Horror Bites - Keeping the Faith


Some time ago, the third Exorcist film featured in one of the usual marathons here. Like many other horror sequels it gets overshadowed by the first entry in the series a lot of the time without much discussion. Opinions about this can vary, and there are obviously a lot of problems as a result of studio interference. However as noted I do think it's a great movie in many regards. While some elements are messy (particularly towards the end) a lot of elements included are very sinister and overall it's an entertaining movie with lots of punchy dialogue. But what of the other films in this series?

Well as much as I'd like to avoid talking about it, I will quickly mention that the prequel, famously released to a poor reception, re-cut, retitled, re-released and then re-panned is a boring slog in both versions. Exorcist: The Beginning or Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist? Choices choices. But seriously skip both, they're just not any fun at all. So instead of looking any further into those, let's take a look at the what diabolical offerings the second movie in the series has in store for us - as well as what makes the original work.

The 1973 adaptation of Blatty's novel holds up because of the way the subject matter is treated. Like The French Connection, it's done almost completely without any expected genre conventions opting instead for a major focus on realism. As a result it's no surprise that the most disturbing aspects of the picture are the real life sequences and not the special effects laden moments in the bed room. Brain scans and medical examinations, people with heart conditions - these are the moments which I've always thought were the most uncomfortable. The gruesomeness seen during Regan's slow metamorphosis was often just too much ... well, like a horror film. The big climax is still iconic of course, but the restraint during the build up is what makes the ending all effective. Even the signature tune by Mike Oldfield is barely featured, like everything else it's saved up for particular moments.

It's a film which focuses on the people and tries to build a plot around how this all might be dealt with in real life. Despite Father Merrin's eponymous role, he's introduced simply as an archaeologist. It's far less spiritual than you'd expect, even with all the eerie moments of foreshadowing that appear in the prologue. Even Father Karras isn't shown working the altar, instead he keeps to a day job offering counselling. It builds on the characters instead of relying on spooky shocks. The movie production plot and the divorce drama could be seen as drawing out things too far in the first act, but these layers of the mundane all add to the film. It's a big counter point to all the foul language and violence that is to come. It's almost as if they planned all of this out in advance, like a real movie.

The same kind of forethought cannot be found in the 1977 follow up... So to get this out of the way, The Exorcist II: The Heretic is bad. Laughably bad. I mean really, worse than you can imagine in the funniest ways. I'm not kidding, this is one of the most unintentionally funny things around, and it's supposed to be a sequel to a horror film. One of the most lauded horror films of all time. But this isn't even in the same genre, never mind the same league. It's mostly just baffling, and frequently laughter inducing.

It's a sequel which, instead of providing any answers about the original story or offering useful context, expansion or background to the characters, it just piles up more questions in every scene. With most of them being 'what?' and 'wait, what?' and also 'wait ...what did they say?' But mostly 'whuh?' As I've said, Blatty and Friedkin put a lot of effort in the first film. They also made sure to avoid verbally naming the demon involved, even though it's the name of the mythological character which Father Merrin sees carved into the statue and the small artefact in the opening scenes. With good reason -- it sounds ridiculous. This is just one of things which won't work in the transition from book to screen. Less is more right? So of course in The Heretic, people say it out loud. They say it all the time.

Not content with this, John Boorman also thought it was a good idea to include lots of other absurd dialogue. Not only do characters keep naming the demon 'Pazuzu' but they also keep saying the name of the possession victim who Father Merrin originally saved in Africa. His name is... 'Kokumo'.  You can see why this is a problem, and they say both of these names a lot, sometimes in the same breath. Some of Richard Burton's lines are genuinely amazing to listen to as he reels off this kind of nonsense with the same super stoic expression and gravelly tone. Presumably he was very, very drunk at the time.

The story is perhaps an even more confounding. Regan is now in some kind of high tech therapy clinic after her ordeal. This is in spite of the fact she didn't remember anything about it at the end of the original. Now she even says to strangers than she was possessed by a demon 'but don't worry he's gone now'. Did they just want to erode the sacrifices of the first film for laughs? Soon the exorcism itself seems to have been pointless, and Father Merrin's heroism in the face of evil comes into question by the Vatican. Father Lamont (Burton) is sent to investigate this claim, which is where things stop making sense entirely.

Soon the plot introduces science fiction elements out of nowhere including a therapy centre that looks like a Star Trek location. Then there's the hypnosis machine. A device that allows two people to read each others minds (or memories) by using a little desk lamp and a metronome... some how. In one of the funniest scenes, a nurse reading Regan's memories has a heart attack. Father Lamont jumps into action putting the machine on his own head ... in Regan's place. Somehow this helps the nurse despite the fact Regan was the subject and he has no way of knowing how the thing works. Later they casually throw in ideas about psychic powers as the script goes off the rails even more somehow. They make sure to add a lot of tribal chanting in the score so you feel like you're losing your mind too.

Ennio Morricone's main theme is actually pretty decent, but it certainly doesn't fit the material at all and the whole thing is just a big mess. But it's one that has to be seen to be believed. I don't apologise for the headaches it will cause. Not only thanks to the visual the visuals, from the crazy '70s interiors used in Regan's apartment or the sets used to depict Africa; but almost everything else. There's a whole subplot about locusts that is is pretty incomprehensible as it throws in bizarre dreams, bizarre visual effects sequences and bizarre real life scenes one after another. What's up with the tribal version of James Earl Jones when he's just a scientist later? How do all these mind powers work? And who was the heretic? As Father Lamont said himself - 'It was horrible, utterly horrible... and fascinating'

(BONUS BLATTY - The Ninth Configuration)