Monday, May 11, 2009

Exorcist II: The Heretic

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that all studios in possession of a financially successful property must be in search of a sequel. William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ made over $66 million in its first year’s release in America*, an impressive return on a total budget (including prints and advertising) of $15 million.

A follow-up was inevitable. Friedkin and Blatty were approached but refused. Retaining the services of playwright William Goodhart to script, co-producer Richard Lederer went scouting for a director. Initially, Lederer conceived the sequel as a quickie cash-in, perhaps even utilising footage from the original that didn’t make the final cut. Again a priest would be the central character but his role would be investigative, probing the circumstances of Merrin’s death. It would be low-budget and make Warner Bros an easy profit.

At least that was the theory.

John Boorman, who felt that ‘The Exorcist’ was little more than a film about the torture of a child, was an odd choice to direct, but Goodhart’s treatment piqued his interest. Goodhart wanted to explore the theories and theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist on whom Blatty had based Father Merrin. Teilhard believed that mankind was moving towards an evolutionary stage where telepathic communication would engender global consciousness. This dovetailed with Boorman’s ideal that ‘The Heretic’ “would be the antidote” to ‘The Exorcist’ instead of a sequel; a metaphysical drama instead of a horror film. (It’s telling that Boorman’s autobiography refers to the film as simply ‘The Heretic’, pointedly leaving the word “exorcist” out of the title.)

So far, so dubious. A producer looking for a low-budget hit; a director who didn’t like the original; a writer in thrall to philosophical theorising.

It started going wrong with Goodhart’s first draft. Boorman wasn’t happy with it and states, in his autobiography that “long discussions were required to get him to change a comma”. Boorman and his writing partner Rospo Pallenberg did uncredited rewrites, the script undergoing almost continual revision as production approached. Originally, Kinderman had a prominent role; after Lee J. Cobb’s death, the script was rewritten. Main character Father Lamont was conceived as an idealistic young priest inspired by Merrin’s life and work; when Jon Voight, Boorman’s first choice, turned the part down, the script was revised to make him an older, world-weary character. Richard Burton was cast.

Linda Blair returned as Regan, but Ellen Burstyn had no interest in reprising her role as Chris. Accordingly, Kitty Winn found herself with more screen time as Sharon, formerly Chris MacNeil’s secretary and now apparently Regan’s guardian. Max von Sydow was convinced to reprise his role as Merrin (in flashbacks) even though he had tried to distance himself from ‘The Exorcist’ after it started generating so much controversy.

Blair, Winn and von Sydow are an auto-pilot throughout the whole film. Burton is magnificently indifferent to the material, barking his lines and scowling and looking very much like he wants to get off the set and into a pub as expediently as possible. Louise Fletcher, hot off her Oscar-winning turn in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ seems to have been cast for her resemblance to Burstyn. Paul Henreid, as the Cardinal from whom Lamont receives his instructions, mumbles his way through his few minutes of screen time. And pity James Earl Jones, reduced to playing most of his scenes decked out in a witch-doctor type get-up – the worst costuming since some doofus decided to put Sean Connery in a nappy/bandolier combo in ‘Zardoz’. (Said doofus was John Boorman, btw. Coincidence? I think not.)

In the six autobiographical pages he devotes to ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, Boorman blames (i) illness, (ii) an overambitious script and (iii) Richard Burton for its box office failure. The prosecution wishes to re-examine in order to establish that: (i) Joseph Losey was ill during the filming of ‘The Servant’ and that film’s a masterpiece; (ii) unless “overambitious” is an accepted synonym for “incoherent”, this evidence should be deemed inadmissible; and (iii) Burton’s is certainly not the worst performance on display.

Let’s consider the issue of incoherence. Here’s my attempt at a plot synopsis. I use the word “attempt” advisedly. I’ve seen the film exactly twice: at a midnight screening double bill with its considerably more illustrious predecessor (I fell asleep during the mid-section of ‘Heretic’) and just a couple of days ago on DVD when I sat aghast through its two-hour running time, mouth agape and eyes bulging at the sheer, unmitigated, wanton, unapologetic, colossal, spectacular awfulness of it.

But I digress. The, ahem, “narrative” goes something like this: it’s four years since the events of the first film and Regan is now a pouting teenager living in a designer apartment under Sharon’s guardianship. She’s taking dance classes (wanna see the kind of choreography that makes your embarrassing uncle drunkenly strutting his stuff at a wedding look like Busby Berkeley? look no further) and attending sessions with psychiatrist Dr Tuskin (Fletcher). Tuskin is using a machine called the Synchronizer to link people’s minds and explore their memories, a supposedly ultra-high-tech bit of kit that resembles a mug tree with two lightbulbs strapped to it, which makes an incredibly annoying sonar-like sound every time it’s used (ie. for most of the first half of the film). Meanwhile, in a scene that contains two jarring WTF moments, Father Lamont is asked to investigate Merrin’s death. WTF moment #1: why is the investigation only now being opened, four years after the event? WTF moment #2: why does the Cardinal tell Lamont the church is considering Merrin a heretic for practising exorcism when the first film clearly demonstrates that it was not only sanctioned by church authorities but Merrin was actually asked to do it?

Lamont’s investigations bring him in contact with Regan and Dr Tuskin. Despite an immediate antagonism, Tuskin lets Lamont sit in on a Synchronizer session during which he witnesses a flashback/hallucination/vision (delete as applicable) of Merrin expiring at the hands of the possessed Regan of four years ago – who then reaches across time, space and all other logical barriers and attempts to stop Dr Tuskin’s heart. The good Regan of the present tries to comfort Dr Tuskin while Lamont dons a Synchronizer headset and goes into Dr Tuskin’s mind to rescue her from evil Regan.

I swear to God I am not making this up.

Regan begins to demonstrate otherworldly powers: precognition, telekinesis, faith healing. Lamont goes to Africa (or at least a few square meters of polystyrene rocks and an artificial sun hanging over a back lot masquerading as Africa) to track down Kokumo (Earl Jones), who was exorcised as a boy by Merrin. By now there is a telepathic link between Regan and Lamont so that when Lamont is set upon by an African tribe offended by his heretical religious views, Regan plunges off stage during her tap-dancing routine, giving a whole new meaning to coming out in sympathy.

To reiterate: I am not making this up. Nor am I under the influence of narcotics.

Lamont learns that Kukumo has the power to predict a plague of locusts (I’m laughing out loud as I type this) and can repel them by whirling his fist in the air. (Parenthetically, when Blatty saw a cut of ‘Exorcist II’, he informed the producers that he could, without changing a frame, come up with an entirely new plot, dub the film into a foreign language, subtitle it with his script and market it as a comedy. Oh, that they had listened!) There’s also something to do with good locusts, but I think I was trying to slit my wrists at that point and I might have missed something.

The internal logic of the film doesn’t just get lost at this point, it hails a cab, hightails it to the airport, books a one-way ticket to the Twilight Zone and gets wasted in the airport bar while it waits for the flight to be called. I don’t know why, but the finale has Regan and Lamont on a train back to Georgetown while Dr Tuskin and Sharon catch a plane to the same destination. These various parties converge on Prospect Street. Lamont is tempted by an adult version of evil Regan in a slinky nightdress who gives him the come-on …

No, really, I’m not making this up. Honest. On my mother’s life.

… while good Regan clings tearfully onto the stair rail as the house disintegrates around her. Lamont performs an exorcism which dispenses with holy water, religious texts and such piffling requirements as invocations to the Almighty and takes the more direct punch-the-evil-nightgown-wearing-Regan-in-the-face-a-few-times-then-rip-her-heart-out route. The plague of locusts turns up, Regan flaps a hand in the air and they all die. Sharon immolates herself. Tuskin blubs a bit. Lamont and Regan wander off and the end credits role.

Not surprisingly, when the film opened, audiences rioted, hurled abuse at the screen and demanded Boorman’s head on a plate. Fortunately, he survived and went on to make ‘Hope and Glory’ and ‘The General’. Both of which are good films.

‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ isn’t.

‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ is a piece of shit. A waste of celluloid that could have been melted down, reconstituted and used as condom wrappers; then at least paying customers could have got fucked in a good way.



*Since its original release in 1974, total worldwide earnings on ‘The Exorcist’ are in excess of $400 million.


SOURCES
‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy’ by John Boorman (Faber & Faber, 2003)
‘The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows’ by Bob McCade (Omnibus Press, 1999)

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