Monday, October 10, 2016

Speak of the Devil

Year: 1977
Director: John Boorman
Cast: Richard Burton, Linda Blair, Louise Fletcher 
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So. It’s 1977. You’re faced with the task of creating a sequel to The Exorcist, the blockbuster smash hit that defined a generation of horror films, was nominated for 10 Oscars, won 2, and was rhapsodically minted the “scariest movie of all time.” What do you do? If your answer is “not make it,” you’ve made the right decision. And, to be fair, that’s exactly what director John Boorman did when he helmed Exorcist II: The Heretic, which contains not a scrap of material recognizable as an Exorcist movie, even though it features the return of three actors and a major location.

The marathon is already going well, I see.

In Exorcist II, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is living in the city with her caretaker Sharon (Kitty Winn), because her mother was wise enough not to get locked into a contract for this one. She regularly attends therapy with Dr. Gene Tuskin (the reliable medical professional Louise Fletcher, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), despite the fact that she seems more well-adjusted than any 16-year-old that I've ever met. When Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) is sent by a Cardinal (Casablanca’s Paul Henried) to investigate the mid-exorcism death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), Tuskin suggests the use of a joint hypnosis machine to sync his mind with Regan’s, because this is more of a sci-fi fantasy movie than anything.

Through this link, the dormant demon Pazuzu shows Father Lamont glimpses of Merrin’s past, when he exorcised a young boy in Africa. This leads him to the discovery of a generation of faith healers, Regan among them, who have been targeted by the demon. Also, there’s a lot of locust metaphors. Then, like, he’s seduced by the demon’s thrall or something? And he visits the original Georgetown house to make out with Regan’s stand-in? I guess? I literally couldn’t spoil this movie if I wanted to, because it makes no flippin’ sense.

Also, James Earl Jones is in it, which is cool I guess.

In addition to the script being an incoherent trash fire, Exorcist II is a black hole of talent, sucking every last drop of quality from a battalion of very capable filmmakers. I mean, come on. Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Linda Blair, Paul Henried, Max von Sydow, and James Earl Jones are in this cast. They have 12 Oscar nominations between them. And behind the camera you have Deliverance director John Boorman, legendary composer Ennio Morricone, the cinematographer of Rosemary’s Baby, and so on. This should have been an outstanding success. But guess what happens when you have a director (and uncredited screenplay revisionist) who has an open contempt for the material? Not great things, I can tell you that.

Exorcist II is not only a bad Exorcist movie, it’s a downright dreadful film by any metric on Earth. This is perhaps best exemplified by a scene taken directly from the continuity of Friedkin’s film, filling in the details of Father Merrin’s death via flashback. Set in the same room on the same night of The Exorcist, it has not one whit of its raw power. The staging is brutally boxy and inelegant, and the whole affair is lit like it’s an episode of Married with Children. That scene is the most painful because it egregiously draws comparison to the original film, but this kind of slack handling is apparent from start to finish.

The effects are accomplished mostly by a series of clunky cross dissolves that wouldn’t pass muster in a Lucio Fulci cheapie, the score trips between atonal shrieking and a disturbingly lush romantic keening, and the acting is uniformly vacant. It’s so deeply broken that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where everything begins to go wrong.

Even the wording of the title is confusing and terrible.

If I had to pick one thing that’s the most wrong with Exorcist II, I’d probably pass the buck to the screenplay. I’m not sure anybody could figure out what to do with it. I admire the audacity of Boorman’s idea to make the storyline about a more positive force, but he was so caught up in his own self-righteousness that he never noticed that, despite the original’s dour storyline, there’s a very positive message at the core: the day is saved and  priest makes a noble sacrifice because he’s finally found his faith. That’s pretty much how horror films work. When you make the narrative positive all the way through, it’s not a scary movie, it’s an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

And did I mention it’s bloody incomprehensible? The entire first act is just people sitting around an ill-thought-out hypnosis machine straight out of Star Trek and talking calmly in circles while they endlessly visit the same flashback. Then it catapults Father Lamont into Africa where he hallucinates a laboratory inside a medicine man’s cave, a development that is completely ignored by the movie, which chooses to accept both perceptions as the truth. Afterward, an inexplicable number of people run to Georgetown for no discernible reason, then are either killed by plot holes or packaged off into an ambiguous ending that feels like it wraps up an entirely different movie than the one we watched.

Not that Exorcist II feels like a singular movie for more than 12 seconds at a time.

It’s despicable claptrap, and I want nothing more to do with it. The only scene worth sticking around for is The Prom Night-esque interlude where Linda Blair tap-dances to “Lullaby of Broadway.” If I wanted a haphazard grab bag of random scenes full of over-the-top characters, I’d watch SNL instead. Exorcist II: The Heretic is an unscary, befuddling slog that is a failure as a sequel, as a movie, and as a paycheck for everybody involved.

TL;DR: Exorcist II: The Heretic is a failure as a sequel, as a horror movie, and as a piece of entertainment.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1008
Reviews In This Series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)