Monday, October 8, 2012

The Exorcist II: The Heretic

The Exorcist 2: 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 2. 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 it’s major drawbacks is that it’s a horror movie which simply contains no horror scenes. But it has much bigger problems in that it simply completely fails to tell a comprehensible story or manage a single scene which really works at communicating on any level. 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.” But the problem isn’t just that he made a film about “about good, essentially,” it’s that if that is indeed 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 I guess has something to do with her being a new evolution of human who has the power to psychically heal people. She’s under the care of nurse Ratched herself, Lousie Fletcher, a psychologist who thinks she can be healed 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 scene 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. 

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” which turns out to mean there are about a thousand funny POV shots of locusts flying around). Turns out Pazuzu is really a part of Assyrian mythology, but in English it 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 his name constantly. On his return from Africa (hilariously visually signified by the colorful African “I went to Africa!” shirt he now wears under his priestly jacket), the recently possessed Lamont I think gets-repossessed by Father Merrin’s ghost, (?) picks up Regan and flies to DC, where they go back to the house from the original and destroy it in an 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 Richard Burton 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. Also Louise Fletcher and the babysitter fly down too and meet them there, and for some reason the babysitter freaks out and lights herself on fire, but it has no discernable effect on the plot and no one seems too concerned about it.* The end. [End of possible spoilers]

Boorman apparently hated the original EXORCIST, so part of the problem with the film is its torturous relationship with the original material. It needs it to have any reason to exist, 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. Remember Sharon, the governess from the beginning of the first film played by Kitty Winn? I hope so, because EXORCIST 2 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 the mom from the original but was changed to the babysitter after original mom 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 2 is retroactively written out of the original (talk about your exorcist!). So to fit the new continuity, we gotta reshoot the best parts of the original poorly 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 its 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/archeologist 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. 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 the 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 as each other. 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 it’s many strengths on paper into an actual satisfactory cinematic experience. There’s literally not a single thing that works properly anywhere on screen, ever. 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 2: 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?

Andy Points out: this image is from EXORCIST Part 1. Which explain why it looks better than most of this sequel.


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 yes. I'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.

*Their journey is funny, though, because for reasons known only to the writers of EXORCIST 2 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?

1 comment:

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