William Peter Blatty’s Original Cut of Exorcist III
The Exorcist III is the official sequel to the landmark and still unnerving The Exorcist (1973) and is a film steeped in a myriad of wrangling between the director, William Peter Blatty and the producers Morgan Creek and Cater de Haven, which has been chronicled recently in new releases of Exorcist III on BluRay. When Blatty delivered his original cut of his film, titled Legion, after his book, the studio were not happy with their product and as they were financing a sequel to The Exorcist, then they wanted to have an exorcism somewhere in the film to justify the very films existence. Blatty was not happy about this and did embark on a few re-shoots; but the producers had their own ideas and decided to add extensive additional footage. This included a new character, Father Morning (Nicole Williamson) as an aged exorcist. Actor and playwright Jason Miller was asked to reprise his role as Damian Karras, the priest who saved the possessed Regan McNeal. Also added was a spectacular exorcism scene with fire and brimstone as a grand finale to the film. This version was re-titled Exorcist III and released in 1990 to average box office takings and a decent respect amongst film fans as a fairly good sequel to the original. Impressive going for a film that could have potentially be shelved, which was the fate of the very well made Dominion, Prequel To The Exorcist (2005), from writer/director Paul Schrader, where it was shelved and a whole new Exorcist The Beginning was created by action director Renny Harlin, using the same cast and crew. At least most of Blatty’s work remains on screen. But what of his original cut, Legion, what became of it and would it ever see the light of day.
Blatty had original written Legion as a screenplay for a proposed sequel to The Exorcist, after the not very good The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), which both Blatty and Friedkin had hated. So Blatty turned his thoughts onto the idea of multiple possessions and could a spirt move from body to body, so this became the genesis of Legion. The screenplay was completed but never turned into a film, so Blatty re-worked it and published it in book form to both financial and critical acclaim in 1983. He still wanted to film the screenplay/book one day, so an opportunity came his way from producers Morgan Creek, who thought the time was right to delve further into the world of exorcism. Blatty decided to direct the film himself, screenplay in hand and was left to get on with the project. When he delivered his ‘Legion Cut’ to the producers, James Robinson, head of Morgan Creek, was not happy with the film, stating that… ‘this film has nothing to do with The Exorcist, it needs an exorcism scene somewhere.’ This became the mantra to which Legion became the now retitled Exorcist III.
In 2016, a ‘Directors Cut’ was composed by film distributors Scream Factory, based on Blatty’s notes and footage gleamed from various sources, most notably a VHS master of the dallies with scenes from the Exorcist III added to make this version possible. Morgan Creek had, unfortunately lost or destroyed the missing footage, so this composite cut is the closest we can get to Blatty’s vision of his intended film.
The said spoilers begin: This is a list of the differences and alternations from the theatrical cut of Exorcist III and Blatty’s Legion, it gives the viewer some idea of where Blatty was going to take his initial version of the film h wanted to make. The Legion Cut begins with a black & white introduction and the title card ‘William Peter Blatty’s Legion’. The same dialogue is used in the original opening of Exorcist III, this time spoken by Brad Dourif’s James Venamun (The Gemini Killer)/Damian Karras character. The film continues pretty much as the original until an extended scene with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) looking at the stairs which Damien Karras fell down and died, also an extended scene in Lt. Kinderman’s (George C. Scott) house with his family fleshing put his interaction with the members of his household.
The most interesting new scene is another extended dialogue between Kinderman and Dyer at a restaurant, after they watch a film together, where they discuss the essence of evil while looking at pictures on the wall. One is showing Damian Karras, but with actor Dourif’s face, so now preparing the viewer to associate later in the films connection between Venamun and Karras. Later in the film, Kinderman first meets Venamun in his cell, when he does, he leaves very quickly in shock as what he has just seen. This leads to him un-earthing Karras’ grave and performing an autopsy on the body inside. In true whodunnit style, the body is not Damian Karras but another priest, Brother Fain, who had gone missing at the time of Karras’ death.
The great ‘scare scene’ in The Exorcist III of the killer in the hospital killing Nurse Keating (Tracy Thorne) has also been altered with an added scene viewing the nurse from another angle before the killer strikes, this somewhat dampens the jump scare of that scene. Finally the grande finale has Kinderman returning to Venamun/Karras’ cell after rescuing his daughter, to finally confront him. Kinderman draws his gun and shoots several times, killing Venamun/Karras thus ending anymore killings and releasing his friend, with no exorcism in sight!
The Legion Cut does throw up some interesting ideas as the meaning of evil, Gods existence in the world and how man can be so cruel. There is more emphasis on these observations in the Legion Cut, though for me, the pace of the film opens the audience up more to these ideas, as Kinderman’s various dialogues show that he is forever perplexed by these very ideas. With additional SFX, these notions take a back seat to a point, as we know that in Exorcist III a confrontation between good and evil is inevitable and the exorcism scene provides that. I suppose that my bias does lean towards Exorcist III as I watched the film four times at the Cinema, then purchased the VHS, later followed by the DVD and finally winding up by not one, but two editions of the film on BluRay, then USA edition and the UK edition, both having the Legion Cut. I have also read Legion several times and is a vey meditative book and dose ask those questions about evil. In listening to film critic Mark Kermode’s musings on the Legion Cut and his preference for that version, as a straight adaptation of the book/screenplay, then it works well. As a sequel to The Exorcist, it would have been a harder sell and you can understand, rightly or wrongly the decisions of the producers over the director.
I liked the Legion Cut for the simple reason that it is more in keeping with the book/screenplay. Is it a better film than Exorcist III? I think not, nor is it a bad film, though explained earlier, I am very much steeped in the original, that my bias is evident. Legion is paced the same throughout and not jarred somewhat by SFX thrown in to move the story to a climax, which is it’s best asset. It is definitely worth a watch and it is pity that both films were not released at the same time, it would have been interesting to see how the audience would;d have taken to both films.
“I believe in murder. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty, and infidelity. I believe in slime, and stink, and in every crawling, putrid thing, every possible ugliness and corruption,...” Lt. Kinderman.