Sunday, April 26, 2009
A true Heretic abuses expectations
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) - The Director's Cut/ Fan edit D. John Boorman Warner Brothers 1.85
For years I have heard nothing but how this movie is an unmitigated disaster. One of the worst sequels ever made and just a train wreck of a film from beginning to end. Misguided, miscast, incomprehensible and just plain unwatchable, unless taken as a comedy. Being that I consider The Exorcist one of the greatest films ever made, I just didn't want to sully that film in my mind and so I never bothered with this one. Now, that never stopped me from seeing The Exorcist: The Beginning, so I really have no arguable point to my madness. Also there have been many alternate cuts to Exorcist II over the years, with the final DVD that Warner's released being the longest one. this apparently was the same as the version that Warner's released to theaters in winter of 1977 that was universally panned by audiences and destroyed by critics. So much so that director John Boorman agreed to the film being pulled from release and personally recut the movie from 117 minutes to a much tighter 110 minutes and re-arranged much of the storyline, using some stills and footage from the original film to make it flow better.
This fan edit that I watched tonight originated from the tracker site Demonoid and was put together from a cat named PhineasBg who has lovingly reconstructed that 110 minute "director's recut" from the available DVD and an ancient VHS tape. His goal to replicate what many consider to be John Boorman's true directorial cut of the film. I have no frame of reference as to whether or not he succeeded in doing so, except to say that I thought the movie was far better than people have led me to believe over the years. This was in no way the flaming pile of shit people have accused the film of being.
After an awkward opening explaining the incidents of the first film through still frames and voice overs we are introduced to Father Lamont, played by Richard Burton. He is in Africa on missionary work but confronted with an exorcism of a local woman that goes horribly wrong. seems the woman was a local healer but the demon won't let her go and she dies in a wall of flames. Back home the Church sends Lamont to investigate the death of Father Merrin from the first film. He discovers Reagan McNeil (the now quite gorgeous teenage Linda Blair) in some sort of experimental hypno-therapy with a new age Doctor played by Louise Fletcher. The three of them begin to use a new strobe light driven device to go into deep hypnosis trances to get at Reagan's memories of the demon possessions only to realize the demon's themselves are very much still alive in her.
So far so good. A little Sci-Fi heavy, very New Age, but a very interesting take on the material. Not scary, but headed into a different direction and in no way rehashing what we have already seen from the first film. Then the film takes a hard left turn that has left many audiences really cold. It delves hard into the African native cultural beliefs dealing with things like plagues of locusts destroying the land, being driven by demons and taking on spirit animals to confront such demons. The film mixes these native approaches to spirituality with the new age hypnotism therapies, and a constant questioning of faith in Christianity. Christianity starts coming up very short by the end of the film. But the elements that seems to put people off, at least among my friends, is the dealing of spirits with representational animals and insects. The locusts, which throughout the bible have stood for the destruction of the land, are prominent in this film representing damnation. they represent the spread of the demons and the force of evil. The image here being, literally, a large locust flying around leading hordes to the next bit of prey. We get to see James Earl Jones as a tribal Priest dressed in the skins of a giant Locust whose spirit animal is a giant Leopard who is able to control the locusts. when it is revealed he is not a God at all but a scientist that has studied locusts a lot of the imagery that has come before falls into place. He explains how the locust spread destruction when they are agitated and angry, especially in large packs. He then explains how they have bred a new locust that will have the power to calm the other locusts. Something we see a local native boy who was a faith healer trying to do, when he falls possessed earlier in the film.
The whole while Pazzuzzu the demon inside of Reagan is trying to become unleashed but is battling the positive side of Reagan as well which will become the Black locust, the healer. Which we see in action when she, without trying, heals an autistic child just by talking to her at the psychiatric hospital earlier. The final battle will be between the Evil doppelganger Reagan, possessed by Pazzuzzu and the healer Reagan, the Black Locust. With poor Lamont having to fight the final battle to tear the heart from the demon to stop it once and for all.
What we end up with here is really a film that is quite unlike anything else. A child progeny of the drugged out, coked up, weed smoking late seventies, when people were wearing crystals, checking out new religions and questioning anything and everything to do with faith and the universe. While the first Exorcist movie was in essence a very Catholic film that re-enforced Christian and Catholic dogma and morality at the end of the day (I still love it anyway, and most people totally miss that it is a very moral, and pro church film) Exorcist II is looking in a completely different direction. Here the director (and ghostwriter with partner Rosco Pallenberg) are exploring the conceits that maybe organized religion isn't the answer when faced with raw evil. The film rather smartly pits Catholicism against science, against new agism, and most importantly what many would consider outright Paganism with the African magic and tribalism. By the end of the film it is the African Tribalism that has the answers, leaving all the other systems of worship and faith trialing behind. If the film is watched carefully it is as much a conical of Father Lamont's spiral out of his faith as it is a weirdo horror/fantasy about demons and Locust Spirit Guides.
Still the movie is far, far from perfect. It's over ambition renders several scenes on the pretentious side, and even cut down to 110 it is a bit too long. Richard Burton was reportedly drinking quite heavily during production and his still performance and profuse sweating shows this to be true. There are a couple of scenes that are clearly supposed to be directed in a dreamlike manner but just come off as goofy instead.
But most of the movie is a visual feast, with breathtaking cinematography, great locations, both on site and in studio. an incredible score by Ennio Moricone, solid acting form most of the cast, and Linda Blair right as she is hitting her stride into adult hood. There is a lot to appreciate in this film. Is it an appropriate movie to be a sequel to the classic The Exoricst? Probably not. Is it a good film, ripe for rediscovery, full of mental stimulation, incredible imagery, and lots of interesting and challenging ideas? Yes sir, that is exactly what it is. And I will take that.