They did the best they could with what they had. Like many people, I had been waiting many years to see William Peter Blatty’s vision of Legion put to film. We knew that if the footage was ever found, it would be of a lower quality because it had been sitting in storage over the years. We also knew the ending would be a subtle one, the antithesis to the special effects bonanza the studio made him tack on in what became The Exorcist III. Yet if you read the forums, you will see people are complaining about those two things. To me, judging and reviewing Legion is actually a bit of a tricky task. The question that comes into the equation is do we judge it in comparison to The Exorcist III or as a standalone film that still seems incomplete because of the way that extra footage was handled? The latter gives those disappointed a chance to still wonder about “what might have been” and the former can claim the studio was right in demanding changes.
The new footage inserted into Legion is of (mostly) a poor quality. Some of it actually retains HD value and looks fine while most looks like the direct scan off the VHS dailies they came from. This was a project 20+ years in the making, and we are lucky to even get something of this magnitude to begin with. So to knock the release because of quality is not exactly fair. As for the ending, it is what we expected. There wasn’t a Jason Miller as Karras character in the original. We knew that. There wasn’t anything close to that in Blatty’s book. We knew that. There was no exorcism or heavy special effects in his vision because it did not tie into his story. We knew that too.
Honestly, is the ending a bit underwhelming? Yes. It’s abrupt with no dramatic build-up whatsoever (or was there more footage lost that would have helped this aspect?). But it falls in line with the rest of the film. The story as a whole is a fast-paced, quickly edited production. There are more than a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots. If you’ve read anything from Blatty over the years in regards to this film, you’ll know that’s what he wanted. The same people who complained that the over-the-top and out-of-place ending in The Exorcist III ruined the film are now saying the same of the subtle, nonchalant, no-frills climax that was always meant to be there in the first place.
Hey, you can hate Legion. I’m not saying you have to like it more because this is what Blatty wanted. I still think The Exorcist III is a better overall film, even with the flaws and the ending feeling forced. But I also think the studio in doing what they did hurt the Exorcist franchise because people still hadn’t recovered from Exorcist II: The Heretic and might have been refreshed to see something not over-the-top. It would have been a sigh of relief that we got back to an actual, well-crafted story without giving in to the need of an exorcism because none would have ever come close to the original in the 1973 film.
If there is one thing the studio got right, it would be demanding he include an original cast-member. This became Jason Miller, who took on the role of Patient X. Since Brad Dourif’s Gemini killer was supposed to be in Father Karras’ body the whole time, it only made sense. The alternating between Dourif and Miller also makes for superior film-making on Blatty’s behalf, and adds more tension. It’s a shame they couldn’t leave it at that—keeping Miller and not going with an exorcism scene at the end.
Still, the progression of the story in Legion goes on to fit with the ending. It’s more of a crime drama than a horror movie. We get more information about the death of Damien Karras and how it relates to the Gemini killings. We also have a scene with Kinderman and the University President (Lee Richardson) discussing how Brother Fain was keeping watch over Karras’ body and was never seen again. This is mentioned only briefly in the theatrical version, by the Gemini. But now we get a full picture as to how he slipped into Karras, and how Karras came to avoid burial and be taken in by the hospital. That was a dialogue that should have remained in the theatrical version if you ask me.
Would Legion have worked with today’s audiences? No, not unless it was an art-house release. But in 1990, maybe. In a way, I think this release will get people to look differently at The Exorcist III and also at Blatty himself as a director. But perhaps not for the reasons you think. In all its clunkiness, the tension, build-up, and yes, the exorcism scene, were pretty complicated. Especially for someone who had only directed one other film and isn’t even considered a “director”. The studio’s demands, whether you think they were right or wrong, show just how talented Blatty really is. He had to dismantle his final vision to do something he never wanted to do, and did it rather well. I think he will go down as one of the more underrated directors of all-time. It’s a shame he didn’t do more.
Legion is not a better film, but it’s not worse either. I think I would give it an 8.5 out of 10 stars. I appreciate it for what it is, and will continue to watch both versions. If anything, Legion is fascinating insight into how a production works and also what the editing process is like. The fact that most of the movie is unchanged yet we could have such radically different endings and two different films shows just how versatile a story it was that Blatty created. One that will continue to fascinate and intrigue, no matter which version you like more.
More on my coverage of The Exorcist III director’s cut can be found here.
More posts in my HALLOWEEN 2K16 column can be found here.