Faith, Doubt, and Existential Horror | Part 3: The Exorcist III

By Jerry Smith

Adapted from his own 1983 novel, , William Peter Blatty’s second and final directorial feature, (1990), could very well have been a cash grab to capitalize on the infamously cherished original film. Instead of being another trip back to the well though, what viewers did end up receiving from the soft reboot sequel to William Friedkin’s original film was, much like , a look at the pain and suffering of a man trying so desperately hard to figure out what he believes, while trying to come to terms with the loss of a friend and confidant.

When Father Karras (Jason Miller) threw himself from the window of the MacNeil house, his friend and fellow priest, Father Dyer (real-life priest, Father William O’Malley) cried over him, trying his best to lead Karras into death. Heartbroken at the loss of his friend, Dyer strikes a friendship with investigating Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and the first film ends with the two talking about seeing a film together. While that moment can be seen as one of the many “grace notes” as Friedkin calls them (a moment to lead from one to the next), when paired with , it is the introduction to a long-lasting friendship that would lead to more questions about life, suffering and the possibilities of god and the devil.

William Peter Blatty, author of ‘Legion’ (1983) and director of ‘The Exorcist III’ (1990).

When we’re reintroduced to Kinderman in (now played by the great George C. Scott), he is investigating a series of murders, all feeling eerily reminiscent of the killings of a long-deceased serial killer labeled, “The Gemini Killer” (Blatty’s play on the infamous Zodiac Killer). Brutal in nature and religion-based, the murders cause the weathered Kinderman to question why little boys could be allowed to suffer so viciously at the hands of a god. Kinderman eventually meets up with Father Dyer (now played by ’s Ed Flanders) for the anniversary of the death of their friend, the late Father Karras. The two men, now very close and open with each other, go back and forth regarding Kinderman’s questioning of what he believes and Dyer’s steadfast faith that all is how it was intended. Through their interactions, we see that the two men have leaned on each other many times, as bouncing boards for their hurt and sorrow, especially that of Father Dyer’s broken heart over the passing of his dear friend Karras. Earlier in the film, we see Dyer quietly break down when thinking of Karras, and though Dyer tells an altar boy that Kinderman needs him, it’s Dyer that needs Kinderman’s friendship to lean on and it’s Kinderman who leans on Dyer for friendship and honesty.

While is very much a horror mystery that weaves in and out of surrealism and even sometimes humor, the heart of the film lies in the friendship between the two men, a priest and a detective doing his best to make sense of the horrors of mankind.

Kinderman’s dreams are filled with surreal sequences, in which he walks through Heaven and sees Fabio, Patrick Ewing, and other celebrities, adding the realistically weird happenings of our dreams with some people appearing only because they were a passing thought at some point prior to slumber. In the same dream, an angel of the deceased boy Kinderman is investigating runs up to the Lieutenant and hugs him before Kinderman tells the boy, “I’m sorry you were killed, I miss you,” and we see the softness inside the typically hard-edged performance Scott gives in the film.

Ed Flanders as Father Joseph Dyer and George C. Scott as Lt. William Kinderman.
Patrick Ewing in the dream sequence.

Kinderman is a man completely ANGRY at the idea of a god, so upset that something COULD exist, just to sit back and watch people like the little boy, or minutes later his dear friend Father Dyer, to be murdered. When Kinderman gets the call that Father Dyer was murdered by the inspired Gemini copycat killer, there’s a breakdown in Kinderman’s eyes that is painful to watch; he’s a man brutalized by his lack of faith and his anger towards the possibility that God exists, and he didn’t intervene to save a man who devoted his entire life to his faith.

The big twist in lies in the revelation that the murderer is the spirit of the Gemini Killer, who after being executed, made a deal with “The Master,” or Pazuzu (the demon of the first film). Angry at Karras defeating him, the demon allowed the Gemini Killer’s spirit to possess the recently deceased body of Father Karras as revenge on all good. When a psychiatrist shows Kinderman a locked-up patient claiming to be The Gemini Killer, Kinderman sees (as does the viewer) the weathered face of Father Karras (Jason Miller, returning to the role). Shocked by seeing Karras, Kinderman sits down and speaks to the man, who we then see changes his appearance into The Gemini Killer himself played by actor Brad Dourif (we see Dourif as the angry and malevolent Gemini Killer but we see Miller when The Gemini Killer is dormant and quiet). There’s such viciousness and hatred in The Gemini Killer, angry at the abusive father he had as a child, angry at the religion he was a part of, and pure hatred for so many.

Over the course of the rest of the film, we follow the fractured and crumbling Lieutenant as he tries to stop the evil for good while The Gemini Killer’s spirit is able to temporarily inhabit the mentally ill elderly patients in the hospital, just long enough to murder various victims. Kinderman is faced with so many signs of evil, that in his anger, his pain, and his sadness, he finds belief that it’s all part of a plan — the suffering is part of something larger.

Jason Miller as Damien Karras, aka Patient X, confronted by Lt. William Kinderman.

In the novel, Kinderman discovers that the big bang and creation were caused by Lucifer’s fall from Heaven and the millions of years since have all been a spiritual evolution with Lucifer slowly becoming what he once was. While the film doesn’t go into that with great detail, what we are left with is an exorcism scene that leads to Kinderman finally coming to terms with his true feelings and contempt for all that is evil. As he is about to be killed, Kinderman snarls, “This I believe in… I believe in death. I believe in disease. I believe in injustice and inhumanity, 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.”

It’s at that moment when we, as an audience, see the acknowledgment of something greater by Kinderman, the acknowledgment that while we have no control of the hurt caused to others, of the murdering and stealing and viciousness humanity puts on each other, there is something greater than us and that it’s part of a grand design.

There’s something almost religious about the work of William Peter Blatty, something that allows us to look deep down inside of our own hearts and ask how we feel about the greater picture. Am I converted to Christianity when I read , or ? Do I find God when I watch ? No, I am not and no, I do not. What I AM able to do though, is spend time examining areas of my heart that are cloudy, unsure of how I truly feel about things.

And isn’t that the markings of great art, that which causes its reader or viewer to examine themselves?

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