This is the first in a recurring series that will focus on discussing noteworthy scenes from different horror movies. What makes a scene noteworthy will, of course, vary from one scene to another. At times, it may simply be the scene I feel is the best in the movie; at other times, it may not necessarily be the scene I think is the best, but the one I feel is the most interesting, the strangest, the scariest, etc. Additionally, sometimes a scene will come from a movie full of discussion worthy scenes, and other times it could be the lone standout in the movie. In some cases, discussion will be mostly limited to the scene itself, but in others it may be necessary to discuss more of the movie as a whole, in order to provide context for the scene. With that said, let’s look at our first scene.
Scene: “Lonely Nurse Gets Scissored” from The Exorcist III (1990, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, starring George C. Scott, he of The Changeling and Man Getting Hit by Football).
Everyone agrees--okay, not everyone, but most people agree--The Exorcist is a scary movie. Due in no small part to shit like this:
Similarly, nearly everyone seems to agree that Exorcist II: The Heretic is not a scary movie. Due in no small part to shit like this:
When it comes to The Exorcist III, though, there seems to be far less of a consensus. Basically, what I knew of it was that it wasn’t as good as the first, but it was better than the second. And that it was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel Legion (which I have read and thought was pretty good). And that it apparently has one of the best single scenes in horror movie history. All I knew was that it involved a hallway and a nurses’ station—I avoided any spoilers. It was the hype around this one scene that prompted me to watch the movie. What follows are my thoughts on it—and specifically on the scene in question.
This is a very talky movie—it’s not hard to tell it was written and directed by a novelist. Some of the dialogue is okay, even mildly clever, but it’s rarely as clever as I think Blatty thinks it is, and at times it’s unnecessary and pretentious, and overall there’s simply too much of it. The movie is often clunky and awkward, both in terms of its pacing and its visuals—again, flaws one might expect in a film made by someone used to working with the written word and not in a visual medium. There are, however, some decently effective scenes in the movie—just not anything that makes it particularly memorable or even begins to elevate it to the status of a classic.
But then there is this scene, which easily distinguishes itself from anything that comes before or after it. It is a rather long scene, and it feels even longer because it is nearly one continuous shot, broken up by only a few cuts, in which the camera barely moves. Our field of vision is highly limited throughout the scene by the mostly unchanging direction in which the camera faces--aimed down a long hallway with doors along one side. The focal point of the shot is a nurses’ station and the solo nurse going about her rounds, with both remaining almost entirely in a long shot. The use of space inside the frame, of what feels like excess space; the use of space outside the frame we cannot see but know is there; the state of being kept at a distance; the static quality of the continuous shot; the near silence; the way that the isolation of the single character is conveyed; the false scares; the jolt of the actual scare when it finally comes—all of these are, simply put, masterful. Yes, it ends in a jump scare—but the jump scare works as well as it does because literally every other thing about the scene is done perfectly. This is not a cheap jump scare in the slightest.
Now, I wouldn’t expect there to be another scene in the movie that is on the same level as this, but there is really nothing else that is even close. It feels as if someone else took over for Blatty for the approximately 5 minutes that comprise this scene—maybe the cinematographer (perhaps with the aid of sound and production design)? It is just so well-done, so cinematic, so indicative of a thorough understanding of film as a visual medium, that it is hard to believe that it was filmed by the same director. Or that he didn’t insert a monologue or something into it halfway through and ruin everything. Or that the jump scare, when it comes, wasn’t James Earl Jones dressed as a giant grasshopper. Although, that would have been very jarring. And, yes, I know Blatty didn’t direct the second one, I’m just giving him a hard time. In a good-natured way, of course.
And, once again, this:
So, overall, The Exorcist III is a decent movie, certainly better than a second sequel to a bona fide classic has any right to be. But it’s also corny and overwrought in many places. This one scene, however, is at least arguably as good as anything in the first movie. And that is really saying something. Also, George C. Scott is at least as good in this as he is in Man Getting Hit By Football.
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