Evil Dead (2013)

Director: Fede Alvarez

Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Oh, not this old argument again! Just like with 1987’s “Evil Dead 2,” we’ve got yet another instance of an “Evil Dead” movie which can either be looked at as a remake/reboot, or as a sequel, or both. This one’s just a little bit different. While “Evil Dead 2″ created a controversy because its first six minutes are little more than a recap “The Evil Dead” in re-shot, slightly altered scenes, 2013’s “Evil Dead” creates an entirely new set of characters who stumble upon familiar territory. That would seem to point the way towards a remake, but as the great Lee Corso is so fond of saying: “Not so fast, my friend!” There are so many visual callbacks to both “The Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2″ within this one that it implies a more intimate connection with the trilogy that put Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi (credited as producers on this one) on the map.

“Evil Dead” gets off to a lackluster beginning. We’re treated first to a prologue, where a possessed girl is taken into the cellar of that cabin we know so well and burned like the “witches” of Salem. Somehow, this is supposed to save her soul. What of those who are committing the deed, her father among them? …Never mind. Theological arguments make me tired. Truthfully, these first five minutes should never have made it to the final cut of the film, nor any of the subsequent references to it. I’ve seen this movie two times now, and I think any future viewings will involve skipping past this part to the other 86 minutes, the portion of the film that (for the most part) is worthy of your time.

Heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) is in for the intervention from hell. In the latest of many attempts to get her to kick the habit cold turkey, Mia has been brought into the woods by three of her friends: Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci). Joining them this time is Natalie’s boyfriend, Mia’s absentee brother David. He’s in hot water with the group for leaving Mia to care for their institutionalized mother, and for failing to visit while she was still alive. The first time we see Mia, she’s sitting on the hood of a 1972 Oldsmobile that looks to have seen some (medieval) battles in its time, and she’s wearing a Michigan State sweatshirt like the one worn by Linda in “The Evil Dead.” Mia’s not the only one wearing clothes that are familiar to this series. Eric wears a plaid shirt like the one worn by Scotty, and David wears the blue shirt that Ash wore until it was torn to shreds. Topping it all off, David presents his sister with a necklace virtually identical to the one Ash gave to Linda.

Once the Deadite action gets going, it does not relent. “The Evil Dead” may have been recognized for its level of gore, but since the 2013 version was in possession (no pun intended) of a much larger budget… $17 million, to be exact… we could be sure it wasn’t going to be faced with the same limitations. In that respect, it wasn’t. All five friends are put through hell. They are puked on, shot with a nail gun, “kissed,” stabbed, sliced, burned, bludgeoned, and fooled into hacking off their own limbs by the possessed. Eric, who is the one that stupidly recites the passages which bring forth the evil, is also the one who is put through the most physical trauma. You’d think he’d have realized that any book that’s been covered in both a trash bag and barbed wire wasn’t meant to be opened, much less read aloud. I mean, my god, there are even warnings written by someone on each of the crucial pages that tell you NOT TO READ IT. He welcomes death by the time it finally comes to him. Mia spends the majority of the movie as the one who is possessed first and then locked in the cellar. With all that’s going on, there’s also a bait-and-switch in the final 20 minutes that fools you into thinking you know who the final survivor is meant to be. Whether or not it’s a clever move is entirely up to you (I would say it is). Though it may not be the most brutal movie I’ve ever watched, the fact that the skies actually open up and rain blood could technically qualify this as the bloodiest of them all.

If, once the movie is over, you’ve found that you enjoyed it but still feel like something is missing, then don’t hit the STOP button quite yet. In an era where post-credit scenes have become the norm, “Evil Dead” offers one up that both caters to fans and hints at this movie’s place in the series’ lineage. While this is likely to be the last film in the franchise for the foreseeable future (even though discussion of another entry keeps coming up), the answer to the riddle seems to be that 2013’s “Evil Dead” is both its own entity and a continuation of the original timeline. Calling it “Evil Dead 4″ would have been a smidge risky, I suppose, given the 20+ year gap since the release of “Army of Darkness.” Opting for even more hardcore horror than the original, it features none of the humor which made “Evil Dead 2″ and especially “Army of Darkness” so well-loved. It’s also a very dark movie, in that the color scheme is faded and gloomy. As a result, “Evil Dead,” while not one of the worst horror remakes or even a bad horror movie in general, is still a step down from the original. Long story short, Bruce Campbell is still the champ. Hail to the king, baby!

Army of Darkness (1992)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz

There are many periods in history which would be interesting to go back in time and visit. It would be perversely amusing to see how much the times have changed between then and now. I just wouldn’t want to become a permanent fixture of any bygone era. The early 14th century would not be high on my list of temporal vacation spots, especially not a 14th century populated by soul-swallowing demons.

Ash (Bruce Campbell) is stuck in 1300 AD England, though not by choice. At the end of “Evil Dead II,” he’d helped to open a rift in time that was meant to banish the evil that had been perverting the woods surrounding that Tennessee cabin he had traveled to with girlfriend Linda (re-cast once again, this time with Bridget Fonda in a non-speaking cameo). Unfortunately, he got sucked in with everything else that was meant to go. Presumed to be in league with Henry the Red, he is being led by Lord Arthur’s men back to the castle, where they mean to throw him into “the pit.” Once thrown inside, Ash fights off a Deadite (what they called the “Evil Dead” demons in that century), and kills another in full view of everyone once he has climbed back up out of the pit. Ash demands the release of Henry and his men, much to the chagrin of Arthur. Ash demonstrates his superiority with the technology he’s brought with him from our time: a chainsaw and a shotgun, a.k.a. his “boomstick”!

The movie’s main plot, the titular contest between the forces of good and the “army of darkness” arises when Ash is sent on a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon, or “Book of the Dead.” With it, Arthur’s wise men can send Ash back to the late 20th century. During this time, Ash has developed a relationship with Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), who initially had believed him to be responsible for her brother’s death. She believes, as the wise men do, that Ash is the one prophesied to deliver them from the evil of the Deadites, but Ash only wants to grab the book so he can get home.

“Army of Darkness” is filled to the brim with references to other movies. In a windmill, Ash runs afoul of another evil mirror (as he did in each of the first two “Evil Dead” movies). After he breaks it, several miniature Ashes jump out, subduing him just like in “Gulliver’s Travels.”  One of them enters his mouth, and an evil clone of Ash emerges before being killed, dismembered and buried. When he arrives at the book’s location, Ash misspeaks the magic words which anyone who has seen the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” will recognize instantly, destroying the altar in an “Indiana Jones” sort of way, and restoring his evil clone to life. The clone raises his Army of the Dead, which looks like something out of “Jason and the Argonauts.” Hurriedly, Ash heads back to Arthur’s castle with the book. He knows he’s screwed up, but he’s still unwilling to accept a heroic role until a winged Deadite swoops in like one of the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” and kidnaps Sheila.

“Army of Darkness” neither sinks nor swims by referential humor alone. The sight gags which made “Evil Dead 2″ such a laugh riot are present here as well, but it is now the one-liners which provide the most side-splitting moments. The best of them come in these four scenes: 1) just after Ash climbs out of the pit, 2) in his fight with the possessed “she-bitch,”  3) while he’s trying to decide which of the three Necronomicons before him is the right one, and 4) during the battle with the Army of the Dead. Bruce Campbell is given such terrifically silly, unforgettable dialogue in this movie that “Army of Darkness” ranks right up there with “Ghostbusters” and “Young Frankenstein” as one of the great horror-comedies of all-time.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley, Ted Raimi

It’s a sequel! No, it’s a remake/reboot! No, it’s a parody of the original! Confused? Fans are, too, which is why the debate rages on. “The Evil Dead,” though cheesy enough that some of it could be looked at as unintentionally amusing, was played as a straight, blood-soaked horror movie. Its sequel is exactly the same thing, only better because it embraces the silliness and ramps it up a few notches. Where “The Evil Dead” goes for scares, “Evil Dead 2″ primarily uses sight gags and some other notable in-joke references to elicit a response of uproarious laughter. Still, it’s a movie that remains hard to classify.

The movie begins by essentially doing a quick, six-minute recap of the events of “The Evil Dead,” recasting the actress playing Linda, the girlfriend of Ash (Bruce Campbell) and leaving out their other three friends. They go to the same cabin, he presents her with the same necklace, and find the same tape recorder which, when played, speaks the words to release demonic spirits that take possession of the living. Linda is once again taken, and Ash must once again dismember her corpse, after which the demons come for him just as they did in the final scene of “The Evil Dead.” This is where the fun begins.

Most of the next 30-35 minutes of the movie feature Bruce Campbell as a one-man show. The demonic forces take him, release him when the sun comes up, and then come back for his right hand, which he is forced to cut off with a chainsaw, and then chase around the room with a shotgun. Much of this sequence owes a lot to “The Three Stooges,” of which director Sam Raimi is a huge fan (and the reason why his stunt doubles for “The Evil Dead” had been billed as “Fake Shemps”), before ending up later giving a nod to “Taxi Driver” when Ash connects the chainsaw to the stump on his right arm. This part of the movie is so hilarious, and he does such a great job that I wouldn’t have minded had the entire movie been limited to just Bruce Campbell inside of the cabin. Alas, it was not to be. Eventually, Annie (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the cabin’s previous owner shows up with three other people in tow and carrying with her pages from an ancient book that’s been missing since 1300 AD (the same one Ash burned up in the cabin’s fireplace in the last movie. Huh…).

I understand the need for other characters, as they help bring the film to its intended conclusion (not to mention set up the next sequel). But the ones chosen as Ash’s supporting cast just are too silly for words to do any real justice. Like that’s going to stop me from trying. Firstly, there is the redneck couple, Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (daytime soap opera star Kassie Wesley). They are there mostly to get killed by the evil spirits, but also to serve… through their own ignorance… as a hindrance to Ash and Annie’s attempts to ward off the evil spirits. Annie is the biggest offender, though. I swear, I don’t know if it’s just her or if she’s just playing the character as written, but Sarah Berry’s screams (which are as frequent as they are grating on the nerves) are some of the most over-the-top, fake-sounding screams I’ve ever heard. Sometimes it adds to the humor, but most of the time I just want her to stop. Ted Raimi (the director’s brother) as Annie’s possessed mother, Henrietta, is the only other person in this movie who really contributes to its success.

In choosing a horror/humor blend over straight-up horror, “Evil Dead 2″ is something of an improvement on its predecessor. Bruce Campbell’s Ash also evolves from film to film. But there’s still that confusion over what exactly to call this second chapter. Had there not been that first six minutes of key scenes from the first film re-shot for “Evil Dead 2,” you could definitively consider it a sequel that was being played for laughs, and that would be the end of the discussion. But because that first part of this movie exists, it keeps things rather muddled. In my estimation, it’s definitely a sequel with a more light-hearted tone, but it is also a reboot. That’s the only way to explain Ash returning to the same cabin in the same car with yet another Michigan State sweater-wearing girlfriend named Linda (who we’re actually meant to perceive as the original one). Your best bet is to avoid the headache you’ll receive from too much over-analyzing and just sit back and enjoy the damn thing, and let Bruce Campbell do the rest.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Derich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York

In 1979, high school/college buddies Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell had just $350,000 and several willing friends to work with, but I’ve a hard time imagining any of them having the slightest inclination that this cheap little BYOP (Bring Your Own Props) horror movie would take off the way it did. “The Evil Dead” was not an easy film to piece together, and there were problems along the way. Because nearly the entire movie is set at night, the actors often found themselves freezing during scenes shot outside. Bruce Campbell got hit in the face with a camera at one point, resulting in a few broken teeth, and also injured his leg from a fall while running downhill. The film took a year and a half to complete. But it was all worth it in the end. “The Evil Dead” is now a cult-classic, with more than 30 years worth of fans, and Campbell and Rami are both household names. It all began with a trek to the woods of Morristown, Tennessee (just one hour’s drive from Knoxville, where I live).

Five friends are vacationing in Tennessee. I’m presuming that they are supposed to be from Michigan, since one of them wears a Michigan State sweatshirt (and since Raimi and Campbell themselves hail from Royal Oak, Michigan). Their destination is a cabin which they haven’t yet scoped out, but was cheap enough that they rented it without questioning the reason behind the bargain price. It’s a creepy-looking cabin, although the cellar seems to have several interesting items hidden away. Among them are a tape recorder and a strange-looking, probably very old book. The two are connected, and the tape reveals passages within the book which are said to have the power to give the dead free reign to possess the living. It would seem that our protagonists never heard the story of the curious cat, because they play the rest of the tape. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), sister of Ash (Bruce Campbell), is affected first and locked in the cellar. Shelly (Theresa Tilly) is possessed next and is killed by her boyfriend, Scott (Hal Derich). Ash himself is forced to kill his own possessed girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker). For the last 20-25 minutes of the movie, only Ash remains to try and survive until morning.

At the time (and, really, still to this day), “The Evil Dead” was one of bloodiest… if not THE bloodiest… movies of all-time. It was so bloody that Sam Raimi made the decision to have the demons spit up 2% milk rather than fake blood in some scenes, just to avoid a harsher rating. It wound up being released unrated anyway. Although there are those who would look at this film and regard it as a horror-comedy, this is simply not the case. It is designed as straight horror. Both the story and the frantic camerawork support this. The movie’s most outright horrific moment comes when the forest springs to life and then attacks and rapes Cheryl.

There are several versions of the movie on home video. Depending on what country you live in, that may include a few edits here and there to downplay the violence and gore. In the United States, it is advisable to ignore any version of the film presented in widescreen. That may sound contrary to the usual advice you hear from aficionados, but it’s true. Any “widescreen” version of “The Evil Dead” is merely covering the top and bottom of the picture with black bars, to give the appearance of a theatrical presentation. This is especially problematic whenever there are close-up shots of the actors’ faces (of which there are many). “The Evil Dead” was filmed in 16mm, and thus should always be seen in fullscreen. On Blu-Ray, this isn’t a problem, but on DVD you really had to go hunting to find the right one (the Elite Entertainment release).

Beginning their careers with this horror classic didn’t make Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi stars overnight, but I applaud the effort it took to make this movie happen. Among the cost-cutting props were Raimi’s 1972 Oldsmobile, the tape recorder which belonged to Campbell’s father, and of course the cabin itself which has since burned to the ground, leaving behind only the chimney. Campbell is something of an icon these days, thanks largely to this movie and its sequels. Raimi is a well-respected director, whose most lucrative works are the “Spider-Man” trilogy, the third of which had a budget of $350 million, 1,000 times larger than that of “The Evil Dead.” What can be taken from a movie like “The Evil Dead” is that it just goes to show how much one can accomplish with a small amount of cash, a lot of ingenuity, and a little help from your friends.

Wrong Turn (2003)

Director: Rob Schmidt

Starring: Desmond Harrington, Eliza Dushku, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeremy Sisto

Real slasher film fans didn’t need “Scream” and other “meta” horror movies to tell us there’s a formula to these things. Thanks, Captain Obvious. We’re well aware, and we like them that way. We also don’t need anyone to remind us that the greatest period for the slasher was the late 70’s/early 80’s, although it’s nice whenever we get a throwback every now and again. “Wrong Turn” is made of 1970’s-style horror, in the tradition of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Consider the setting in the mountains of West Virginia, and you can add a nod to the 1972 drama/thriller “Deliverance” (which itself gets a mention in a throwaway line of dialogue).

Aspiring medical student Chris Flynn (Desmond Harrington) is, like the White Rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland,” late for a very important meeting. Not helping him is a chemical spill on the highway which has traffic blocked as far as the eye can see. Rather than sit for hours and miss his appointment, Chris decides the best thing to do is find an alternative route. Stopping at a gas station run by a toothless yokel to use the telephone that probably hasn’t worked in years, Chris find a dirt road on the map, and heads in that direction. His attention taken off the road at a most inopportune moment, Chris runs into another car stopped dead in the middle of the road, a victim of barbed wire that was purposely tied to a tree and left out to destroy the tires of oncoming traffic. Chris’s prized muscle car, a gorgeous Ford Mustang, is totaled, as is the Range Rover. Chris isn’t hurt badly, but he and the five occupants of the Range Rover have bigger problems than broken automobiles ahead of them.

Two of the Range Rover’s passengers are picked off almost immediately, leaving Chris, Jessie (Eliza Duskhu), Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and Scott (Jeremy Sisto). Looking for assistance wherever they may find it, the foursome unsuspectingly stumbles upon a shack with what looks like a car graveyard out in the front yard. It’s a graveyard, all right. Inside, there are further indications that something very wrong is going on and, even after discovering a pile of car keys, barbed wire in a box and human body parts in the freezer, it still takes them until the three occupants of the shack return for them to decide to amscray. Too late, they must take cover and witness the horror of one of their friends being hacked to pieces… and eaten. Waiting until the shack’s owners fall asleep, they try to make a quiet run for it, but they’re discovered at the last instant. Eventually, only Chris and Jessie will be left to fight off their assailants or die trying. Though “Wrong Turn” isn’t big on suspense, it doesn’t waste any time either, and it does keep you guessing until the climax as to which way it’s going to turn out for our heroes.

Of the 31 horror films I’m reviewing this month, “Wrong Turn” is the only one I saw theatrically. Not an especially original film, what it lacks in originality is made up for by its cast, without which this movie would likely be only as attractive as something found on SyFy. Between them, the two leads represent my three favorite TV shows of all-time: Desmond Harrington portrayed Det. Joseph Quinn in “Dexter” from its third season on through the end of the series’ run, while Eliza Dushku had a recurring guest role in both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin-off “Angel” as Faith, the Slayer with a dark side. Jessie has a little bit of that same snarky, tough chick attitude which made Faith so popular. I remember seeing Eliza on one of the late night talk shows to do some early promotion for this movie. She’d been required to do so much screaming for “Wrong Turn” that she could barely speak during the interview. Jeremy Sisto, whose part is sadly much smaller, is also very good. Through much of his scenes, he’s doing a fairly decent Jeff Goldblum impression, even if that wasn’t his intent. Emmanuelle Chriqui (appropriately pronounced “shriek-y”) is not as much fun. Carly whines, complains and acts so completely helpless that you can’t help but wish her to be eliminated next.

Slasher films require a good villain, too. That’s just a fact of life. Generally, you get either a diabolical wisecracker, or a silent and methodical killer. The three killers in “Wrong Turn” have no lines of dialogue, although they do seem to have some form of communication amongst themselves. They’re also referred to as genetic mutations, and its pretty clear as to why, because even Jason Voorhees himself would take one look at these guys and respond to their hideous appearance with revulsion. So, the villains aren’t as effective as they should be (one even laughs hysterically like the village idiot), but that doesn’t mean a slasher film fan won’t enjoy this movie. I can remember thinking, after first seeing this one in June of 2003, that there might be room for a franchise here. I just didn’t think it would actually happen. As of 2014, we’re up to movie #6 in the series, with all of the sequels having been direct-to-video releases. Proof positive that even today some slasher fans are so indiscriminate that they’ll watch anything, good or bad, as long as it’s refreshingly familiar.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, Colm Feore, Mary Beth Hurt, Henry Czerny, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Truth is stranger than fiction. Real-life horror is far scarier than the fantastical bogeymen dreamed up in both literature and film. Yet, even within those tall tales there is a kernel of truth tucked away. You only need look carefully at all the evidence, peeling away the metaphors and outright lies like the inedible skin of an orange to get to the information that’s important. How you go about explaining that which cannot be explained has as much to do with the religion you follow (or don’t follow) as anything. One might see an alien vessel in the sky, where others would see a weather balloon or a B-2 Stealth Bomber. You might swear that there’s a ghost in the room with you, whereas those who don’t believe in such things will tell you that what’s moving things around on your desk is only just a mouse, and that cold chill you’re getting is coming from the air conditioner you forgot to turn off. Some, as in the case of Emily Rose, might see a disturbed girl in need of medical and psychiatric care, where others will see a young woman possessed by demonic forces and in dire need of spiritual care.

Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) has been arrested and will be put on trial for the charge of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a 19-year old college student who believed herself plauged by six distinct demons and had given her consent for Father Moore to perform an (ill-fated) exorcism. The priest’s defense attorney is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an ambitious lawyer whose reasons for taking the case are primarily for career advancement, not the salvation of an innocent man. She doesn’t see this as a winnable case, anyway. Father Moore’s reasons for accepting her are not for himself, but for the sake of telling Emily’s true story to the rest of the world.

Strong arguments are made in favor of each side of the case. Prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) refutes the notion of demonic possession, presenting the court with the idea that Emily was suffering from a combination of epilepsy and psychosis and that the drug Gambutrol, prescribed to her by her doctor, was the answer to what ailed her. Any spiritual remedy would simply be a waste of time that could have been spent bringing her to a hospital. Erin plays the tape Father Moore made which documented the exorcism. On it, Emily is heard producing sounds that would make anyone’s skin crawl, and also speaking in several foreign/ancient languages. Erin pleads with the jury to remember that a conviction can only be justified if reasonable doubt has been eliminated. Being an agnostics whose own beliefs are being strongly tested by this case, she distinguishes between what is fact, and what is improbable yet possible.

A breath of fresh air compared to the usual demonic possession stories, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” does its audience a great service in giving us two perspectives on the same narrative. In almost any other movie of its kind, you would only bear witness to the believers’ point of view, without any room for doubt left in the open. Because all of Emily’s scenes are flashbacks, we can only speculate as to what she was really going through, or what those who were present really saw, as opposed to what they believe they saw, with their own eyes. What’s more, here is a movie that (in more of a courtroom drama than a straight horror flick), tells a competent and reasonable story with characters that seem natural. Even Emily Rose in her most “demonic” state still behaves… more or less like a mentally disturbed person with a broad education might. There’s no pea soup being barfed up, and certainly no head-spinning going on here. Just a man speaking for a girl who can speak no longer.

There are fine performances all around, but really the attraction is Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose. I don’t know whether she drew from personal emotional experiences or whether her performance simply comes as a result of careful research and direction, but Carpenter’s performance is nothing short of chilling. Particularly creepy is knowing that the actress did all of her character’s most physically grueling scenes herself. No CGI or contortionists were required. Best-known for playing foul-mouthed Miami Metro police detective Deborah Morgan in all eight seasons of Showtime’s “Dexter,” Carpenter’s “possessed” Emily Rose remains surprisingly civil-tongued throughout.

So many movies proclaim to be “based on a true story,” when really they’re just saying that to get you to watch. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” actually is based on real events. As you watch the movie, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why aren’t Emily’s parents on trial, too?” In the case of Annelise Michel (on whom Emily’s story is based), who died during an exorcism in 1975 Germany, her parents were in fact brought before a judge the same as her priest. She too was described as being religious and withdrawn by her classmates at school, and her doctor had also put her on anti-seizure medication (Dilantin, which I also take on a daily basis, and Aolept). The outcome of that hearing was more or less as it is presented within the film. Being based on real events separates “Emily Rose” from, say, the “Exorcist” franchise. This one entertains well enough, but it also makes you seriously consider its message, even if you’re not an especially religious person: You don’t have to believe in the supernatural in order to put your faith in your fellow man.

Exorcist 2 The Heretic (1977)

Director: John Boorman

Starring: Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty

Four years after one of the most highly-regarded horror movies ever made, one of the most notorious sequels of all-time was released… or some might say “escaped.” “The Exorcist” had been 1973’s top draw at the box office (and, when accounting for inflation, remains one of Hollywood’s all-time box office draws), so it was inevitable that Warner Bros. would want to cash in on that success with a second film about demons possessing the innocent. At the time, the studio was still free to create whatever story they wanted to without much cause for complaint from either fans or from novelist William Peter Blatty, who was still six years away from publishing his own follow-up, “Legion.” The solution they came up with was to revisit the life of Regan MacNeil. Linda Blair would be returning, as would Kitty Winn (as Regan’s legal guardian, Sharon Spencer) and Max von Sydow (the late Father Lankester Merrin, in flashback form). New additions to the cast this time around included the characters of Father Philip Lamont (veteran actor Richard Burton), Dr. Gene Tuskin (Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher, in a role initially intended for a male actor), and Kukumo (James Earl Jones). Perhaps the best addition, in my opinion, would be composer Ennio Morricone (The previous film had no original score, sampling other works instead).

Sequels that perform well do so generally because they expand upon what came before by offering the audience something new and provocative, while still maintaining a certain familiarity. Those that are not successful are caused to fail by a variety of on-set and/or off-set problems. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” has the unfortunate stigma of being the unsuccessful kind of sequel. There are those who have called it the worst sequel ever made. Does this film deserve to be despised for what it isn’t, or is there more to the tale than simply being unable to step out of the shadow of its predecessor? One of the worst problems a film can be faced with during production is rewrites. “Exorcist II” went through no less than five script revisions. That’s a big no-no. It was also one of the most expensive movies ever produced by Warner Bros. at the time. When you spend a truckload of money on a movie, you’d better make sure you’ve invested in a sure thing. But arrogance and naivety must have been plentiful, or else the impact of “Exorcist II” would have been much different.

The comprehensible (and some incomprehensible) portions of the film go a little something like this: Father Lamont fails in an attempted exorcism of a female “healer,” and is subsequently assigned by the Church to investigate the demise of Father Merrin from four years earlier. Regan MacNeil, from whom Father Merrin is credited with exorcizing the demon Pazuzu (no mention at all is made of the REAL hero, Father Karras, in this film), is staying with Sharon while her mother is out pursuing her acting career (actually, Ellen Burstyn had refused to return). Regan is also seeing Dr. Tuskin at some sort of mental hospital where, if you ask me, Regan seems to be the only person who doesn’t belong there. She’s not crazy, not visibly depressed, nor is she autistic like one such little girl (Dana Plato).

The film is not even ten minutes old before it goes horribly wrong very quickly. What this film should have been about was the argument of science vs. religion (not in an “Inherit the Wind” manner, mind you, but you get the idea). Instead, with the repeated use of some hypnosis-based contraption called the “synchronizer,” it’s more like science-fiction vs. religion. Even that is put to rest quickly when Father Lamont shows an uninhibited willingness to use the synchronizer. The device helps establish two other things: 1) exactly how Father Merrin died & 2) the fact that Pazuzu is still living inside Regan. Wow… Fathers Karras and Merrin died for nothing. How depressing.

After Regan has a truly bizzare dream involving Father Merrin’s observation of an African boy repelling a swarm of locusts, it is learned that Merrin had encountered the demon Pazuzu before, within the mind of the African child. Through another session with the synchronizer, Father Lamont gets Pazuzu to show him where the boy is now. His name is Kukumo and, now fully grown, he resides in Ethiopia. We also find out, as I had personally suspected, that Regan remembers everything that happened in the first movie… despite her mother’s claims to the contrary. The reason why Pazuzu chooses his victims is also made clear. Regan, like the girl Father Lamont couldn’t save, is apparently also a healer. That autistic girl I told you about? Regan gets into her head and helps her to talk for the first time.

When Father Lamont goes to Ethiopia in search of Kukumo, I always laugh when he attempts to explain how he knows how to find the body of a man who died during Kukumo’s exorcism. Instead of lying by saying that Father Merrin told him, he tells them that the demon Pazuzu showed him in a vision. Responding out of fear, the villagers try to stone him to death. Establishing that Lamont and Regan have become psychically linked by the synchronizer, she feels it when he gets hit by the rocks. She is also able to communicate with him while under sedation (i.e. whilst doing a particularly crap job of acting) telepathically to point him to the location of Kukumo.

When Lamont finally reaches Kukumo… *sigh*… I’ve seen this movie a few times, and I’ve never once been able to figure out this scene. First, he meets Kukumo in a cavern where the man is dressed in some sort of tribal costume that resembles a locust. There is a bed of spikes, over which Lamont is expected to cross. He takes one step, impales his foot, falls down and… Suddenly we’re in a science lab where the main subject of study is locusts. Kukumo now wears glasses and a labcoat. What’s real and what’s not?! I… don’t… get it! The only thing I do get is that Kukumo is demonstrating to Lamont the existence of a female “good locust,” a not-so-subtle foreshadowing reference to Regan herself.

Back in the U.S., Regan and Lamont run off with the synchronizer. This session leaves Lamont in a trance until he and Regan arrive at their destination: the MacNeil house in Georgetown. Dr. Tuskin and Sharon attempt to beat them there, but are blocked by several unbelievable and convenient obstacles. The conclusion to “Exorcist II” is as hard to decipher as most any other part of it.

There’s no getting around the fact that “Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a huge mess of a movie. It was such a financial and critical disaster that some reputations and careers, most notably Linda Blair’s, never recovered. Yet I still find myself fascinated with it… as much or more than with the first film. Whether it is personal sympathy for the amount of flack the movie gets, or if perhaps the attraction is the same one feels toward the films of Edward D. Wood Jr., I do have a terrific experience every time I see this movie. Louise Fletcher could not have been given anything more perfect to say when she uttered the film’s closing dialogue: “I understand now, Regan. The world won’t. Not yet.”  It’s been 37 years. We still don’t understand!!!