American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer stated in interviews that he was in the habit of watching the film before hunting and killing his victims because it put him "in the mood".
The film begins with the point of view of someone wandering through the streets of Georgetown, a voice informing us "I have dreams... of a rose... and of falling down a long flight of stairs." The point of view shows a warning of evil about to arrive later that night at a church. Demonic growls are heard. Leaves and other street trash suddenly come flying into the church as a crucifix comes to life. It then cuts to Lieutenant William F. Kinderman at a crime scene, where a 12-year-old boy named Thomas Kintry has been murdered.
Kinderman takes his friend, a priest named Father Dyer, out to see their mutually favorite film It's a Wonderful Life. Kinderman later relates the gruesome details of the murder of the young boy he was investigating that morning, including his crucifixion. Another murder soon takes place—a priest is found decapitated in a church. Dyer is shortly hospitalized—and found murdered the next day—with the words "IT'S A WONDERFULL LIFE", written on a wall in Dyer's blood.
The fingerprints at the crime scenes do not match, indicating a different person was responsible for each. Kinderman tells hospital staff the reason for his unease: seventeen years ago the vicious serial killer James "The Gemini" Venamun, was executed; with every victim he cut off the right index finger and carved the Zodiac sign of Gemini into the palm of their left hand. Kinderman noticed the hands of the three new victims and verified that the Gemini's sign has been there. The Gemini Killer also always used an extra "L" in his notes sent to the media, such as "usefull" or "carefull". Furthermore, to filter out false confessions, the original Gemini Killer's true mutilations were kept a secret by the Richmond police's homicide department; the newspapers were made to wrongfully report that the left middle finger was severed and that the Gemini sign was carved on the back of the victim.
Kinderman visits the head of the psychiatric ward, Dr. Temple, who relates the history of a man in Cell 11, that he was found wandering aimlessly seventeen years ago with amnesia. The man was locked up, catatonic until recently when he became violent and claimed to be the Gemini Killer. Kinderman sees that the patient resembles his dead friend Father Damien Karras. The patient expresses ignorance of Father Karras, but boasts of killing Father Dyer.
The next morning, a nurse and Dr. Temple are found dead. Kinderman returns to see the patient in Cell 11, who claims that after his execution his soul entered Karras's dying body. The Gemini's spiritual "master", who had possessed the girl Regan MacNeil, was furious at being pushed out of the child's body and is exacting its revenge by putting the soul of the Gemini Killer into the body of Father Karras. Each evening, the soul of the Gemini leaves the body of Karras and possesses the elderly people with senile dementia elsewhere in the hospital and uses them to commit the murders. The Gemini Killer forced Dr. Temple to bring Kinderman to him or he would suffer in unspeakable ways — Temple couldn't take the pressure, and he committed suicide.
The Gemini possesses an old woman, who makes a failed attempt to murder Kinderman's daughter. The possessed patient attacks Kinderman, but the attack abruptly ends when a priest, Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson), enters the corridor leading to cell 11 and attempts an exorcism on the patient. The Gemini's "patron" intervenes, taking over the patient's body, and the priest is all but slain. Kinderman arrives in time and attempts to euthanize Karras after finding the body of the priest but is hurled into the wall by the possessed Karras. Father Morning manages to briefly regain consciousness and tells Karras, "Damien, fight him." Karras regains his free will briefly and cries to Kinderman, "Bill, now! Shoot now! Kill me now!" Kinderman fires his revolver several times, hitting Karras in the chest, fatally wounding him. The Gemini is now gone...and Karras is finally free. With weak breaths, he says "We won, Bill. Now free me." Kinderman puts his revolver against Karras' head—and fires.
The film ends with Kinderman standing over Karras' grave.
William Peter Blatty, although initially having no desire to write a sequel to The Exorcist, eventually came up with a story titled Legion, featuring Lieutenant Kinderman, a prominent character in the original Exorcist novel (though played a minor role in the eventual film), as the central protagonist. Blatty conceived Legion as a feature film with William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, attached to direct. Despite the critical and commercial failure of the previous sequel, Warner Bros. was keen to proceed with Blatty and Friedkin's plans for another Exorcist film. Blatty said that "everybody wanted Exorcist III... I hadn't written the script, but I had the story in my head...and Billy [Friedkin] loved it." Friedkin, however, soon left the project due to conflicting opinions between him and Blatty on the film.
The project went into development hell, and Blatty wrote Legion into a novel instead, published in 1983. It was a bestseller. Blatty then decided to turn the book back into a screenplay. Film companies Morgan Creek and Carolco both wanted to make the film; Blatty decided upon Morgan Creek after Carolco suggested the idea of a grown-up Regan MacNeil giving birth to possessed twins. Blatty offered directorial responsibilities to John Carpenter, who liked his script; however, Carpenter backed out when it became clear that Blatty really wanted to direct the movie himself. As per the stipulations for his deal with Morgan Creek, Blatty was to direct the movie himself, and it was to be filmed on location in Georgetown.
The central role of Lt. Kinderman had to be recast, as Lee J. Cobb, who played the part in The Exorcist, had died in 1976. Oscar-winner George C. Scott signed up for the role, impressed by Blatty's screenplay: "It’s a horror film and much more... It's a real drama, intricately crafted, with offbeat interesting characters...and that's what makes it genuinely frightening."
Several cast members from Blatty's previous film The Ninth Configuration (1980) appear in The Exorcist III: Jason Miller, reprising the role of Father Damien Karras from The Exorcist (billed only as "Patient X" in the end credits); Ed Flanders, taking on the role of Father Dyer (previously played by William O'Malley); Nicol Williamson and Scott Wilson.
There are also cameo appearances by basketball players Patrick Ewing, John Thompson, model Fabio, ex-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, television host Larry King, and early appearances of Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson.
Zohra Lampert, who plays Kinderman's wife, is remembered for her lead role in another horror film, 1971's Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
With an $11 million budget, the tentatively-titled Exorcist: Legion was shot on location in Georgetown for eight weeks in mid-1989. Additional interior filming then took place in DEG Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. Blatty completed principal photography of the film on time, and only slightly over budget. However, four months later, Morgan Creek informed Blatty that a new ending had to be shot. Blatty said that “James Robinson, the owner of the company, his secretary had insisted to him that this has nothing to do with The Exorcist. There had to be an exorcism.” 20th Century Fox ponied up an additional $4-million in post-production - to film an effects-laden exorcism sequence featuring Nicol Williamson as Father Morning, a character added just for the new climax and Blatty had to make the best of it in the narrative while racing to complete the film. Blatty confirmed that when the possessed Karras speaks in an asexual voice, saying, "I must save my son, the Gemini," that this in fact is either a returned Pazuzu or, as Blatty put it, "Old Scratch himself" taking control. This ties into the revelation earlier in the film that the Gemini was sent into Karras' body as revenge for the Regan MacNeil exorcism. The altered voice in the climax is deliberately similar to that of Mercedes McCambridge, who did the voice of the uncredited demon in The Exorcist, and the role is essayed in The Exorcist III by Colleen Dewhurst, who was uncredited (in real life, actress Dewhurst was twice married to, and twice divorced from, actor George C. Scott).
One shot missing from the re-filmed climax - but which features in the trailer - shows Karras/the Gemini "morphing" through a variety of faces. It was left out of the film because Blatty wasn't happy with the special effects work.
On the climactic exorcism scene, Blatty later said, "It's all right, but it's utterly unnecessary and it changes the character of the piece.” Although at the time, Blatty told the press that he was happy to re-shoot the film’s ending and have the story climax with a frenzy of special effects, the truth is that this compromise was forced on him, against his wishes:
“The original story that I sold [Morgan Creek] (and that I shot) ended with Kinderman blowing away Patient X. There was no exorcism. But it was a Mexican stand-off between me and the studio. I was entitled to one preview, then they could go and do what they wanted with the picture. They gave me a preview but it was the lowest end preview audience I have ever seen in my life. They dragged in zombies from Haiti to watch this film. It was unbelievable. But I decided, better I should do it than anyone else. I foolishly thought: I can do a good exorcism, I’ll turn this pig’s ear into a silk purse. So I did it.”
Working on the film, Brad Dourif recalls "We all felt really bad about it. But Blatty tried to do his best under very difficult circumstances. And I remember George C. Scott saying that the folks would only be satisfied if Madonna came out and sang a song at the end!" Dourif feels that "The original version was a hell of a lot purer and I liked it much more. As it stands now, it's a mediocre film. There are parts that have no right to be there.
The execution-style ending that Blatty pitched to the studio - which was in the shooting script and actually filmed - differs radically from the ending of both the novel and the first screenplay adaption developed from the novel. The novel ends with the Gemini Killer summoning Kinderman to his cell for a final speech and then willingly dropping dead after his cruel and hated father, a Christian evangelist, dies a natural death from heart attack. As his motive for killing was always to shame his father, the Gemini's reason for remaining on earth no longer exists and he kills Karras in order to leave his host body. In Blatty's original screenplay adaptation, the ending is similar to the novel, except that the Gemini's death is not self-induced but forced supernaturally and suddenly by the death of his father. In both novel and early screenplay, the Gemini's motives for his murders are also given further context via a long series of flashbacks which portray his and his brother's childhood and their relationship with their alcoholic, abusive father.
The Exorcist III first released in October 1989 in the MIFED Film Market and then opened in 1,288 theaters in the United States on August 17, 1990. Unlike its predecessors, it was distributed by 20th Century Fox instead of Warner Bros. (though some distribution rights would later revert to WB). The film was released only a month before the Exorcist parody Repossessed, starring Linda Blair and Leslie Nielsen. Blair claimed that Exorcist III was rush-released ahead of Repossessed, hijacking the latter's publicity and forcing the comedy to be released a month later than was originally intended.
The Exorcist III initially received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes has reported that 55% of critics gave the film positive write-ups based on 31 reviews, with a rating of 5.2/10. British film critic Mark Kermode called it "a restrained, haunting chiller which stimulates the adrenalin and intellect alike," and New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby said "The Exorcist III is a better and funnier (intentionally) movie than either of its predecessors". Critic Brian McKay of efilmcritic.com has remarked that the movie is "not quite as chilling as the first story" yet "is at least a quality sequel", being worth watching but suffering from many "uneven" aspects. People writer Ralph Novak began his review with, "As a movie writer-director, William Peter Blatty is like David Lynch's good twin: he is eccentric, original, funny and daring, but he also has a sense of taste, pace, and restraint -- which is by way of saying that this is one of the shrewdest, wittiest, most intense and most satisfying horror movies ever made."
However, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave a negative review. He wrote, "If Part II sequels are generally disappointing, Part IIIs are often much, much worse. It can seem as if nothing is going on in them except dim murmurings about the original movie — murmurings that mostly remind you of what isn't being delivered". He additionally labeled The Exorcist III "an ash-gray disaster [that] has the feel of a nightmare catechism lesson, or a horror movie made by a depressed monk." It was "Entertainment Weekly" that years later cited the film as the "#8 scariest movie ever made." In the British magazine Empire, film critic Kim Newman claimed that "The major fault in Exorcist III is the house-of-cards plot that is constantly collapsing." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called The Exorcist III "a handsome, classy art film" that "doesn't completely work but offers much more than countless, less ambitious films."
The Exorcist III opened in first place, earning $9,312,219 in its opening weekend. It grossed a total of $26,098,824 in North America and $39,024,251 worldwide. Blatty attributed its poor box office performance to the title imposed by Morgan Creek, having always intended for the film to retain the title of the novel. During development and production, the film went under various titles, including The Exorcist: 1990. Morgan Creek and Fox insisted on including the word Exorcist in the title, which producer Carter DeHaven and Blatty protested against:
“I begged them when they were considering titles not to name it Exorcist anything -- because Exorcist II was a disaster beyond imagination. You can’t call it Exorcist III, because people will shun the box office. But they went and named it Exorcist III. Then they called me after the third week when we were beginning to fade at the box office and they said ‘We’ll tell you the reason: it’s gonna hurt; you’re not gonna like this – the reason is Exorcist II.’ I couldn’t believe it! They had total amnesia about my warnings!”
In 1991, the film won a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA, for Best Writing (William Peter Blatty) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif) and Best Horror Film. George C. Scott was also nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor but lost to Andrew Dice Clay for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.
Despite his misgivings about the studio-imposed reshoots, Blatty remarked on his pride in the finished version of Exorcist III: “It’s still a superior film. And in my opinion, and excuse me if I utter heresy here, but for me...it’s a more frightening film than The Exorcist." Blatty hoped to recover the deleted footage from the Morgan Creek vaults so that he might re-assemble the original cut of the film which he said was "rather different" from what was released, and a version of the film which fans of the Exorcist series have been clamouring for. In 2007, Blatty's wife reported on a fan site that "my husband tells me that it is Morgan Creek's claim that they have lost all the footage, including an alternate opening scene in which Kinderman views the body of Karras in the morgue, right after his fall down the steps." However, Mark Kermode has stated that the search for the missing footage is "ongoing."
Some pictures (lobby cards, stills) show a few deleted scenes from Blatty's original cut of the film:Alternate opening scene in which Kinderman views the body of Karras in the morgue after his fall down the stairs in the ending of the first movie. When Kinderman leaves the morgue...the heart monitor shows signs of life from the body of Karras.
Aftermath of death scene of the first murdered priest—where his dead body is shown holding his severed head while sitting.
Longer version of the scene where Kinderman talks with priest about the murders and when demon face is shown on statue of the saint. Originally, unseen intruder decapitates the statue and places a knife in its hand.
Exhumation of Damien Karras's body in Jesuit cemetery. Later it's discovered that dead body is actually from Brother Fain, Jesuit who was tending Karras's body and who disappeared 15 years ago. Although this scene is deleted, parts of it are used in new ending where Patient X/Karras is buried.
Blatty's original cut also didn't have Jason Miller as Karras/Patient X in it, and it had a different isolation cell for scenes in which Kinderman talked with Patient X/Gemini killer. Some promotional photos show Patient X and Kinderman talking in original cell.
New exorcism ending that Blatty had to film also had small part deleted in which Karras/Patient X is morphing through many other faces. One theatrical trailer shows this deleted scene.
In March 2011, a fan edit called "Legion" appeared on the internet, credited to a fan using the pseudonym Spicediver, which removed all exorcism elements and recreated the main story arc of the director's cut without the use of any lost footage. In 2012, cast member Dourif agreed to present a screening of the fan edit at the Mad Monster Party horror convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 25. Dourif introduced the film and did a Q&A session with the audience afterwards.
In December 2015, Morgan Creek began hinting via its Twitter feed that the Director's Cut was discovered and would eventually be released. Blatty later wrote on his website: “[Morgan Creek] are planning a new Blu Ray of ‘my cut.'”
On October 25, 2016, Scream Factory released a 2-disc Collector's Edition of the film including the supposedly lost footage. The website states: "We know that the biggest question you might have is: Will there be a “Director’s Cut” of the film? The answer is yes—but with some caveats. We are working on putting together a version that will be close to Blatty’s original script using a mixture of various film and video tape sources that we have been provided with."
The final features include:
DISC ONE:The Exorcist III (Theatrical Cut) - New 2K scan of the inter-positive
Deleted Scene/Alternate Takes/Bloopers
Vintage interviews (featuring behind-the-scenes footage) with writer/director William Peter Blatty, George C. Scott, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Grand L. Bush, executive producer James G. Robinson, production designer Leslie Dilley, Larry King and C. Everett Koop
Original Theatrical Trailers
Original TV Spots
DISC TWO:Legion (Original Director’s Cut of The Exorcist III) 105 minutes*
NEW Audio interview with writer/director William Peter Blatty
NEW A “Wonderfull” Time – interviews with producer Carter DeHaven, actors Clifford David and Tracy Thorne and production assistant Kara Reidy
NEW Signs of the Gemini – an interview with Brad Dourif
NEW The Devil in the Details – interview with production designer Leslie Dilley, assistant designer Daren Dochterman and illustrator Simon Murton
NEW Music for a Padded Cell – an interview with composer Barry DeVorzon
NEW All This Bleeding – a look at the re-shoot and makeup effects with production manager Ronald Colby, editor Todd Ramsay, effects artists William Forsche, Mike Smithson, Brian Wade and actor/body double Charles Powell
In speaking to the process of creating the Legion Director’s cut, Blu-ray producer Cliff MacMillan explains further as to the journey to get there and the outcome. “We conducted an exhaustive search through a pallet of film assets from the original shoot to re-create William Peter Blatty’s intended vision. Unfortunately, that footage has been lost to time. To that end, we turned to VHS tapes of the film’s dailies to assemble the director’s cut. However, even some of that footage was incomplete, so scenes from the theatrical re-shoot were used to fill in the gaps. This director’s cut is a composite of varying footage quality from the best available sources.”