Monday, August 17, 2020

‘The Exorcist III’ at 30: Brad Dourif’s Incredible Performance as the Gemini Killer is Legion

The mere mention of The Exorcist III tends to bring to mind two things: one of the most effective and iconic jump scares of all time, and Brad Dourif‘s intense performance as the Gemini Killer. That William Peter Blatty‘s sequel already boasts a stacked cast, led by powerhouse George C. Scott, only speaks to the strength of Dourif’s scene-stealing appearance in the sequel. In the thirty years since the film’s release, on August 17, 1990, the discourse has explored just about every corner of Blatty’s vision. Even still, not enough praise has been heaped upon Dourif for what he brought to the table, or the effort he put into the character.

Blatty, who wrote the original novel and then a screenplay for The Exorcist, eventually conceived of a story for a sequel for William Friedkin to direct. When creative differences caused Friedkin to back out, Blatty instead turned the story idea into a novel, Legion. After it landed on the bestseller list, he then decided to turn it into a screenplay. After more creative differences with potential directors, including John Carpenter, Blatty took on the director’s seat. He cast Scott as Lt. William F. Kinderman, and Dourif as Patient X, a psychiatric patient claiming to be both the deceased Gemini Killer and Father Karras.

Set fifteen years after the events of the first film, a new series of murders plagues Georgetown, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to the murders of serial killer James “The Gemini” Venamun. The only hitch is that Venamun was executed around the same time as Karras sacrificed his life to save young Regan MacNeil. Kinderman’s investigation leads him to an amnesiac psychiatric patient in the hospital, who claims to be both the Gemini Killer and Father Karras.

The scenes between Scott and Dourif are mesmerizing; Dourif’s long monologues contain every bit of the actor’s trademark intensity. The actor has a way of humanizing even the evillest of characters, which makes them far more compelling as a result. The sheer volume of dialogue spoken, and while Dourif’s role remains confined to a straightjacket, meant a tricky performance to get right. It took time… a lot of time. Both Blatty and Dourif went through it line by line, breaking down each singular thought to get the character right, to make it engaging for an audience. He nailed it- the progression of emotions in his monologues are enthralling to watch. As is the push and pull between Venamun and the stoic Kinderman.

The only catch? The studio wasn’t happy with the cut Blatty turned in. His more character-focused, less supernatural movie ended on a bleak note- with Kinderman shooting Patient X in the head- and contained absolutely no exorcisms. They demanded reshoots that would include an exorcism. Moreover, they wanted Jason Miller, the original Father Karras, to play Patient X for brand recognition. That resulted in Blatty calling Dourif to break the news that his part in the film would be cut entirely.

Blatty’s plans would quickly be changed once again when Miller’s declining health and battle with alcoholism proved too difficult for the actor to retain the large swaths of dialogue his part entailed. So, Blatty called Dourif back and asked him to return to the role, in a slightly different capacity. To appease the studios, Miller would play Karras, and Dourif would play the Gemini Killer. He had roughly only two days to prepare for the altered role and script, still with an overabundance of monologuing to study.

This wasn’t the first time Dourif came through on short notice. On Child’s Play, Dourif was only cast to play killer Charles Lee Ray in the opening, with Jessica Walter providing the voice of Chucky. Director Tom Holland realized her voice didn’t fit the character and called Dourif back in to voice the now-iconic killer doll. All of which to say, that throughout Dourif’s career, he’s shown immense reliability and professionalism. Chucky is his most recognizable role, for good reason, but the Gemini Killer marks arguably his strongest performance in horror. Dourif made portraying such a tricky role look effortless, which is no small feat.

Dourif himself prefers Blatty’s original version over the theatrical, and it makes perfect sense; playing all components of Patient X gave added complexity and even a little ambiguity to the part. He still shines just as bright in the theatrical cut, though, digging in and grabbing hold of Venamun’s family issues to give a grounded, empathetic performance that makes for one of the most memorable characters of all time. To scene-steal from the likes of George C. Scott alone makes Dourif an actor worth celebrating.


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