Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


The riddle of the locust is that the locust is strong, but steel is stronger, so says (I wish) African locust shaman James Earle Jones in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), and it is my unofficial recommendation for this weekend, depending on your state of pan-dimensional inebriation and yen for Italian-style nightmare logic. Mine is strong, and the riddle of steel asked by Jones in Conan, is it turns out answered a mere six years earlier. Such doth time melt in the hand of the shaman in the locust helmet.

But before getting involved, know this: Richard Burton is the heretic of the title. It's another one of his priest roles! The towering actor and booze-fume djinn was once, twice, three times a priest in film (not even counting his stint as the pedophile-shielding Bishop of Canterbury in Beckett). A weird thing for a drunkard A-list actor to be cast as, a priest, since nine times out of ten priests are depicted in film as boring old fogeys pooh-poohing, browbeating, boring, and benumbing everyone in earshot. Then again, Burton hungover is just like that: surly, sullen, cranky, sanctimonious, trading on his collar to excuse his rudeness, hiding his forgetfulness of lines and blocking via sweaty reticence. 

In short, Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) is a mess. 

He will make you wonder once more the age-young question: can a panicky Welsh alcoholic towerer touch a demon Tinker Belle locust wing and fly fly fly to Africa or/and into the arms of a demonic, sexy Linda Blair, believably? Or if not, will there be at least some camp? 

Not even. You need to applaud like hell to bring this absinthe green fairy back to life, and even then, all he does is crawl woozily along, wings soggy from being dragged through the highball glass condensation rings, Don's "vicious circles." 

And yet... fall approaches and doomsday December, and the bleakness of each SAG member gone to ember turns one's heart to demon mentors, and as it's on the Netflix streaming, why not give Exorcist: the Heretic (1977) another go? Boorman's movies are complicated attempts to be genuinely mythic and Jungian-masculine archetypal. Even the worst of his weird wonders are worth giving a second, third, even a sixth chance to. (PS - I finally like Zardoz after only 10 tries!)

Me, I tried myself to watch Heretic only once, years ago, but never got past that first mind-boggling stretch wherein Burton first watches Louise Fletcher hypnotize Regan so she can go back in time to the events in her bedroom during the climax of the last film (he 'needs' to find out how Father Karras died); then Regan hypnotizes Fletcher (while still hypnotized herself) so she can join her there, in the past, then Fletcher--in real time--starts gasping in pain, because Pazuzu is clawing at her beating heart, in the past. So Burton tells Regan (still under the influence, mind you) to hypnotize him so he can go back and rescue Fletcher, as if pulling some Dreamscape/Inception-style invasion is as easy as wearing a biorhythm feedback headband and staring into a flashing light for two seconds. As Fletcher says, "slow your tone!"

Back in time, meanwhile, back in the original film's time (1973), Regan's Pazuzu devil make-up is being worn by a different actress, who's massaging Fletcher's naked heart. As Fletcher gasps and chokes and 'arghs'... over and over and over... Pazuzu/Regan stares at the newly arrived Burton with a lewd obscene grin, wanting him to draw a breast squeezing parallel. Burton watches the scene from across the table, horrified, staring into Pazuzu's evil licentious eyes

Minute-after-minute passes....

Fletcher begs Burton to do something, anything.... the massaging continues. Pazuzu/Regan, massaging Fletcher's exposed heart, stares lewdly at him, squeezing her heart as if fondling her breast, bidding him with her eyes to make it a macabre trans-dimensional threesome.

Finally, after the moment plays on so long you think the editor must have fallen asleep, Burton croaks "in God's name," with nary a shred of holy conviction, and that's the end - Pazuzu fades away.

In God's name indeed.

I, like so many before me with some idea of how hypnotism and holy powder--I mean power--actually works, and slowing of tones, stopped watching then and there. Regan, turn it off! Turn it off!

Blair and Burton meet at the Natural History Museum, perhaps to blur the line between
its dioramas and the film's later unconvincing (but all the more interesting for it) matte work
But last night I held on all the way, maybe because since that first disastrous attempt I've seen a lot of 70s Italian horror films and fallen under the demonic sway of ace composer Ennio Morricone. I didn't even know he scored Heretic until his unique Italian soap opera on acid creepiness started around midway through the picture, almost as a reward for my patience. Maybe it's just because he's so affiliated with 70s Italian horror, but Morricone's score triggers a weird glaze of surrealism and tolerance, allowing us to see what some critics might dub 'stupidity' as instead dream logic. With Morricone's help perhaps one day y'all can learn to experience Heretic as I just did, not as an official sequel to the original Exorcist but as an Italian rip-off. And on that level, it's an instant faux classic. Just pretend all the lines are dubbed, and that you're tripping with Richard Pryor (1) at a New York City grindhouse. The bliss will follow.

There's one Italian Exorcist knock-off in particular I'm thinking of, for it too mixes ESP, astral travel, mysterious shamans, and North African scenery. Lucio Fulci's oddly titled 1982 film Manhattan Baby (2) involves a mysterious amulet given by a mysterious figure to a young tourist girl named Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) visiting Egypt with her parents, right around the same time her papa (Italian genre favorite Christopher Connelly) finds a mysterious secret panel in an old tomb that takes him face to face with a similar jewel embedded in a wall - which zaps him in the eyes. Susie takes it home to their posh Manhattan apartment and things begin to happen. Evil things. Back in NYC, she and her brother (blonde moppet mainstay Giovanni Frezza) are soon 'voyaging' somewhere that looks like Ancient Egypt, coming back with weird Anubis figurines and tracking sand all over their room. Meanwhile, people in NYC  who help the parents find answers wind up dead via animal attacks or mysterious elevator accidents. In short, Baby fills in the gaps left in the original Exorcist's parallel stories, The Omen, and of course Ride with the Devil, and Rosemary's Baby (the arcane knowledge taxidermist is named Adrian Mercato). It addresses the issues that Heretic never even mentions, namely why/how Father Merrin's archeological dig in Iraq is responsible for Regan's possession. Is there a dimensional doorway involved between Iraq and Washington, as there is here between Manhattan and Egypt thanks to this same mysterious gem? (see Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #3, 2007 - The Exorcist in Iraq).

On thing that's especially cool is the unspoken generation gap: the kids don't bother to tell their parents anything, and the parents never ask - the kids spend the bulk of their time with their au pair (Cynzia du Ponti). It's both frustrating and hilarious that the Egyptologist dad never once notices the amulet he's been searching for all his life, the twin to the one that blinded him, is right there around his daughter's neck. It's an ironic comment on paying attention to what's right in front of you and a reminder that in the 70s kids roamed free like wild animals. The parents do their thing--bridge, wife-swapping, cocktails, golf--and the kids do theirs--traversing ghostly doorway to an Egyptian temple, snoop murdering and agog staring--and everyone minds their own business. Except the birds. Even stuffed with sawdust, the birds can attack. In Fulci-ville, not one eyeball is safe.

Fabio Frizzi's music has a great habit of mimicking the screams and other sounds in the film so you can't easily tell which is which (a Fulci tradition) and I like especially the huge fuzzy lack of line between what's intentional and what's accidental. When du Ponti screaming alternated with shots of a cobra slithering around on an indoor floor, is she seeing the cobra, is it in some alternate dimension, is it menacing the kids, waiting on the other side of the locked door she's trying get into (during a weird game of hide and seek with the kids) or none of the above? And when mom Laura Lenzi walks into the kids' room to find her missing pet douchebag from work, is there really a sandy desert on the floor, was it an ariel shot of the desert merged with the carpet, just well-done sand and is Lenzi really touching it and in which dimension?

If these questions were to be answered, I'd love Manhattan Baby slightly less. I can't even remember how it ends and I saw it only hours ago, and that's not a dis. Either way, it's not gratuitous, is more or less okay for children aside from the gory attacks. It zips along merrily yet will help you sleep and make Heretic seem like Citizen Kane in comparison.

One of the many saving Heretic graces: James Earle Jones as a Dr. Benway-esque African etymologist dealing with locust plagues (top and below), a man who is simultaneously both a trippy locust-shaman and a sober scientist working on ways to stop the swarms that regularly wipe out crops all across his native continent.  I kept hoping he'd give Burton a flask of yellow bug powder so he could go around knocking on doors shouting "Exterminator!" and zapping Pazuzu's locust buddies even as his priestly collar turns into a black locust with a patch of white on its forehead, calling him "Dick" in a gravelly anus voice. But you can't have everything. At least it's easier to believe Jones is a multi-dimensional locust shaman than it is to believe Burton's a priest or that anyone in this film is ever really in Africa instead of just looking around a lot of miniatures and mattes. I like that aspect too, though. If you've ever had a fever or done psychedelics or read any Phillip K. Dick then you know that simultaneous multi-dimensional existence is doable, and the world does look like terrarium miniatures, and for awhile Jones makes it seem feasible. The way he effortlessly grasps Burton's lost, mangy situation on both fronts at the same time is pretty tripped out, and the highlight of the film.

The problem with Heretic is... and I hate to say this because I'm a huge huge fan of his drinking (and sometimes his acting), the acting of Richard Burton. He must be in the throes of serious alcoholism, unable to see straight in order to read cue cards, otherwise there's no reason he'd be so silent and sullen, so willing to waste time hoping he seems important enough his pauses come off as pregnant. Better he should be eating through the scenery like a wing-touched locust. Half the time he just ignores or doesn't answer direct questions posed by everyone from Regan to train conductors, like he's sulking because director Boorman promised him a drink that morning and he's still waiting. As the hours fritter by, his shakes commence. We can measure the time in his wild eyes, feel him feeling locusts under his skin. Or to paraphrase a reverend he played in Night of the Iguana, "That's when the spook moves in." Burton at least got some opiate tea in that film, but he's pretty cut off in Heretic, and as the shakes come he tries to pass them off as holy madness, seizing his one chance at a diegetic libation by greedily gulping down a proffered goblet of sacramental wine, which he only gets after he's climbed atop the holy cliff in Africa during some sacred locust-defying ritual. But as any alcoholic knows, one mere slam of wine when suffering booze withdrawal is only allaying the shakes by a half hour, tops. Lucky for Burton, he gets stoned (literally) by the locals before heading back home down the cliff (tunconsciousness = sweet solace). Later he starts abusing Blair, feebly shoving her against a wall over and over in a futile attempt to kill her --death by feeble shoving! It's one of the most embarrassing displays of Satanic possession in cinema. Finally he succumbs to delirium tremens, and "locusts" start swarming all around him. Richard, Richard... Richard... there are no locusts, and no bats swooping down on rats poking their way out of walls. Why couldn't you have stopped at a liquor store, Dick? Dick be not proud.

You got money... not like poor Don Birnim.

You can even trace the progress of his disease over the course of the film, which functions as a fine gauge of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, as well as holy 'stations' since booze withdrawal is not unlike a luxurious crucifixion.

 The 7 Stations of a Dry Burton
Station 1: Early morning Hangover
(coasting on fumes)
Station 2: Mounting dread (preliminary withdrawal)
Station 3:
Panic (shakes)
Station 4:
Brief Reprieve (sacrament)

Station 5: 
locust swarm (delirium tremens)

Station 6
surrender (crack-up) /seduced by a girl under 20
(see also Sue Lyon)

Station 8
Psych-ward (detox)
Terrible acting by Burton aside, all the wonky ESP / New York City skyscraper / Natural History Museum / locust management / possession / end of the world interlocking vibes are fun. If you can stick out the whole first half as it dithers around, eventually a real movie kicks in. Burton is determined to drag Regan back to Washington to face her old bedroom. The devil wants that too, and sends outburst of crazy weather and freak accidents in the path of Regan's annoying psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) as she lumbers after them to stop this nonsense. For awhile it seems like the apocalypse is coming for the whole world as one obstacle after another materializes out of the ether to stop Fletcher: the plane almost crashes; she's stuck in traffic; the taxi crashes; her assistant is possessed. For awhile it seems like all of Washington DC is melting and time is standing still in a ground zero of Satanic panic. Whoa! Things finally become so weird all the slogging nonsense of the first hour and a half pays off and a real apocalypse vibe comes along. Time stands still on a giant indoor set meant to represent the cul-de-sac in front of Regan's old house (which as we know was originally a brownstone that looked nothing like this); locusts swarm and cars crash and her house burns down, yet no next door neighbor even stirs til it's all over. The scene of them all coming back after it's all over and the night seems unnaturally still and quiet is worthy of Ed Wood or Edgar G. Ulmer!

So forget about logic. Forget about comparing the sequel to the original, just appreciate the dark, fuzzy, muted cinematography of William Fraker (Rosemary's Baby), turn up the Morricone and pretend it's Fulci's wing that's touching you instead of Boorman's. I don't know about you, but it took me forever to love Zardoz too. And lastly, look at the shots below and see if you can guess, which ones are from Fulci's Manhattan Baby and which from Exorcist 2. The answer... may surprise you!

Answers:Heretic - 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 13  / Manhattan- 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11


1. "White man take acid. White man take acid and goes see the Exorcist" -SNL season 1 monologue
2. It should have been called Parsley'sThyme's or Sage's Baby to not confuse us, though it would anyway since Rosemary's Baby was set in Manhattan as well


  1. Personally I adored Exorcist II. You're right in saying that there's no point in trying to make sense of it. Just sit back and enjoy the weidness.

  2. jervaise brooke hamster05 July, 2013

    The power of Linda Blair compels me to rip all her clothes off and perform literally every concievable and possible sex-act in the known universe on that amazing little lust-pot (as the bird was in 1977 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...