Losing My Religion: The Exorcist III
Every Friday during Lent, in Losing My Religion, we’ll be looking at a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this third Friday of Lent, we’re looking into the cult favorite and slow-burn horror film from William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist III. We’re going with the theatrical cut because it’s more widely available on streaming, as of this writing.
Lt. Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott) heads the homicide division in Georgetown, Virginia. The same Georgetown, Virginia where the original The Exorcist took place 15 years earlier. It’s also where his friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) died from a fall down a long flight of concrete steps, following an exorcism attempt.
The Exorcist III opens on the anniversary of Karras’s death, and Kinderman’s guilt over his lost friend’s death hangs over the proceedings quite heavily. Kinderman does have one thing keeping him going, though—his friendship with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), a mutual acquaintance through Father Damien, whom also shares in his grief. Every year, they attempt to cheer each other up by meeting for a movie at a local theater. Neither man is made to feel better, save for the feeling that at least they tried to help the other.
The desire to help others who you know are in pain is a strong point of guilt for Catholics. Often, those in the faith catch themselves saying, “I wish I could’ve done more to help.” when something goes wrong. Kinderman isn’t among the religious—he spends quite a bit of time arguing with Dyer about the existence of a loving, Christian God over topics such as suffering, death, disease, and murder, with which Kinderman himself is quite familiar. Being a homicide detective, he’s seen the absolute worst which humanity can do to one another. There’s no denying it’s gotten to him in his long career.
There’s also something to be said that William Peter Blatty, in his writing and directing duties here, chose to base his narrative around a homicide detective. Police are, in the nature of their jobs, responding to the basest instincts of people negatively affecting others. With homicide, all that’s left for the detective investigating is a kind of professional survivor’s guilt—the victim gets nothing and the family, if there is one, gets cold comfort. All the officer gets is a closed file.
Scott’s performance shows Kinderman to be a man plagued with this kind of guilt. He’s a man who’s seen plenty, and wears it all on his body like penitent weight. Whether Kinderman realizes it or not, at first, he carries himself and suffers like a classic Catholic. And when deaths start piling up that exactly resemble a long-closed case where the killer, dubbed the Gemini Killer, was executed in front of him, Kinderman all but asks to the heavens, “What did I do to deserve this?” and “Didn’t I do enough?”
Those questions get answered, albeit unsatisfyingly, by a mental patient at a local hospital where Father Dyer recovers from a physical ailment, but is killed in the night. Kinderman’s investigation into that murder leads him to a ward of particularly disturbed patients. Then he comes face-to-face with what he first recognizes as Father Damien, then as the Gemini Killer himself, though the face and voice seem to shift with the patient’s mood.
But the lingering feeling is that something beyond his skeptical understanding is happening, and that it’s centered around the patient in Cell 11.
Kinderman is a man who believes only what he can prove. It’s a principle that guided his career to catch the Gemini Killer the first time, and it’s exactly what gets tested when he returns to Cell 11 after another possessed patient escapes from the hospital to his home and attacks his family.
Pushed beyond his limit, Kinderman arrives back to Cell 11 amidst a botched exorcism attempt, the priest near death after being flayed alive by the power of Pazuzu itself. Kinderman tries to murder the patient playing host to the ancient evil in an attempt to free Father Damien’s soul from the torment of watching the horror unfold. He’s trying to bring his friend, and even himself, a semblance of peace neither could find previously.
But, the demon fights back, and he fights dirty. It uses the Gemini Killer’s deeds, and the fact that Karras was forced to watch as a passenger in his own body, against Kinderman. It pins Kinderman against the wall of the cell, forcing horrible visions of a young murdered boy and Karras himself, suffering in mock crucifixion, on him. The demon’s trying to provoke Kinderman into calling for a God who won’t intervene, and whom Kinderman believes shouldn’t intervene for him, because he’s not a man who believes, at all. Or so he thinks.
Instead, Kinderman lists off what homicide detectives, at least the ones paying attention, would believe in: death, injustice, anger and hate, in murder. And in the existence of supreme evil—Pazuzu itself. In a brief moment of clarity, Karras wrestles control away from the demon long enough for the homicide detective to bring his friend peace, leaving himself still haunted with memory.
Check back next week, where Losing My Religion will take on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense film, Vertigo.