For those of you who stay up nights listening to the house settle, William Peter Blatty scares up more horrific doings in "The Exorcist III," the "official sequel" to the 1973 tale of demonic possession. As writer and director, Blatty prefers creaks, whispers and shadowed corridors to spinning heads and projectile vomiting. His style is spookily descriptive and his story slowly engrossing, but he hasn't created a hair-raising masterpiece here.
Where "The Exorcist" was high camp and creepily earnest, its latest descendant is all comic relief and botched bogy-bogy-bogy. It is unsparing when it comes to gruesome descriptions and ominous characters, but it's got more giggles than goose bumps. "The Exorcist III" isn't about to scare anybody.
George C. Scott takes over the role of police Lt. Kinderman (originally played by the late Lee J. Cobb), with Jason Miller returning as Father Damien Karras, a role that brought him an Oscar nomination. It seems that Father Damien didn't die from his terrible fall, but was possessed by a Devil-may-care evil spirit (Brad Dourif) who has spent the past 15 years repairing Damien's damaged brain.
When Mr. Fixit's finished, the ritual murders of yore suddenly resume. A youth, beheaded and crucified on a pair of oars, is the first victim. The corpse bears the mark of the Gemini killer, as does that of the once-amiable Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), a close friend of Kinderman's whose favorite movie was "It's a Wonderful Life." While hospitalized for some routine tests, Dyer was immobilized with a sedative and drained of his blood.
Elsewhere in that same hospital, Kinderman discovers the Gemini killer he once pursued, alive, if not well, and alternating between the guises of the evil spirit and Father Damien. In the spectrally lighted, padded cell, the three of them -- Dourif, Miller and Scott -- sit and overact for a spell. A saucy demon, Dourif howls and fumes and foams at the mouth. "I do that rather well, don't you think?" he quips.
All growls and girth, Scott heaves himself into his performance with the delicacy of a shark who has spotted a tuna. But what's an old ham to do when forced to talk Shakespeare with the cops down at the station. "Macbeth," he informs them, "is about numbing of the moral sense."
Blatty has stuffed Scott's jowls with great, gaseous wads of dialogue and words of literary portentousness. But then again, Blatty has his points to make. Evil is rampant in the land and audiences are numb to violence. But are satanic or more earthly forces, such as producers, to blame for the plague of violence upon the screens and the land? In this fundamentalist look at good and evil, we learn nothing new. The Devil makes us do what we do.
And the heavenly hosts, if we can survive the tests, sometimes lend the likes of cops and doctors a helping hand. There's a dream sequence, inserted video-style, that takes place in Heaven's waiting room, where Purgatory's answer to the Tommy Dorsey Band is entertaining lost souls with hot dance tunes. (Patrick Ewing sits there large and glowing in his cameo as a seraph. He sure has got some nice big wings on him.) In Heaven, you can wait. In Hell, it's business as usual.
The Exorcist III, playing at area theaters, is rated R for profane language, gruesome effects and graphic descriptions.