Monday, October 8, 2012

The Exorcist II: The Heretic

The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Dir. John Boorman
Written by William Goodhard (with John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, uncredited)
Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, with Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty and Paul Henried

I should mention, I'm not really sure who the titular Heretic is. I guess Buron's Lamont character gets taken off the case and has to turn in his gun and his crucifix at one point but pursues the case anyway, so maybe it's him? Or maybe it's the demon himself? But if that's true, wouldn't all demons be heretics just by virtue of existing? I guess it could also be Louise Fletcher's psychologist character, since she's a woman of science. Obviously there are many possibilities in this rich tapestry of nuttiness.

Jesus fucking Christ. What the hell happened here? You got the great John Borrman (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, POINT BLANK) directed a sequel to THE EXORCIST, one of the greatest horror films of all time. You got Ennio Morricone doing the score, you got a crazy cast of great character actors, you got a fantastic production design which genuinely looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. How could it possibly be this bad?

Who knows, but wow, it definitely is exactly as bad as everyone always said. The cast and crew are so strong I just sort of naturally assumed that this was one of those movies which everyone was wrong about, something which made people confused and angry by giving them something different and not just rehashing the plot of the original. But no. It’s horrible. Different, but horrible. Still though, you gotta admit that it’s not every day you get to see this level of money and talent put into something as fucking crazy as EXORCIST II. As a failure, it’s a colossal, towering failure which is endlessly fascinating in how utterly wrongheaded and incomprehensible it is at every turn. As far as I know, it’s the only movie ever to be pulled out of theaters TWICE for re-editing, that STILL went on to utterly fail to connect with audiences. Out of theaters. Twice. Well, if you’re going to fail, it might as well be a spectacular failure. More memorable that way.

They have this kind of cool effect where they superimpose the end sequence from the original over new footage in an effort to visually depict how much they completely fail to understand what was good about the original.

Boorman, later, seems to have convinced himself that my original idea was correct: that even though he made an interesting and worthwhile film people rejected it because it wasn’t as horror-focused as the original. He’s partially correct; one of its major drawbacks is that it’s a horror movie which simply contains no horror scenes whatsoever. But it has much bigger problems in that it completely fails to tell a comprehensible story, or manage a single scene which really works at communicating any element of theme or plot, on any level, at any time. Boorman laments that, “ all comes down to audience expectations. The film that I made, I saw as a kind of riposte to the ugliness and darkness of The Exorcist – I wanted a film about journeys that was positive, about good, essentially.” Which is such a profoundly insane thing to attempt in a sequel to THE EXORCIST that I almost admire it. But the problem isn’t just that he made a film about “about good, essentially,” it’s that if that is, in fact, what he was going for, it still doesn’t come across in the film. It never seems like a film about anything. It just seems like a long string of barely-connected bizarre setpieces, obtuse metaphors, wandering storylines, and distracting flashbacks which simultaneously obsessively reference the original EXORCIST and have nothing to do with it.

The story itself seems to be about Regan (Linda Blair, again playing the role of a character named Regan who lives in Washington DC and is possessed by the devil, but still a few years too early for anyone to appreciate the irony) coming to terms with the reason for her possession, which, in complete defiance of everything that made THE EXORCIST terrifying, apparently was not just the arbitrary cruelty of evil's desire to corrupt innocence, but was in fact a crafty strategic move by the forces of darkness to destroy a Chosen One. Regan, it seems, is some kind of prototype human, an evolutionary leap forward blessed with the power to psychically heal people. And I guess one particular obscure ancient Assyrian demigod has a problem with that. So all you people who had nightmares about the original movie, I guess you needn't worry unless you are a psychic mutant destined to elevate the human race to a higher evolutionary plane.

Unaware of all this, Regan is currently under the care of nurse Ratched* herself, Lousie Fletcher, a psychologist who takes the novel view that the only way the emotional trauma of her possession can be healed is by never talking about her experiences or dealing with it in any way. Because of this brilliant fucking approach to mental health, she gets mad when Father Lamont (Richard Burton, looking confused as to what the fuck he’s doing here) enters the picture and starts asking Regan what the deal was with this whole exorcism thing. One thing fails to lead to another, but before long Lamont is in Africa looking for a similarly psychic boy named Kokumo (James Earl Jones, sporting an awe-inspiring giant locust headdress with antenna and everything. I really hope he got to keep that prop) for reasons which are not entirely clear. It does lead to a sequence which cross-cuts between Linda Blair tap-dancing and father Lamont getting stoned by Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, which is definitely the kind of thing which ought to have become a staple of the series. To repeat: here's a phrase you don’t expect to encounter in a review of the sequel to one of the most iconic horror movies of all time: “Tap-dance sequence.”

The hat alone made it entirely worth making this movie.

[Spoilers from here on, though I’m not sure I’m 100% correct in my interpretation] I think Lamont gets possessed or something or falls in love with the demon, who turns out to be an Assyrian demigod with the unfortunately hilarious-sounding name of Pazuzu, “lord of evil spirits of the sky,” (a title the movie subtly drives home with approximately 40,000 funny POV shots of locusts flying around. Turns out Pazuzu is a real part of Assyrian mythology, but in English that name sounds like the kind of thing a 3-year-old would name his imaginary puppy, so it stands to reason that they insist on saying it constantly.) Anyway, who the fuck knows what's going on between Lamont and Pazuzu, or what the deal was with any of that.THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC defies your puny human ability to comprehend cinematic narrative. The only subsequent event I can describe with any confidence is the big climax, which kicks into high gear upon Lamont's return from Africa (hilariously visually signified by the colorful African “I went to Africa!” shirt he now wears under his priestly jacket). Once he's stateside again, the recently possessed Lamont (I think?) gets re-possessed by Father Merrin’s ghost, (?) picks up Regan, and flies to DC, where they go back to the house from the original for some reason (is the problem with the house, somehow?) and destroy it in a cheap special effects battle with Pazuzu (now taking the form of a separate identical but non-makeup’ed Linda Blair). They win because the possessed Lamont starts making out with Pazuzu (?!) but then has a change of heart, and then literally changes the demon’s heart by ripping it out. And that takes care of that, I guess. (W
ikipedia claims, "In the end, Regan banishes the locusts [and Pazuzu] by enacting the same ritual attempted by Kokumo to get rid of locusts in Africa [although he failed and was himself possessed]." I don't know about any of that, but fine.) Also Louise Fletcher and the babysitter from Part I (?) also rush down to DC to join our dubious heroes, and for some reason the babysitter freaks out and lights herself on fire, but it has no discernible effect on the plot and no one seems too concerned about it.** The end. [End of possible spoilers]

Boorman apparently hated the original EXORCIST (and of course, who better to direct a sequel to one of the most iconic and popular movies of all time than someone who hated it?), so part of the problem with the film is its torturous relationship with the original material. It needs the original to have any reason to exist at all, but stubbornly refuses to incorporate or even pay attention to literally anything that made it interesting. Instead, it self-consciously tries to circuitously rope as many characters as possible from the original into this new scenario while completely removing everything that made them worth remembering from the original. For example, remember Sharon, the babysitter from the beginning of the first film played by Kitty Winn (
PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK)? I hope so, because EXORCIST PART II is intermittently about what happened to her following the events of the original. This storyline is so ludicrously unnecessary that I have to assume it was originally meant to be about Regan's mother (arguably the protagonist of the original) but was changed to the babysitter after Ellen Burstyn flatly refused to participate. This is the kind of thinking that went into the film, that they thought they could change a storyline about the mother of the possessed girl to a storyline about her babysitter and it would still make sense. 

Von Sydow, hoping that if he hides behind this cool set we won't notice him.
And what about poor Max Von Sydow? He gets third billing here to return as Father Merrin, only to, for some reason, appear in awkward re-stagings of the possession scenes from the original. One of Linda Blair’s conditions for returning was that she didn’t have to wear the scary makeup again, meaning that you’ve got Von Sydow (looking embarrassed) reenacting some of the most classic scenes of his career with a body double and worse camerawork. Why, you ask, would you not just use footage from the original? Well, because those scenes also include Jason Miller’s father Damien Karras, who, for reasons known only to the makers of EXORCIST II, is retroactively written out of the original (talk about your exorcist!). So to fit the new continuity, we gotta poorly reshoot the best parts of the original in order to excise the main character. That make a lot of sense to anyone else?

Of course, there are some good things here. Chief amongst these is the production design, which is the one genuinely impressive thing anywhere in sight. There are some stunningly weird and surreal sets, particularly a wind-swept temple high on a cliff in Africa which requires pilgrims to climb up a long rope from the ground (it’s so cool they keep coming back here for more scenes even after it becomes obvious it is completely irrelevant to the plot). Even some less exotic locations are subject to a little production boost: the psychologists’ office has a weird beehive ceiling and all glass walls, a possibly metaphorical locust-focused lab in Africa seems to shift in and out of a kind of surrealism, a pointless scene of Lamont walking around asking random Africans in English if they know a guy named Kukomo takes place in a stunning, meticulously detailed mud city. If I understand it correctly, the central idea that human evolution is progressing to a new level and the demon is attempting to impede it (based on the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the real-life Jesuit/archaeologist that Father Merrin was modeled after) is kind of interesting, if entirely unexplored or even clearly articulated. And Ennio Morricone’s theme --a fucking insane mix of tribal chanting, frenzied wailing, and gothic liturgical grandiosity-- is among the most interesting and complex things he’s ever attempted. And hey, Ned Beatty appears in one scene which seems to exist so he can introduce his character and then never appear again. Always good to see him, and hey, that's Paul Henreid as the Cardinal!

Oh yeah, I forgot, there's this machine with blinking lights that causes people to be able to read each other's minds. I think it's a metaphor because it keeps showing up over and over even though it doesn't really contribute anything to the plot, but it's worth mentioning because no one seems to realize the implication of Fletcher's character having invented a mind-reading device. When Lamont exclaims that the existence of this device scientifically proves the reality of the human soul, Fletcher's character brushes it off, saying its just a tool for analysis. No one mentions or seems interested in any talk that such a device would have other, potentially lucrative and world-changing potential.

But all is ultimately for nothing, because the movie simply doesn’t work. No, actually, that's not even true; not working would imply a clear goal and a failure to realize that goal. THE EXORCIST PART II never even finds an objective to fail at. Boorman and co-ghostwriter Pallenberg were supposedly re-writing the script day-by-day on the set, which would make sense because the whole thing has a distinct feeling of a story being made up as it goes along. None of the scenes or storylines seems to meaningfully connect to each other, none of the labored metaphors seem to be supported by the events, none of the characters seem to even be aware of each other. There are scenes in this movie where Fletcher and Burton seem to be sort of talking past each other, only vaguely aware of each other’s presence and completely baffled as to what they're personally saying, let alone what in God’s name the other person is talking about. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that one of them was a CG character added in later. If you think Liam Neeson looking towards Jar Jar but not really at him in EPISODE I was bad, you should see Burton trying vainly to focus his eyes on Fletcher or Blair in this one. And these are genuinely good actors who are actually in the same shot together. That’s what Boorman’s script and direction have reduced them to.

As much as I admire Boorman and like his films, I think he probably deserves the blame here. I mean, no one much disputes that it was his vision guiding this thing, and in the end I think he mostly ended up with the film he intended to make. And he’s right, in a way, there are lots of interesting things happening here, but for whatever reason the final product is simply unable to convert a single one of its many strengths on paper into an actual satisfactory cinematic experience. There’s literally not a single thing that works properly anywhere on screen, ever. And, I feel like I need to point this out one more time: tap dance sequence. Boorman can’t be faulted for his bold take on the material, but I don’t know if there even exists a punishment suitable for bungling decent material this badly, although I guess maybe being recognized as the director of EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC for all eternity might fit the crime. Not only did he ruin this sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever, he put the whole series on the sad course of disappointments, reshoots, and studio interference that would dog it for the rest of its bedraggled life. Now what could have possessed him to do that?

* The insanity of casting Fletcher as a good psychiatric doctor just two years after the most iconic role of her career playing a despicable one is a microcosm of the movie's brazen defiance of any human logic.

**Their journey is funny, though, because for reasons known only to the writers of EXORCIST II they keep getting interrupted by car accidents where Fletcher has to get out and help. Then, when they finally get to their destination, their own car crashes but no one seems interested in helping the black cab driver. What the fuck are we supposed to make of that?


Yeah, there's a long irrelevant scene where some dude shows off this African woman's titties to father Lamont.
A guy falling off a rock is about the best I can do for ya.
And what a sequel.
Infamous, but I suspect rarely seen.
Demon, though we only see him in locust and Linda Blair form. 
No, Pazuzu seems to do his own dirty work.
Don't think so.
 I'd say Regan is kind of cursed.
She claims yesI'm not so sure. But I have to admit that when pressed, she described the plot significantly more coherently than I imagine Boorman could. So I'm gonna say yes. 

1 comment:

  1. Whoa dude. I remember EVERY WEIRD part of this film. I was awake!