Thursday, October 31, 2013

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

It's been a fun Halloween month, but now we must pick up the circus peanut or Jack Chick tract at the top of our treat bag.

SYNOPSIS: The hilariously long-winded title offers a glimpse of what to expect from Paul Schrader's attempt at a Young Father Merrin adventure.  Generally, this follows a similar storyline path as EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, although we get the addition of a homely crippled boy and the subtraction of heaving, lavish gore.  It's been a long month, let's get to...

WHAT WORKED:
Schrader's version forgoes the bloodletting of the Renny Harlin prequel in favor of a way more contemplative and philosophical approach.  Evil in DOMINION is mostly present in the clash of cultures, beginning with the Merrin/Nazi scenes.  Again, these scenes are plenty potent and set the stage for one of the film's major themes.


They're paralleled in the conflicts between native African bros and British military jerkoffs, which has offended some IMDB posters, who don't like British people being compared to Nazis.  But unless you think that Germans have some special deficiency that makes them hyperprone to evil (I would hear your evidence), it's probably best to assume that any people, or any persons or party, could go Nazi-esque until the right circumstances.  


Fucking DOMINION even tells you this, very clearly, in the scenes in which a freaked-out tribesman spears up a school, to prevent "Christian evil" from spreading.


This is a pretty good film on a visual level and Schrader generates some impressive images, with exceptions which we'll get to.  Conceptually, I liked a lot of the more hallucinatory scenes, even if the execution was a little iffy at times.




WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Admittedly, some of the effects look like rush jobs or unfinished work.  We don't get as much hyena flesh-ripping action in this more understated prequel, but what's here looks crummy.  Do you think CGI would more tolerated if its history had gone in reverse?  Like if we started with these hyenas, then eventually got to JURASSIC PARK over a swathe of time, CGI would be less of a dirty word to moviegoers in general?


Granted, the Harlin film is not as heady as this, but I prefer it as a viewing experience.  The problem with DOMINION is not that it's ambitious, it's that it's so low-key and uninvolved with its various ambitious plotlines that it never really draws you in as a viewer.  If I had to pick one scene that represents this whole film, it would be the freshly-possessed kid punching a priest through the air into a statue, all of it filmed in slow-mo with no discernible music.  It's a clearly incredible event that is treated like "Ehh, let's film this and move on to more talking".  I also hate the kid.  Surprise.


This PATRICK/BURIAL GROUND dwarf mashup unfortunately gets a ton of screen time and enough lines to fill an Apocrypha.  It doesn't help when he adopts his coquetteish, sexy form.


And then we're back to ugh effects.  This would have probably been better received under any title other than EXORCIST, since the evil here doesn't really manifest itself in a physical, conventional, EXORCISTy way until the end and then it's like this:


So, my expectations of the two prequels were both wrong.  The Harlin version was mostly acceptable while the Schrader version was too distant and talky to like.  I think both directors would be pleased that no one would be passionate enough about these films to battle over which movie is superior.  Peace through low expectations!  And now it's time for me and you to peace and enjoy our day of candy and the Black Arts.  Happy Halloween!

RATING: 4

SERIES AVERAGE: 5.6

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)

SYNOPSIS: Long before the devil or Pazuzu or whoever settled into Regan MacNeil, he did battle with Lancaster Merrin in Africa, after an outbreak of mysterious mysteries: flocks of crows, hyena attacks, the works.  Could it be related to the Byzantine-era Christian church they're uncovering?  All signs point to yes and it's poisoning relations between the military and the local tribal warriors.  

WHAT WORKED:
Renny Harlin directed this version of the EXORCIST prequel and, whatever else you might say against it, you must admit that it often looks great.  Composition and lighting are generally excellent (those yellows), camera movement is interesting, and effects are effective.  Kind of surprising that a guy who's mostly known for action movies and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 would deliver such a gorgeous film, but the world is full of surprises.


The acting is generally serious and credible, especially if we're talking leads Stellan Skarsgard as young Merrin and Izabella Scorupco as past-haunted doctor Sara.  Sara's a great character for lots of reasons (and a missed opportunity, ultimately) and Scorupco turns in a spirited performance.  Skarsgard is good, too, far better than some of the material warrants, but let's save that bitching for later.

Not that shocking that a movie predicated on nostalgia would include lots of nods to the original EXORCIST, but it's still cool to see touches like Pazuzu (granted, he's in Africa for some reason, but you cannot attack horror movies with too much brain logic)...

Everyone in the EXORCISTverse is so friendly!


This really does boast some intriguing ideas.  It doesn't get to third base with many of them, but one must respect the potential of throwing a bunch of Nazi Germany scenes into an EXORCIST movie.  Relevant William Friedkin quote: "All the social conditions aside, the only thing that explains the Nazi atrocities to me is the demonic possession of an entire nation followed by an apocalyptic exorcism."  EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING was not a suicide pact, so it didn't completely delve into this provocative idea, but the seeds are there and worth seeing.  Likewise, the intimation that Satan (or whoever) is stoking dissension between the white invaders and the black natives is pretty compelling, even if it's mostly just the excuse for gory battle scenes.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Too much of the time, this prequel, set in 1949 (well before THE EXORCIST), feels too modern and too mired in modern horror cliches.  We get jump scares, rapid editing, spooky techno music, and gallons of gore.  The first EXORCIST was outrageous and contained impolite content, but it didn't feel like the slashes and puking were inserted to fill a quota.  That's sometimes the case here, unfortunately, especially in the hilariously overblown opening.  Millions of inverted crosses, brah!  AFFLICTION TAPOUT RRRRGGGH


Most of the non-CGI stuff is pretty well done, but it does occasionally feel cynical, because it doesn't really serve a purpose in terms of the story.  THE EXORCIST made it crystal clear that Satan (or whoever) was wreaking all this physical havoc to make humans lose faith in themselves and God.  In THE BEGINNING, violence and brutality happens for the sake of making makeup fans say, "Wow" or "Whoa".  Plus half of the CGI stuff totally blows (the half that involves swarms of flies that look like swarms of raisins).


That's not the only departure from the EXORCIST's excellence.  In terms of narrative and content, THE BEGINNING feels far less like a horrifying film about spiritual warfare and more like a hybrid of an Indiana Jones adventure and a video game final battle screen.  The last thirty minutes get excruciating, as the mystical or spiritual side of Merrin's battle with evil get pitched in favor of a physical conflict using Catholic weapondry.  +100 HOLY SCARF ATTACK UNLOCKED.  It's laughable to see our antagonist demon getting knocked down the hallway like a battered wife, dodging holy-watered headbutts and Bible thumping.  The final demon/Merrin interactions are mostly disappointing, too, and feel like a dialogue recycle of EXORCIST with all the brains smushed out.  I also didn't buy Merrin's hasty redemption, as he spends most of this movie scowling around as a bitter ex-priest (for no reason we're told), then just suddenly has a total change of faith back to where he started.  Father Merrin, the John Kerry of Catholicism!


But, beyond all the other things I hated, I hated the climax with all the hate that my little heart can produce.


That's a whole lot of negativity, so let's chill a bit and admit that THE BEGINNING could have been far worse.  At its direst moments, it gets bland, but never really becomes objectionably bad.  And it certainly never wallows in error as EXORCIST II did.  I'm curious to see if the Paul Schrader version of this (up next!) will retain BEGINNING's strengths while 86ing its flaws.

RATING: 5

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE EXORCIST III (1990)

SYNOPSIS: Wisely, mostly ignoring the shameful events of EXORCIST II, Part III finds original Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty taking over directorial duties.  Fifteen years after the death of Damien Karras, Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) meet to commiserate with a day at the movies.  Shortly, a spate of brutal killings occupy Kinderman's attention, as they share attributes with the famous Gemini murders.  His investigations lead him to an asylum which houses a distinctly Karras-like patient.

WHAT WORKED:
This is one dense, thick movie.  Not only are the plot and dialogue pretty intricate, but Blatty clearly constructs the visuals with deliberate care.  We get extremely memorable and striking images, fully stuffed with recurring symbols.  Parts of this are super-pretty.


Plus it's cool to see visual consistency with the original EXORCIST, whether we're talking about lighting choices...


...or recurring motifs like clocks and staircases.


The budding relationship between Dyer and Kinderman was one of the bright spots at the end of THE EXORCIST, so it's nice to see some screen time here devoted to their quips and philosophical interactions.

These scenes also bring some welcome levity to what is essentially a morose meditation on the problem of evil.  Not that EX III ever slides into GHOULIES III territory, but the light stuff gives us a little sugar before we swallow the bitter pills of the second half.


The acting is uniformly solid.  This film needed good actors to handle its complex, labyrinthine dialogue and its needs were met.  George C. Scott is always interesting to watch—I suppose he's mostly "known" for PATTON at this point, but he had an impressive range as an actor.  Kinderman's an interesting character, kind of a very sharp and jovial skeptic, and Scott does a fine job at taking over the character.  Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer also delivers a quality performance full of tough-to-deliver lines.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
After researching a little bit, my suspicions about the Father Morning character being a last-minute addition were basically confirmed.  His scenes don't really gel with the rest of the film and get especially incongruous during the way-out-of-character gorefest of the final fifteen minutes.  I did like the aesthetic choices and artificiality of those scenes, with their wandering spotlights, but (yeah) the flesh ripping really doesn't match the dry, understated tone of the rest of the film.


I really like Jason Miller as an actor, but the film doesn't really devote enough time to the unpossessed Damien Karras to nail the drama of its central conflict.  His supplanting by demons or redemption should be a bigger deal!  Instead, it gets deflated a bit, partially by the mood-killing Morning scenes and partially because the final Kinderman-Karras/Patient X showdown seems a little too clipped.


It would be interesting to see a reconstructed version of the film that Blatty wanted to make, with the studio monkeying removed (similar to the restored NIGHTBREED that everyone has fallen for).  Even with the alterations, though, EXORCIST III is a way worthier sequel than EXORCIST II and develops its own unique charms while retaining a fair amount of what we loved in the first EXORCIST.

RATING: 6

Monday, October 28, 2013

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)


That is how we all feel about this.

SYNOPSIS: Four years after Regan had an unpleasant experience with a demon, the Catholics recruit Father Lamont (Richard Burton, YOU DUMMY) to investigate the circumstances surrounding the case and Father Merrin's death.  Regan is being treated by hypnosis enthusiast Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, playing a woman named Gene).  Sharon (Kitty Winn) has also returned for this sequel, as has Max Von Sydow in flashback form.  Together, they must confront the demon Pazuzu, who rules the evil of the air or something, and their only help is an African named Kokumo, who was previously possessed by Pazuzu.

WHAT WORKED:
I'm not mortally offended that EXORCIST II went in a different direction thematically.  I'd rather see that than the original plan for the sequel, which was basically to redo EXORCIST on a poverty line budget.  And some of the ideas here, if underdeveloped, are pretty intriguing, especially the film's main conceit that evil attacks the exceptionally good.  

Some of the images are memorable and well-constructed.  I really dug the Ennio Morricone score, which is pretty distant from the keyboard-based sonics of the original.  Morricone opts for more sweeping orchestral sounds, which sometimes makes this recall MONDO CANE or some other Italian film you'd rather be watching.  

A lot of this is indefensible, but occasionally we get crossover into enjoyable camp ground.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Too many bells and whistles added to the basic plot.  I appreciate that the filmmakers didn't just lazily toss out the same old green vomit and head-twists, but we get suffused with all kinds of gimmicky BS and it's just smothering.  ESP, synchronized hypnosis via strobe light, locust behavioral triggers, and so on.  I find that John Boorman movies tend to have a little too much plot and that seems to be the case here.


There are multiple instances where people should have known that scenes would end up being laughed at (and allegedly spark riots).  How many people had to be involved to make something like the below happen?  Did none of them have the courage to say, "Listen, guys, this is beyond horrible, we should stop or try another tactic"?

Did the same assholes give the thumbs-up to James Earl Jones's locust costume?  Because, how and why.


Some of the sets look shoddy and cheap, especially during the Africa scenes that are obviously some Hollywood backlot.  The filming is very tight here, too, to conceal the flaws, so parts of this feel claustrophobic and smothering.


Effects and makeup aren't much better.  Thankfully, we get minimal demonic Regan, but what we see looks pretty bad.  Linda Blair refused to go for demon makeup for II, but I don't know that her presence would have made a difference given the Big Lots-level artistry on display.


Linda did consent to appear as glammy, penetrable high school hussy Pazuzu/Regan, who is the film's final boss and has a heart-ripping fight scene with Richard Burton on a bed that sinks into the floor, like in THE MONEY PIT.


Cosmetic flaws can always be overlooked.  But what's most offensive about EX II is that it forsakes the single-minded drive that made the first film such an intense experience.  Most of this feels scattered and baffled, probably owing to the multiple rewrites during the shoot (never a good sign).  Like touring the scene of a beautiful car's crash, sometimes you can see remnants of what must have been admirable invention and effective design, but mostly this is just a chaotic disaster.

RATING: 3