Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Exorcist (1973) & Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)


          Since its spectacularly successful release on December 26, 1973, the public has been divided on The Exorcist, with one audience contingent praising the picture as a powerful drama about faith and another excoriating the movie as sensationalist trash. The beauty of The Exorcist is that both interpretations are justified. While the heart of writer William Peter Blatty’s novel and screenplay is a probing exploration of the notion that definitive evidence of the devil implicitly proves the existence of God, the amped-up grotesquerie of director William Friedkin’s movie is as pandering as the content of any exploitation movie. In fact it’s the very tension between the dark and light impulses of the film that makes it so fascinating and so true to its deepest themes: Like the characters in the story, the film has to battle through the pea soup and spinning heads of manifested evil to reach a hopeful conclusion. The movie unfolds simply, with distraught mom Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn) seeking first medical and then religious help when her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), devolves into a condition that might be demonic possession. The little girl urinates in front of company, flails violently, and spews guttural obscenities, all while her body disintegrates into a horrific mess of pallid skin, scars, and sores. Helping Chris combat the deterioration are an anguished young priest, Karras (Jason Miller), and a world-weary exorcist, Merrin (Max Von Sydow). Lee J. Cobb is thrown into the mix, providing a sort of rumpled comic relief, as a police detective investigating a murder for which the possessed child might have been responsible.
          Friedkin’s aggressive verité style imbues the provocative story with as much realism as possible, given the focus on special effects and supernatural occurrences, and he’s aided by powerful performances and a technical crew committed to creating vivid atmosphere. Burstyn is spectacular as a mother in an unimaginable situation, making every scene she’s in emotionally credible, and Miller, a genuinely tortured sort offscreen, fills his performance with such intense emotional pain that some of his anguished moments are as hard to watch as the film’s goriest scenes. The movie is filled with classic moments, from the subtle (Burstyn walking down a Washington, D.C., street while Mike Oldfield’s eerie instrumental “Tubular Bells” plays on the soundtrack) to the vulgar (Regan’s obscene use of a crucifix). So while it’s impossible to say for certain whether the movie is inherently exploitive or inherently provocative, it’s also impossible to deny the film’s otherworldly power.
          The same cannot be said for the picture’s first sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, an insipid mixture of old ideas that worked better the first time and new ideas that shouldn’t have been tried at all. An impressive but embarrassed cast (Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, James Earl Jones, and returning Exorcist stars Blair and Von Sydow) trudges through one profoundly silly scene after another, with director John Boorman unwisely working a trippy sci-fi/fantasy groove. The movie is so exuberantly goofy—with its clunky dialogue, hammy acting, overwrought production design, and unintentionally funny visuals—that it’s a sumptuous feast for those who consume movies ironically. Noteworthy bits include the scenes photographed from the point of view of a giant possessed locust, and the icky vignette of 17-year-old Blair luring 51-year-old Burton into bed while wearing demonic green contact lenses.

The Exorcist: RIGHT ON
Exorcist II: The Heretic: FREAKY

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