“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
-The demon Pazuzu
So. let me paint the scene. It’s a quiet Christmas Eve. I’m stuck at home due to work and my first bout of genuine seasonal illness in nearly 10 years. I’m borderline ‘stir crazy’ from being couch-bound for seemingly days, and am not in the most Xmasy of moods; dealing with all manner of fatigue and coughy sneeziness. I figured that I HAD to throw SOMETHING on to pass the dreary hours as I sipped at my steaming lemon-flavored anti-cold drink, all the while grumbling curses at the bug-spreading ‘powers that be’. For some bizarre reason (I blame an overdose of cough drops), snap-shots from the opening scene of ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) strobed through my (probably) feverish mind. I hadn’t seen it in a good long while…and then it was chosen.
As I hobbled across the room like a stiff geriatric to my meager DVD/Blu Ray collection (700 or so, and counting) to shakingly pull the iconic box art from among the others, my half-lidded eyes fell on the case next to it…’The Exorcist II: The Heretic’. Like an under-powered bulb, a dim light weakly flashed to life behind my blood-shot eyeballs. “Euree…cough! cough!…(sniffle)…Eureka!!” Why not watch these two flicks back to back?!! Why not, indeed. As I stood there before my fortress wall of disc-formatted entertainment, I couldn’t actually recall if I’d ever sat through an entire viewing of ‘The Exorcist II’. “Tonight, it shall be soooaaaah-Tchooo!” I wiped absently at my raw nose and set to my task.
‘The Exorcist’ (1973) truly is a fantastic film. From the tension-laden ‘Iraq’ opening scene to the moment when Regan imploringly meets eyes with the priest as her stricken ‘family’ leaves the large Washington D.C. house in which she nearly died…while 3 others had, the film is absolutely riveting. Director William Friedkin (The French Connection) proved to be a master of his craft who took the contents of an excellent book and translated them to The Big Screen with a tangible sense of realism and grit. I find myself being sucked into the story every time I see it because I believe in the world that this horrible story is taking place in. For the teeny handful of people under the age of about 20 who may not have seen this classic (shame on YOU!) the story goes like this:
Opening in the scorched (and beautifully shot) desert of Northern Iraq, we meet an elderly archeologist/priest named Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) who is partaking in a massive ‘dig’ operation. Several items are found in one section of the site that, to his trained eye, do not belong in the same time period as the rest. One item in particular, a grotesque little statue, catches his attention; setting him on ‘edge’. Later, after a series of unnerving ‘happenings’, Merrin finds himself back at the now largely deserted dig site, this time face to face with a massive version of the small statue; in a classically posed shot (beautifully lit in a threatening red glare) that is obviously supposed to represent ‘Good vs Evil’. Cut to Washington D.C circa the early 70s. We meet successful screen actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her precocious, somewhat spoiled 12 year old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as they go through the day to day grind of Movie Star Life, complete with invites to The White House and arguments about her estranged ex-husband. Into this ‘mundane’ existence, small unexplained ‘things’ begin to occur around the house or, more to the point, around Regan. Strange noises from the attic, sharp temperature drops, the sudden emergence of an ‘imaginary’ friend (“Captain Howdy, that’s not very nice!”) and odd complaints about a shaking bed. Most of this is dismissed outright, but as time goes on, it becomes apparent that these are the first symptoms of something more dire, as Regan’s behavior and physical condition take a sharp nose-dive. While Chris seeks to get Regan the best medical care she can, we are introduced to a troubled local priest/psychiatrist named Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Karras, an Italian ex-boxer who does his best to care for his ailing mother, is questioning his faith…and not liking the answer he’s coming up with. Karras is put in contact with Chris who, by this point, is nearly at her wits end. She’s now convinced, after Medical Science has let her down, that her daughter may actually be possessed by a sinister supernatural entity with malicious intent. Karras, being a Man of Science as well as a Man of God, is reluctant at first, but when it becomes undeniable what they are up against, he enlists the aid of Father Merrin to help pull the demon from the little girl. From there it becomes a war of faith and nerves as the two priests do everything in their power to save Regan’s life and banish the demon. In the end (SPOILER), Merrin succumbs to a massive, fatal heart attack mid-ritual. In his rage, Karras takes the demon in, and in a moment of clarity, throws himself from the high bedroom window overlooking a tall bank of stone stairs. Before he dies in a pool of blood at the foot of the steps, we find that it seems his sacrifice was The Answer, and that the nefarious beast is gone. Regan awakens with no memory of what happened and the traumatized family moves away. The End.
Everything about ‘The Exorcist’ works, even 40 years later. The cinematography is disciplined and patient, the acting is naturalistic and believable, the sets and costumes perfectly mirror the time the film takes place (and was made), and the horror elements are viscerally shocking, even still (“Let Jesus fuck you!!!”). Even though this flick came out 4 years before I came into existence, I fully believe the stories of ambulances waiting outside of theatres to tend to the squeamish masses who were unprepared for the shock of what Friedkin and original author William Peter Blatty had to show them. Hell, rumor has it that after a while, ushers took to handing out official Exorcist barf bags. Now that’s some serious shit! I wish movies still had that ‘oomph!’, but in our cynical and desensitized ‘now’, I think THOSE days are long past. One aspect that Friedkin embraced to great effect was the sly incorporation of subtlety and ambiguity. Many questions are raised in the films runtime: Why did Merrin seem to ‘know’ the statue? What made the sounds in the attic? Was it Regan who grossly vandalized the statue of The Virgin Mary? How exactly was Burke Dennings murdered? Why was Regan ‘picked’? These, and others, are all valid questions. In the context of the story and the tone, exact answers aren’t needed. In fact, the very murkiness of the possible explanations only helps bolster the tension. We don’t have the answers…and neither do our heroes/victims. One aspect that stands out for me, is the idea that when Medical Science fails…what else is left? To anyone who’s read the book (great read, BTW) the theme of doing away with archaic ideas and practices such as witchcraft and exorcisms in the face of such progressive ‘modern’ sciences (this was the 70s, after all) is a paramount idea, clearly influenced by a world that has turned it’s back on The Old Ways, possibly with dangerous consequences looming in the shadows. Everyone insists that Regan’s problem MUST be psychiatric or neurological, because ANYTHING else is just silly. But when the doctors are completely stumped, short of simply dosing her to the gills with tranquilizers, it is them who hesitantly suggest the counsel of religion, if for no other reason than as an alternative ‘shock’ treatment to supplement their ‘best’ efforts. And from there, our protagonists (and us) are thrust into an uncertain world of dark ritual, ancient evil and sinister entities beyond our understanding. It works beautifully.
It should also be noted that I watched the 2000 Directors Cut version, also naively known as ‘The Version You’ve Never Seen’, which had some nice touches added back in (the Spider Walk scene creeps the fuck outta me EVERY TIME!).
So, as you can see, I think that ‘The Exorcist’ is truly a classic American horror film for all the reasons I’ve stated (and more), and is undeniably an example of ‘How It Is Done’.
(Hits STOP)…(sniffles, blows nose)…slowly gets up from couch (probably with more drama than reality) and hobbles over to the Blu Ray player to change out the disks. Out comes ‘The Exorcist’…and in goes ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’. Slumps back onto the couch with all the grace of a beached whale.
NOW, I remember why I can’t remember ever having seen this vile, parasitic sequel. Clearly my mind was attempting to do me a favor and ‘unsee’ this insulting piece of shit. Wow! Where the classic original is an example of ‘How It Is Done’, “The Exorcist II: The Heretic’ is a clear cut example of ‘How To Never EVER Do It…Ever’. Holy shit! (shakes head sadly). Mind-boggling. This movie is a silly, idiotic mess that makes no sense at all and basically spits in the eye of all that came before it. Truly.What’s even worse is that three of the original cast members from the 1973 original turned up to reprise (and basically rape) their iconic characters. We have Linda Blair back as Regan, only instead of being an innocent (if slightly spoiled) 12 years old kid, she’s now a sexed up 16 year old airhead; all doe eyes and lip gloss. Also back is Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, who spends the whole movie as a flashback that cheapens the original incarnation of the character. And since Ellen Burstyn probably ran for the hills after reading the sorry excuse for a script, the produces managed to coax Kitty Winn back as Sharon, the resilient assistant to Burstyn’s ‘Chris McNeil’ character, to stand in for the ‘Mother’ figure. So the story (hahaha!!!) goes like this:
A few years after the events of the first film, Regan is now living in New York (I think). We meet her as she playfully flirts with some girl-looking guy with a saxophone as she practices tap steps, dressed a little too provocatively for the character’s age (more on that later). From there, we see her turn up at some bizarre-looking ‘School for the ‘Gifted’ where it’s never really explained what the hell she’s doing there. Does she work there? Is she a patient? Who knows. All we do know is that the glass-walled set, complete with outer space-sounding sliding doors, looks like something a James Bond villain would be at home at. There are mentally handicapped children everywhere, with no sense of organization. Along the way, we’re introduced to Regan’s incompetent-seeming doctor, Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), who seems to think that comically blinking lights in people’s faces constitutes some positive step on the path to wellness. Somewhere in all this weak exposition, we also meet a priest named Lamont, played by some supposedly great actor named Richard Burton. If this is supposed to be some example of his cinematic ‘greatness’, I now cry inside. The dude absolutely SUCKS here, coming off like a shell-shocked Tom Jones (minus the songs and the tossed women’s panties) as opposed to anything remotely believable. Anyway, for some reason The Vatican decides that SOMEONE needs to look into the death of Father Merrin, who died of a heart attack in Washington 4 years prior. Pretty mundane considering that the priest he was working with at the time THREW HIMSELF OUT A GODDAMN WINDOW WHILE POSSESSED BY A FUCKING DEMON! But no, no one gives a shit about that. Just some old geezer having a ‘jammer’ and keeling over mid-exorcism, THAT requires serious investigating. (face palm). So this wide-eyed religious idiot tracks down Regan at this ‘institute’ to find out what she can tell him about Merrin’s demise. As they indulge in a bunch of awful expository dialogue (and one of the hokiest hypnotism scenes EVER), we learn that Merrin was once involved in a fight with a Demon of the Air named Pazuzu, who seems to travel around as a swarm of locusts that look like something straight out of one of Japan’s Toho monster movies from the 1960s. Merrin and some African kid named Kukomo (James Earl Jones) once defeated this demon, who later turned up as the monster that possessed Regan in Washington, for whatever reason. This is the supposed backstory to the awesome shot from the beginning of the original film where Merrin stares down Pazuzu’s ominous statue across the burning sands of Iraq. So, Priest Guy feels that he needs to head off to the plains of Africa to track down Kukomo, to learn the secret of Pazuzu, in order to save young Regan’s mortal soul…or…something. So while he’s off among some really terrible miniature landscapes (seriously, the cliffs looked like sculpted chocolate from a Dairy Queen commercial) to locate hefty James Earl Jones dressed up as a giant grasshopper (no bullshit), to learn how to defeat the demon…which hadn’t shown ANY signs of returning to Regan’s life till they started hypnotizing her and shit. All of this leads up to one of the most ridiculous and moronic 3rd Acts I’ve seen in a LONG time.
ACT 3: The Exorcist II: The Heretic
So after Regan ‘escapes’ from the institute with the ‘Synchronizer’ (the flashy lighty hypnotizer thingy) to go hang out at a museum (cuz there’s an African exhibit?), Father Lamont (literally just back from Africa) HAPPENS to find her, with no trouble at all. From there, they head off to some sleazy hotel to get ‘synchronized’ with Pazuzu, or something. This leads the demon to leap-frog into the priest, and he and Regan then hop on a train to head back to her old house in Washington…again for SOME reason. Doc Tuskin and Sharon The Assistant head out to try to beat Regan and Lamont/Pazuzu to the house, intent on stopping The Horror. Never mind that Regan and Possessed Priest Guy have a good-sized head start, by train, and the two ladies encounter probably EVERY obstacle in town (some politician’s motorcade, a car accident, airline ticket line-ups etc). Regan and Lamont/Pazuzu reach her old house, which is conveniently uninhabited 4 years later, and go inside. At nearly the same time, Tuskin and Sharon are (amazingly) racing in to the rescue by cab when they become victims of the most violent broken windshield EVER, which sends the car into something resembling Maverick and Goose’s flat spin from ‘Top Gun’. They then conveniently smash to a violent halt literally on the house’s front steps. While the poor black cab driver twitches and moans after being bloodily impaled on car and house pieces, Sharon chooses THAT moment to go batshit crazy, crawling out of the wreckage to spout off weird possessed-sounding bullshit while blocking the front door so Doc Tuskin can’t race inside to save The Day. In the darkness of the house, Lamont/Pazuzu opens the door to Regan’s old room…and is blasted down the hall by a swarm of locusts…again, for some reason. With him temporarily incapacitated, Regan goes on ahead, only to encounter…herself. Yep, there in full Exorcist 1 makeup, is Regan sitting up in bed being a gross bitch again, mocking herself as she watches in mute horror. Then, the face changes and her ‘double’ goes into Slutty Regan Demon Mode, all cleavage and pouty red lips…oh, and evil green Pazuzu eyes. With little provocation, the 40 something year old priest moves in to start slathering lecherously all over Regan’s evil doppleganger. Bear in mind, the character is STILL supposed to be 16, possessed or otherwise! So, as Priest Guy is laying his moves on the Demon Version of Teenage Regan, Sharon decides to try out a little self-immolation on the house’s front step. Whoomph!!! Up she goes…in the slowest burn EVER. Right around this time, a swarm of locusts descend on the ‘hood and proceed to tear the house apart. By this point, Father Lamont has stopped necking with the underage demon chick, and is now actively punching her in the tits. Yep, punching in the tits. As this is going on, the other (real) Regan just stands around shrieking while the house comes apart around her, thanks to thousands of evil grasshoppers. After the house collapses (killing no one), Regan starts swinging her arms around, imitating the kid in Africa who subdued Pazuzu and the swarm, back in the day. The locusts fall, die and conveniently vanish. Somehow, that’s it. Everyone has a moment over the Kentucky Fried Sharon, before she then croaks dramatically. Regan and Lamont then wander off into the darkness after some cheezy words, probably to finish what he started while she was in Slutty Demon Mode. Only then does the ENTIRE neighborhood decide to show up. Seriously, a cab spins out and crashes at high speed into a brick house. No one notices. A woman goes up like a human torch, with all the expected screaming and agony. No one notices. A swarm of fucking locusts rip a whole house apart in Uptown, Washington D.C. No one notices. A borderline elderly priest wanders out into the darkness with an arm around a nubile 16 year old girl in what looks like a flimsy ‘nighty’. No one notices. Extended pause….and…then the whole world shows up! Amazing response time, people!!! And…roll credits.
Yep, no bullshit…that sums up the last 3rd of this trash. It really does amaze me just how far director John Boorman (Deliverance) and Co. missed the mark. NONE of the subtlety, intelligence or dread that made the original such a ‘game-changer’ are present. What IS present is atrocious acting, clunky pacing, cheap and laughable effects (the rear projection shots alone are horrid), nonsensical story elements, awful costumes and an astounding lack of cohesion. Truly nothing adds up here. Everything done right in the first one=everything done wrong in this one. As shitty as I was feeling, health-wise, at the end of this pathetic sequel, I was literally laughing out loud in amazement. Having gone straight from the fantastic first film, straight into the laughable and sad second one, I was nearly beside myself with amused astonishment. ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’ still holds one of the worst sequel reputations EVER, over the years since it was shat upon the world…and it earns every bit of it. It’s one of those one’s where The Uninitiated might say “Well, c’mon…HOW bad COULD it be?”. Then they see it. And understand. It seems to me that the curse of this turd has carried over into every attempt since to continue or revitalize the story. The 3rd one, directed by William Peter Blatty himself, is a strange meandering continuation of the story while the two attempts at a prequel resulted in one of the most baffling decisions ever to come out of Hollywood. The story of the EXACT same script being funded and shot twice, by two different directors, is worth it’s own article (hmmmm…I wonder). It makes me wonder what could’ve been, had due care and understanding of the brilliant beats and nuances of the original been utilized in crafting a worthy sequel. As it stands though, we have a crystal clear example of how to REALLY fuck up a potentially great thing. On one level, I highly recommend seeing the second one just so you can understand the impressive depth of ‘awful’. On the other, sticking with just the original will NEVER be considered a bad idea.
And thus ends my own exorcism, the exorcism to cleanse my soul and cinematic palate of the icky residue left over from the sharp contrast between these two movies.
(sniffles)…cough! cough!…(passes out)