by Marc Kandel
“Legion” is an underrated example of extraordinary horror. Not only does it deliver hair-raising, white knuckled moments of tension and fright, but it is possessed of singular wit and intelligence far in excess of most films that laughably bill themselves as horror today, sporting remarkable character work, shuddering imagery, and superb performances, all overcoming studio insistence that any film with the name “Exorcist” must of course sport the titular activity, even when it doesn’t mesh with the film’s overall context.On the streets of Georgetown a monster is copycatting the predations of the Gemini Killer, a serial murdering psychopath executed long ago, brought to justice by Lieutenant Bill Kinderman. As his investigation progresses, Kinderman discovers that the murderer may not be dead after all, and the key to finding and stopping him may involve delving into another old case of his, that of a little girl once under the dominion of a horrible presence that is not done losing its terrible mischief on our world.
"George C. Scott at his “Aaahhhh! My groooooin!” best."
It astounds me how little respect and mention this film receives among horror fans. I’ve watched it numerous times, own it (unlike the first one, which unnerves me enough not to want it under my roof), sang its praises to friends, and its one of my Halloween staples. The complexities of the characters and their relationships (particularly Kinderman and Father Dyer), the earned scares, Scott’s astounding performance (and not just the blustery speeches but his quiet, softer moments as well), the fascinating twists of a plot that makes its audience hoof it to keep up, and the visual flourishes never fail to captivate and chill.
I also find the dialogue in this film to be some of the best I’ve encountered in movies Period, much less a horror film. William Peter Blatty, director and writer, protects his language maintaining a dry, acerbic, fast paced wit that makes interplay between most of the characters like miniature plays and bits unto themselves whilst keeping the relationships thoroughly entrancing and believable. It’s almost as if Dorothy Parker wrote a scary movie.
Fans of the film and readers of the books (the latter which I am not), may find the establishment of a friendship between Father Karras of the first film and Kinderman puzzling as the two did not have all that much of a relationship in the first film prior to Karris’ death, but Scott makes it very real, his depression and surly attitude on the anniversary of Karras’ plunge down those famous steps in Georgetown a painful recollection to him, shared with Father Dyer, who has become close with Kinderman in the years since. Theirs is an absolutely beautiful friendship, one of verbal one-upmanship, rich, surly humor and the distinct comfort of two friends who have grown old together.
Scott’s Kinderman is a much different animal than Lee J. Cobb’s who was reasonably affable though shrewd and insistent. Scott demands attention whenever he strides on screen, impeccably put together, demanding answers and cowing his prey whereas Cobb always lurked in the periphery, keenly observing and waiting to move in, not above softening up his quarry through humor and seeming dishevelment.
Many who have seen the film remember Scott’s grand, blustery speech at the end, faced with endless horror where he spits the truths he now acknowledges into his tormentor’s face. But to single this one moment out amid some of the softer, textured work Scott provides is unfair. His “carp” monologue to Father Dyer regarding a Passover ritual his wife is subjecting him to is some of the funniest stuff to come from Scott since “Strangelove”, and for quiet, crushing grief, watch his face and the pained, exhaled sound he makes when lifting the sheet of a Gemini victim (one that he knows). A lesser actor might blubber over the corpse or scream at the sky- Scott’s high, brief “ah” is astounding in its simplicity and realism. In this moment we know everything he feels, horrible sadness, disappointment, revulsion that a friend has been so cruelly used, revulsion over his friend’s appearance, rage, knowledge that this person is not in his life anymore—without a single tear. Do not ever underestimate this actor.
Ed Flanders is a pleasure as Father Joseph Kevin Dyer. His is a priest that comes of more like Jackie Mason than a stuffy clergyman- his line deliveries are as hilarious as the lines themselves, and the man is suffused with good humor, but never clownish, and his affection for Kinderman is touching yet never overly sentimental- they enjoy their intellectual duels, their company, and one really sees that they cleave to each other in the wake of the loss of their mutual friend.
Brad Douriff appears to be the divergence point for most people when this film is discussed- it's a love or hate performance and nothing in between. Equally hammish and disturbing, and perhaps even self-consuming, given a number of other performances, such as a similar role later on in an X-Files Episode, it can annoy people right out of the story or pull them in further through his clenched, bug-eyed mania. I fall into the pro-Douriff camp, but I can understand those who find the character choices a bit much. Perhaps less of Child’s Play’s self-congratulating Charles Lee Ray and more of the reptilian Piter De Vries from Dune would have done the trick. But I find the performance serves the film’s needs and the finished product is near perfect in my eyes. And yes, I do like Dune, but I can whoop your no-taste asses over that one some other time.
Blatty uses silence and stillness to great effect, even when the scene is rife with activity. Music is used sparingly, most notably the famous “Tubular Bells”, but scares are not telegraphed nor are moments of high drama scored to the gills. Evil is a quiet thing in this film and the absence of sound echoes back to the first film effectively.
The mere mention of the events in the McNeil’s townhouse so long ago can invoke the demonic presence. A scene where Kinderman interviews a doctor that examined Regan McNeil is stopped completely dead as a sudden silence descends prompting Kinderman to halt the conversation as the Doctor places his head in his hands, seemingly well aware of the unnerving effect mentioning his old case has. Kinderman walks out into an empty hallway that was perfectly innocuous before, daylight streaking through the windows, the outside sounds of everyday life filtering through the hallways, but is now a silent corridor of hideous malformed shadows and shapes, pictures and statues with once benign subjects now twisted with vulpine grins, soft, evil tittering in the stairwell and shadow. One almost expects to see the McNeil manifestation, nightgown stained, hair matted, face deformed with lesions, teeth moldering, gums blackened and eyes shining with yellowed malignance, gleefully chuckling to itself as it crouches in the corner. We don’t see anything like this, but we stare at the screen waiting for it, breathless with fright and unwilling anticipation. As for the hallway scene in the hospital… I won’t say any more- you’ve heard about it before and still, nothing will save your underwear from the tsunamic browning to come…
The most glaring flaw in the film, the studio enforced exorcism scene, is cleverly and soundly defeated by Blatty himself, who moves past the awkward papal insertion (see what I did there?) to a thrilling climax played in such a manner that only William Kinderman, a world weary, Jewish, borderline agnostic protagonist (much closer to the Father Karris character than Nicol Williamson’s Father Morning, a poor man’s Father Merrin) could bring a halt to the terror, not some hosanna spouting Knight of the Church wrapped in his symbols.
The priest fails, badly, impotent before the Beast, and the moment of engagement is played as though the demon isn’t taking the proceedings very seriously (possessed by the disgusted Blatty rather than Pazuzu), more going through the motions until it can reveal its stronger hand to the unsuspecting, exhausted shaman. Look closely when the holy water first hits—yes, the demon shudders, grunts and writhes, but it’s not the instinctive, pained, shrieking recoil of Regan McNeil’s tormentor, its more of a tired aping of what is supposed to happen- the demon playing its part, luring its prey into complacency, and then almost blithely dispatching its adversary (Mercedes McCambridge chuckling in her leathery, sinister voice) in anticipation of the main event. The director serves the dictates of the bean counters, and advances the plot at the same time by subverting the supposed “heroic” scene with a horrific turnaround.
The last character I must make mention of, without which whom the Exorcist films would not work, is God. God is a curious being throughout the Exorcist canon, preferring to stick to his old adage of helping those who help themselves. The moments of good in the first film are human moments, Karras’ sacrifice giving the story its hope- that of the triumph of man’s will and capacity to brave danger and death to help others. The triumph of Legion is a human one as well, but only after God has, in a rare display, made his presence manifest.
It might seem a weak machination hearkening back to the oldest of stage tricks, but visually it is a small, quiet thing, like the voice Moses hears in the wilderness, and one cannot help but feel relief and even wonderment at the Presence, particularly the demon’s offended, croaked “You” as it is confronted by its Adversary. And in the end, is it not this aspect to all of the films, that of an evil that can be banished by love and faith and prove that there is a God out there, even if only by allowing for the existence of a devil? Aren’t these films much more inspiring and gratifying as a spiritual, human triumph when compared to a typical news headline filled with tales of enemies and conflict that will not flinch or disappear so easily?
Man, I sound kind of weird on this one, don’t I? Better light the black candles and kill a kitten.Legion (I refuse to call it E-III) is a beautiful, frightening work done by a filmmaker who can respect horror and merge it with drama, comedy and intelligence, in spite of studio interference. Don't dawdle- turn down your lights, pop it on- see it.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1144&reviewer=358
originally posted: 12/15/06 01:00:15