Thursday, December 20, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Exorcist II: The Heretic

As 2007 winds down, it’s time to induct into the Academy a couple of films that had their thirtieth anniversaries this year. I’ve been meaning to do this for a few months, but I think the Christmas season is especially appropriate for recognizing the downtrodden of the cinema world. Hyperbole? Yes. Overdramatization? Probably. But that’s the way we do this.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a deeply flawed and deeply fascinating film, one of the most original horror movies of all time despite being a sequel to an adaptation of a novel. John Boorman, not exactly your most restrained director, working from a script by William Goodheart, steered the franchise in a very weird direction from which audiences and critics recoiled violently; the resulting film is as dissimilar to its predecessor as ALIENS was to MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED. I say this not with disdain but with admiration. I recognize that on a technical level, the film is not nearly as good as the original EXORCIST, but I consider it much more substantial on the conceptual level and a lot more interesting to watch and talk about. Of course a film isn’t good simply because it has ideas, it’s the expression of those ideas which counts, but EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC also achieves a kind of mad poetry in weaving together images and ideas of good, evil, flight, nature, science, spirituality, ESP, and at one point tapdancing. Bear with me on this.

So, it’s about four years after the events of THE EXORCIST, and Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is an apple-cheeked teenager (seriously, she’s adorable, almost a chipmunk) living in an extremely nice New York apartment with her best friend Sharon (Kitty Winn), while her mother’s movie-star lifestyle keeps her safely out of the picture. At mom’s insistence Regan visits a therapist, Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) who despite the name is a woman. Regan insists that she remembers nothing of her possession and exorcism beyond being a little sick, and Dr. Tuskin is convinced she’s repressing, so she brings in a “synchronizer”, a kind of advanced hypnosis device which can put two people in a spontaneous trance and allow them to share a consciousness. Meanwhile, there’s been some controversy in the Catholic Church over the unorthodox writings of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, shown in flashback), who died exorcising Regan. and one of his supporters, Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton), travels to America to investigate his death and see whether he died in a state of grace or had his soul overcome by the demon he fought. (Father Karras is not mentioned.) Regan allows Lamont to attend a synchronizer session, during which Dr. Tuskin suddenly goes into cardiac arrest. Hooking up to the machine to save Gene, Lamont discovers that Regan still has a demon living dormant inside her: Pazuzu, the Assyrian and Babylonian king of the evil spirits of the air, associated with disease and locust swarms. Lamont also begins to suspect Regan of possessing other supernatural powers, that may be used for good, and that her potential may be what attracted the demon to her to begin with. Seeking to save her, he puts his soul in peril by sharing further visions to look for an answer, as the evil force stirs to life once more.

This actually may sound more conventional than the movie really is; certainly, when first watching the picture, I held no particular hope for it and expected a simple retread. But from the first revelation onwards the picture slowly drifts away from a normal narrative structure, using the device of the synchronizer (possibly the weirdest thing in a plot full of weird things) to link the consciousnesses of the characters and present visions which explore ideas and themes, some old and some new. The pushing of Pazuzu to the forefront is probably the most disconcerting shift from the first film; it’s easy, watching the Friedkin film, to assume that the demon is the plain old Judeo-Christian conception of Satan, but the imagery in early scenes is that of Pazuzu, and here the demon finally names himself. (This no doubt turned off a lot of critics and patrons who expected the Devil but not some esoteric Middle Eastern deity with a weird name.) The script explores the symbols and associations of a demon of the air and carrier of disease, most notably in a series of flashbacks to Ethiopia, where a younger Father Merrin cares for a boy with unusual powers in a village beset by locust swarms. He too was possessed by Pazuzu, and is exorcized in a church located at the top of a mountain amidst sheer cliffs.

Amongst the mythology the film also deals in some decidedly New Age concepts. Regan’s power seems to be a kind of ESP, and Merrin’s controversial theories involve the evolution of the human race towards a higher level of consciousness, a power that could be used for great good or great evil. Pazuzu, we find, is attracted to Regan because of her potential, as he is attracted to the boy, Kokumo (played as a grown-up by James Earl Jones.) This stuff is a little dated, but it adds a mythic, heroic quality to Regan’s story, and though she is still beset by a demon, she grows to assert herself and become more than a victim. The film takes a more nuanced view of modernity than the original as well, the synchronizer bridging the gap between spiritual and scientific worlds, with good and bad effects. The warm environment of Tuskin’s lab- a maze of glass-paneled offices and brightly lit playrooms for challenged kids- is a heavy contrast to the invasive and unpleasant tests Regan was subjected to back in ‘73.

The strongest material overall relates to Pazuzu and the corruption of evil. There’s a heavy emphasis on flight and flying creatures (locusts in particular), with Lamont’s visions of Pazuzu shot from an aerial POV that sweeps across majestic landscapes. A central image is the “brushing of the wings”, taken from the way locusts are driven to swarm and frenzy when they hatch in large numbers- it becomes a communicated form of madness, and Pazuzu’s corruption spreads the same way, threatening to reach beyond Regan to Father Lamont, Dr. Tuskin, and Sharon. The great challenge each character faces is how to survive the brushing of the wings, the shadow of evil that has swept over them.

With all this weighty thematic material, the film becomes clumsy when it reaches the mundane necessity of a plot. Characters fly back and forth, the dialogue is frequently very heavy on the exposition, and there are more than a few instances where the literal action of the picture is hard to decipher. On top of this the film is never very realistic, Boorman’s interest in setting up specific images making the proceedings quite stylized and as a result not that scary. It’s usually a bad idea to sacrifice concrete plausibility for the sake of the abstract, since abstraction without concreteness is more philosophy than art. But the level on which this film works is one that pertains more to poetry than narrative cinema; the picture’s emphasis is not on plot and character and the development thereof, but the grouping of imagery into patterns that establish a theme. Flight, air, shared consciousness, disease, the swarm- it all loops together in an intuitive way to become quite a complex weave.

The film has a warm, multihued look to it that makes you nostalgic for the days when horror movies were filmed in color; the African material is particularly impressive, even though much of it is obviously stagebound. Ennio Morricone provides the score, which is lush, ethereal, and very much of its time. The actors are wrestling with some clumsy dialogue but make a game attempt of it- Linda Blair displays a real charm and sincerity (especially in a brief conversation with an autistic girl) that makes you regret that she didn’t become a bigger star. Burton is more of a mixed bag; his performance is uniformly intense, sometimes to the point where he comes off as a crazy person independent of the supernatural weirdness actually taking place, but in some scenes it’s just what the movie needs, and Burton on autopilot is still pretty enjoyable. Louise Fletcher is as good as ever, and Kitty Winn displays quite a bit of energy.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC was a critical failure and not terribly popular with audiences (though it did gross over twice its modest budget), and to this day has a poor reputation, even as the third EXORCIST film has developed a cult following. The film’s flaws are obvious enough, but I have to wonder why more people didn’t cotton to the sheer originality and thoughtfulness on display; the picture presents some fascinating ideas couched within beautiful images and an earnest, sincere tone that’s an admirable contrast to many films in the genre. John Boorman really comes across to me as a visionary filmmaker straining against the confines of traditional narrative cinema, and here, as in EXCALIBUR, he stumbles frequently but succeeds so beautifully as to make up for it. There’s a lot of passion on display in this picture, and if you can accept some genuinely crazy ideas (the synchronizer apparently was what set 1977’s audiences laughing), the film unfolds to display a depth well beyond its predecessor. It’s not as good, but it leaves you with a lot more to chew on.

And the tapdancing? Well, it’s there, but, uh, I guess I didn’t really have anything to say about it.

Based on characters created by William Peter Blatty
Screenplay by William Goodheart
Directed by John Boorman

Grade: B

Interested? Buy the film HERE or by clicking on the image above.

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