Light in the Darkness: William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy

The Exorcist III

In William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogym all three films use the outré scenarios as a starting point for engaging discussions of faith and humanity.

In 1973, The Exorcist briefly became the most profitable film of all time, beaten by Jaws a couple of years later. Depending on whether you count Jaws as a horror film or a thriller, The Exorcist can be said to be the most successful horror film ever made. Naturally, not long after its release, the studio wanted a sequel, but neither writer/producer William Peter Blatty nor director William Friedkin was interested. This led to Warner Bros commissioning the risible Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, which was damned by critics and was listed as the second worst film ever made (following Plan 9 from Outer Space) in Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards.

William Peter Blatty, needless to say, disowned the sequel; he was approached by Warner Bros after Exorcist II was completed to help promote the film, which he’d had no involvement with, and famously told the producers that he’d only be prepared to re-edit and redub the dialogue of the film if they wanted to release it as a comedy! Blatty himself hadn’t wanted to do a direct sequel anyway at this point and instead wanted to script an adaptation of his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, hoping he could interest Friedkin in directing it. While considering this project, Blatty rewrote much of the book and republished it as The Ninth Configuration in 1978, before directing the film himself a year later. Blatty went on to consider The Ninth Configuration to be the true sequel to The Exorcist. He then wrote the novel Legion in 1983, which he adapted into film as The Exorcist III in 1990, turning his series into a trilogy. Although not a direct sequel to The Exorcist (he wrote Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane first), The Ninth Configuration shares some of the themes of his most famous script, and if you compare the plots of all three movies (which also all feature actor Jason Miller in decreasing amounts of screen time) you can see how they complement one another.

[SPOILER ALERT] If you haven’t seen all three films, the following paragraphs contain spoilers.

The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl who is possessed by a demon and a priest who has lost his faith but regains it in sacrificing himself to save her. The Ninth Configuration is about an astronaut who has become terrified of going into space due to the absence of God in the void, and his relationship with a Vietnam veteran who has created an alternate personality to avoid his past but conquers it by killing himself. The Exorcist III is about an undead killer possessing the bodies of the mentally ill and a cop who has lost his faith in humanity but regains it by killing his best friend. By making connections that weren’t actually present in The Exorcist, both Blatty and his fans make a case for these being direct sequels – Lt Cutshaw in The Ninth Configuration may be the unnamed astronaut at the party in The Exorcist that possessed Regan MacNeil informs, ‘You’re going to die up there’; and Exorcist III misremembers the relationship between police officer Lt Kinderman and Father Karras in the original as being best friends, when in fact they only meet once in the film and three times in the novel. Regardless of the direct connections between the films, each concerns the battle between good and evil, and the influence divine and demonic forces have on the world. Each film also has existed in at least two versions, although the director’s cut of Exorcist III was supposedly destroyed by the distributors.

Although memorable for its shocking content, The Exorcist is Blatty’s finest work because of the variety of fascinating three-dimensional characters whose lives intersect and are all touched by the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil. For that reason, the producer’s cut released in 2000, titled ‘The Version You’ve Never Seen’, is perhaps better than the original cut, if only because we get to spend a little more time with all the characters – although the additional CGI superimpositions of the face of Pazuzu on top of existing footage was a somewhat ill-advised addition by Blatty. The sequels suffer in comparison by having too many characters – The Ninth Configuration – or too few – Exorcist III. However, all three films use the outré scenarios as a starting point for engaging discussions of faith and humanity, which complement and add gravitas to each plot.

These elements are perhaps best exemplified by the reoccurring themes of sacrifice and confession in each film. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) – a very literal deus ex machina, whose brief appearances in the film and novel bookend the story – dies in his attempt to exorcise the demon from the young girl in The Exorcist. Father Karras (Jason Miller), whose wrestling with faith and ability to connect with other people are some of the major plot points of the story, commands the demon to enter him instead and tries to destroy it by hurling himself through a window down the infamous long flight of steps. As we will see in Exorcist III, this sacrifice was vain, but at this point he has at least succeeded in curing Regan through his compassion rather than (in comparison with Merrin) his accomplishments as an exorcist, and as he lies dying on a cold street in Georgetown he is absolved of his sins through silent confession by squeezing the hand of another priest, Father Dyer, who administers his last rites.

The Ninth Configuration is set in a remote Gothic-style mansion (supposedly owned by a former horror film star), which has become a sanitarium for Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental afflictions. The idea of the traumatised Vietnam vet is something that has become almost tedious as a cinematic plot, following the likes of Oliver Stone’s various films on the subject and the Rambo franchise, but was a topic of more subversive films in the 60s and 70s. By presenting much of the dialogue as humorous, Blatty seems to place the film within the tradition of irreverent war comedies such as Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970). In the 1960s, a comedy by William Peter Blatty would not have surprised anyone: before The Exorcist he was best known for co-writing the screenplay for Blake Edwards’s A Shot in the Dark (1964), the first sequel to The Pink Panther (1963), which set the template for all the sequels in the 1970s and beyond (making Clouseau the lead character and introducing Herbert Lom’s Dreyfuss and Burt Kwok’s Kato to the franchise). However, post-Exorcist, Blatty was famous for penning an Oscar-winning horror screenplay, and The Ninth Configuration sits in between horror and comedy with the set, mise en scène, lighting and atmosphere all comfortably evocative of the horror genre while the absurd dialogue is comedic. One could argue that much modern horror is unsuccessful because it treats horror as absurd, and the curious and atypical mixing of the tropes of each genre makes The Ninth Configuration a hard film to like or indeed sit through for nearly two hours.

The Ninth Configuration is released in the UK on Blu-ray on 25 April 2016 by Second Sight.

The variety of patients being treated in the story include a character (played by Jason Miller) who wishes to perform the works of Shakespeare entirely cast with dogs, and the aforementioned astronaut who has dreams of coming across the crucified Christ on the Moon and believes that God is in fact a giant foot. It’s worth noting Terry Gilliam’s giant foot first appeared in Monty Python’s Flying Circus three years after the publication of Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, and many of the set pieces here are Pythonesque and similar to sketch-based comedy, which makes the running time somewhat hard to stomach. However, the scenes between Kane (Stacy Keach) and Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) are excellent and make the entire production worth watching, allowing for the self-indulgence elsewhere. Unlike the dramatic scenes of exorcism in The Exorcist and Exorcist III, no physical manifestations of the power of God or the devil are visible on screen here, beyond the architecture of the asylum and outside of Cutshaw and Kane’s subconscious; the latter dreams of the three crosses at Golgotha on his way into the asylum, a scene thankfully cut, as it originally had the three crucified making jokes about their predicament. Themes and lines of dialogue in The Exorcist and Exorcist III first appeared in Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, such as an exchange between Cutshaw and Kane about the evil/goodness in the world, transposed to Father Dyer and Regan’s mother in The Exorcist, and references to the demon Legion from the gospels first appeared in another dream sequence in Kane.

As the plot continues, we realise that the lead character of The Ninth Configuration, who we believe to be Doctor Kane, is actually his brother Col Vincent Kane, who has taken on the identity of his sibling, with the acquiescence of the actual doctors (indeed the first doctor we see in the facility is also a fake, played by Blatty himself) to help cure him of his guilt over a massacre he committed during the war. His ultra-violent nature reasserts itself during a bar fight where Cutshaw is being tormented by Hell’s Angels, and, depending on which version of the film you watch, he either dies from wounds received during the fight, or stabs himself to atone for his sins. Like Karras, who kills himself at the end of The Exorcist to destroy the actual demon he now has inside him, Kane kills himself (in the original cinematic release and Blatty’s definitive 2002 DVD version), or allows himself to die (the 1998 ‘director’s cut’), to protect the world from his potential evil. Like Karras, Kane has acted as confessor to the various disturbed individuals he has taken on the role of doctor to, and he believes the ‘shock therapy’ of his death will help them deal with their own afflictions.

The third of William Peter Blatty’s protagonists whose surname starts with a ‘K’ (which, if you want to read anything into it, is the Arabic letter signifying ‘He wrote’, bearing in mind that the opening scenes of The Exorcist take place in Iraq) is Lt Kinderman, promoted from minor character from the first drama to the lead in Exorcist III. The character of Father Karras has taken the opposite journey, going from lead in The Exorcist to a minor one here, who apparently didn’t appear in the film at all in the cut initially presented by Blatty to the studio before they asked him to reshoot and add certain scenes.

Exorcist III is set in Georgetown, 12 (novel) or 17 (film) years after the events of The Exorcist and the same number of years after the execution of the ‘Gemini’ killer, a serial murderer fashioned after the real life ‘Zodiac’ in San Francisco (the subject of a film by David Fincher in 2007 and the inspiration for the villain in the first Dirty Harry in 1971). Now, over a decade after his death, the killings have resumed and his victims are people associated with the original exorcism. Lt Kinderman is back on the case, and having failed to satisfactorily solve the death of Burke Dennings in the first film (in the novel, it’s revealed that he knows Regan is the killer but defers to the clergy to deal with the problem), he is dealing with the legacy of that murder. His investigations lead him to an asylum – a location also common to all three films as Karras’s mother is also institutionalised prior to her death – where a formerly catatonic patient is revealed to be Father Karras, who is being kept from death by the spirit of the Gemini killer (played by Brad Dourif), a spirit that also takes possession of other, more ambulatory patients and uses them to perform his executions.

The original cut, more faithful to the novel, which Blatty presented to the studio as The Exorcist: Legion, was mainly a two-hander between Kinderman and the Gemini, and this still forms most of the second half of the film. However, Jason Miller was brought in to provide a more obvious visual reference to the resurrection of Karras, and Nicol Williamson added in the character of Father Mourning, another exorcist who arrives, like the original’s Merrin, in the final act. The addition of Miller is a welcome one, but Williamson, whose equally failed exorcism includes egregious scenes of fire and serpents, undoes much of the psychological horror that this film excels in. As Williamson was most famous for his hysterical (in every sense of the word) performance as Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), his acting style, combined with the addition of the number ‘III’ to the title unfortunately links this film more explicitly with Boorman’s dreadful Exorcist II, something Blatty was trying to avoid at all costs.

However, since the director’s cut of this film is lost (and, to be honest, there’s little difference between the various cuts of The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration), we have to consider the version of Exorcist III that is available. Generally it’s a success, with genuinely creepy murder scenes and more of the memorable dream sequences – including a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as a blind man in heaven – that pepper all three films. Blatty has always written excellent dialogue, and here Kinderman is dryly witty throughout as a world-weary cop who has seen too much suffering to have any faith in humanity any more. The final scene of the 2000 producer’s cut of The Exorcist and the novel sees Kinderman and Father Dyer start a friendship, the conclusion of which (with Dyer’s murder by the Gemini) is seen here. Unfortunately, the actors who played these roles don’t reprise them; Lee J. Cobb died in 1976 and William O’Malley (a priest in real life), who was infamously slapped across the face by William Friedkin before he rolled camera on the climactic scene in The Exorcist, gave up acting after his one performance. The new Kinderman and Dyer are well cast though, George C. Scott is terrific as the savant-like detective in a crumpled coat and old car (Blatty wrote The Exorcist in the same year that Columbo was picked up for a series) and Ed Flanders is a fine replacement for O’Malley and one of four actors returning from The Ninth Configuration.

At the end of Exorcist III, Karras regains possession of his body and commands Kinderman to shoot him – suicide by cop – once more facilitating his own death to destroy the demon within him. In The Exorcist, Regan is possessed by a variety of personalities, albeit all the same demon, while in Exorcist III, the one personality inhabits a variety of bodies, reimagining the possession by Legion in the gospels. The suicides of the two Karras – at the end of his original life and his resurrected one – remind us of the pigs in the Bible destroying themselves in a river when the demons are driven out by Jesus.

In the other sequels, Karras and Dyer weren’t the only priests from the original to return – Max von Sydow reprised the role of Father Merrin in flashback in Exorcist II and Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd took over for Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in 2004 and 2005 (the most extreme version of an Exorcist film existing in two versions). While these extrapolated prequel adventures of Merrin should generally be avoided (although Dominion has its moments) William Peter Blatty’s ‘faith trilogy’ is one of the most fascinating triptychs on film. The Exorcist is a genuine masterpiece in terms of directing, casting and writing (if not approaches to directing actors), The Ninth Configuration isn’t to my personal taste but it is an intriguing film, and Exorcist III, while a slightly odd and low-key conclusion to the trilogy, is an under-rated thriller that is well worth seeking out.

If watching the three films is slightly unsatisfying overall, due to the changes of pace, style and cast, there are other potential Blatty sequels and remakes in the wings, ignoring such recent homages as Possessed (1990), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Rite (2011). Blatty has mooted a TV mini-series remake of The Exorcist to adapt all 320 pages of his original novel and wishes to collaborate again with Friedkin on an adaptation of his gripping new book The Redemption (a.k.a. Dimiter – another project of his with two different names), which again mixes elements of faith and unbelief, good and evil, light and darkness and tells the tale of a once evil, somewhat supernatural assassin, who becomes good during a terrible mission in Albania and goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The book is told somewhat obliquely in the style of The Third Man, and in my opinion The Redemption is a better thematic sequel to The Exorcist than The Ninth Configuration. So, if Friedkin and Blatty do bring this to the screen, then perhaps an even more satisfying trilogy (or tetralogy) will have been achieved than the one we have already.

For all the horror on screen in Blatty’s trilogy, the titling of this series as his ‘faith’ trilogy (by the writer himself and others) is apt. While short-sighted religious groups damned The Exorcist as being demonic on original release, the film and its follow-ups by the author actually champion faith in humanity and in a higher power represented by the conquering of evil and the appreciation of the sublime in the world around us. In the original novel, Blatty describes a moment shared by Fathers Dyer and Karras before the latter has his life destroyed by demonic possession: ‘The burnished rays of the setting sun flamed glory at the clouds of the western sky and shattered in rippling, crimson dapples on the darkening waters of the river. Once Karras met God in this sight. Long ago. Like a lover forsaken, he still kept the rendezvous.’ The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist III aren’t books and films to convert a non-believer like me to Christianity, but they contain enough intrigue and beguiling storytelling to make readers ponder the questions they raise.

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Redemption was published in the UK by Piatkus Books on 3 February 2011 and is available in paperback and Kindle formats.

Alex Fitch

2 thoughts on “Light in the Darkness: William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy”

  1. Good article.

    Although, The Ninth Configuration is hardly hard to sit through – it is, in fact, one of the finest films ever made. It and the book on which it is based are Blatty’s crowning achievements as a filmmaker and author respectively.

    In his Trilogy of Faith, it is The Ninth Configuration that most expertly conveys its themes.

  2. Also, I’d say that Dimiter is actually an inferior version of The Ninth Configuration, mainly because it is a) not as funny, and b) not nearly as haunting. It is more ambiguous, and perhaps more sinister, but I think that it fails to convey its themes with the same amount of humanity and pathos as The Ninth Configuration so expertly does.

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