Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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. As a priest! 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 demon Tinker Belle locust back to life, and even then, all he does is crawl along with soggy wings. 

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) a second try to keep you awake?

Me, I tried myself to watch it 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--is gasping in pain, because Pazuzu is clawing at her beating heart, in the past. So Burton tells Regan (still under the influence, min 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 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 frame, Regan's devil make-up is being worn by a different actress massaging Fletcher's heart while Fletcher gasps and chokes and 'arghs'...

Minute-after-minute passes....

Regan begs Burton to do something, anything.... the massaging continues. Pazuzu/Regan, massaging Fletcher's exposed heart, stares lewdly at him, 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, stopped watching. Regan, turn it off! Turn it off! Slow your tone!

Blair and Burton meet at the Natural History Museum, perhaps to blur the line between
its dioramas and the film's later unconvincing but interesting 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 we can all learn to experience Heretic not as an official sequel to the original Exorcist but as an Italian Exorcist 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.

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 meaninglessly titled Manhattan Baby (1982), which involves a mysterious amulet given to a kid visiting Egypt with his parents and sister, that later opens up a inter-dimensional stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and the family's uptown Manhattan apartment. In short, Baby fills in the gaps left in the original Exorcist's parallel stories that Heretic never 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 amulet? (see Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #3, 2007 - The Exorcist in Iraq).

As Manhattan continues the family returns home from Egypt, but the children get sand all over their upper East Side shared bedroom from their travels back and forth at night through the interdimensional doorway, and their parents get pretty pissed over all the sand in the morning. But what's cool is for once the kids don't bother to tell their parents anything, and the parents never ask, so the Egyptologist dad never notices the amulet he's been searching for all his life is right there around his daughter's neck, right in front of his idiot face. If a mummy jumped out and swallowed him he probably wouldn't deign to act surprised, presuming his kids are pulling a dumb prank, and that's a nice comment on the generation gap as it really was in the 70s, which is how it should be. In the 70s kids roamed free like wild animals, with only one caveat - be close enough by that you can hear your mom call you in for dinner. The parents do their thing--bridge, wife-swapping, cocktails, golf--and the kids do their transdimensional doorway to an Egyptian temple traversing, snoop murdering and agog staring--and everyone minds their own business. Except the birds.

I can't even remember how Baby ends, but at least it will also help you sleep and make Heretic seem like Citizen Kane in comparison. We need that, more than ever.

What saves Heretic is James Earle Jones as etymology's Dr. Benway (top and below), a man who is simultaneously both a trippy locust-shaman and an African etymologist 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. At any rate 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 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)-- 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 when 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 and he's still waiting. As the hours fritter by, his shakes commence. Or as he says as a cooler priest in a cooler movie (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 a mere goblet of sacramental wine atop the holy cliff in Africa. But as any alcoholic knows, one mere slam of wine when suffering booze withdrawal is like throwing a mug of water onto a bonfire. Lucky he gets stoned (literally) by the locals before heading back home to more holy shakes. 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?
You got money... not like poor Don Birnim.

 The 7 Stations of a Dry Burton
Station 1: Early morning Hangover
(still slightly drunk from night before)
Station 2: Existential Panic
(drinks wear off completely)
Station 3: Blind Rage / complete desperation
Station 4: Brief Reprieve (sacrament)

Station 5: locust hallucinations / delirium tremens

Station 6-7: surrender / complete defeat / bad judgment (statutory rape --see also Sue Lyon)
But hey, the terrible acting of Burton aside, the whole wonky ESP / New York City skyscraper / Natural History Museum / locust management / possession / end of the world vibe is fun if you can appreciate the way nature and the weather conspire to try and prevent Regan's annoying psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) from getting to Regan after Karras drags her back to Washington to face her old bedroom. 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. First the plane almost crashes, then she's stuck in traffic; the taxi crashes; her assistant is possessed. For awhile it seems like all of DC is melting and time is standing still in a ground zero of Satanic panic. Whoa! After an hour and a half of nonsense things finally become so weird all that hitherto crap endurance 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 a brownstone that looked nothing like this tract home); as locusts swarm and cars crash and her house burns down, no next door neighbor stirs til it's all over; it's a surreal moment 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. And lastly, look at the shots below and see if you can guess, which ones are from Manhattan Baby and which from Exorcist 2. The answer... may surprise you!



Answers:Heretic - 2, 4, 6  / Manhattan Baby - 1, 3, 5

1. "White man take acid. White man take acid and goes see the Exorcist" -SNL season 1 monologue


  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).


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