Wednesday, August 17, 2011

For We Are Many

What people don’t think about when they think about the Exorcist movies is that there are five of them. They don’t think that the Saw films exceed Exorcist films by only one. They don’t now consider that the new Final Destination movie actually makes that franchise even with the Exorcist series. The reason that no one regards the five Exorcist films as any kind of regular horror franchise must be because the sequels, as an extension of the Friedkin/Blatty original, are so wildly scattershot. William Peter Blatty is the original creator, and he only sanctions two of the four follow-ups: Exorcist III, which he wrote and directed himself, and which, regardless of the studio imposed ending, still bears his unmistakable, oddball Catholic stamp; and Dominion, the 2003 prequel written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr and directed by Paul Schrader. That leaves John Boorman’s batshit Exorcist II: The Heretic and Renny Harlin’s alternate universe prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning (clever!) unaccounted for.
The battle (a tad grand, I know) between those films Blatty approves of and those he doesn’t is at the root of the series’ let’s-try-this-again awkwardness, and apparently constant state of reboot. This is true even if Blatty, specifically as a figure making these movies, outside of his role as the creative force behind Exorcist III, doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that Blatty wrote the original novel and, years later, a sort-of sequel called Legion, which followed Boorman’s film and acted as though – and quite rightly, too – it never existed. So it would follow that Blatty’s own film adaptation of Legion would ignore Exorcist II (and would carry over only supporting characters from the original, unless you count Jason Miller’s Father Karras, which you can, but also can’t, depending on how you feel). What matters is in 2002 or 2003, the studio that hired him looked at Paul Schrader’s Dominion and were, for some bizarre reason, so put off by what they saw that they scrapped the post-production and turned the Wisher-Carr script over to Renny Harlin(!), who rejiggered quite a bit, and ended up making a movie which tested so badly that the studio, Morgan Creek, gave Schrader a little money to finish Dominion, and then said “Fuck it, we’ll just release both.” Which is sort of admirable.

Now, clearly, none of these films would have been made if The Exorcist, the original one, hadn't been such a hit, so the desire for financial gain was the catalyst. So take that, corporations, I'm on to you. But beyond that, the artistic drive to make these sequels -- and I think it's fair to say there was more artistic drive behind most of these sequels than any of the Saw or Final Destination films -- seems to be based entirely on a misunderstanding of Blatty and Friedkin's film. Let's kick things off with some of John Boorman's comments about Exorcist II: The Heretic, made several post-mortem years later in this interview:

The film that I made, I saw as a kind of riposte to the ugliness and darkness of The Exorcist – I wanted a film about journeys that was positive, about good, essentially. And I think that audiences, in hindsight, were right. I denied them what they wanted and they were pissed off about it – quite rightly, I knew I wasn't giving them what they wanted and it was a really foolish choice. The film itself, I think, is an interesting one – there's some good work in it – but when they came to me with it I told John Calley, who was running Warner Bros. then, that I didn't want it. "Look," I said, "I have daughters, I don't want to make a film about torturing a child," which is how I saw the original film. But then I read a three-page treatment for a sequel written by a man named William Goodhart and I was really intrigued by it because it was about goodness. I saw it then as a chance to film a riposte to the first picture.

To begin with, to say that The Exorcist is a film about torturing a child...fuck off. Deliverance is a film about torturing Ned Beatty. How does that feel, John Boorman? Not so good, probably. But I guess because Boorman doesn't have any Ned Beattys, he can't really feel it as intensely.
Second, and more importantly, is his implication that The Exorcist somehow isn't about positivity or goodness. Perhaps he's forgotten the ending, but Damien Karras goads the demon into leaving Regan, the young girl, and possessing him, Karras, at which point Karras sacrifices himself by jumping out a window, removing the demonic threat from the girl, and from the house. This is good. This is positive, if you understand that defeating a demon at the expense of the life of a good man is a victory, which Karras clearly believed it was. And so did Blatty, so much so that his fear that the victory inherent in Karras's sacrifice would be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just plain missed, that he would eventually recut the film, add scenes that Friedkin has taken out, for the "producer's cut" that came out in 2000. I did, and still do, believe that this was a mistake, because this version of The Exorcist simply doesn't work. But apparently Blatty was right to have these misgivings, because on the DVD commentary for Dominion, Schrader says that...well first he says that the conceit of Dominion, as devised by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, that the possessed character would be an ill person who got better while the world around him went mad, was ingenious, but a poor engine for a horror film. All this does is prove that Schrader has a depressingly narrow view of what horror can be, but never mind. What he says that's more relevant is that he wants his film, which focuses on the crisis of faith of Father Merrin (played originally by Max von Sydow in the first two films, here, and in Renny Harlin's take, by Stellan Skarsgard), to be a journey for the lead character. Presumably this journey is about Merrin for some reason getting over the hump of his crumbling faith to find God anew. Remember that. And as bit of an ancillary example, to just give some evidence that Blatty's fears were not for nothing, I'll note that Edgar Wright, in one of the DVD extras for Hot Fuzz, describes Karras's death in the original film as Regan "compelling" Karras through the window. So, Karras sacrificed nothing, and was instead murdered. This is exactly the idea that Blatty didn't want people to carry away from the film.
This sort of thing makes me wonder if the whole world hasn’t gone mad. Schrader seems to believe that the journey in Dominion – and I like his film – isn’t simply a retelling of the one in The Exorcist. In other words, Karras/Merrin loses his faith and only regains it when confronted by a cosmic evil. Oh, excuse, Karras/Merrin/and also Lamont from Exorcist II loses his faith and only etc. Every single Exorcist film revolves around a crisis of faith (or never having it and then finding it, as it’s unclear if Lt. Kinderman in Exorcist III ever believed, prior to that film’s action) that is resolved by facing off against demonic forces, yet Boorman and Schrader act like they just invented bread. This is Blatty’s whole thing – well, obviously not just his, but his own devout Catholicism has been expressed through stories that employ some variation of this idea. See also The Ninth Configuration, novel and film, in which skepticism is confronted not with an ultimate evil, but with an ultimate good. So the idea that Boorman’s film is a “riposte” is simply inane – his film is, at best, a restating.

And anyway, at least Schrader had the decency to make a good film. Boorman's is ridiculous, with a brief nice moment here and there, and a cast that seems gathered together to prove that if Friedkin could get Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn and Lee J. Cobb, then he could get Von Sydow and Louise Fletcher (more or less fresh off her Oscar win) and Richard Burton and James Earl Jones! Blatty talks about seeing Exorcist II and laughing from the beginning, though for me the journey from "This is just stupid" to actually laughing was a bit longer. I didn't find anything really hilarious in Boorman's film until Linda Blair, here about eighteen years old, starts to be sort of (but not really?) possessed again, and she makes just the cutest face:

Look! She's like a little bunny rabbit making its angry face!

So that movie didn't work, though it set the template followed by all subsequent films, save Blatty's own, in that it focuses on, or locates its secrets thereabouts, Father Merrin's life in Africa prior to the events of The Exorcist. Merrin isn't even mentioned in Blatty's Exorcist III, and my understanding is that even Jason Miller's presence in that film was enforced by the studio. Butchered ending notwithstanding, Exorcist III is a terrific film, strange and funny and genuinely frightening -- that long hallway scene with the nurse is a classic -- as well as ultimately moving, though not as hopeful as Legion, Blatty's novel (which he himself was planning to diverge from, anyway), with a strong and idiosyncratic cast headed up by George C. Scott, who reportedly loved what Blatty was going for. It really is the only sequel that counts for me, and I think it's the series' bizarre, jumbled, see-what-sticks nature that allows for that kind of disconnect from all the other films.

The backstory behind the two prequels, recounted earlier, is really sort of amazing. I've heard that Stellan Skarsgard had some reservations about repeating the role he'd just completed for Schrader under another director after Schrader was fired, but Schrader urged him to do it because what other actor would have the same story to tell? Who else has played an entire role for a basically finished film, only to be told that movie isn't cutting it, here's a new director and a reworked script, now go do it again? This would all be even more interesting if Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning had anything at all to recommend it. Harlin is sort of a punchline, but I'll freely admit that he's made some fun trash. The problem here is, nobody wanted his movie to be trash, exactly. They wanted it to be commercial, but this is The Exorcist we're talking about here, so it had to be serious. Well, apparently when Harlin goes serious, he also goes hopelessly dull. There's nothing that's even absurd enough to really justify watching it. Actually, no, there is the bit at the end when the possessed woman (Izabella Scorupco) is running through a tunnel at a stationary Skarsgard, windmilling her arms in a way that is I guess supposed to ward of Catholicism, but then just as she's about to get to Skarsgard, Catholicism punches her in the face. Killing her, I hasten to add. This would count as a botched exorcism in my view, but it ended up getting Merrin the gig in Georgetown, so I guess we all have different standards.

What's really strange is watching the Harlin and Schrader films back-to-back, because it's pretty hard to imagine what Morgan Creek saw in the Schrader film that so put them off (or that so convinced Schrader that he was somehow not making a horror film). It's well-made, just on a basic competency level, which Harlin's film can't always boast, but it's also suspenseful, eerie, mysterious, it has violence and gore, which is the sort of thing you'd imagine, not having seen either film, Morgan Creek wanted Harlin to cram back into the story, and a performance by Skarsgard that is real and moving, and actually acting. In the Harlin version, he clearly does not give a shit. The novelty that Schrader supposedly convinced him would be enough to carry him through turned out to be not so powerful, and he just wants to get through this ridiculousness. In the Schrader film, though, he cares.
And even if all these sequels are just weaker versions of what The Godfather Part II did, which was to underline all the important stuff from the first movie, Dominion approaches the ideas introduced in The Exorcist differently. Here, the demon (played by Billy Crawford) doesn't present itself as some ragged and wounded, disease-ridden creature, but as something beautiful and androgynous -- in other words, not so much Satanic as Luciferian ("I am perfection," it says at one point). There is a real Biblical, and Miltonian, power to this that could have perhaps been exploited more completely, but is certainly better and more interesting than we've gotten elsewhere. In Exorcist II, the Catholicism takes a backseat to some moronic science fiction contraption, and in the Exorcist: The Beginning, it's a plot point. But in the other three, the Friedkin, Blatty and Schrader films, the horror and the struggle with religious faith and ritual are inseparable. The suffering -- the "torture of a child" -- is part of it, the hell and nightmares, the sacrifice and triumph, are all part of it.

This is why only three of the films succeed; well, that, and because the exorcism subgenre is, as I've said before, extremely narrow, and when you perfect it right out of the gate, as Friedkin and Blatty did in 1973, the only thing that will allow a new film to stand on its own is style, intelligence, and craft. Three out of five isn't bad, I suppose.

Seriously, though, John Boorman, you're a good director, but come on, man.


Patricia Perry said...

Of all the "Exorcist" sequels, I've only seen the Boorman film, and even though I was only 17 at the time, I knew it was a mess.

The only thing I remember from it now is that sequence where Linda Blair is tap-dancing in the school musical while at the same time Richard Burton is getting stoned (as in being hit with stones, not sucking on a doobie) in some desert country I can't recall. And then for some strange reason, Linda starts wincing in pain in the middle of the tap dance as if she can feel the stones that are hitting Burton. I always thought that scene would work better if Richard Burton started tap-dancing in Afghanistan or wherever the hell he was.

This post definitely makes me want to see Exorcist III.

bill r. said...

They absolutely should have made Richard Burton tapdance. He'd windmill his arms around and be all "Whoa!!" and then all the natives would applaud at the end. I don't know how they could have missed that idea. It was staring them right in the face.

And yes, you should absolutely see EXORCIST III. Hugely underrated in my opinion, although it has developed a pretty healthy cult following over the years.

Lights in the Dusk said...

I have to compliment you on a really compelling look at this series of films.

Although I can't agree with your appraisal of Schrader's movie, which was fittingly described on another film-site as "Culturally insensitive, xenophobic, pretentious and worst of all shoddily made", I do agree 100% with your assessment of Blatty's Exorcist III.

I remember seeing the first part of it on video as a kid and having to turn it off at the moment where the unseen person in the confessional starts talking about cutting off heads in the most disturbing voice I'd ever heard. Later I saw the whole thing on TV and found it utterly mesmerising. As you say here, "a terrific film, strange and funny and genuinely frightening"

I finally caught Boorman's Exorcist II a couple of years ago and was hoping to discover a lost masterpiece in need of reassessment; however, it was as dreadful as I'd been led to believe. Not quite the "so bad it's good" experience that some people like to claim; just a lumbering, pompous and generally very boring film.

lrobhubbard said...

Someone recently did a fan recut of EXORCIST III, LEGION, to hew it closer to Blatty's intent, removing Nichol Williamson, who was added, along with other footage to make it 'more like an EXORCIST film'.

Which is the thorn in all of the sides of the various sequels... Boorman's film has some good ideas and visuals - the main problem with the film is that, as an 'EXORCIST film', it's completely ridiculous. Take that onus off of it, and (at least for me) it's a fairly interesting ride.

The ideas of the original film unfortunately get lost in all of the shock value and special effects and it seems that very few can get past that.

bill r. said...

Lights - Thank you, sir. And yes, there is much that is genuinely chilling in EXORCIST III, more *actually* disturbing than just about anything in the vast majority of horror films that have followed.


I can't agree with your appraisal of Schrader's movie, which was fittingly described on another film-site as "Culturally insensitive, xenophobic, pretentious and worst of all shoddily made"...

Culturally insensitive and xenophobic towards whom? The British?

bill r. said...

L. Rob - That's the interesting thing about Blatty's intentions for EXORCIST III, aka LEGION -- as you know, there would have been no exorcism at all, so it would have been like no other horror sequel I can think of. I really doubt that the footage is actually lost forever, but I also doubt anyone is digging very hard. I would love to see the film Blatty wanted to make. Even so, he took the reigns and added what the studio wanted himself, and I think he did a good job. The enforced ending isn't actually bad, thank God, and is, in my opinion, pretty good. Just not what it should have been.

ALso, by the way, I think that's really a testament to what a strange and terrific cast Blatty put together. When the studio demanded a certain change, and a new character to make things more accessible and commercial, who does Blatty cast? Nicol Williamson! That's awesome!

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I'm with you on The Exorcist III. It's not a great film, or even consistently competent, but it is genuinely goddamn scary--as any horror film should be--and just so weird and mesmerizing. Whatever Blatty's strengths and weaknesses as a director, he picked up on and appropriated one of the under-appreciated aspects of Friedkin's film, which was all the strange details and unnerving asides--what I call the "creepshow factor"--which are just as effective as the all the notorious head-spinning and vomit. There's some really effective production design going on Blatty's film that sticks with me to this day: little choices in sound design, lighting, costume, set decoration. The whole movie has a undeniably off-kilter aura that provides a wonderful, acidic contrast with its Catholic seriousness.

Also: "Gracious me! Was I raving?"