
    • Samuel L. Jackson has a single line as a hospital patient, although curiously, his voice is dubbed over.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Despite the "III" in the title, the film completely ignores the much-reviled second entry.
    • The shots of the stairs are framed in such a way to avoid showing the nearby house, which was destroyed in the climax of the second film. Reportedly, this was done to avoid confusing the audience.
    • In this movie Kinderman and Karras were best friends. In first film, they barely knew each other - however, in the novel, they had a friendship growing, and when it was cut short, Kinderman and Dyer became friends because of their mutual relationship with Karras.
  • Canon Foreigner: Father Morning wasn't in any of the books, and was added into the film because the producers wanted there to be an actual exorcism scene.
  • Ceiling Cling: There is a very creepy moment where an old woman skitters by the protagonist... on the ceiling.
  • Central Theme: The nature of faith is the recurring theme of the film.
  • Confessional: A brutal murder occurs in one offscreen.
  • Composite Character: Dr. Temple in the film has traits in common with both the novel's Dr. Temple and with Dr. Amfortas, a character who doesn't appear in the film.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: The Gemini Killer writes "It's a Wonderfull Life" on the wall in Father Dyer's blood.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: All of the Gemini killer's victims: his MO is to paralyze them with tranquilizer so that they're unable to move (but fully conscious) as he slowly cuts them up.
    • Rather than being cut up, Father Dyer has his entire blood supply slowly drained using a catheter while he's awake, conscious, but unable to move.
    • Also Father Morning's death at the hands of the demon during the exorcism. He's basically skinned alive by being stuck to the ceiling and slowly pulled off - in the process tearing the flesh off his back, neck, and scalp (Morning is briefly revived to distract the demon as he prepares to do the same to Kinderman, but it's clear that he wouldn't survive his injuries).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the cast. Kinderman wins the Deadpan prize with his story about the carp swimming in his bathtub.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Gemini's Father is a Type 2 example. In Legion, the novel this installment was based on, he dies of natural causes, and his death causes the Gemini to lose all his motivation because he can no longer bring him shame and grief; in the movie, he was the Gemini's first victim; after this, the Gemini kept on murdering so he could figuratively continue to kill his father forever.
    • Dr. Temple is a Type 1 example. In Legion he survives the book, albeit suffering a stroke that leaves him mentally disabled. In the movie, he is Driven to Suicide.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Early in the film, Father Dyer seems to be a character of equal importance to Lieutenant Kinderman in the story, presented as a Deuteragonist at the very least. Then, less than a half hour into the movie, he's murdered.
  • Demon of Human Origin: The Gemini Killer was a man so evil that he became a demon after striking a deal with another "Master" demon who wants revenge for the failed possession of Regan in the first film.
  • Despair Event Horizon: In the novel, James Venamun crossed it when his brother died, and became the Gemini Killer.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: The Angel of Death is seen playing cards with Father Dyer during Kinderman's Dream Sequence.
  • Dream Sequence: A very surreal one in which Kinderman walks through a crowded train station filled with angels and hospital patients and encounters several victims of the Gemini Killer, including Father Dyer, who is likely being killed at that very moment.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: The above Dream Sequence is Kinderman dreaming of Dyer's murder.
    Kinderman: You know, I wonder if both of us are dreaming this.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Kinderman discovers the corpse of a svelte young nurse clad only in her panties, revealing that there's a murderer dressed as a nurse somewhere.
  • Dying as Yourself: With Father Morning's help Karras finally manages to break demons' control long enough to give Kinderman the chance to fatally shoot him.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When Allerton says, "Do you treat your family this way," you can almost see the light bulb appear above Kinderman's head.)''
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: In the novel Legion, the Gemini Killer cared for his mentally retarded twin brother and tried to protect him from his abusive father. His brother's death pushed him over the edge to become a serial killer, but even as the Gemini Killer, he still loved his brother and hoped to see him in the afterlife. This, like much of the Gemini Killer's backstory, is absent from the film.
  • Evil Sounds Deep:
    • When played by Brad Dourif, the Gemini Killer's voice changes pitch several times in each of his scenes, and often goes unnervingly low; people who have seen Dourif in other movies would likely be very creeped out by how much lower than Dourif's natural range the voice gets. Of course, this is definitely the case when Colleen Dewhurst (sometimes mistaken for Mercedes McCambridge) takes over vocal duties.
    • Patient X has a deep voice when played by Jason Miller due to the actor's naturally gravelly voice.
  • Failed a Spot Check: A frightening example, when a possessed old lady escapes the hospital by crawling across the ceiling, which isn't very high.
  • Fingore: One of the Gemini killer's signatures is severing the index finger from each of his victim's right hands.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Sharp eyes will notice Fr. Dyer's head is stitched on during the dream sequence, as he sadly informs Bill he's not dreaming of the afterlife. The Angel of Death at his bed is also a clue.
  • Forced to Watch:
    • Part of the Master's revenge against Father Karras is that he's forced to watch while the Gemini Killer uses his body to murder people.
      Patient X: But the main thing is the torment of your friend, Father Karras, as he watches while I RIP, AND CUT, AND MUTILATE THE INNOCENT! HIS FRIENDS, AND AGAIN AND AGAIN! HE IS INSIDE WITH US! HE WILL NEVER GET AWAY! HIS PAIN WON'T END!
    • The Gemini Killer wanted to wait til Kinderman got home so he'd be there when his possessed woman cut off his daughter's head with garden shears.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • "Do you dance?"
    • The Gemini Killer complains of how much blood was spilled when he murdered a waitress, and vowed to correct that. Apparently, he did with Father Dyer.
    • In the first act, Kinderman's mother-in-law criticizes his daughter Julie's long braid, saying she looks like Pocahontas. In the third act, the mother-in-law yanks Julie's head out of the Gemini's shears by pulling her braid.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Very little of the Gemini Killer's violence occurs onscreen. There are multiple different scenes where Kinderman has to examine the bodies (often by lifting up sheets), and we never actually see what he's seeing, but it's presumably quite horrible.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: William Peter Blatty goes so far to suggest that the evil spirit might not be Pazuzu this time, but might actually be Satan himself, although this raises questions as to why the head of all demons would be interested in petty revenge as opposed to something more grandiose.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: George C. Scott vs. Brad Dourif, a battle for the ages.
  • Hannibal Lecture. Brad Dourif out-Hannibal Lectures Hannibal Lecter; The Exorcist III was released a year before The Silence of the Lambs.
    The Gemini Killer: It's too bad about Father Dyer. I killed him, you know. An interesting problem, but finally... it worked! First, a bit of the ole succinylcholine to permit one to work without, ah, annoying distractions, then... a three foot catheter threaded directly into the inferior vena cava — or, superior vena cava. It's a matter of taste, I think, don't you? Then the tube moves through the vein, under the crease of the arm, into the vein that leads directly into the heart, and then, you just hold up the legs and you SQUEEZE the blood manually into the tube from the arms and the legs. There's a little shaking and pounding at the end for the dregs — it isn't perfect, there's a little blood left I'm afraid. BUT, regardless, the overall effect is astonishing! And isn't that REALLY what counts in the end? Yes GOOD SHOW BIZ, Lieutenant, the EFFECT! And then, off comes the head without spilling one single drop of blood. Now I call that SHOWMANSHIP, Lieutenant!
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: The climactic exorcism hinges on Kinderman being able to get Father Karras's original personality to manifest for just long enough that Kinderman can give him a Mercy Kill.
  • It's Personal: All of the Gemini's victims in the film are people Kinderman knows (Thomas, Dyer) or has met (Keating).
  • "Jaws" First-Person Perspective: We get to see what it was like for Father Karras to fall down those steps.
  • Jump Scare: One of the best in film history. The tension builds up for an incredibly long time including not one but two fakeouts before the victim exits the room and SCREEEEEECH! Poor Nurse Keating.
  • Large Ham.
    • George C. Scott is in his hammiest role, ever.
    Kinderman: Yes, I believe... I believe in death. I believe in disease'. I believe in injustice and inhumanity and torture and anger and hate... I believe in murder. I BELIEVE IN PAIN. I believe in cruelty and infidelity. I believe in slime and stink and every crawling, putrid thing... every possible ugliness and corruption, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH! I BELIEVE... in you.
    • Meanwhile, Brad Dourif's The Gemini Killer Lampshades this after an outburst ("But the main thing is the torment of your friend Father Karras as he watches while I rip and cut and mutilate the innocent, his friends, and again, and again, on and on! HE'S INSIDE WITH US! HE'LL NEVER GET AWAY! HIS PAIN WON'T END!") he sheepishly apologizes: "Gracious me. Was I raving? Please forgive me. I'm mad."
  • Legendary Carp: A mundane, but comical version, when Kinderman's mother-in-law keeps a carp alive for several days in his bathtub before cooking it.
  • Little Dead Riding Hood: Nurse Keating is wearing a bright red jacket right before falling victim to Gemini.
  • Mercy Kill:
    Patient X: We won, me.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Kinderman accuses Ryan of being racist for his "win some, lose some" remarks concerning the lack of leads in the Thomas Kintry murder case. Kinderman assumes that Ryan doesn't care because Kintry was a black boy, however, it's just as likely that Ryan is just jaded and cynical regardless of the murder victim's background. Similarly, Ryan's confusing rabbis with rabies probably just indicates an ignorant gaffe, not bigotry.
  • Mood Whiplash: During the first half hour, the film cuts from scenes with humorous banter between Kinderman and Dyer to scenes depicting the Gemini killer's brutal murders.
  • Mugged for Disguise: An old mental patient, possessed by Gemini, murders a nurse for her uniform.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Gemini's association with astrology is obviously influenced by the Zodiac killer, though their methods are nothing alike. Amusingly, the Zodiac once referred to the first movie as "the best saterical comidy [sic] that I have ever seen".
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Most of The Exorcist III derives its horror from implication and verbal speeches. And it works. Hardly a single dead body is actually seen onscreen; Kinderman's disgusted reactions to the killings tell us all we need to know.
  • Not Me This Time: The Gemini Killer tells Kinderman he wasn't really responsible for Temple's suicide, though he does chuckle that Temple actually believed him when he threatened him with torment if he didn't follow his instructions.
  • The Nth Doctor: The Gemini Killer switches actors depending on whether the audience is seeing things from Kinderman's perspective (in which he's played by Jason Miller) or from the "eyes of faith" perspective (where he's played by Brad Dourif).
  • Off with Her Head!: The Gemini Killer's MO.
  • Poetic Serial Killer: The Gemini Killer thinks of himself as an artist and takes great pride in his work.
    Patient X: Incidentally, did you know that you're speaking to an artist?
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Gemini Killer is gleefully racist, murdering a 12-year-old black boy and replacing his head with a decapitated head from a Christ sculpture that he's painted in blackface. The novel leaves out the last part, but has the Gemini Killer derisively call him a "little black bastard".
  • Posthumous Character: Thomas is killed either before the movie even starts or right after the opening credits (depending on how much of the credits sequence was just Patient X's dream), but is a big reason for Kinderman's personal interest in the case, actually shows up in Kinderman's nightmare, and don't get started on how he plays into the climatic showdown.
  • Resurrected Murderer: James Venamun, aka the Gemini Killer was a multiple murderer who carved a Gemini symbol into the hands of his murder victims. Venamun's spirit became a body swapping demonic entity upon his death. Now the Gemini killer mutilates and murders people as a spirit like he did while alive.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: One of the Gemini Killer's Calling Cards is intentionally doubling the letter L when it appears at the end of a word, like "wonderfull", presumably because it resembles the Zodiac symbol "II" for the Gemini twins. The Gemini is a bit of an expy for the real-life Zodiac Killer, who was also known for his bad spelling - see No Celebrities Were Harmed above.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Father Dyer dies midway through the film after being a major character up until that point.
  • Scare Chord: The soundtrack lets out an ungodly SCREECH right as the Gemini Killer attacks Nurse Keating.
  • Serial Killer: The Gemini Killer.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Kinderman, after The Gemini Killer gets a little too graphic.
    Gemini Killer: (after Kinderman breaks his nose, mockingly) Oooh, a few boos from the gallery, I see.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Kinderman and Dyer see It's a Wonderful Life every year.
    • The Georgetown University president states flatly that his favorite film is The Fly (1986).
    • Dyer tells a nurse who'd mistaken him for a patient named Schwartz, "May the Schwartz be with you," quoting Spaceballs.
    • Patient X quotes John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" in his first scene.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: The Gemini Killer says of The Bard's plays, he loves Titus Andronicus the best, calling it "sweet." Those familiar with the play will know why.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Father Dyer gets killed not long into the movie.
  • Surreal Horror:
    • The opening credits.
    • Kinderman's nightmare.
    • The old woman crawling around on the ceiling above an oblivious Kinderman.
    • Brad Dourif's voice changing pitch throughout each of his scenes.
  • Talking to the Dead: Some of the dementia patients talk to their appliances, having conversations with dead people. It's a Call-Back to the original The Exorcist, as Fr. Karras' mother was reportedly talking to her radio, too.
    Dt. Kinderman: What's wrong with (the radio)?
    Mrs. Clelia: Dead people talking.
  • Terrifying Pet Store Rat: While the demon manages to conjure up a cobra in the foreground of Patient X's cell during the exorcism scene, the snakes crawling all over Patient X and Father Morning are obviously king snakes and rat snakes - completely harmless and docile species often sold in pet shops.
  • Theme Serial Killer: The Gemini killer always leaves a characteristic mark on his victims, including the "II" Gemini symbol. He's also quite fond of decapitating or disembowling his victims and replacing their heads and other body parts with statues and other inanimate objects. He also always chooses victims whose names begin with a "K", representing his hated father Karl.
  • Together in Death: The Gemini Killer has a much nicer fate in the novel, to the point where he's practically a Karma Houdini. Near the end of the book, James's father dies offscreen, and because his whole motivation to kill no longer exists, James wants to reunite with his deceased brother, Thomas, who refuses to move on without him. After finally convincing Kinderman that he really is the Gemini Killer, James stops Karras's heart, the last words from the possessed Karras's mouth being a declaration of love from Thomas to James.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: While still a sympathetic character and an effective police officer, Kinderman's personality in this film is much harsher and generally unpleasant than the kindly, mild-mannered Kinderman in the first Exorcist film. He shouts a lot, answers every question with a sarcastic remark, and seems perpetually angry.
  • Uncertain Doom: The film doesn't make it clear if Father Morning survives his injuries. It's even possible that his recovery during the climax is a divine intervention to mirror the infernal one which allowed Gemini to return.
  • Weak-Willed: "Catatonics are so easy to possess."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Nurse Allerton gives one near the end of the film to Kinderman, which leads to a "Eureka!" Moment for the cop.
  • Wicked Cultured: The Gemini Killer considers his murders to be art, and is a big fan of Shakespeare. He also quotes John Donne in his introductory scene, and breaks out into song at one point, his voice unnaturally morphing into that of a child as he sings an aria.
  • Would You Like to Hear How They Died?: The Gemini killer loves to dwell on every detail of how he tortured and killed his victims - especially the murder of Father Dyer.