Wednesday 12 May 2010

VHS Purgatory:
Exorcist II: The Heretic
(John Boorman, 1977)

In collaboration with a selection of the finest film blogs the infranet has to offer Breakfast In the Ruins is proud to contribute this quality post to Blair Week, a six day extravaganza expounding on the virtues of Linda Blair and her legacy of quality motion pictures. Don't believe me? Just read on...

How weirdly appropriate it is that as the New Labour era in the UK finally grinds to a sad and desultory halt, I should be invited to help celebrate BLAIR WEEK. In fact, I’m sure this grand ironic gesture is exactly what my primarily American horror-blogging colleagues had in mind all along, the wry devils! Um… well anyway, thanks to Seth of the excellent Lost Video Archive for inviting me to take part, and let’s get down to business 1977 style.

Now tell me where to stick it if you want, but I’ve never really been much of a fan of ‘The Exorcist’. Not that I think it’s a terrible film by any means – in the context of William Friedkin’s confounding filmography of troubled and troubling movies, it’s pretty fascinating viewing. But when it comes to the film’s vast success and cultural influence, the inexplicable weight of critical attention and analysis it seems to command… I just don’t get it, man.

In fact, it bugs me to the extent that I get pretty riled whenever I see somebody casually declare The Exorcist “one of the greatest films ever made” or somesuch. I mean, sure, each to their own, but really..? This weird, incongruous mess of grindhouse shock tactics and chest-beating, post-Taxi Driver male angst? This pompous meditation on Catholic guilt that keeps collapsing into some kind of hysterical terror of female sexuality? Were we watching the same movie here? I mean, if people got all hot and bothered about, say, ‘Cruising’ instead, I could kinda dig that (or at least it would be funny), but Citizen Kane> Battleship Potemkin> THE EXORCIST? Gimme a break.

So naturally I loved the idea of ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ long before I’d actually seen it. What’s that you say? They made a pointless, nonsense-filled sequel that’s universally hated and reviled by the bores who champion the first film? And they put JOHN freakin’ BOORMAN in charge? Oh man, bring it on!

Actually, whilst writing this it occurs to me that Friedkin and Boorman had quite a lot in common – both obviously talented but deeply eccentric directors who accidentally managed to turn incredibly unlikely subject matter into massive commercial success during the mid-‘70s (‘Deliverance’, in Boorman’s case) and spent the next decade or two furiously proving that lightning rarely strikes twice, much to the delight of fans of weird, flawed, perverse films the world over.

On the surface, Boorman may have appeared a safer guiding hand for transforming a one-off hit into a high profile horror franchise, but if you put all of his movies side by side I don’t think you’ll find one that is even REMOTELY normal. ‘Point Blank’? ‘Deliverance’? ‘Excalibur’? ‘Zardoz’? Oh my god, fucking ZARDOZ… I mean, if you ever needed proof that the guy was off his nut – just try watching ‘Zardoz’. It’s unbelievable. But unlike Friedkin’s career nosedive post-‘Sorcerer’, somehow they kept on giving Boorman money, access to a-list stars, marketing campaigns… and the chance to direct The Exorcist II.

With all this in mind, I guess I must have been one of the few people to ever sit down to watch ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ with the expectation that it’s gonna be completely amazing. And… well to be honest, I was *slightly* disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – I mean, it was still pretty damn good as far as weirdo Hollywood horror films go. Certainly a lot more fun than ‘The Exorcist’ ever was, so I can still instigate pub arguments by loudly proclaiming that I like this one better without being dishonest.

The relentless logic of b-movie mathematics makes the point abundantly clear. ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ has a drunk looking Richard Burton belting out exorcisms, a grown up Linda Blair suffering a seizure whilst performing a tapdance routine, fuzzed out rockin’ from Ennio Morricone, and a bethroned James Earl Jones playing the demonic king of some kind of weird African locust cult. ‘The Exorcist’ does not. ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ wins. That’s just the way it is.

And like all of Boorman’s movies, ‘The Heretic’ is a pretty spectacular visual experience, full of wild editing, unhinged special effects, insect-wing flights across desert landscapes and dream-like collages of overlapping imagery, all serving admirably to distract the viewer’s attention from the general vagueness re: what’s actually going on.

Weirdly, I also think the film’s aesthetic seems notably ahead of its time. You’ll have to bear with me on this one, but prior to looking up the 1977 release date for this review, I’d naturally assumed that ‘The Heretic’ was made sometime in the early/mid ‘80s. The special effects and cinematography, the music, Linda Blair’s Chrome Art Deco penthouse, the mystic, neo-hippie, yuppies-listening-to-Peter-Gabriel approach to African culture – all seem to yell NINETEEN EIGHTY THREE loud and clear…. or maybe it’s just me? Pretty freaky, anyhow. Maybe we can add ‘unintentional prophet of minor cultural trends’ to John Boorman’s already impressive list of achievements, and just thank our lucky stars that Sean Connery running around in PVC pants taking orders from a giant stone head in ‘Zardoz’ didn’t have a similarly prophetic effect.

Anyway, for all this, ‘The Heretic’ wasn’t quite as great a raspberry in the face of conventional film-crit wisdom as I’d hoped. Based on what I’d previously read about the film, I was kinda expecting that Boorman would have ditched the legacy of the first film completely and set the controls for another jaw-dropping excursion into whatever makes him tick. But no – with enough co-producers and script assistants on-board to form their own football league, ‘The Heretic’ is never allowed for one second to escape its position as a SEQUEL.

Apparently, before Boorman and scriptwriter William Goodhart got involved the producers were planning to just string together a bunch of ‘unused footage’ from ‘The Exorcist’ with some thin wraparound narrative and call it a day. And whilst the finished product is obviously far more ambitious and worthwhile than that, references to the events of the first film still predominate, going as far as to integrate reconstructed flashback sequences in a rather desperate “hey, remember why we’re all here” sort of fashion, and in the grand tradition of Hollywood sequel-think, Regan, Pazuzu and the brow-furrowing emissaries of the Holy Catholic Church all return, clumsily reunited for a bigger budget THIS TIME IT’S WAR throwdown.

I can’t claim to know much about this film’s creative gestation beyond what wikipedia tells me, but ‘The Heretic’ gives the impression that Boorman and co essentially set out to make this wicked movie about Richard Burton as a renegade Catholic priest rampaging around Africa investigating witch cults, and somewhere along the way the ghost of ‘The Exorcist’ attacked that film and gutted it, wearing it’s skin like some kind of gnarly, ill-fitting disguise. To switch to another unwieldy metaphor, it’s a cuckoo film, if you know what I mean – full of imagination and talent and great ideas, but the Exorcist stuff takes over the nest and gobbles it all up. So, uh, more like a ‘cuckoo victim’ film I suppose? An unsuspecting-Sparrow-mother film..? Oh, I dunno, forget about it.

Point is, as much as I hate to agree with the outraged “but it makes no sense!” IMDB pundits – I, who eats drug-addled Czechoslovakian new wave movies for breakfast and asks for more! - ‘The Heretic’ is indeed a mess. Thankfully though, it’s a mess so full of great stuff, it makes you wonder who the hell decided ‘order’ was such a good idea in the first place.

First off, there’s the reason I’ve been asked to write about this movie for you and perhaps the reason you’re reading: the unmistakable mutant charm of Linda Blair. Ah, Linda! I’ll freely admit that I haven’t actually even seen many of Linda Blair’s films (an oversight that participation in this week long Blairfest will hopefully encourage me to correct), but as a cultural icon, I’ve always known she’s untouchable.

There’s something completely wonderful about the way that Blair’s participation in both ‘The Exorcist’ and the super-notorious made for TV sleaze-fest ‘Born Innocent’ in ’74 automatically raised her to the level of a top-billing cult/horror starlet, a name whispered in playgrounds around the world, synonymous with defiled innocence, original sin and Satanic, pre- pubescent mayhem of all descriptions…and all before she was old enough to vote.

We often don’t realise, I suppose, the extent to which the ideal of an ‘actress’ is subconsciously thrust upon us by movies both great and small. It’s worth remembering that, even in the lowliest slasher flick, filmmakers and casting directors in this none-more-patriarchal industry are predisposed to seek out the girls who are flawless and beautiful and charismatic and able to act with, at least, a competent, easily digestible proficiency. Which is not to say that Linda Blair lacks any of those virtues of course, but we’re so used to seeing women on-screen who exemplify this slightly stultifying ‘actress ideal’ that when someone like Linda, who’d probably get dropped at the first round of auditions for a leading lady role for just being a bit odd lookin’, a bit stroppy, a bit UN-actresslike, is able to pull rank based on her childhood notoriety and stomp commandingly across our screens…. well it’s just a plain beautiful thing to see, making the grown up Linda (kinda – she was eighteen circa ‘Exorcist II’) a truly distinctive screen presence.

And boy, she really plays a blinder in ‘Exorcist II’, reprising her signature role with sullen, ham-fisted grace, initiating us into the day to day life of a lonely young woman with a mind full us psychic detritus left over from a debilitating demonic possession, trying to grow up and find her place in the world, splitting her time between Louise Fletcher’s high tech paediatric psychiatry unit (or whatever it’s supposed to be) and her absent mother’s Bladerunner-like futurist Manhattan penthouse.

It’s a strange and lonely life indeed, and it’s hard not to feel for young Regan as she feeds her pet doves (DOVES/LOCUSTS – you see the kind of deep symbolism shit they’re going for here) and stares at the cold New York skyline at dawn, before heading off to spend the day forging psychic connections with handicapped children, doing creepy, precognitive surrealist drawings and fending off the enquiries of furtive priests-on-a-mission.

The aforementioned scene in which we see Regan rehearsing her part in a school production of Westside Story is probably the highlight of the whole movie. She’s enjoying herself. Her eyes lock with this moody saxophone-playing boy she fancies, and YES, for a brief moment, Regan sees herself stepping into a normal, healthy life… but NO, just at that vital second as she grins at him, Father Lamont’s demon-hunting farting around on the other side of the world send her reeling into a psychic hell-spasm, and everyone thinks she’s nuts. Camp, crazy and utterly tragic – total genius from the Blair/Boorman team.

Richard Burton is pretty memorable too as Father Lamont, a sort of Papal Dirty Harry who defies his Church superiors by takin’ crazy risks, forming a psychic bond with Regan and trace the path of Pazuzu back to Africa in order to… um, track down this guy who is able to resist demonic possession and thus represents the future evolution of mankind…? Or something like that. In a fairer world there’d be a great series of airport novels in it anyway.

Unsure how to play such an odd role, and presumably wondering throughout whether taking part in this movie was a huge mistake, Burton just sorta lunges around breathlessly, gritting his teeth and sweating a lot more than is strictly healthy as he’s regularly called back to Rome to be shaken down for his unconventional methods, emerging all the more obsessive to the extent that he spends most of the film seeming pretty unhinged, despite his ostensible role as the hero and voice of righteousness.

I loved the opening sequence, where we meet him in the middle of performing some wing-and-a-prayer exorcism on some girl in the middle of a terrifying African witchcraft ritual – another totally killer scene.

Speaking of which, it goes without saying that I also loved the whole hallucinogenic James Earl Jones locust-king sequence where he tests Richard Burton’s faith by making him walk across a bed of spikes. Great stuff.

And I loved the fact that Louise Fletcher’s psychiatrist character has some kind of machine that allows doctors to directly enter their patients’ minds, travel into their past and interact with their memories, and instead of being completely stunned, everyone’s just like, “ok, cool, let’s give it a try”.

And I love the f-ing awesome fuzz guitar n’ female choir rocker that Ennio Morricone put together for the trailer, although I don’t recall hearing it in the actual movie.

Basically I want to kiss ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ all over, even though it’s essentially quite rubbish.

And if there’s an obvious chauvinistic joke in there to tie this review up nicely…. I’m not gonna make it.

Enjoy the rest of Blair Week!

Our colleagues are bringing fresh Linda related content all week long:

May 10:
Lost Video Archive - Savage Streets
Satan's Hope Chest - Chained Heat and Savage Island
Camp Movie Camp - Grotesque
The Horror Section - Hell Night.
Illogical Contraption gets Repossessed
Lines That Makes Things drops original Linda inspired artwork
Breakfast In the Ruins - Exorcist II
B Movies and Beyond - Summer of Fear
Camp Movie Camp - Nightforce
The Manchester Morgue - Rollerboogie
Happy Otter - The Chilling
Lost Video Archive - Born Innocent
Unflinching Eye wraps it up with a look at Linda's fall from grace.


Phill Tuma said...

Wow Ben you didn't hold back. Good Stuff. It's been quite a while since I've tried but I have never been able to make it through this movie. Now I want to torture myself and finish it.

The Goodkind said...

You nailed it, the beauty of inanity all wrapped in a fuzzy package. I must say, the locust thing is what has always brought me back to this film despite its flaws. I love Jones' locust king costume.

Jay Clarke said...

Wow, that is quite impressive. You, in one review, managed to convince me to move "The Exorcist II" from my 'avoid' column, over to 'check it out'. Really, you had me at "fuzzed out rockin’ from Ennio Morricone."

Good job!

Unknown said...

i have to agree with jay...i had never seen exorcist 2, for no reason in particular, just figured if i was going to watch something ridiculous, i had better options. perhaps i have been mistaken all these years. or perhaps i am just jealous about never having gotten into a shouting match about exorcist 2...

Ben said...

Thanks for your comments, fellas! Much appreciated.

RE: the Morricone soundtrack, I actually wrote a bit about that but cut it to try to keep the length of the review down (ha)...

Basically, like the film itself, some bits (the spine-tingling 'horror' themes) are pretty cool but others (the dodgy faux-world music in the African scenes) are disappointing, especially by Morricone's high standards.

As mentioned, the awesome fuzz-rockin' song only turns up in the trailer as far as I know (it's worth youtubing), unless I missed it in the movie.

Anonymous said...

Both times I watched this (once about a year ago and once about 13 years ago) I liked it and didn't like it at the same time. The thing that bugs me most is not that the film is bad it just seems like it could have been a lot better.