Exorcist III Jump Scare

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: An iconic scene from The Exorcist III single handily proves the merit of the jump scare.)

The jump scare gets a bad rap. One of horror’s most oft-used tools is the equivalent of a cinematic magic trick, an artform of misdirection to create an abrupt fear response. There’s nothing like a perfectly executed jump scare to make your heart skip a beat. Yet, like most tools, relying on the jump scare solely to create frights versus atmosphere often relegates the technique to cliché.

All of which to preface this – after the abysmal and chilly reception of Exorcist II: The Heretic, an anticipated follow-up to an all-time horror classic, no one expected the franchise’s third outing to deliver one of cinema’s most significant jump scares. The Exorcist III proved to be a pleasant surprise in more ways than one, including its perfection of a genre artform. Nestled deep within a sequel that relied heavily on atmosphere and psychological chills, writer/director William Peter Blatty mastered misdirection and delivered an iconic scene that would be emulated in pop culture still to this day.  

The Setup

Seventeen years after the events of the first film, Lieutenant William F. Kinderman, now played by George C. Scott, is investigating a series of gruesome murders involving decapitations and the desecration of religious sites and icons. As the body count rises, Kinderman realizes the deaths bear the hallmarks of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who’d been executed over a decade prior. His investigation leads him to the psychiatric ward of a Georgetown hospital, which holds ominous secrets.

The Story So Far

The gruesome homicide of a twelve-year-old boy named Thomas Kintry kicks off a series of grisly murders, prompting a police investigation led by Kinderman. It’s taking a toll, and he’s understandably distracted when he takes his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) to see It’s A Wonderful Life for their annual celebration of their fallen friend Father Damien Karras. Not long after, Dyer is hospitalized and subsequently murdered. The killer uses Dyer’s blood to write “IT’S A WONDERFULL LIFE” on the wall. Though the fingerprints at each crime scene don’t match, the modus operandi lines up with the Gemini Killer, whom Kinderman brought to justice fifteen years prior.

It just so happens that a psychiatric patient that had been catatonic for seventeen years woke up around the time the murders began and claimed to be the Gemini Killer. That patient, dubbed Patient X, is none other than Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Except Karras seems to have no memory of his former life and visibly transforms into the Gemini Killer. When the head of the psych ward, Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson), commits suicide, the “Gemini Killer” reveals to Kinderman that he’s aided by the same demon that’d previously possessed Regan MacNeil. The demon holds a severe grudge against Karras for being exorcised. In punishment, he uses Karras’s body to allow the Gemini Killer to continue slaying, hopping into various patients at the hospital as temporary hosts to commit the murders.

The Scene

After the private confession between Karras and Kinderman, the camera cuts to an extended hospital corridor punctuated by the nurse’s station at the far end. It’s a quiet night shift with much of the staff gone and the patients asleep in their rooms. The sole nurse on duty hears a strange noise in one of the rooms. She gets up to investigate; the darkened room looks empty at first glance, but she finds melting ice in a glass as the source of the sound. Before she registers what that means, a sleeping doctor pops upright from slumber and berates her over the interruption. The film’s first jump scare results in the poor nurse fleeing in fright, catching her breath on the way back to her desk.

She hears another sound from the adjacent room, grabs keys to unlock it, and enters off camera. The nurse reenters the frame, closes the door behind her, and heads back to her desk. Almost immediately, the door reopens behind her, and a figure dressed in flowing white nun garb emerges, rushing after her with outstretched arms wielding giant shears. The scene cuts to a decapitated statue, the implication of the nurse’s fate clear.

This four-minute scene comes late in the film’s runtime, with roughly thirty-eight minutes left. Meaning, Blatty bides his sweet time in creating unnerving ambiance and foreboding mood. The emphasis is on psychological horror in this sequel, a departure from the supernatural possession of the original. Considering a large part of what makes jump scares work is the misdirection, by the time this memorable scene occurs, the psychological nature of the horror means you’re no longer expecting jump scares at all—the perfect time to go for the jugular.

As if that’s not enough of a misdirect in itself, Blatty then sets up a fake-out scare to precede the real deal. The nurse’s reaction to the unexpected appearance of the sleepy doctor mirrors our own; the loud music sting and sudden movement jolt us from an otherwise quiet movie dripping with somber mood and dark serial killer chills. Similar to the nurse, we’re only just catching our breath when the actual danger rears its terrifying head in the form of a possessed figure donning religious attire. The sacrilegious imagery further fuels the shock value of the moment.

Even though the Gemini Killer spells out exactly how he’s been continuing his homicidal exploits just prior, and this scene shows it in action, it’s masterfully executed and catches us entirely off guard nonetheless. The way Blatty frames the scene, using a long continuous take framed from the far end of a long corridor, distracts with details. The way the security officers move in and out of the area in the background serve to divert attention as well as demonstrate just how quickly someone can become isolated in this clinical setting. The unsettling silence of the night shift contributes to the foreboding feeling that mounts with every passing second. The precise timing of this scene allows just enough space for both the nurse and viewer to catch their breath before we’re made to witness the evil that was lurking out of sight. Blatty orchestrates all of the moving parts with meticulousness, unleashing one of cinema’s best jump scares of all time in a film almost entirely devoid of them. This unforgettable scene seared itself into pop culture memory and proved jump scares to be a valuable artform with petrifying brilliance.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: