24 May 2013

Good Intentions for Good and Exorcist II: The Heretic

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978)
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Linda Blair, Kitty Winn, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Paul Henreid.

After I reviewed Excalibur for its thirtieth anniversary and initial release on Blu-ray, and then acquired Deliverance for my Blu collection, I found myself lured toward another John Boorman film, one more off the beaten track of, shall we say, quality? A film many websites devoted to TTC (Truly Terrible Cinema) have covered in great, snickering detail. Boorman has directed a number of classics of cinema, but lying like an oily stain in the middle of his career is the vomit-soaked box-office disaster and audience-loathed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic.

I have no recollection how long has passed since I watched this movie. The first time might have been on late-night cable at a friend’s house during junior high. That’s too far back for me to think I have given it a fair trail. Also, my perception of it has been slanted from reading commentary on how awful it is from online reviews. But with Excalibur fresh in my mind in all its glory, I noticed that Exorcist II was available in streaming in HD on Netflix. (It’s gotten purged since then, unfortunately.) I loaded it up, grabbed some red wine, and observed.

I discovered a film that contains some fascinating ideas, wonderful visual moments, and a fabulous score. (I already knew about the score, admittedly, since I own the LP of the soundtrack.) I also discovered a film weirdly off-kilter, unevenly acted and scripted, and edited on somebody’s bad glue-sniffing trip, so it’s no wonder audiences in 1977 laughed it off the screen during its opening weekend.

Exorcist II isn’t a misunderstood work. All of what its critics consider wrong with it are indeed serious problems. There isn’t any negative brought against the movie that I consider inaccurate. However, it remains an interesting film: an ambitious piece that sunk itself through a combination of overreach and production trouble. I can’t call it a complete failure, because I see what John Boorman was trying to achieve beneath everything that doesn’t work, and he had a laudable goal.

But if not a complete failure, Exorcist II is primarily a failure. The metaphysical gropings of the story cannot overcome the many moments of thundering “What the…?” that keep splattering against the screen like locusts on the side of a Dust Bowl barn. The movie is also not remotely scary, so the “horror” aspect that made the first film such a smash hit is sort of not there. This is… an issue, as you might imagine.

A sequel to The Exorcist was inevitable. The 1973 film was the highest grossing motion picture in history at the time of release (it only held the top spot for two years, when some film about a shark topped it), and Warner Bros. was not going to turn down a chance to pick up more box-office cash. But director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty could not developed any idea they liked to lure them back to make a follow-up; Warner Bros. reputedly threw half a million dollars at them just to try to think of something over lunch.

After ditching the concept of making an ultra-cheap sequel that recycled unused footage and angles from the first movie with a framing device (I think we can all agree this would have been the worst film in the series if it had been made) the studio got a script they liked from William Goodhart. They then offered the picture to John Boorman. The English director had been considered for the original film, but Boorman turned it down because he thought it was cruel to children. He changed his mind because the new script intrigued him with its notion of “goodness” as the driving force. Boorman was also coming off the box-office disappointment of Zardoz, and perhaps thought that Exorcist II would be an easy financial success and he could finally fund that King Arthur picture he had dreamed about for almost twenty years.
The script underwent numerous and uncredited re-writes from Boorman and his creative assistant and future Excalibur scribe Rospo Pallenberg, so it isn’t easy to assess what Goodhart’s original script might have been. But based on what originally got Boorman intrigued and what ended up on screen, I think I can hazard a guess. Father Merrin, the title character from the original film, also takes the part of the subtitle of this film. He is a “heretic” who developed notions about ESP and people who appear to be born healers across the world. Father Merrin’s battle with the demon who possessed Regan in The Exorcist was a fight to free one of these healing souls from the clutches of an evil force that wanted to destroy this growing power for good. The new story features a priest who, while investigating the possible heretical ideas of Father Merrin and its connections to Regan’s exorcism, comes to realize the importance of this network of healers and takes on the demon in order to free them.

Hey, I like that idea too. It does flip The Exorcist around a bit, but it offers a great global challenge, and could make for an epic horror film.

Then everything fell apart with rewrites and reshoots and illnesses and delays, and on screen we ended up with an insane mess that leaves most people exiting the theater utterly baffled. Instead of pondering the nature of Good vs. Evil, viewers are asking questions like: “What was the deal with the freakin’ grasshoppers?” and “Why did that lady go mental at the end and blow up the car?” and “Was Richard Burton taking back pain medicine for the entire film?” All legitimate questions given what Exorcist II looks like in its final form.*

What I think is the primary failing of Exorcist II is that once its central premise gets muddied, the remnants turn unintentionally comic. The metaphysical conceit changes into abrupt cuts that mesh hysterically (the movie has a strange hatred for establishing shots, which might have eased the brunt of cutting from a wild exorcism to a tap-dance class), overdramatically pronounced dialogue that makes absolutely no sense, sprawling nonsensical jumps across the globe (with shots of landing airplanes that Ennio Morricone’s music informs us are supposed to be frightening), and interminable scenes of people staring at blinking lights while wearing goofy headbands. Have I mentioned constant cuts to locusts? Or James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume? And Linda Blair’s blasé comment to a little girl, “I was possessed by a demon,” as a way of making comforting small talk? You can see how all this starts to resemble the aftermath of a tsunami instead of a movie.

And none of it is scary or feels like it belongs in the same universe as the original Exorcist. Boorman later stated that he failed to give audiences what they wanted—by which I assume he meant a thrilling horror movie—and he is exactly right. The struggle for capital “A” Art is admirable, but in the case of a horror movie I would prefer the struggle to be Scary capital “S” and Atmospheric capital “A” first. For a similar argument, look at Paul Schrader’s cerebral yet boring Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist.
Exorcist II: The Heretic might have worked, but so many factors got in the way, and not all of them can be laid at Boorman’s door. The director fell ill during the filming, which might explain the sort of “too much Nyquil” sluggishness of some sections. Budget restrictions forced down the global scale with a lot of terrible studio-bound sets and some poor visual effects. Richard Burton, who has to carry the major dramatic weight of the film, delivers a performance that feels as if he’s purposely acting against the movie: he either plays the lines with zero affect, or he hits them with a sledgehammer… and always the wrong style at the wrong time. Every time! Burton was in a sinkhole in his career at the time, and certainly shows no signs that he wanted to climb out of it. I am thankful that when he closed his career, it was on one of its high notes, as O’Brien in the 1984 version of Nineteen-Eighty Four.

But Louise Fletcher, fresh off an Academy Award for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fares little better with her role as the psychotherapist with the blinky-light gimmick. Fletcher tries to act so earnest, but the trappings are ridiculous. Every scene with the blinky-lights hypnotism gizmo is a flop, much more likely to put the audience into a somnambulistic slumber than any of the characters.

I still feel the struggle as I watch Exorcist II: The Heretic to genuinely like it. The concept of the world’s healers united against pain, and Regan’s central role in it, thus explaining the reason the demon Pazuzu attacked her in the first movie, is a fascinating one. The ties to Father Merrin’s exorcism in Africa many years ago (which Exorcist: The Beginning re-worked) is a potential bridge between films. Some of the visuals have a sense of poetry. But all tied together, the film is ludicrous and confounding. The stunning visuals that should stay with viewers when they leave the theater turn into out-of-place oddness. Viewers leave the theater without the visuals, only their dumbstruck/gut-busting laughter reaction toward them.
It hurts to write this, but Ennio Morricone’s score, as great as it sounds on the album, contributes to the movie’s problems. Morricone mixes African tribal rhythms with choruses and sinister woodwinds, and laid on top of the overwrought scenes the music starts to feel as if the whole film is telegraphing itself. One of Morricone’s finest pieces written for the score, the lovely “Interrupted Melody,” never even appears in the film. It’s gentleness could have helped counterbalance the film’s flaws. The extended “A Little Afro-Flemish Mass,” a clever melding of European and African ceremonial music, is sliced up ad sprinkled around so it never expands to its full glory on screen. The cues of Morricone’s score that do appear in full, like “Regan’s Theme” (an eerie lullaby with guitar and a wordless female vocal) are never tracked at the right place or time, and turn laughable because of it. So buy the album in addition to watching the film. Or instead of it; it’s a great album.

In good conscience I cannot participate in the humorous ridicule of Exorcist II: The Heretic beyond the snubs I’ve used above. (Yes, Richard Burton appears medicated throughout the entire film, and how can I pass up mention of the grasshopper outfit?) It is a bad film with a fantastic notion for a sequel buried underneath it; excavating that earlier script is rewarding and makes Exorcist II worth re-watching for reasons beyond getting more to poke fun at.

No sequel to The Exorcist has achieved general popularity, although crime drama Exorcist III: Legion has the strongest cult following. (Deserved, I believed.) Yet each one of these films trying to find a method to create a continuing franchise based on one of the most successful and iconic horror films in history tries something fresh and different—and Exorcist II: The Heretic has the most creative approach of all, since it wants to explore the power of good. Unfortunately, past that great concept, nothing else clicked into place and the director’s metaphysical style made the story almost impossible to grasp. Patient viewers can still discover the kernel of what the filmmakers wanted to achieve in the development stage, and it was an admirable goal and not another case of trying to print money by copying what the previous film did.

* Actually, two forms. The theatrical release was pulled soon after audiences reacted so negatively to it, and it received some trims to get rid of the most laugh-worthy lines and add on a prologue with stills and a different ending. This version didn’t work either. The version available on DVD and streaming is the original cut, and the only one I’ve seen. [Return]