Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part IV)

The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) dir. John Boorman

I'll be honest: William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) has never done much for me. I wouldn't call it a bad film, but its peculiar structure (consisting of a third act stretched across approximately half the film) and general lack of character development (for anyone but Jason Miller's Father Karras) leave me weary through the duration of each viewing, only allowing me to perk up for the handful of still transgressive moments. The Exorcist is an important, if decidedly singular film in horror history-- one that captured the zeitgeist of late 1970s American unease and, for a moment, legitimized the genre to the public at large, while simultaneously sending them into hysterics. A piece of art that comes with as much word-of-mouth baggage as this one is going to result in a extreme split in critical opinion, but I'm okay with my own falling somewhere in-between. While growing up, Friedkin's film was the only horror film banned in my home. Having seen virtually every other piece of classic and not-so-classic horror cinema you can name, imagine my disappointment when I finally smuggled a rental around the time of "The Version You've Never Seen" debacle-- this was what I'd been missing out on?

I have to imagine a similar response was generated from anyone in 1977 who had been steered away from the original but took a gamble on John Boorman's sequel, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. Boorman, the director of some exquisitely moody films (Deliverance (1972), Excalibur (1981)), attempts to refashion the basic Exorcist story into a a surreal, hallucinogenic, almost metaphysical journey through the nature of demonic possession. This could have been a splendid idea-- after all, nothing would have been less desirable than a simple rehash, which the continued presence of Linda Blair keeps threatening. Sadly, the film is more often just corny, with the height of its trippy visuals being a superimposed locust flying all over in extreme close-up and James Earle Jones roaring like a leopard. (In the end credits, some industrious soul is labeled as being responsible for "Special Locust Effects"). But what this really all results in is Richard Burton stumbling around Africa in a state of confusion and Linda Blair joining a chorus line.

Somewhat intriguing is the fact that the film attempts to intertwine its metaphysics with some wonky pseudoscience, though this fades as the film builds up to its conclusion: (what else) an over-the-top, contracted repetition of the first film's exorcism, wherein the ground literally falls out from under everyone involved. (Regardless, I liked the pseudoscience angle, and am glad that the basic concepts, iffy biofeedback headwear, and Louise Fletcher in the role of investigative scientist would be recycled a few years later in Douglas Trumbull's more successful, though no less nutty Brainstorm (1983)). It all goes towards making you wonder what it is Boorman thought people liked about the first film. Obviously, he didn't much care-- I've very okay with that attitude and approach, it's just a shame it resulted in a film as dull as this. If nothing else, the film birthed Ennio Morricone's diabolical score-- so thanks, movie.

The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) dir. William Peter Blatty

Original Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty was granted permission to take his own property for a spin at the dawn of the 1990s, and--who could have guessed it--wound up making my favorite Exorcist film of the three. The title alone on that poster over there (with its shades of the disingenuous claims made by '90s bedfellows Bram Stoker's and Mary Shelley's-- after all, how much of The Exorcist's legacy belongs to Friedkin? Then again, I suppose that "The Version You've Never Seen" would argue against W. F.'s good creative senses...) rather bluntly declares this as his unique, authorial vision, which--after Boorman's fumble--was probably the right move, if a bit immodest.

A lot of my appreciation for this film springs from its rather corny sense of humor (the affable, gruff George C. Scott tells a wonderful anecdote about discovering a carp in his bathtub) commingled with the oppressively dark storyline and atmosphere (this is, after all, recounting the tale of a Pazuzu-possessed, resurrected, body-mutilating serial killer and his continued bloody exploits 15 years post-execution). The general tone can be summed up in a line like this one: "I'm so sorry you were murdered, Thomas." It plays out closer to a procedural thriller for the first half, while the latter portions resemble an adequate evolution of the requisite exorcism sequences: here, a zombie-like Father Karras and a bunch of senior citizens are possessed by the Gemini Killer's wicked soul, and it's up to Scott to do the vanquishing. We're given the welcome return of Jason Miller to the series, and the wily addition of the always hammy Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, managing to scenery chew while straight-jacketed and spouting off ironic, self-deluding quips like "did you know that you are talking to an artist?"

It can't manage the aura or gravity of the original Exorcist, but, wisely, it doesn't attempt to. This is an understated and effective film, a largely successful continuation of the themes and situations of the original (which is a good deal more than Boorman's film can claim), and it has also been perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of this marathon. Pardon me for not initially being thrilled about the notion of enduring a third exorcism; I stand corrected. (But don't let this lead you to believe that I'll step anywhere near the Renny Harlin or Paul Schrader prequels. There's only so much pea soup one sap can stomach).

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) dir. Bruce Pittman

The End of Day Two: Hello Mary Lou. I've been alerted to the very peculiar progression of Prom Night sequels, but I have a hard time believing that any turn could be more sudden or complete than what's on display in this first one. Whereas the first Prom Night (1980) is a rather uninspired though fun enough post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis slasher (with an almost anachronistic Paul Zaza disco score that's probably thought of more highly than the film itself), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is an in-name-only sequel that takes the A Nightmare on Elm Street route (a woman who is burnt to death returns from the grave to take surreal, supernatural vengeance against the descendants of those responsible/those who looked on/anyone in general) with a dash of Freddy's Revenge (this vengeful ghost takes possession of a new body in order to do her murderin'). If I'm recalling correctly, I think there are even a few direct nods to Wes Craven's nightmare opus (nails screeching across lockers and the famous hallway scene). In my late night hypnotic trance after hours of basket cases and exorcisms, I very much dug what Mary Lou had to offer. It's a large brick of well-aged cheese-- very agreeable and, occasionally, surprisingly sharp. For the remainder of this write-up, I think I'll settle for transcribing the notes I took during my viewing because a) I'm not sure I understand them well enough (It was quite late; I was quite out of my gourd), and b) I feel that these notes are fairly demonstrative of what the film has to offer:

"Mary Lou is a third wave feminist stranded in the 1950s--that bomb was a stinker--women are getting a bad rap in this one, either frigid or rude or possessed by old fashioned ghosts--wouldn't her dress be burned when she comes back as a ghost? did she go shopping?--Siouxsie Sioux making a dog poo hand sculpture holding a cig--head in bean stew + bug eyes--blowing bangs out of eyes <3--go away, hobby horse; molesty bed--Mary Lou's dudes become a principal and a pastor, respectively; the former grows up to be Michael Ironside--Vicki speaking to a yearbook picture--blackboard swimming pool w/ swirling alphabet--"you know what pissed me off the most? no fucking wings"--Linda Blairsville (he talks like me (?))--gratuitous full-frontal locker room nudity, homophobia; tell us how you really feel, Vicki--womp ba ba doo bop locker squish kill--semen breath (?) "how'd ya blow it?"-- Mary Lou reborn through chest, goes all Carrie; somehow Vicki is not dead post-chest bursting; OK--well filmed and inventive--a ghost who just wanted to be Prom Queen; in essence, a tragedy."

Twice in the film we hear the opening bars of The Partland Brothers' dreadful "Soul City" before it cuts out. Its absence from the end credits' soundtrack listing leads one to believe that the filmmakers didn't pay for their use of it. I suppose they ran out of money after putting up all the budget for literally everything else in existence, all of which they managed to crush lovingly into the film's brief running time. Bless them. Addendum: I don't believe I'm done with the Prom Night franchise yet. Check back here after the Sequelthon has breathed its last for a surprise (or two (or three)).

Soon: The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Poltergeist III (1988).


  1. Excellent work here sir. As usual! Ex Part 2 is just ridiculous and I too enjoy the pseudoscience. I wonder what studio executives thought when they saw it. I look forward to the Poltergeist sequels. The preacher in 2 still creeps me out and 3 feels like a late 80's Italian horror film to me. I may be alone in that sentiment. Thanks for a great blog!

    1. It's appreciated, Brad.

      I think the studio executives were taking a nap that day-- though Wikipedia informs me that their original plan was to make a sequel primarily from outtakes culled from the first film, so perhaps The Heretic seemed a creative revelation to them.

      Spoiler: I certainly agree with you about Poltergeist III. I was shocked, simply shocked, that it didn't bear a credit attributing it all to Lambava.