Monday, October 10, 2016

Exorcist II: The Heretic / * (1977)

In reflecting on the experience of moviegoers present for original screenings of “The Exorcist,” one usually forgets the root cause of their trauma: specifically, the fact that so much fear and violence was being orchestrated in the body of an innocent little girl in a tangible reality. Horror films up to the point of the early 70s typically played as open season for the lurid fantasies of filmmakers obsessed with the supernatural and the monstrous, but William Friedkin’s legendary opus represented the unhinged collision of those sentiments, a world in which the demonic energies could manifest in a place as plausible as any number of human stories of the era. As disturbingly convincing as the material played, however, perhaps that represented too great a challenge for the more perceptive directors of the time; against the trend that it would inevitably inspire, a great many years of crude (and usually unsuccessful) experiments followed in its massive shadow, often to the point of box office saturation. Among those failed lessons was one obligatory experiment: a direct sequel, helmed by the great John Boorman, which would document the ongoing struggles of young Regan as she attempted to make it through adolescence while keeping the memories of her possession in some sort of context.

Those descriptions, at best, are vague leaps of judgment for anyone who finds the courage to unearth “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” a film more notorious for its fatal mistakes then its link to a more valued relative. On a cold night in September with a fellow enthusiast of horror movies, I decided to pay it the most direct attention I had been able to muster in many a moon, and with good reason: nearly 40 years had gone by since Boorman’s film exploded in a bustle of jaw-dropping dislike, and fate has not been on the side of a cogent revival (this despite having credible fans within the industry, including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese). What inspired them to look beyond the torn veil of the movie’s strange destiny and find something credible within? Had the audience that came to expect the direct assault of the earlier endeavor been put off by the more toned down perspective of the follow-up, which exchanged head-turning and projectile vomiting for conversations about locusts and possessed African medicine men? Their reasons create an underlying fascination that persists even for those who widely accept the picture as a colossal misfire, of which there is no doubt to anyone who is willing to see it long after the anger of the audience has faded.

From my own standpoint, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” has not so much inspired resentment as it has garnered yawns and raised eyebrows. Seeing it again after a lengthy distancing act, it remains a strange and off-putting experience, filled with endless miscalculations in nearly every detail it attempts to build up, including performances by actors who ought to have known better. Just a mere mention of this cast list is enough to suggest some level of credibility, too – Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Louise Fletcher (a recent recipient of an Oscar), Ned Beatty, Paul Henreid and a still-promising Linda Blair. Their presence, no doubt influenced by the inclusion of the same director who made the brilliant “Deliverance,” was a contrasting sign against the usual trajectory of sequels, which often had been filled with unknowns and helmed by puppets for studios more interested in cashing in on name value. What went wrong when so many talented and capable people had come together to make what was supposed to be a rather thoughtful and optimistic depiction of Blatty’s more fatalistic story arc? There is dialogue by a priest early on that indirectly sums up the entire challenge of the movie’s mere existence: “Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views.”

The picture is a product of uncertain times, made in a vacuum where many of the involved players didn’t exactly know what they were doing other than, you know, having the hope of something turning out right. Set four years after the events of the original “Exorcist,” the story revolves around the evolving perspectives of a teenage Regan MacNeil (Blair), who no longer consciously remembers the horrific details of what transpired in Georgetown when she was possessed by a demonic entity (though freely admits to still having nightmares of undisclosed content). Others who were present during that time are either 1) dead or 2) living existences off-screen, save for Sharon (Kitty Winn), the MacNeil family’s faithful housekeeper; in their place are a host of inferior sorts who have been pigeonholed in obligatory follow-up positions, including Fletcher as a psychiatrist attempting to reach the source of Regan’s strange ambivalence, and Burton as a priest assigned to investigate the death of poor Father Merrin. In their interactions with the troubled patient (assuming always smiling and sleepwalking makes you “troubled”), there are side stories involving an African shaman, early histories of the demon (now referred to as “Pazuzu”), visits to the old house of the possession, and lots of discussions about how evil exists even when it doesn’t directly manifest.

Fair assumptions, I suppose. But what exactly rationalizes this second excursion into Regan’s life? Is the demon really never gone, or is that simply their impression based on echoing history? Those are significant questions for any of those hard-pressed to find reasoning in the thick of Boorman’s ambiguous endeavors, which talk a big game about spiritual energies and fate but don’t exactly gel into something with dramatic gravitas. Consider an early scene in which Dr. Tuskin decides to put Regan under hypnosis for Father Lamont, hoping that she can provide him some answers as to what exactly killed Merrin; as they go under using rather strange brain wave technology, the movie transports its players back to a key moment in the original exorcism and then… just leaves them there? The scene is long, odd, and played at fragment of the energy that it ought to have required. Unfortunately, that is only the first of many moments in which the screenplay’s sense of horror is diluted; there are others involving flashbacks to Merrin’s early experiences with the demon in Africa, flashbacks to the possession of a young boy, and an endless series of close-up scenes in which locusts – the carrier of the demon, I guess – are seen in extreme focus, hovering in front of the camera as if to play up the importance of their perspective.

None of this leads to anything remotely scary or interesting – all it does is lead viewers down a path with no psychological entry point, frustrating them to the point of passive boredom. The performances, meanwhile, are modulated at a level that seems to consciously regard the uncertainty of the situations. Linda Blair has one of the more painful positions: here is a woman tasked with playing a role that has endured tremendous suffering, and yet seems totally submissive to a story that doesn’t exactly know what to do with her, other than surround her in something vaguely threatening. The last sequence, which takes place in the same house as the site of the original exorcism – a fatal mistake in itself – brings these notions to the forefront: Blair is forced to play dual projections, and as she awkwardly moves through an attempt to make her “demon” form seem seductive, we are left to cringe in sympathy. What in the world is she doing? My feeling doesn’t so much blame her for the excursion as it suggests blank canvases in the writing: with nothing else to work with other than an outline of action, one must only assume she is simply adlibbing the moment the best way she knows how.

Burton and Fletcher, unfortunately, are unforgivable: they maneuver through this plot like misguided examples of their professions, not as if they are embodying genuine characters with individual perspective. Their dialogue is perfunctory to situations without any context of genuine behavior. They interact with deadened motives. And then Kitty Winn, reportedly a last minute inclusion for continuity purposes, does something in the final act so utterly preposterous that it undermines all of the film's hopes for a conclusive thesis. Are we to believe that this, Regan’s dearest friend, is so easily susceptible to the seductive power of evil energies? Or that she can become so entranced by them that she would do something so destructive and then just stand there while in insufferable pain? Her example painfully emphasizes the core operation of all those sharing space. These are not human beings; they are cattle freely participating in a slaughter of ordinary thought.

That brings us to wondering about the movie’s elusive supporters. What were the likes of Martin Scorsese thinking when they publicly cited this thing as such a pertinent influence? What did they see, exactly? Better yet, what could have possibly fascinated them for so long without inspiring fatigue? Within the milieu of modern considerations, it’s hardly even the movie of this series that can be cited as the most sincere of the follow-ups (that honor would belong to Paul Schraeder’s “Dominion,” which is far more engrossing). Does that imply Boorman didn’t care nearly as much as he should have? Hardly. But he was in way over his head, no doubt drunk with some level of power after giving the studio such a profound achievement in “Deliverance.” Later endeavors would at least allow him some level of redemption (his “Excalibur” remains the greatest of the early movie fantasies), and maybe such information is all we can expect as a silver lining: the knowledge that all of its talented individuals at least moved past an experience like this and found a reason to go on, just as poor Regan is able to after enduring so much of this endless nonsense.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 1977; Rated R; Running Time: 118 Minutes

Linda Blair: Regan MacNeil
Richard Burton: Father Philip Lamont
Louise Fletcher: Dr. Gene Tuskin
Max von Sydow: Father Merrin
Kitty Winn: Sharon Spencer
Paul Henreid: The Cardinal
James Earl Jones: Kokumo

Produced by
John Boorman, Richard Lederer and Charles OrmeDirected by John Boorman; Written by William Goodhart

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