Wednesday, June 18, 2008
On The Wings Of A Demon
A young woman discovers a strange power within herself which ultimately helps in fighting the forces of evil. Yes, that is Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS but it also could be used to describe John Boorman’s much despised EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. The two films really aren’t very much alike otherwise but one other thing they do have in common is that fact that they are both pretty much insane. THE HERETIC can be mesmerizing, but it’s also impossible. You can’t ignore the talent behind it (although many have) but there’s no way to ignore the massive miscalculations behind it, both as a sequel to THE EXORCIST and a film on its own.
Released in June 1977, the film became an instant legend upon its release. With audiences showing up expecting two hours of terror, what they got resulted in laughter and boos. With terrible reviews making matters even worse by the end of the second day of release a slightly altered version was already being shown, with the final scene cut off abruptly to roll the credits early. EXORCIST II is a film which shouldn’t have been made, at least not in the way it was. That’s part of what makes it so unique but it can’t be overstated just how wrong some of the film really is. When I read about people trying to defend SPEED RACER I can’t bring myself to get onboard with that praise, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss it. With EXORCIST II, also a Warner Brothers release, there’s a similar thing going on, particularly with the technical innovations which can be found.
Several years after the events of the first film, Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) is assigned by the Vatican to investigate the circumstances of the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow). He goes to New York to meet Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair again), now several years older and under the watchful eye of Dr. Gene Tuskin (Lousie Fletcher), a psychiatrist experimenting with forms of hypnosis and, using a “synchronizer”, manages to awaken Regan’s dormant memories of what happened in Washington and the demon Pazuzu. You did know that the demon in the first film was named Pazuzu, didn’t you?
I could go on with the synopsis, but my eyes began to cross at just trying to make sense of the plot, with a script credited to William Goodhart but extensively revised by Boorman and “Creative Associate” Rospo Pallenberg. As a result, I haven’t gone into the extensive excursion Burton makes into Africa in search of Kokumo, the boy possessed by Pazuzu many years ago (the exorcism referenced in the first film). Or how locusts figure into all this. Or the number of times Richard Burton says the word “evil”, which would allow for a pretty decent drinking game. What’s good about EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is that it sincerely tries to explore the direction humanity could be headed in, along with how science and religion may enter into that. Burton’s character discusses the concept of everyone coming together through mental telepathy to form a kind of “world mind”, an interesting concept which is only ever hinted at. And much of it is genuinely astonishing to look at on a technical level, from its early steadicam use to the extensive shooting on soundstages, forfeiting a “realistic” look in favor of something else entirely. But it all feels wrongheaded and as soon as Louise Fletcher begins to describe the synchronizer to Linda Blair (“Regan, I want to show you something…”) you can feel any sort of drama going off the rails very early on with no tangible believability to hold onto. It’s clearly made by people who not only didn’t like the first film, they seem fully willing to ignore not just its plot but all its thematic preoccupations in favor of what they wanted to explore, which ultimately is shortsighted and not a little arrogant. There’s nothing wrong with an audience member going to an EXORCIST sequel and expecting scares, is there? This film, in never attempting to supply any, almost seems to imply that there is. For anyone who has seen or read THE EXORCIST it stands to reason that the character of Regan McNeil serves no purpose in any sort of sequel. Regan’s story is over, done. You could argue that the entire story is done, just as the Georgetown house shouldn’t be presented as some sort of conduit for supernatural activity. William Friedkin always said that he had no interest in any sequel and I believe that. But if there was going to be one, this just seems like it was the wrong way to go.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a director helming a sequel and bringing his own approach to the material—John Frankenheimer’s FRENCH CONNECTION II is certainly different from Friedkin’s original but that film could easily be enjoyed by people who liked the original, even if there isn’t a car chase. But John Boorman who turned down the chance to make THE EXORCIST, always made it clear that he didn’t like the film, something you would think would be a prerequisite for making a sequel. You’d also think that it wouldn’t be too hard to find somebody who liked it. In completely rejecting what people responded to in the first film, it’s hard to imagine how it was thought the movie could succeed.
The fact that MOTHER OF TEARS made the film come to mind also points out how much like one of Dario Argento’s films it really is. With its young female lead, absurd story line, delirium of the visuals and spellbinding Morricone score, you could imagine removing all elements related to THE EXORCIST, adding more horror and a body count and you’d have an Argento film. The main difference in tone is that with Argento’s films it’s like being cornered by a mad intellectual at a party who over multiple glasses of wine involves you in the most fascinating drunken conversation you’ve ever had. With EXORCIST II it’s like a humorless college professor whose clothes, badly in need of a wash, stink of too many cigarettes and he won’t stop shouting at you. It’s a movie where Louise Fletcher says, “The psychological effects of synching with another mind last a long time, it’s very powerful,” in the driest of tones and no one thinks to ask her if she realizes what she just said.
The cast is a problem as well. Ellen Burstyn declined to reprise her role as movie star Chris MacNeil so a line of dialogue simply tells us that she is “on location” (though it’s not explained why she still seems to be in possession of the Georgetown house. Wasn’t she merely renting it while shooting there?). Linda Blair, of course, has a greatly enlarged role this time. She’s cute and seems nice but ultimately seems over her head or perhaps is simply too aware of how the production is spiraling out of control. Richard Burton seems completely somnambulistic as Father Lamont (Jon Voight was once going to play him, which would have worked better) and the droning nature of his performance is a constant problem. If a watermelon crashed to the ground behind him like in AIRPLANE! it’s hard to believe that he would actually notice and there doesn’t seem to be any difference between when the character is in a trance or normal. Pairing him with Louise Fletcher means that there are two actors with icy personas in the leads and even many of the supporting actors have a similarly cool feel to them, making for a detached, humorless film. Before his death Lee J. Cobb was set to reprise his role as Lt Kinderman and it’s difficult to imagine how his persona could have been worked into the tone here. More interesting is Kitty Winn, reprising her role as Sharon and given a much larger role here. She provides an earthiness which the film is otherwise lacking and Boorman seems genuinely interested in her. This was one of the actress’s last appearances before leaving the business. Max Von Sydow appears briefly in various flashbacks, both to how he appeared in the first film and how he looked as a young man (they got lucky with Von Sydow on that point). Ned Beatty from Boorman’s DELIVERANCE gets a big introduction but quickly disappears and we never even get a very good look at his face. Dana Plato appears uncredited as a young autistic girl who Regan unknowingly helps with her powers. At first it’s not a bad scene but, to put it mildly, the actress playing the girl’s mother was probably responsible for a few of those laughs on opening night.
It’s difficult to appreciate over thirty years later just how the movie was received on its release, but a terrific Film Comment article written by Todd McCarthy at the time goes into detail of that period and the series of cuts that occurred over the subsequent weeks (The version with the cut ending used to be found on Warner Home Video, but the DVD is the original version). Boorman is extensively quoted throughout the article but he manages to adequately summarize the shellshock he must have been feeling with the statement “I spent nearly two years on this fucking thing and, uh…” The reputation the movie has is still pretty bad, but whatever happened when the smoke cleared must have been a stepping stone to the studios maintaining more control over such things. After all, this was still several years before the term ‘franchise’ was tossed around so freely (In case anyone cares, the story in the prequels directed by Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader bare no resemblance to what is presented here). Boorman certainly didn’t want to make a bad movie, but he never seems to have taken into account the audience he was making it for. It does have lofty goals, but thematic aspirations and groundbreaking camera work don’t compensate when the narrative is an almost total failure from minute one. When Richard Burton spends half the movie looking for Kokumo (James Earl Jones) only to be treated to a lecture on locusts when he finds him, there’s no way the movie should expect us to stay with it. It’s not playing fair with what would be expected and isn’t giving us an intriguing alternative. Saying the look of the movie isn’t ‘realistic’ is missing the point. What it never does is establish its own reality enough to allow us to enter it. This is something Boorman accomplished on other occasions whether in DELIVERANCE or HOPE AND GLORY so maybe there’s nothing more to say beyond this time he drifted wildly off compass. Interestingly, I vaguely recall reading him refer to Coppola’s DRACULA as “the movie of the decade”. It’s hard to imagine even DRACULA defenders going that far, but the number of things the two films have in common seems significant. Still, it’s hard for me to ever dismiss EXORCIST II, as ludicrous as much of it is. Watching it again, it occurs to me that the delirium of the visuals would work very well while stoned—not that I would know much about that sort of thing. But it is impossible to ignore how stunning the imagery looks even at times when everything else about it is a total failure. And the Ennio Morricone score is at times astounding, if as bizarre as the movie it supports. The delirious track used in the trailer, entitled “Magic and Ecstasy” on the album, is never actually heard, at least not in any version I’ve ever seen. Someone needs to put this in a movie someday.
The movie does certainly have its defenders including Martin Scorsese who only a year after its release was proclaiming how much he admired it. I’ve long since stopped trying to find things in it that link it to THE EXORCIST but maybe Burton’s Father Lamont put it best in his somnambulistic manner which he claims something is “…utterly horrible…and fascinating.” The final shot, one that was cut from the film just after release, is quite exquisitely done in every possible way. Of course, the direction the two characters are walking off into, considering where they are located, is towards nothing, a void, which seems an apt metaphor. And I don’t think Boorman cares. Either way, it’s completely illogical, self-important and ultimately rather maddening. Just like the film.