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). Providing a sort of comic relief is the caustic police detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigating a murder for which the possessed child might have been responsible.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 should have been nixed at the development stage. Unwisely working a trippy sci-fi/fantasy groove, director John Boorman leads an impressive but slightly embarrassed and narcotized cast through one profoundly silly scene after another. (Newcomers Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, and James Earl Jones join returning stars Blair—newly curvy but still chipmunk-cheeked—and Von Sydow.) The initial story hook is intriguing, with the Vatican dispatching a priest to investigate whether Merrin was a godly man or a heretic, given his record of spectacular exorcisms, but things spin quickly spin out of control. Not only does the sequel plot indicate that Regan is still possessed, rendering the previous film moot, but Boorman weaves in a bizarre subplot about a primitive African village and its locust-centric religious beliefs.
          Boorman and master cinematographer William A. Fraker shoot nearly everything on soundstages, including scenes in African wheat fields, so the whole movie feels bogus and odd. Seriously, what’s the deal with that high-tech hospital featuring so many transparent walls it resembles a county-fair funhouse? At one point, Jones wears an elaborate bug-shaped helmet, complete with giant eyes. In another scene, 17-year-old Blair lures 51-year-old Burton into bed. And the dialogue! Consider the scene where Regan meets Sandra, a little girl played by future Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato. “I’m autistic,” Sandra says. “I can’t talk. What’s the matter with you?” (Never mind that she can talk, or that the filmmakers don’t understand how autism works.) “I was possessed by a demon,” Regan replies. “It’s okay. He’s gone.” Despite being a complete dud as a horror show, Exorcist II: The Heretic is so exuberantly goofy that it’s a sumptuous feast for those who consume movies ironically; bad cinema doesn’t get much better.
          Franchise creator Blatty wisely pretended Boorman’s film didn’t exist when he wrote and directed 1990’s The Exorcist III, the first worthy successor to the original film. As fans of this series know, there’s a lot more to the story of subsequent Exorcist flicks, but that’s a topic for another day.

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

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