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Shadowvision: “THE EXORCIST III”

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition. 

While this writer would never go as far as to say William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST III is a better film than William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST, I would say definitively that THE EXORCIST III is a far more interesting film. Whereas Friedkin’s film based most of its horror in the implication of greater evil, which ramped up the tension for when the demonic terror did show its literally ugly face, Blatty’s film took its horror far more literally, bringing great dreams and nightmares to stunning life. And while Friedkin’s film got most of its mileage from just how quiet and realistic it could portray possession and exorcism, THE EXORCIST III is a stylistic free-for-all in which Blatty had no problem mixing the surreal and real, and even embraced some of horror’s most archetypal moments.

So as THE EXORCIST provided this column with one of its more interesting entries, this writer was keen on seeing if such an experience could be replicated for its second sequel under the circumstances. But what this writer wasn’t expecting was just how different those experiences would be, despite both films sharing a canonical color palate and similar messages about good versus evil. In fact, this writer had never truly understood just how different both films had been from one another until seeing the latter in black and white, especially in terms of their use of the fantastical and supernatural.

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Technically speaking, standard adjustments should be made to achieve a proper black and white picture: ramp up the contrast a little while desaturating the image of all color. Adjustments in brightness should be based on the quality of the set-up: there will generally be more clarity and natural brightness from an HDTV while standard sets may want to increase the brightness by a notch or two. Otherwise, the natural cinematography of THE EXORCIST III will do most of the heavy lifting.

First of all, when viewed in monochrome, THE EXORCIST III almost plays like an entirely different film, as if someone blended elements of crime noir and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE with the original EXORCIST. In fact, the story and philosophical similarities to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE within THE EXORCIST III became a lot more apparent when removed of color. But the film becomes a much more stylistic and vivid production, which actually makes the film a lot scarier as a whole. Shadows seem to pop off the screen, and Gerry Fisher’s astounding cinematography is much more striking; in fact, the confessional sequence becomes a much, much more terrifying scene when completely removed of color, as the darkness surrounding the priest feels almost engulfing and inescapable.

Almost every element of the film is aided by the black and white treatment: the angelic train station fantasy feels much more cohesive to the rest of the film, the shocking imagery during the exorcism scene is more nightmarish and even the appearances by Father Karras feel more tonally appropriate. Speaking of, the black and white also lends itself to building tension, as the iconic hallway scene once again feels unpredictable and terrifying, almost as if Blatty had found inspiration from Polanski’s REPULSION. And even the dialogue is more fitting to monochrome, as the long, creepy diatribes from The Gemini Killer carry a greater weight when only illuminated by stunning white light, as if influenced by Stanley Cortez’s lighting in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

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Yet while so much of the film is improved upon in black and white, there are certain specific elements that are hindered by the black and white translation. Chief of the elements lessened by black and white is George C. Scott’s performance, which is less evocative of the hard-jawed noir type detective and closer to an aging atheist Columbo. Another element that lacks in black and white is the bloodier and gorier moments of the picture, especially during Father Morning’s mutilation during the climactic exorcism. And lastly, monochrome does somewhat lessen the scenes that take outside of the nursing home, robbing the locales of the era-appropriate environmental colors which helps build the believable world around these characters.

The black and white could also cause problems for those who prefer to take THE EXORCIST III in face value as a horror film. The black and white certainly emphasizes the roles of Good vs. Evil, much like in our Shadowvision examination of the original, and it’s very much a noticeable part in Fisher’s shadowing. Furthermore, black and white gels together the varying subgenres of horror, including psychological, visceral and supernatural, while some fans may prefer the atmospheric escalation from one to the other. And lastly, the black and white definitely makes the religious allegories on display all the more heavyhanded and apparent, which may impress some while aggravate others.

Overall, the Shadowvision for THE EXORCIST III is ultimately a grand success because it offers something this column vehemently seeks: an altogether new viewing experience. Black and white doesn’t merely just alter the footage of THE EXORCIST III; it alters the film entirely, from the visuals to the dialogue to the tone. For those who like THE EXORCIST III as just a horror film, then perhaps the straightforward intended version of the film will always be preferred. However, for those who really want to look into Blatty’s EXORCIST III and see the weight within his carefully composed images and script, black and white might be the way to go.

Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Yes.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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