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Episode 151 - The Exorcist vs. The Exorcist III (w/ Thomas Lennon)

Episode 151 - The Exorcist vs. The Exorcist III (w/ Thomas Lennon)  

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  1. 1. Which film should enter The Canon?

    • The Exorcist
      28
    • The Exorcist III
      4


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Actor and filmmaker Thomas Lennon joins Amy live from Overlook Film Festival to pit the 1973 horror film “The Exorcist” against its 1990 sequel “The Exorcist III.” They discuss how the films use sound design to scare, the true story behind the exorcism, and why “The Exorcist III” is the best threequel of all time. Plus, we get insights about both films from the audience before Amy and Thomas make their final cases for which film should enter The Canon.

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This was a real tough one, because I really love The Exorcist III for all the reasons you mentioned and two years ago I would have chosen this one, but after re-watching The Exorcist a couple of times over the last couple of years it now is one of my all time favourite (horror) films. I'd like to point out one aspect of The Exorcist that you didn't discuss during the episode and that is the use of music which is fantastic. The snippets of modern classical music - especially Penderecki - make it even more creepy and I wonder how much Kubrick was inspired by this for The Shining. The most famous piece of music is of course Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and it is interesting that for lots of people - including myself - it is viewed as one of the most iconic pieces of music in horror cinema, on par with Halloween and Psycho. Yet ironically, Tubular Bells is not original film music and it is only used twice in the entire film and for a very brief period of time at that (excluding the end credits).

 

So both are fantastic horror films in my opinion, but The Exorcist is a real masterpiece and one of the most important films of all time, so my vote goes to Friedkin's film.

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I haven't seen either of the films (I know, I know) but after listening to this episode, I want to see Udo Kier and Tommy Wiseau together in something.

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I can see an argument for liking The Exorcist III more as a personal favorite, for having certain individual sequences that are the more effective scares, or for just seeming more surprising in its creepiness because everything in The Exorcist is so familiar and oft-parodied now.

 

I can't really see an argument that the threequel is more canonical than the original film. The fact that every scene from The Exorcist now feels familiar is a strong argument in its favor. How can you be a fan of cinema and never watch The Exorcist? You can't. It's the obvious choice.

 

I liked many of the individual scenes in Exorcist III, but as someone who wouldn't classify himself as specifically a "horror movie fan" (I'm not really drawn in by the promise of gore and scares, more the promise of good storytelling/filmmaking), I don't think it holds together all that well as a story. It's actually damaged by having to serve as a sequel to The Exorcist, because I'm often left wondering why George C. Scott's character is so resistant to the idea that there could be a supernatural element to these crimes. If you remember the incident with Father Karras, why would you be so skeptical?

 

Meanwhile, the original film unspools so smoothly and subtly, making sure that you understand the decisions of characters on all sides: the mother's desperation that would look like hysteria to outsiders, Karras' crisis of faith, how Regan's condition could deteriorate so badly before they finally brought in a real exorcist. The final scenes contain so much more power because of this careful setup. It's deservedly the more well-remembered film. Exorcist III is reduced to having the villain monologue everything near the end, so that the audience understands what has been happening. Yes, Brad Dourif is great and makes this work better than it might have otherwise, but it's still a clunkier way to do it.

 

(Also, did I see that George C. Scott got a Razzie nomination for his performance? What the hell are the Razzies even doing?)

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I love the fact that Exorcist III has been given a new life of sorts by people going back to it in recent years. I saw it on home video a few years after its release, and I really enjoyed it. It's so disappointing to think that the experience of making it caused Blatty to swear off film directing because he's astonishingly good at it. Even The Ninth Configuration, made ten years earlier, was surprisingly assured.

 

One of my favorite elements of Blatty's filmmaking is actually in the way his films are cut together. (The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III had different editors, so this leads me to believe it was Blatty's intent.) He is very deliberate about the shots he chooses to create a particular mood. Also, he'll occasionally start a scene not by giving you a wide establishing shot but by introducing the location in pieces. Unfortunately, I can't find the scene I was thinking of on YouTube, but the opening clip of this video is a good example.

 

https://youtu.be/5YhCEu5jhNQ

 

While there is an establishing shot of the exterior of the location, the introduction of Father Morning's room starts with close-ups: the bird in the shoebox, the painting, the bed and the nightstand, the sink, family photos, rosary, angel statue. Finally, it cuts to a wider shot that includes Father Morning. All of those close-up shots have told you pretty much everything you need to know about that character before you even see him. (The last shot of the angel statue is especially important; the angel—I'm assuming someone better versed in Christian theology than myself can name which archangel he's supposed to be—is wielding a sword, indicating that this character is a man who does spiritual battle.) Aside from that, this style of setup is more engaging that what we normally see. We as the audience are subconsciously forced to assemble these bits in our heads.

 

The rest of the video is also worth watching in its breakdown of several other sequences. (The infamous hallway scene is only briefly mentioned, choosing instead to focus on less famous but no less brilliantly directed sequences.) I find it ironic that a man who started out as a comedy writer would turn out to be so good at constructing such great horror. (He does get to flex those comedy chops occasionally, though. Just listen to Kinderman's story about "the carp.")

 

I feel confident in saying that, had he continued, William Peter Blatty could have been one of the finest directors of all time. It's a shame there are only two films to his name. The only caveat I'll give is that I actually find the theatrical cut of Exorcist III to be better than Legion. Some of the narrative choices are a bit baffling, especially the ending, which is incredibly anticlimactic.

 

HOWEVER, the original film is far and away the most Canon-worthy of the two. It's pretty much indisputably a classic film. In my youth, it was a sleepover dare to watch it, and no movie has made me lose sleep more than this. I've read/heard atheists say that they find The Exorcist more funny than scary, and I have to wonder how many of them are just putting up a brave front because they don't want to admit that they've entertained notions of the existence of the devil, demons, hell, etc. Admittedly, I didn't become an atheist until the last few years (after finally reading the entirety of the book of Genesis), but The Exorcist has lost none of its power. Ray Bradbury referred to it as "a superior piece of work... a [non-romantic] love story." That's one of the best interpretations I've heard.

 

Friedkin brought his verité style to a horror film, and it's all the more effective because of it. It was constructed in a way that I've only really seen other filmmakers try—to varying degrees of success but never equal to or better than. It's a shame he felt compelled to create "The Version You've Never Seen" (now known as the "Extended Director's Cut"). In adding additional material, it makes some of the previously frightening scenes a bit silly. (I'll never forget my friend saying at one point during the film, "Oh, God, no! The stove is possessed!") Thankfully, it didn't replace the original like the Star Wars special editions.

 

It's actually damaged by having to serve as a sequel to The Exorcist, because I'm often left wondering why George C. Scott's character is so resistant to the idea that there could be a supernatural element to these crimes. If you remember the incident with Father Karras, why would you be so skeptical?

 

To be fair, Kinderman didn't witness any of the supernatural events related to Regan's possession firsthand, and neither did his friend Father Dyer, for that matter. When you think about it, there were only a handful of living witnesses, and aside from Chris MacNeil, none of them really got to see the most overtly supernatural occurrences.

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I was a child when the Exorcist was a hit. My best friend's older brother begged to go see the movie with his dad, the dad finally relented, and then the brother had horrible nightmares for ages afterwards. It took me about 20 years to finally see the movie on cable because its reputation loomed so large in my childhood memory. My friend's family was very old-world Catholic, and their belief that exorcisms were real played heavily into the impact on that family.

 

I don't like horror movies so I'm not going to watch or vote this week, but I just noticed that The French Connection is on HBO on demand so I'll watch that again in tribute to Friedkin instead.

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As much as I enjoy Exorcist 3, it's such a no-brainer it seems like Lennon only nominated it to get it some more attention. It would be one thing if the original is actually not any good, but its status as a classic is deserved. It's possibly the most influential horror movie since the Universal monsters. As others have noted, this makes it obviously canonical (while unfortunately #3 had little influence). The original in a series isn't always the best (Umbrellas of Cherbourg ranks above Lola, though the two are hard to compare), or even the most canonical (I'm unusual in my low regard for the Road Warrior, but it's definitely more successful & influential than the original Mad Max), but in this case the first Exorcist can rest quite comfortably while #3 belongs in a sort of "cult canon" or list of underrated movies to check out for people who liked the original (or later serial killer movies like Seven or Silence of the Lambs). If someone hasn't seen either, they should watch the original first, and if they like it skip #2 to get to 3.

 

If Lennon hasn't seen The Ninth Configuration, then at least he's got an essential movie recommendation (for him) out of this.

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I do love that there are people like Thomas Lennon who champion the underrated gem that is THE EXORCIST III. I love films that place horror against the backdrop of an unlikely genre and wish we'd get more like them. Lennon is not alone in being terrified by many moments in the horror sequel. The nurse's station sequence still terrifies me to this day, even though I've now seen it many times and always know it's coming. I think the film is full of fascinating intrigue and unexpected scenes, though I don't think it entirely escapes the rough edges of having been cobbled together from some post production drama. Not long ago, I checked out both surviving cuts of the film, including the original director's cut that Scream Factory transferred from a VHS copy for their new Blu-Ray release. Both versions have a lot to offer, though I don't know if either is definitive.

 

Likewise, THE EXORCIST also famously has a few cuts, with Friedkin releasing the spider-walk enhanced scenes, which were creepily unnecessary. One need not stray from the original cut of the film, which I consider the most frightening film I've ever seen. And that's odd, isn't it? It's a highly unconventional horror film, especially by today's standards. So little is explained or contextualized. Though I don't entirely buy in to the supposedly "true" nature of the legends, the film is full of such little details that it almost feels like it could be happening in reality. It's certainly more grounded than many of the imitators the film spawned, such as the comparatively silly AUDREY ROSE or THE OMEN. And though we get hints of the evil forces of Captain Howdy, the real monster of the film, possessed or not, is a child who is mostly strapped to the bed and contained. We should feel safe. But the evil within her is bigger than just her reach. It's an idea. I would say that the very presence of the devil didn't even need a physical form to feel threatening in the film. I've heard that THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC plays more along these lines though I too have never subjected myself to more than a few minutes of it, heeding the warnings of one of my favorite Ebert pans. I do like both of these films a whole lot, and I feel like THE EXORCIST III would have been taken much more seriously if it weren't a sequel, or at least was the first sequel in the franchise. It stands well on its own and doesn't need the forced connections to the first film. But it's hard to eclipse Friedkin's original masterpiece. I didn't rewatch it to prepare for this episode only because I'm seeing it theatrically this weekend in New York and I want it to feel fresh for my first big screen experience with it. So do watch both of these films but I have to be boring and throw my support behind THE EXORCIST.

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The Exorcist is overrated. The Exorcist III is underrated.

 

But one is a trailblazingly iconic blockbuster that captivated the entire planet, while the other is an unexpectedly exceptional curio. One simply belongs. The other doesn't.

 

But I'm voting for III anyway because it's better.

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I think Amy and the co-host said most everything to be said about the themes of the two films, though I had hoped to hear Amy rant about the jump-scares, but then she turned out to like them. I forgive her, however, everything.

 

Anyway, the only thing I'd like to add is that what I like so much about the original The Exorcist is the hysterical seventies editing and Ellen Burstyn's gutsy performance. She's so pushy and prickly and foul-mouthed that she seems modern in a way that puts most mother characters to shame, even in recent films. She brings such a sharp furious desperation to the role of the divorced liberated mother that her sense of guilt at having somehow ruined her kid in spite of love and determination throbs through every inch of Burstyn's being; her ambivalence is unsettling and universal. What mother hasn't felt guilty, hostile and protective simultaneously; and wasn't sure which emotion she felt most strongly. As long as Burstyn's on screen the film is electrically alive and genuinely frightening. Which is why it always annoys me the way she's sidelined in the final act by the exorcist of the title, relegated to serving drinks and sitting around sowing! And to what end? Sydow dies between scenes having hardly got to take in the fact he's dealing with the exact same entity he came across in Iraq, and then Jason Miller doing his window thing. Still, I'd say it's two thirds great and clearly a work for The Canon.

 

The Exorcist III on the other hand seems to me neither scary nor creepy. Writer director William Peter Blatty doesn't have the same dynamic visual sense that Friedkin has. He should have been far more explicit with his imagery and far less so with his dialog, which is so overly elaborate the effect is nearly abstract in its absurdity. His self-conscious mixture of quasi literary atmospherics, most of which don't pay off, and a strange grotesque humor hampered by uncontrolled performances, causes his busy visuals to congeal on the screen, rather like Fellini pulped over by a Giallo director. Friedkin has a real low down gift for the ghastly and the tawdry; giving his horror scenes a lurid vitality and tastelessness that gets under your skin. Blatty lacks the bad manners required for horror to be more than theatrical glop. Aiming for Poe-like metaphysics he sinks his story in a hopeless morass of logical problems even more encompassing than those in the first film. At least that's what I think.

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If anyone wants more Udo Kier, this interview with him will bring you joy beyond measure. Here's a preview:

 

AVC: Okay, we must skip ahead…

 

UK: Yes, please do. Let’s talk about Pamela Anderson please, now. I want to talk about Pamela Anderson!

 

AVC: I was going to ask about Berlin Alexanderplatz next.

 

UK: No, I want to talk about Pamela!

 

https://film.avclub....kier-1798223583

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I love Exorcist 3, and enjoy it more than I enjoy the original...however, I have to vote for Exorcist due to what I can only describe as a weird reason...(this might get long)...

 

I'm a Muslim.

 

What does this have to do with anything? When I first saw Exorcist (at 16 with no one else around) I felt that I had already seen it due to the massive hype and cultural references made to it over the decades: the levitating, the rotating head, the staris, etc.. What no one ever told me was how the film starts.

 

The first words you hear when The Exorcist starts is the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.

 

I remember actually saying to myself "really?" I mean, for a movie with such strong Christian iconography, why a Muslim call to prayer? Why not Church bells? Was it just because it sounds foreign, and therefore, evil? Is it just another peg in the "Islam is a religion for brown humanoids"-board so common in pop culture?

 

However, and this is my interpretation, Islam is an Abrahamic religion, like Christianity. They share similar beliefs to a point, but are their own distinct religion. The common thread between these religions, is the belief in a monotheistic "God," and the translation for an adhan is roughly: God is great, God is great; there is no god, but God; praise be to God, the most beneficent the most merciful.

 

It surprises me that so many people don't acknowledge this detail in discussing The Exorcist. A movie about the mystery of faith and the presence of God and the Devil. We see plenty of the Devil, but where is God?

 

God's words can be heard right in the opening, but since the words are not familiar to 1973 White American audiences, then no one would actually hear them. So, maybe, God is there...but not there. God is capricious and plays with the characters and through the audience. And that to me is terrifying.

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I love Exorcist 3, and enjoy it more than I enjoy the original...however, I have to vote for Exorcist due to what I can only describe as a weird reason...(this might get long)...

 

I'm a Muslim.

 

What does this have to do with anything? When I first saw Exorcist (at 16 with no one else around) I felt that I had already seen it due to the massive hype and cultural references made to it over the decades: the levitating, the rotating head, the staris, etc.. What no one ever told me was how the film starts.

 

The first words you hear when The Exorcist starts is the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.

 

I remember actually saying to myself "really?" I mean, for a movie with such strong Christian iconography, why a Muslim call to prayer? Why not Church bells? Was it just because it sounds foreign, and therefore, evil? Is it just another peg in the "Islam is a religion for brown humanoids"-board so common in pop culture?

 

However, and this is my interpretation, Islam is an Abrahamic religion, like Christianity. They share similar beliefs to a point, but are their own distinct religion. The common thread between these religions, is the belief in a monotheistic "God," and the translation for an adhan is roughly: God is great, God is great; there is no god, but God; praise be to God, the most beneficent the most merciful.

 

It surprises me that so many people don't acknowledge this detail in discussing The Exorcist. A movie about the mystery of faith and the presence of God and the Devil. We see plenty of the Devil, but where is God?

 

God's words can be heard right in the opening, but since the words are not familiar to 1973 White American audiences, then no one would actually hear them. So, maybe, God is there...but not there. God is capricious and plays with the characters and through the audience. And that to me is terrifying.

 

I regret that I have only one "like" to give for this comment.

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While I'll be voting for The Exorcist, I have a special place in my heart for Exorcist III. I was a projectionist at a theater in 1990 when it came out, and as a result, saw it hundreds of times. It is a masterpiece of mood from beginning to end - dread of the unknown evil just outside the frame saturates every second. The only other movie that I can recall that has that same brooding presence is another underrated movie from the same year - Jacob's Ladder. Now that would have been a good versus! It's unfortunate, because I think that both The Exorcist and Exorcist III belong in the Canon. Alas, it was not to be, chérie.

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The Exorcist is my favorite film of all time and it has been for nearly 40 years. So before I begin to explain my vote please know that I am an emphatic YES for inclusion in the Canon.

The Exorcist is not simply a horror film. It is an expertly executed film that defies categorization. It is a film that challenges our core notion of how whole we are. Father Merrin says the Devils’ attack is psychological and that “he would like to trick us.” In that statement, the film reminds us of how fragile we are and how easily we can fall; forget that Love and Hope exist and become victims of our own self-doubt and despair. We all can lose our faith and deem ourselves, as Father Karras does, “unfit”.

Jason Miller’s performance as Fr. Karras has always been the standard that I judge all film acting performances against. During my all-too-infrequent acting gigs, I try to channel his subtlety and the weight he gives to each word. All actors should study his performance in The Exorcist. It’s a master class!

From an editing standpoint it’s perfectly paced and one of the things that I love telling younger folks, is that all of the special effects are practical effects. The level of craftsmanship is off the charts in this film!

It is layered. It’s nuanced. It’s vulgar. It’s troubling. At its core, The Exorcist much like Twin Peaks, advocates, strongly, for the unadulterated expression of pure love, but to be successful, it makes you deal with a whole bunch of other stuff. And for these reasons and so many others, it belongs in the Canon.

PS. I promised myself I wouldn’t write this, but The Exorcist is the Gone With the Wind and the Citizen Kane of Horror films.

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I'm not going to lie. Trying to argue against Exorcist being canon worthy ahead of Exorcist 3 is an uphill battle. I don't think I'm going to change too many minds here but I'm just gonna state my ridiculous case and leave it alone.

 

Friedkin is one of my favorite directors of all time, and I even have tickets to watch the Exorcist and The Devil and Father Amorth with him in May. But let's reality check this one... I think the Exorcist might already be such a game changer that it's almost unworthy of the Canon. I feel like Aliens who might travel to earth millions of years after our destruction and open the files of the Canon to review what movies really changed our society they would see the Exorcist on the list and be like, "Well obviously THAT'S in there."

 

I think Exorcist 3 is the stronger film in terms of the filmmakers talents. But not against Exorcist... let's be honest this is Blatty's second film. A more fair comparison would be Friedkin's Good Times vs. Exorcist 3. It's not even Friedkin's second directorial effort, we'll give him a hand full of made for television fare. So if we are comparing second films... Exorcist 3 wins easily.

 

Exorcist 3 is an amazing exercise in what the Exorcist films could have been in a way that doesn't try to copy the original nor does it demean it. (See the multiple prequels for that.) Blatty very cleverly executes his material, his build up and deliveries in a way that just isn't done. Because so many filmmakers have spent lifetimes trying to copy all that is the original Exorcist we have lost a lot of the patience and artfulness to delivering true fear in films. You can argue that the Exorcist is a great balance of tone, story, build up and delivery... but most filmmakers spent their time trying to make a head spin, a demon vomit and a lot of yelling. Exorcist 3 is the rare chance we get to see a genre done really well that is different from the game changer and different than our normal fare. And it's exciting and well done. Imagine the kind of amazing diverse science fiction films we would have if Star Wars never occurred? That is what Exorcist 3 is to the horror genre.

 

And Blatty is an artist that has made multiple changes to himself as an artist and by all intentions Exorcist 3 shouldn't be any good. But he was talented and lucky. If he hadn't won a gameshow we probably wouldn't have him today. If he hadn't wisely moved away from hollywood romance comedies in the 60s we probably wouldn't have him. He kept his voice throughout the years and when his chances came to direct he was amazing. And I don't know what his experience was but I imagine that two not so well received films made him reticent to make more if not the struggle to be accepted as a director far more difficult.

 

Blatty was was an amazing talent, without whom we wouldn't have ANY Exorcist and I only get two chances to get him into The Canon and I think Exorcist 3 should be it.... I don't think it will. But if I keep my fingers crossed we will have A Ninth Configuration vs. Good Times sometime in the near future.

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I think I echo the rest of the room when I say that although The Exorcist III is a fine film that I enjoyed even more on this rewatch, I have to vote for the original.

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Keeping this short and sweet, my vote automatically goes to The Excorcist. I’ve watched III a couple of times and even though it succeeds in a few effective scares, it still comes off as cheesy in a few parts. I agree that Brad Dourif is fantastic. But the original film still holds up today as a disturbing horror film with brilliant writing, performances, directing, cinematography, and music. Oh, the music.

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It was like if Werner Herzog was my tipsy uncle at thanksgiving

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