There's a scene in the Exorcist III where Father Dyer and Detective Kinderman are out at the movies to watch It's a Wonderful Life. It's a movie they've both seen dozens of times, but they keep going. After the movie they're standing in the lobby, and Detective Kinderman says,
"Well, I suppose you have all sorts of rosary biz, and the like."
"Nope," Father Dyer says, "Loose as a goose. Maybe you should go home and get some rest."
"I can't go home yet," Kinderman says.
"You know, I thought you said..."
Then Kinderman puts his hand on his friend's shoulder, his face deadly serious.
"My wife's mother is visiting, father," he says. "And tuesday night she's cooking us a carp. It's a tasty fish - I have nothing against it. But because it's supposedly filled with impurities, she buys it live. And for three days it's been swimming up and down in my bathtub." He pauses, and Father Dyer is trying to keep from laughing. "Up. And down," Kinderman says, "and I hate it."
The best parts of the Exorcist III are these quiet conversations between Father Dyer and Detective Kinderman. There's so much care put into these scenes, so much understanding of the tangential affection of friendships. They talk about murders and movies and fish and Women's Wear Daily, and every single conversation seems to be an expression of their friendship. You see it in the way they smile at one another's jokes even though they've clearly heard the same joke a dozen times before. I didn't expect this kind of warm banter in a sequel to the Exorcist.
The horror in the movie ranges from the cheesy to the brilliantly surreal. The movie is all over the place, and you can clearly tell where the studio tried to force the director to change the movie so it was more like the original Exorcist. But it wasn't the demon howling serial killer scenes that were the most effective. It was the scene where you realize that Father Dyer has been killed. And it was the scenes following this, where you see Detective Kinderman's pain at losing his friend.
This is a movie I watch again and again, though I often turn it off before the end. It is one of the best movie friendships I've ever seen, and I wish more horror movies had this kind of understanding of relationships. It's not as easy to come up with characters who work well together as it is to come up with grisly ways to kill them off, but it sure does make a difference when they do. Characters that we care about, and who care about one another can make horror so much more harrowing. I've been trying to think of other horror movies with relationships that have made an impression on me the way this one has.
The two that come to mind are Let the Right One In, and Red Dragon. Let the Right One In is built entirely on the relationship between the two children. Their friendship is largely unspoken and yet it's the heart of the movie. The same is true of Red Dragon, a movie I think has been underrated. Anthony Hopkins is entertaining as Hannibal Lecter, sure, but it is the unexpectedly beautiful relationship between serial killer Ralph Fiennes and his blind girlfriend Emily Watson that provides the emotional impact of the movie. It made Fiennes so much more full and exciting as a villain than the cartoonish Buffalo Bill from the original Silence of the Lambs.
Villains are scarier if we understand them more.