Thursday, October 27, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Threequel Thursday – The Exorcist III & A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

Ed Flanders and George C. Scott in The Exorcist III (1990).

The Halloween movie season is, for me, as much about discovering new favourites as revisiting old ones. Classics like Suspiria, Poltergeist, Halloween, and Evil Dead 2 are like friends I welcome back each year with open arms and a beaming heart, and I’m ever eager to add new friends to that group. That’s why I make time every October to fill in the gaps in my horror repertoire that represent the sequels, prequels, and other continuations of movies I already know and love. Over time I’d heard many good things about two such cinematic hellspawns, which both happened to be the third entry (a.k.a. “threequel”) in a series that suffered from a sub-par sequel: The Exorcist III (1990) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).

There's not much more that needs to be said about The Exorcist (1973); I myself have already extolled its virtues here on the site (and with far less insight than others have brought to the subject over the years). Its sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), has generated almost the same amount of discussion in that time, although aimed in the other direction: it's frequently cited as not only one of the worst sequels to a classic horror film, but as one of the all-time worst films in any category. It strikes me as odd, though, that the third film in this "series" – written and directed by original Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty as an adaptation of his 1983 novel Legion – gets by far the least attention. I was astonished at how adept it was, and I'm willing to argue that this red-headed stepchild is just as scary as its adopted mother, if not more so.

The Exorcist III is set seventeen years after the events of the first film, and centers on police detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb’s role in the original, played here by George C. Scott) who, over the course of that movie, became friends with the fallen Jesuit priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Kinderman shares the grief of Karras’s death with Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), who delivered Damien’s last rites, and the two survivors have developed a shared love for droll banter and silver-age flicks, spending time shooting barbed remarks at one another while unable to confront the real emotions they feel. They’re both aging men, afraid of death and loneliness and their dependence upon one another, and when Dyer is murdered in his hospital bed, he is simultaneously ripped out of Kinderman’s life and drags him into the serial killer case Kinderman thought he’d left behind years ago. The suspect, known as “The Gemini Killer” (based on the real-life Zodiac killer), was sent to the electric chair but has apparently somehow resurfaced and is killing again – and when Kinderman investigates a patient at a Georgetown psychiatric hospital who claims to be the killer, he’s shocked to find that this so-called “Patient X” appears to be his dead friend, Damien Karras. To us, however, he appears as The Gemini (Brad Dourif), who boasts of a demonic “master” who orders him to kill, and who is likely the same evil which plagued poor Regan MacNeil in two previous films.

Brad Dourif in The Exorcist III.
By any metric, it’s a slower, more talky, more emotional film than The Exorcist. For every cold, detached, documentary moment in Regan’s story, The Exorcist III provides warmth and depth and passion. Where The Exorcist was cerebral, a movie of the mind, its threequel is a movie of the heart – and engages with what is most painful to that most vulnerable of organs. Blatty proves himself not only a savvy writer, which was already clear, but an assured and confident director, whose staging and sense of glacial patience make the film an exercise in stately horror classicism. He does something that films of this kind never do: he allows his characters to talk, to reveal things about themselves, and brackets this chattiness with profound cinematic purpose. In one scene we see a doctor rehearse a lie he intends to tell Kinderman, pacing and sweating with anxiety, and then he’s told by a nurse that Kinderman has arrived. Blatty then shows us the lie in action, as the doctor struggles to remain natural, and the scene – unbeknownst to Kinderman – is excruciating for the doctor and the audience both. There is blood in The Exorcist III, but it comes only once Blatty has pulled the tension so unbelievably taut that you become desperate for the killing blow, languishing in minute after minute of exquisitely painful buildup. It’s remarkable filmmaking.

This classy approach is undone somewhat by the more exploitative elements mandated by the production company, Morgan Creek, to the chagrin of Blatty and the cast and crew. Blatty’s novel contains no exorcism, but the studio wasn’t willing to accept that sort of ending for a film with this name, so they demanded an extensively reworked climax that included a hastily cast character named Father Morning (a total waste of great theatre actor Nichol Williamson) brought in to perform an explosive, special effects-laden exorcism on Patient X. Combined with other bizarre sequences like a scene in which a possessed elderly woman crawls along the ceiling above Kinderman, this stuff feels forcibly shoehorned into a movie that isn’t interested in that sort of gratuitous horror fare, and it's likely responsible for the fact that the film’s critical reception was split right down the middle. (In a remarkable coincidence, I learned that a Director's Cut was due for release the day after I watched the film; hopefully the new cut addresses these issues.) I can say unequivocally, however, that everyone who’s seen the film agrees on one thing: the absolute brilliance of its cast.

Brad Dourif goes full Shakespearean with the Gemini, restricted by a straitjacket but filling the room with his presence. He’s magnetic and creepy in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way, capturing the impish delight of a disturbed man empowered by demonic evil whose greatest joy is causing suffering. Jason Miller, returning as the possessed corpse of Karras, adds a dimension of sadness that’s missing from Dourif’s megalomaniacal take; it’s only as a form of petty revenge that the demon has chosen to inhabit his body and regenerate his crushed brain into normal function, and Miller beautifully carries that sense of rudely interrupted peace. And it should go without saying that the great George C. Scott is utterly magnificent as Kinderman, bringing shades of depth and character to the aging detective that elevate the film beyond its uneven elements. He’s dry and sardonic, except when his professional composure boils over into white-hot rage at the injustice and cruelty exacted upon his friends. He’s a grumpy old coot whose gruff exterior hides a deep well of love, pushed too far by horror and violence to stand it anymore. It’s one of the all-time great horror performances, and The Exorcist III is worth seeing on the strength of Scott alone.

Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).

You know what film doesn’t have great performances, though? A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. The Nightmare series has always pulled off a very specific sort of camp tone – which I’ll get to – but even within the expected parameters of hammy teen horror acting, the cast of Dream Warriors truly fails to impress. In the case of Heather Langenkamp, returning as A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Final Girl, Nancy Thompson, it’s downright laughable. That shouldn’t dissuade you, though, because, despite the flat and unconvincing performances from its leads, Dream Warriors is a great threequel and a proper realization of the creative cinematic foundations of the series.

The film’s core conceit of the surviving Elm Street teens being committed together in a mental hospital and banding together to fight Freddy Kreuger (Robert Englund) is, put simply, pure magic. It’s a premise that allows director Chuck Russell and screenwriter Wes Craven (among others) to explore the mythology of their slasher villain in greater detail, and to drill down into what makes the Nightmare films really work: the visually creative dream scenarios that are Freddy’s domain. There’s even a game of Dungeons & Dragons thrown in at one point, simply to reinforce the themes of imagination, youthful rebellion, and agency in the face of supernatural danger. For a group of teens who everyone thinks are suicidal, and who really just want to escape Freddy’s grasp, the entire struggle is really about choice: whether to succumb to his murderous desires or to fight back, against all odds. Dream Warriors, despite some lapses in execution, is a wonderful realization of the promise of the original Nightmare concept.

A scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
Most of this promise, like I said, has to do with the dream sequences stalked by Freddy and the special effects that bring his bizarre powers to life. The realm of dreams is a place where literally anything the characters – and by extension the filmmakers – can imagine will become real. In Dream Warriors, the special effects are by far the highlight, exemplifying the grotesque creativity and ingenuity for which the series is fondly remembered – whether it’s a tricycle rolling into a room on a trail of blood and promptly melting to the sound of children screaming, or a junkyard full of car wrecks coming to sputtering, screeching life, or a massive slimy worm with Freddy’s face, or a character made into a sleepwalking marionette suspended by his own tendons. Dream Warriors is exactly the kind of wildly original carnival ride you hope it will be. The Nightmare series has always aimed for the specific kind of stunts that frighten kids, peppered with the swears and gore and nudity that make it worth sneaking into a late-night R-rated screening, and with the threequel it finally arrived at the apex of that campy, funhouse, but still-sorta-genuinely-scary tone.

The other aspect that elevates Dream Warriors above its kin is the mythology it builds around Freddy himself. We’re introduced to a gaunt, creepy nun played by Nan Martin who explains Freddy’s origin story, describing him as “the bastard child of a hundred maniacs,” and asserting that the only way to quiet his vengeful spirit is to bury him properly on hallowed ground. I’m not sure that this explanation is better than the original’s, which posited that by ignoring Freddy and denying him your fear you can rob him of his power – a potent symbol for high-school bullying – but it provides a classic grounding that results in actionable steps our heroes can take in the real world as well as the dream world, allowing Russell to accompany the nightmare action with a ticking-clock B-movie plot. (I also don’t understand how the junkyard where Freddy’s remains were stashed by the Elm Street parents counts as “hallowed ground.” Maybe the nun was just being extra careful?)

In filling out the edges of my horror-movie map, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of clunkers, but threequels like The Exorcist III and Dream Warriors make a strong argument for the validation of these ongoing franchises. The “third film” as a concept seems like the perfect middle ground between the desire to recapture the beating heart of the original idea in fresh and exciting ways, and the tedious prolongation of that idea that comes later. I feel there are fewer exceptions to this rule than one might think, and when threequels are this good, they restore my faith that strong and resonant stories can still be told in the rush to make a buck.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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