03 September 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: GETTING POSSESSED

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: as happens so often, the summer movie season wraps up with a dodgy horror picture, The Possession, a rare example of the traditional Jewish demon called a dybbuk popping up in a movie. Rare enough, in fact, that I quickly gave up hunting for another one and switched over to a much less rare "generic demon possession" theme, on the grounds that I didn't really want to go a summer without an Exorcist movie popping up in Blockbuster History. Three times makes a tradition, after all.

Sometimes, the failure of a movie can be a puzzle that requires much work and analysis to fully describe. But not in the case of Exorcist II: The Heretic, whose impressively thorough failure to work as a sequel by every possible measure is easily traced to the fact that its director, John Boorman, had an outspoken hatred for The Exorcist. I would tend to think that this would be literally the only characteristic that would, all by itself, disqualify someone for directing an Exorcist sequel, but in this I am apparently not like the Warner Bros. executives who gave Boorman license to make, basically, whatever movie he wanted after writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin both passed on having any input into the project whatsoever (The Heretic is credited to writer William Goodhart, but it is well-known that Boorman and co-writer Rospo Pallenberg left very little of his script intact). Unsurprisingly, Boorman proceeded to make a film that didn't continue and develop the themes of the original movie, so much as it outright repudiated them, leading to a finished product that has long been observed to be perhaps the most inappropriate sequel in all the long history of commercial filmmaking.

Even Boorman himself, in breaking down the film's dismal reception, acknowledged that he behaved irresponsibly with the charge he was given, in one of the most awesomely egocentric "apologies" ever delivered by a filmmaker:
"The sin I committed was not giving the audience what it wanted in terms of horror... There's this wild beast out there which is the audience. I created this arena and I just didn't throw enough Christians into it."
And yes, I know that quote ends up in damn near every review of The Heretic, but that's only because it's so fucking amazing.

This is a line of thought worth returning to, but I wish to put it on hold for a moment, because it's awfully easy to run the risk of describing the film solely in terms of how it is not The Exorcist, as if that alone was its crime against the art of cinema. To tell the truth, Boorman's defense of what he was doing - creating a story about the arrival in the world of spiritual good, to counterbalance the intense darkness of the first movie - is at least somewhat persuasive, and his contention that The Exorcist became a Zeitgeist hit because it pandered to the audience's prurient interests (WATCH!! as the preteen girl rapes herself with a crucifix!) holds rather more water than I think we'd all prefer. The movie Boorman talks about, while still a dysfunctional sequel to The Exorcist, interests me; both as a ballsy exercise in toying with commercial filmmaking logic, and as a philosophical quest on its own terms.

The thing about The Heretic, though, is that if we only go 'round and 'round with the questions of theme and sequeldom, we're missing such a big forest for such spindly little trees, because, as a point in fact, The Heretic is godawful. Just, I mean, fucking godawful. Boorman is a very special filmmaker, in that for every time he mixes complex and even snobby, intellectually self-righteous philosophy into his movies and it works splendidly (e.g. the magnificent Deliverance), there's at least one other movie where everything gets away from him and the movie descends into such a chaotic mess of incompetent filmmaking that the pissy post-grad social analysis is really the only thing the movie has left, and that's already not exactly a strength, certainly not enough to counterbalance things like Sean Connery in a red diaper fighting a flying stone head that screams about the evils of the penis. And while Zardoz is a legendarily misconceived act of bad moviemaking at its most epic, what's even more terrifying is that it's still better than The Heretic.

Absolutely not one blessed thing goes right, except for, arguably, Ennio Morricone's score, and even that blend of liturgical music, tribal chants, and typically Morricone-esque female vocalising is good mostly in and of itself, and not because it works terribly well with the movie (parts of it sound, in fact, distractingly like the ultra-modern howling chants in the Ligeti music Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Heretic manages to be, all at once and in very different ways, a failure of production design, of editing, of acting, of screenwriting, of sound design, and of make-up effects, and it's almost hard to know where to start. With the writing, I guess, since I still haven't jotted down the film's plot & don't especially want to.

Some time after two Catholic priests died in the process of saving a 12-year-old girl from demonic possession, we see another exorcism, in South America, and this one does not go so well: the officiating priest, Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) can do little more than recoil in horror as the woman he's been trying to help is spontaneously replaced with an incredibly bad-looking dummy that catches on fire. This event troubles him down to his toes, and to get him back on his fight, his cardinal (Paul Henreid) assigns a relative straightforward task: investigate exactly what happened that resulted in the death of Father Lankester Merrin (a returning Max von Sydow, when we see him in flashbacks) four years earlier in Georgetown. For Merrin's writings have become a problem within the church, raising all sorts of radical doctrinal problems, and it his hoped that Lamont's research will determine whether the dead priest deserves to be posthumously excommunicated as a heretic.

With great reluctance, Lamont travels to New York, where the possessed girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, making only her second movie after The Exorcist) now lives with her mother's best friend, Sharon (Kitty Winn, who apparently did not share Ellen Burstyn's conviction that the idea of a sequel was a heaping pile of horse shit). These days, Regan is being treated at a children's psychiatric institute, under the care of Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, fresh off her Oscar win), who believes the girl is repressing memories of what was obviously not a demonic possession, because shit, we have science now. This is why she does not trust Lamont initially, though she allows him to sit in on her session with Regan in which she uses a device called the Synchroniser to read Regan's memories once the girl has regressed to the night of exorcism under hypnosis. There is absolutely no reason to keep going on. The movie just hit rock-bottom, and that is where it will stay: let us say only that Lamont finds that Regan is still possessed, by the ancient Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. Remember how The Exorcist never has anybody say "Pazuzu" out loud? They say it out loud in The Heretic, all right. And boy, is "Pazuzu" not a scary word. Right, so Lamont goes demon-hunting, and finds the boy Merrin saved in Africa all those years ago, now grown up to be a locust scientist played by a severely overqualified James Earl Jones, who is trying to breed the evil out of locusts. That is literally, the exact way the movie puts it. Then a house blows up.

So many narrative dead ends! So much flimsy symbolism! Such a horrible, horrible idea to make a dream-swapping helmet the crux of the entire plot! And I haven't even spoiled the idea it's all building up to, which is the emergence of a generation of spiritual X-Men, more or less. But the greatest sin in the writing of The Heretic may be the most obvious: the dialogue, which tops out at undeliverable, and frequently wallows in the hypnotically inane. The good news is that the film has Richard Burton during the worst period of a career pockmarked with bad periods, making every spectacularly choice open to him, which means that most of those horrible lines of dialogue are delivered in the most extravagantly over-cooked, melodramatic way, and while it is the worst kind of anti-dramatic wretchedness, it is hilarious to let wave after wave of Burton's self-parody slam into you like so many hammy, classically-trained typhoons. Line deliveries that sound like he lost a bar bet with William Shatner, reaction shots that are in direct opposition to everything that the rest of the movie seems to be pushing him towards, and of course that good old-fashioned deep dark Burton drunkenness; it is a masterpiece of bad acting.

Indeed, in a film that is by no means light on candidates for Worst Single Element, Burton is pretty clearly the very bottom. But not because he does not have competition, even among his cast-mates: Fletcher's brittle, stiff treatment of every moment smacks of an actress who didn't have much of an idea how to handle a pointless character who also happens to be as dumb as rocks, and simply gave up. Blair, meanwhile, is more sad than anything: growing up was not to her benefit as an actress, and she learned this quickly enough to favor parts that would fit within a narrow band of things she could do convincingly, of which the best example that I have seen is the 1981 slasher Hell Night. The Heretic, unfortunately, does not fall in her wheelhouse; Regan gets the worst dialogue and the most unplayable situations, which is certainly part of the problem, but Blair's attempts to recover an unrecoverable part, which would have strained a great actress, are consistently for the absolute worst: playing the characters as a breezy, no-care-in-the-world teen, acting nothing at all like the character described by Lamont and Tuskin.

Even the acting, though is just one more thing in grand field of disastrous choices: the wholesale rejection of the previous film's narrative arc, giving us the idealised Catholic Merrin reconfigured into a dangerous apostate, and leaving the last film's actual protagonist, Karras, not even mentioned except as a statistic; trying, for that matter, to make a Christian horror movie with the Christianity removed as much as was remotely possible. Or, to keep it strictly in the realm of Bad Movie and not Bad Sequel, there's the film's multitude of awful locations, including a Manhattan high-rise apartment with a balcony that could only ever be a move set, with huge gaps in the railing to make it all the easier to accidentally fall hundreds of feet to your death, possibly in protest against the giant mirrored dovecote in the middle; an African village that doesn't even begin to hide its setbound nature; or, worst of all - the only thing that comes close to the unadulterated awfulness of Burton's performance - the psychiatric institute, a nightmare of '70s sci-fi hexagons in which all of the consulting rooms are glass cubicles dotted around central space that has glowing fluorescent panels over every inch of the ceiling, and is so crammed with shit and devoid of privacy that it's impossible to pay attention to the actual matter of the screenplay, which anyway consists of empty back-and-forth rambling between Lamont and Tuskin. This is especially true in the legendarily horrible moment when two people, for no obvious reason, are rolling a giant red vinyl hexagon wheel around in the background, pulling all the focus from everything else that happens in the entire rest of the movie.

The whole picture is so misconceived in such an unmitigated, aggressive way that one can barely accept that it was actually made by an actual studio as the actual sequel to the biggest hit in that studio's history; it's failure as a work of art and even as a simple, functional thing could not be more complete. For this reason, I urge each and every one of you to get drunk off your ass and go watch it. It more than lives up to its reputation as the nadir of the Exorcist franchise, but it's also, by far, the most fun of them all. I can do no better than give the final word to the impeccably purple Father Lamont himself: "It was horrible... utterly horrible. And fascinating."

Reviews in this series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
The Exorcist Prequels:
-Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
-Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)

9 comments:

Chris D said...

I guess this tradition means we'll have to wait another year to see your thoughts on Exorcist III, which is kind of a shame, because I've always had quite a bit of affection for that movie, shaggy dog as it is.

Damon said...

I’m not very big on exorcism movies, since they give me goose bumps, but I thought I would give The Possession a chance. Granted there were quite a few jumpy and creepy parts, I think the scariest part was when they were in the morgue. I watched the movie with a few Dish coworkers and one said that the creepiest part for her was the girl on the swing and how she looked. I would like to see the movie again, but I’m more than okay with waiting for it to come out on DVD, which is why I’ve added it to my Blockbuster @Home queue. I’ll probably never go to another yard sale again...

Cody said...

James Earl Jones recorded Darth Vader's voice around the time he appeared in Exorcist II, and I like to imagine he wore the giant locust costume in the recording studio.

KingKubrick said...

This movie! I love the exorcist and normally would have been pissed at a bad sequel to it but, hell, this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. So much badness. When I saw the strobe light mind melding device scene remains the apex of unintentional comedy. Pure gold.

franklinshepard said...

I wish I enjoyed the badness of this movie nearly as much as I do Zardoz, for example, but I just found much of the film boring (especially the Fletcher character.) Things pick up in the second half for me, but that first bit was a slog. Maybe I should've drank more beforehand.

Tim said...

Chris- Afraid so. Though I will find space for it, even if I have to cram it into the most unlikely place imaginable.

Damon- I haven't seen it yet, but my expectations are low enough that it won't be too hard for me to give it a pass. I expect my thoughts will be up here tomorrow.

Cody- Oh, man, that is a GREAT image.

KingKubrick- The dream-sharing machine is far and away the funniest individual scene, especially because it's such a little, Radio Shack-type chunk of metal. Apparently, that's the point where the premiere audience started to turn on the movie en masse.

Franklin- Well, it's certainly not as loopy as Zardoz, and truth be told, I'm a lot likelier to revisit that one if I have a hankering for awful Boorman. Fletcher is definitely dull. But there's too much what-the-fuckery even in the first half (most of it to do with production design or Burton), that I pretty much loved it, even sober.

RickR said...

The Synchronizer is beyond stupid, but my second favorite moment of shittiness is when Linda Blair is dancing in the school show or whatever-the-hell it is, and being hit by, I don't know, gut-busting visions or something, and she dances right off the edge of the stage, arms and legs flailing, and working that baton.

Because DAMN, that girl's a trooper!

Neil Fulwood said...

In a film stuffed with truly awful moments, I'm still undecided as to what my absolute favourite bit of what-the-fuckery is. The shortlist:

1. Our first sight of the Synchronizer; kind of like a mug tree with two light bulbs strapped to it.

2. The metaphysical battle in dreamspace between the possessed Regan of four years ago and Dr Tuskin of now, while the contemporaneous Regan tries to comfort Tuskin by basically squeezing her right breast.

3. Good locusts vs. bad locusts. Who needs drugs? Just watch this movie!

4. Lamont's exorcism technique, which basically dispenses with crucifixes, holy water and screeds of Latin, and relies instead on punching the possessed Regan repeatedly in the face and ripping her heart out.

5. The lumps of polystyrene spray-painted red which stand in for Africa.

John Davis said...

WTF? The Synchronizer is FAKE?

LOL. Yeah, this movie is so shitty it's funny.

GREAT review. I laughed my ass off.