Saturday, 6 May 2017

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)


Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: William Goodhart (and Rospo Pallenberg)
Cast: Linda Blair (as Regan MacNeil); Richard Burton (as Father Philip Lamont); Louise Fletcher (as Dr. Gene Tuskin); Max von Sydow (as Father Lankester Merrin); Kitty Winn (as Sharon Spencer); James Earl Jones (as Kokumo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #101

Exorcist II is infamous. I've memories of one of its scenes, set in the artificially depicted, red hued African locations and locusts flying in swarms in the air terrorising the locales, at a young age but its only now like with the rest of the sequels to The Exorcist that I've taken a bullet and viewed it as a film. Crucified by Harry and Michael Medved in The Golden Turkey Awards book. A terrible release history including being pulled from theatre screens and being recut, only for the film to still fail. An infamy alongside its few brave defenders that, even next to the complicated production histories of the future sequels, still resonates the most. It's no way near as bad as its reputation suggests, but from the initial idea of hiring John Boorman, who morally hated the original film and decided to take an entirely different direction, this was going to be a strange detour entirely from the first film. It could've worked...but while it's not an ungodly misfire, it's so far from being a sensible, financially costly expenditure. Four years after the original Exorcist, where young teenager Regan (Linda Blair) was violently possessed by a demon, she's living back in California and a little older, vague on what happened to her due to memory loss and having counselling from Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), a psychologist who works with pioneering techniques, including a machine that allows trances where memories can be shared between two people, whilst running an organisation that helps the kids with physical and learning disabilities.

When The Exorcist was almost timeless barring some fashion, William Friedkin's gritty realism not inherently stuck in its time period but a depiction of when it was shot, Exorcist II is so seventies some viewers might grow a perm mid-viewing. It means some delectable, gorgeous production design with lots of wood paneling and walls being replaced with glass without regard for privacy, a pigeon feeder also doubling as an art installation on the roof for the sake of extravagance. It also means diving head first into the era's obsession with parapsychology. Not inherently a negative subject to tackle, but between a TV screen showing a man bending spoons with his mind to the narrative having psychic links, the jump to the extra-ordinary is so alien to the world the original novel's author and the first film's screenwriter William Peter Blatty set up, at odds with the Catholicism still permeating this sequel and the two sides never properly connected. Even when the first film hinted at a greater universal depth, the demon Pazuzu an ancient demon who plagued one world before terrorising Catholic priests in the prequels, this sequel suddenly goes into psychic powers that don't hint at Boorman wanting to purposely avoiding everything from the first movie on purpose, but like one of those other infamous sequels to popular movies which fall off the rails in bizarre ways.

The midst of this stumbles forth Richard Burton as Father Philip Lamont, a disillusioned priest who comes to question an older Regan to defend the legacy of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow reduced to flashback and dream sequence cameos, but any excuse to crowbar von Sydow into any film is welcomed). New problems for the girl are brought forth as Burton's character believes she's still under the haze of Pazuzu. Richard Burton s someone from a certain generation of British actor (Peter O' Toole, Oliver Reed) who stand tall and proud no matter what film they are in, no matter how bad everything else is onscreen. Even as the cinematic ship sinks into the mire they draw the viewers' eyes to them with full magnetism. However even here there's periods where his lush Welsh voice falters and becomes occasionally unstuck within this film's convoluted reality. He looks prematurely aged in this role, and even with the knowledge of his alcoholism and health problems a few years before, that sense of concern I had feels like the camera betrays him with incredibly unflattering sheen, betrayed further by the story itself, having to struggle with a character in Father Lamont who's the centre of a plot so illogical that it's in an entirely different dimension let alone a complete hundred and eighty degree head turn from the first film.

He can give lines, like other members of the cast like Fletcher, an incredible weight to them, but even a great actor like him starts acting with a disconnect to his performance, only for the garbled nature of the film's plot to really hit the viewer if they stop and think about it. His character pushes forward the idea that Regan is still "touched" by the demon of the original film, an idea that would've been conventional for a sequel but a great way for a producer to capitalise off the original's success, but there's the fact there is never any point through The Heretic Regan is ever possessed again or threatened by Babylonian demon Pazuzu. With only a (badly made up) doppelganger of her demonically possessed self and locusts being the symbolic form of any threat, Father Lamont's constant prodding into her subconscious become more blamable for any potential harm to her and others, and the only reason the film even exists in the first place with immense contrivance. It's a film which has actually has a Straw Man Argument to justify its existence. 


From there, Exorcist II eventually stops making sense, but not in the realm of the surreal and dreamlike. Snippets offer hope of an escape into the fully irrational, the artificial African setting where Burton travels to metaphorically and literally having the sheen of classic Hollywood decadentce and artificiality that's compelling; even James Earl Jones in a locust costume forcing Burton to step over a pool lined with spikes has a mystical quality that's worth the film to immerse oneself within. Aside from this however there's a significant difference between its desire to explore the subconscious, as Regan and Lamont are pushed into a metaphysical form of evil, and dull monotonous plotting. Plotting that makes no sense practically in what it's saying but keeps elaborating on said plot in an attempts to make sense of it regardless, so un-confident in itself it has to elaborate itself over and over again to appeal to the viewer. Exorcist II is a stream of consciousness which hasn't the courage to fully embrace the sub-consciousness. As a result its drastic shift from the prequel is even more nonsensical for a sequel narrative, where Pazuzu is no longer really a demon of considerable threat but mainly depicted as a swarm of locusts who causes people to go mad if they "touch their wings", without sense of any real destructive qualities to it. There's talk of a good female locust who can prevent this that means nothing, and the only real change to Regan barring a telepathic link to Lamont is the sudden psychic gifts to even make a young autistic girl talk for the first time, which never goes anywhere further in terms of narrative1.

Exorcist II is actually closer to Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor (1979), one of those Italian knock off films of this type of seventies cinema, as stuffed in cast like Hollywood films from the time from director John Huston to Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah in a dubbed cameo to Franco Nero as Space Jesus, not that absurd compared to the likes of Richard Burton to James Earl Jones in Exorcist II. However,  The Visitor is undeniably a superior film to this like a lot of said Italian films of its ilk, their moments of silliness not detracting from a visual beauty at less of the cost than the notoriously budgeted Exorcist sequel, but also with a film like The Visitor also having the wherewithal to embrace its luridness and utterly weirdness with artistic craft,  giving the viewers their money's worth. A film like it pains itself to go forth with its premise sincerely and as bombastically as many decadent Italian productions do, shutting down the dialogue to let scenes of shock and unintentional camp take place just by the visuals. 

Exorcist II, whilst the cinematic quality is there in production and Boorman's visual eye, is po-faced and constantly has to justify itself in dialogue over and over again in comparison. It's as well a startling reminder, seeing them only a couple of days after each other through these reviews of mine, that the original Exorcist film whilst a serious dramatic film first was such a visceral film up front too. Even if Boorman despised the original material, going as far away from the violence and blasphemy depicted as possible, the first film was both a serious, artistically minded narrative but also visually opulent when needed, pushing boundaries in horrific supernatural imagery alongside its grounded reality. Exorcist II, whilst having momentsof the fantastical which are compelling, such as the ancient temple which needs to be perilously scaled to by way of inching up between tower like natural rock pillars, is so restrained even its desire to be more paranormal isn't properly depicted. Even having Ennio Morricone compose the score, including the cringe worthy disco theme tune from the original trailer, isn't allowed to stretch its (locust) wings due to the plodding tone.

There's a sense instead that I've encountered for the first time a side of the seventies in cinema we'd like to bury in favor of lionising Taxi Driver (1976) over and over again alongside the other New American Wave cinema. That which was likely the films funded more and did well at the box office but also tanked the worse. The type of cinema that gave the Medved brothers and kitsch connoisseurs plenty of ammo -  disaster films like The Swarm (1978) with Michael Caine, follies full of older stars cashing in on memories of films of decades before, excess that had no taste, didn't reign in the scripts enough to make them work, or spent too much on the budgets without having real imagination. How Exorcist II went from Catholic dogma and a priest having to rediscover God, through the evil of demons possessing the innocent, to James Earl Jones having to deliver illogical dialogue about how a good locust would avoid the swarm mentality, and Burton seemingly being able to nearly knock a airplane into turbulence with his mind, is impossible for me to understand unless it was simply the case of producers having too much money to burn. Its further history, the recut version as previously mentioned, or how disastrous it was for public expectations wanting a sequel like the original monster hit, just adds to this dumbfounding moment, of failed pop culture I'm too young to fully understand but look afar at with morbid curiosity. It's not the worst film ever made but still a literal turkey in how garbled it is. Even Zardoz (1974), another of Boorman's infamous seventies films, looks like Citizen Kane (1941) in comparison for its ambition and personal stamp.


1. As an autistic viewer, whilst its far from the most egregious depiction of the learning disability, whoever thought autism and difficult for autistic people to talk aloud, to express themselves, equated with stuttering deserves to be chastised. It's a tiny scene in a film which also shows the real issue with Exorcist II on paper. Boorman wanting to make a metaphysical work of overcoming obstacles but chucking in so many details, like psychic powers helping an autistic girl, without any depth and even muddying the surface level in kitsch it falls like a lead balloon on screen.

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