By Steve Vivona
Warner, $19.95, Widescreen
As much as I love films and commenting on them perhaps I'm not cut out to be a "critic," as I frequently find myself at odds with "professionals" who are paid to critique this art form.
The most glaring example of this is perhaps my feelings about "Exorcist III: Legion," a film which rates a turkey in Leonard Maltin's illustrious film guide and that was raked over the coals in its initial release in the summer of 1990.
At the time I wasn't aware that an August release meant a film was destined for failure. At the time I didn't know that a film not screened for critics in time for opening day reviews was a sign the studios were hoping for at least one weekend of decent grosses. In that spirit I saw "Exorcist III" with two friends on opening night. We loved it. It scared the hell out of us. The next day I opened the newspaper: zero stars.
Don't get the impression I'm comparing "Exorcist III" to the original or considering it a modern classic. But I found it an intelligent, literate horror film that was a worthy sequel to the original, much moreso than the travesty heaped upon audiences known as "Exorcist II: The Heretic." This was a film written for the screen and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the original novel as well as its sequel, "Legion." The man knew his subject matter and as far as I was concerned this was the only legitimate sequel.
I prefer to call the film "Legion," as "Exorcist III" was a tacked-on title given to the film by nervous executives fearing no one would realize this was connected to the original.
"Legion" is set 15 years after the events in "The Exorcist," and brings back old characters with new faces. Lt. Kinderman, a role essayed by the late Lee J. Cobb, is now played by George C. Scott, and Father Dyer is now played by Ed Flanders. We see only one familiar face in the credits -- Jason Miller, who played the doomed Father Karras, the priest who plunged to his death after saving a young girl from a demon who possessed her.
Kinderman is baffled by a series of crimes that resemble the "Gemini Killer," a man who terrorized the Georgetown area 15 years ago but was put to death in the electric chair. Fingerprints at the crime scenes never match and he's at a loss to explain the uncanny resemblance this crime spree bears to the Gemini case.
Kinderman's involvement with this case becomes personal when his friend Father Dyer is murdered. Days before another priest had been murdered and finally Kinderman has his first lead. Both men were peripherally involved in the possession case which led to the exorcism performed by Father Karras in the first film. This only provides Kinderman with more questions and no answers.
Father Dyer's murder occured during a routine hospital stay and Kinderman suspects there is more going on at this hospital than meets the eye. He is introduced to a patient who may unlock the riddles he wants to solve, a man who can only be Father Damien Karras!
"Legion" suffered in the post-production process when other hands took the film out of Blatty's hands and forced him to shoot an exorcism scene for the film's climax (after all this was an "Exorcist" sequel). The scene is jarring and obviously does not belong.
Blatty took great pains to stage extremely suspenseful sequences that are chilling without being gory. His direction is at times forced (his true talents lie elsewhere), but he knows how to develop a good scare. In fact his film relies much more on suspense than the original, which derived a great many of its scares from shock value alone.
Scott was something of a one-note actor in his later years. If he wasn't brooding he was screaming. His version of Kinderman is not the kindly old gentleman Cobb's was. Scott portrays him as an edgy cop who has seen too much of the horrors of life, and he's had it. Whatever you thought of his performance his presence was undeniable and Scott carries the film like a pro.
"Legion" has been accused of being confused and convoluted, and I attribute that to its mishandled post-production. Blatty's script is not uneven or contrived. It unravels the mystery presented to the audience at the outset clearly, even perhaps too clearly. We're spoon fed the explanation as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves.
The exorcism scene is ridiculous and simply does not belong. A final showdown involving Kinderman and his adversary would have sufficed.
I recently revisited "Legion," and it still had the power to evoke a shiver. There's a lot to be said for that. I grew up in the heyday of Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers. While I have an affinity for some of those films it's the ones that rely on suspense and an intelligent story that I admire.
"Legion" could have been great. It's far from greatness but it's gotten a worse rap than any film I can remember.
Warner's DVD presentation is effective with a great dolby mix that enhances the scares. The widescreen only image is clear and sharp. Colors are strong, although I noticed a little artifacting in the blacks. A trailer is the only supplement.