Adams and Jefferson on Movies: The Exorcist and its true sequel, Legion (Part 2 – Extended Editions)

 

ExIII Legion

CoolPapaE:

First off, watching both stories at least twice in the space of a week, I can almost smell cigarette smoke wafting everywhere in my imagination. I know it was a different time, from 1990 and back, but seeing the different situations where cigarettes are presented became nauseating. Everyone had to just smell horrible. In part one, it’s funny seeing the priest Karras giving Chris (Burstyn) a cigarette. My priest as a kid in the 70’s, Father Donahoe, couldn’t wait to get out of service to light up. I never did see one of the other parishioners bum a cigarette off of him.

Karras Cig

Later there is a scene where Karras and Dyer swap a single cigarette back and forth as Father Dyer attempts to console him upon the loss of Karras’ mother. And that takes place in a small room over a bottle of Chivas Regal.

Exorcist III‘s Dr. Temple (Wilson) never has a cigarette out of his hand, no matter where he is in the hospital. In fact there is one scene when he leans over an ash tray and uses one cigarette to light the next. In his case, the cigarette is part of the character. It’s clear that Dr. Temples rather large ego has been damaged with his connection to the Gemini killer, and we see his obsession as a sign that he is indeed worse off than his patients when it comes to psychosis.

The cigarette usage through every version of the film make me ever so thankful they passed laws to prevent smoking in public buildings.

WeMissE:

Yes, the smoking was at times humorous, at other times repulsive.  I chuckled at the scene in the original film when Regan’s doctor comes out of the room where he has just administered one of those horrific, antediluvian tests, and has to stop and light a cigarette before he can share the results with Chris.  This poor woman is in anguish over her daughter’s condition, yet he can’t utter a single word until he gets that cancer stick crammed in his cake hole.  You are right that the constant chain-smoking was part of Dr. Temple’s character  in the sequel.  That unnatural, affected way that he always held the cigarette upright, almost level with his mouth, made me want to grab it from his hand and put it out in his eye.  Good God, that was annoying!

exIII temple.jpg

As far as the differences between the original and director’s cut.  In the case of the original film, I would say that the original theatrical release was already a nearly flawless film.   But the added scenes are nice.   In some cases, scenes that existed in the earlier version are just elongated.  The Iraq prologue with Father Merrin is fleshed out a bit more.  There is also an additional sequence with Regan being administered a medical test.  I like this scene because it adds to the progression of her condition, and reinforces the idea that the doctors were just following a diagnostic playbook, moving from test A to test B, and so on.   The so-called spider-walk scene, where Regan walks down the stairs in a position that seems to defy both anatomy and gravity, is definitely unsettling.

Perhaps the most interesting addition, and possible unnecessary one, is the conversation between Fathers Merrin and Karras on the stairs, after round one with the demon.  In the original film, they are just shown sitting in silence for a couple of seconds.  The extended version has Merrin offering his explanation for why the devil chose this girl, and what his intentions are.  Friedkin believed that the entire movie speaks this message.  Blatty, however, felt that the scene was integral to the story.   I do like the fact that when Merrin says the demon will make them doubt the existence of God, the camera is in close-up on Karras, who is experiencing those very doubts at that moment. But I tend to agree with Friedkin, that the priests sitting in silence is more powerful, and the message is not lost.   What do you think?

CoolPapaE:

Spot on. We know through the film that this is Karras’ test, from the moment that we see him with his aging mother. And what else is there to test a priest with than on his faith?

It is nice to have the spider-walk scene back, sans the wires that they lacked the ability to remove back in the original release. I also enjoy the padding to the Iraq scenes with Merrin. There are more subtle additions, like the dimming of the lights of Chris’s arrival home being accompanied by demonic imagery are also welcome.

The descent into madness for Regan is kicked off in a more intriguing way with the doctor revealing her first burst of profanity at the coaxing of Chris. The scene is a clever way of introducing the beginnings of the trauma to come.

The most incredible aspect to the updated release is the remastering of the sound and the film. There is a clarity I have never before experienced with the film, given that I never watched it in the theater. It adds a whole new dimension to the fear and agony.

Contrast this with the The Legion cut of Exorcist III which is a rough cut, to say the least. Most of the film’s additions are in the form of off-center, VHS dailies that are intriguing as much for what is missing as they are for what is there. First of all, where is Jason Miller? The haunted face of Father Karras is one of the key components that ties together this film to its predecessor. It’s Karras’ body and wounded soul that is paraded in front of us, with Dourif’s Gemini killer taking the reigns from within. In all the combination was off-putting in the best way.

The original cut seems to replace Miller completely with Dourif, making him the corpse of Karras as well putting him in the pictures of the young priest on the wall in the restaurant with Kinderman and Dyer. This would have damaged my experience of the film, to be sure. As good as Dourif’s performance is, I am glad that change was made, for whatever the reason.

Other scenes as added make the story more complete, like the explanation about the discovery of Brother Fain in Karras’ original coffin. It’s kind of strange to consider that no one bothered looking in the coffin before placing it in the ground, but I digress.

The ending is a strange compromise, too. I very much appreciate the complete removal of Nicol Williamson’s strange Merrin facsimile Father Morning. It was a strange, tacked on scene that served the purpose of satisfying the movie studio. It is replaced with the straight up murder of Dourif’s Karras by Kinderman. A little melodramatic, to be sure.

I do wish that they could have wedged in the “I Believe” scene, and maybe it was there in Karras’ original vision somewhere.

WeMissE:

Watching the so-called director’s cut of the sequel raised just as many questions as it answered.  In between the two versions, one could cull together the pieces of a pretty good film. But there is still something lacking.  You already touched on the absence of Jason Miller from the director’s cut.  If the film had been released that way, I would have been so confused.

I couldn’t agree more that the movie loses nothing with the elimination of Father Morning.  That character was so clearly created to remind viewers of Merrin in the first film.  And really, an exorcism is out-of-place here.  That is not the kind of confrontation that is going on here.   This is much more about Kinderman.   I suppose it would have been nice if Scott’s final speech could have been included in the director’s cut, but overall I prefer the more quiet, and sudden ending of the director’s cut to the bombastic original version, which again seemed an attempt in some ways to echo the original film.

So in the case of the original movie, we get an extended cut that doesn’t need to exist at all, but still doesn’t detract from the power of the movie.  In the case of the sequel, we get a director’s cut that absolutely needs to exist, and yet still leaves the viewer somewhat unfulfilled.

 

 

 

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Adams and Jefferson on Movies: The Exorcist and its true sequel, Legion (Part 1 – Theatrical Versions)

The Exorcist

CoolPapaE: 

In all honesty, I have had a lopsided feeling about the theatrical releases of these films for a long time. Watching them with you today helped right the ship a little bit. For the longest time, the movie in my wheelhouse had been the awkward but well acted Exorcist III. The reasons included the fact that the film came out right around the time we graduated and, frankly, I just grew warm to Scott’s and Flanders performances. There also was the feeling that it must be a pretty good film, given the person who wrote and directed it intended it to be the one true sequel to the original, Oscar nominated film. And really, even then I kind of felt like Friedkin was a little full of himself.

Time has made clear which is the superior film overall, when at many of its best points, the sequel mimics the ambiance of the original, right down to the sparse, almost non-existent score. So many films that have followed the original Exorcist have amped up the same themes, only more obvious and lacking much of the nuance.

Really, though, it’s amazing to consider this film as subtle. At the time, many thought it should have been given an X-Rating. The shock is there, to be sure. Many of the things that happened to and came out of the 12-year-old Linda Blair have not been seen on-screen since. That’s not what I am talking about, though.

One scene that differentiates it for me is when Fathers Merritt and Karras (von Sydow and Miller) take a break after their first, particularly brutal session together with Regan (Blair) and the Demon (McCambridge). Merrick decides to leave the room and Miller is set to leave with him. Instead, the camera stays with him as he tries to collect himself. A lesser film would have turned on the music to a creepy tone and seen the possessed turn to him and say something. Instead, we get his facial expression and her back. The result is more disconcerting than anything we’ve seen. It’s a man in complete turmoil over a crisis of faith.

the-exorcist-pic-42

Similarly, the Blatty directed sequel has effective moments of solitude. In particular, Father Dyer and Kinderman (Sanders and Scott) have a lunch in a Washington restaurant including such luminaries as Larry King and C. Everett Koop. When discussing the murder of Thomas Kintry, we see the camera move back and forth between the two men. We don’t need music to understand the wincing (starting at 1:10). These are hardened old men who still feel pain in the suffering of others. This is acting one doesn’t ever see in a  horror film, and it’s one reason why this film which is at least 50% works as well as it does.

WeMissE:   

I have always been a fan of the original movie, but every time I see it I notice more of its nuance.    This hardly qualifies as a horror movie as they are considered by today’s standards.  It has more subtlety and sentiment than any other movie of the genre that comes to mind.  I just wanted to mention a couple of the things that I noticed for the first time, watching it this time.

First of all, there are several scenes involving doctors, specialists, and psychologists.   They administer some tests that look medieval by today’s medical standards, and they attempt to rationalize and explain everything.  Every specialist is quick to offer a theory.  When Father Merrin arrives, he does not theorize, he does not ask questions.   He just begins putting on his garb, like a soldier of God girding up for battle.  The way Father Merrin is used in the movie is quite brilliant.  First of all we get the prologue in Iraq. Here we are shown, through a series of images with very little dialogue, that Father Merrin is uneasy.  He senses some disturbing presence, and it is one he recognizes.  Any other film would have had five minutes of exposition in which Merrin explained how he had performed an exorcism in the past, and so on.  We get the pleasure of reading of his past experiences in his eyes, as he watches two dogs fighting, as he stares at a strange horned statue.

Then Merrin disappears for over an hour.  We almost forget his existence, the rest of the story is so compelling.  When the church consents to the exorcism, they do so with the caveat that Merrin attend, because he is the only priest with known experience.  We then get a wonderfully filmed scene which shows a young priest run to Father Merrin and hand him a letter.  Obviously this is the letter summoning him to the exorcism.  He holds it in his hands for several seconds, turns it around, his body slumps a little in resignation, and he puts it in his pocket, unopened.  This is done in one uninterrupted long shot.  He doesn’t need to open it, he’s been preparing for this moment since he left Iraq.  His arrival at the house is made all the more iconic by the fact that he has been unseen for over an hour.

The_Exorcist_3

In Exorcist III, we also get moments of great subtlety.   The best scene in the movie plays out in a long shot, over several minutes, with almost no dialogue.  Blatty was taking a page out of Friedkin’s directorial book.  However, in several other scenes Blatty uses extremely conventional camera-set ups and cutting, and I think they diminish the film’s potential in a few cases.  Perhaps it is because he was a novice director, maybe he didn’t trust his ability to let scenes play out in long shots, over several minutes.  Maybe the studio’s re-cutting of the movie had some effect.  But the elements of a very good movie are all here, and the spirit of the original movie can be felt in moments.

CoolPapaE:

Yes, the elements are there. And it’s very frustrating. I enjoyed this film a lot more before re-watching Friedkin’s masterpiece. This time, it a little embarrassing. Especially the scenes surrounding the confessional. The priest’s cheesy reaction at hearing the confession is one thing, but the hysterical screaming of the lady being consoled almost comically by the man while the two kids looked on is laughable. It’s like something out of the files of Police Squad! and completely takes you out of the mood of the film.

Counter this with the long shot scene at the hospital with Nurse Keating, when we get to see the tension unfold almost helpless to do anything at all so far away. It’s like a different director entirely.

The one thing Blatty was most successful in carrying over is the sparse soundtrack. Both films do an excellent job of setting the mood just by allowing the shock of characters to settle soundlessly. If there is one thing that makes these films so directly connected to one another, it is this. The Keating scene is a wonderful example of this, all the way to the end, when you get one blaring tone which really brings home the shock.

exIII keating.jpg

Jason Miller is one actor who is in both films and he is excellent in both. He gets more to do in the first one. Really the film is as much about his journey as anything. The movement from assured member of the clergy to someone who doubts everything to one who makes the most Christ-like decision of self-sacrifice. The path is harrowing and it shows on his face.

We see an older, haunted face in the second film and it completely resonates. His spirit is drained, for the most part. Once more there is a journey, but this time it’s Kinderman who is pushing forward.

Which brings me to one awkward point between the two stories. There is an insistence that Kinderman and Karras were good friends, even going so far as to show them in one of those awkward mash-up pictures one only sees in movies. Since Kinderman only met Karras in his investigation of Burke Dennings, and Karras dies maybe a week later, it would stand to reason that they were never close.  This friendship doesn’t serve the story at all, since Father Dyer could have been the “close friend.” It really is only there to ratchet the tension once we meet “patient X.” I would think a passing resemblance to someone he knew but was not close to might have been as effective, if not more so. It’s an artificial bridge that I don’t think was necessary.

WeMissE:

Yes, I hadn’t noticed that strange implication that Kinderman and Karras were close friends when I watched the movie before, and it really makes no sense.  The truth is that Father Dyer and Kinderman became friends through Karras’ death.   A minor detail, but a strange decision nonetheless.   You talked about the haunted of face of Jason Miller and I think that is a great way of putting it.  One of the things that struck me in both films is that all of the priests have a world-weariness about them.  These are not the movie priests one is used to seeing, with kind, benevolent smiles.   They have grim, tired looks of resignation.  Somehow this helps with the overall tone of the movies.  This certainly doesn’t mean that the priests are bad, but rather that the world is bad.  These are priests who have seen evil, in forms both large and small, but find ways to carry on.

I have always been a big fan of Ed Flanders as an actor, and he had that quality of resignation and resolve in every role he played.  His Emmy-winning portrayal of Dr. Donald Westphal on TV’s St. Elsewhere is for my money the best performance ever in a dramatic show.   And his Father Dyer here has the same qualities.  This is a man who thinks the world is a pretty dark, foul place.  But he’s going to try to do a little bit of good, in his short time here, because it’s all he knows to do.   One wonders how much of that world-weariness was acting in the case of Ed Flanders, because he took his own life in 1995, shortly after his 60th birthday.

The absence of musical score is something that today’s filmmakers could learn from. Audiences have become so conditioned to an aural assault, that moments of quiet are actually more intense by contrast.  I also noticed this time how little we hear the famous “Tubular Bells” music in the first film.  It is so closely associated with the movie, and yet it is only heard three times through the entire course of the film, primarily over the closing credits.  And it is never used in a moment of terror, or fright.   The first time we hear it, Ellen Burstyn is just walking down the street on a sunny winter day.   Just that few seconds of music goes a long way in setting the tone of what is to come.   William Friedkin actually hired Lalo Schifrin to score original music for the movie, but when he heard it he fired Schifrin.  Snatches of this rejected score can be found online.  Friedkin made the right choice;  Schifrin’s score lacks subtlety, and to me is a blatant rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho score.

CoolPapaE:

Ultimately watching both films in succession shows for me the difference between an experienced filmmaker and one that is creative, while maybe not as seasoned. Blatty only directed two films in his life. This was to be his last, and understandably so, if we take into consideration the amount the film was messed with during and after production. There is a clear set of scenes that seem tacked into the film and have no sense of space. I know a few of the scenes, like the exorcism with Father Morning, was not intended originally. I am thinking this  is just a result of input given from a studio to a person who lacked the gravitas to push back.

Friedkin, on the heels of his Academy Award win for The French Connection and directing his 6th movie, was never going to wield his power as effectively again. This film is as pure a vision as one could imagine. The film feels lean compared to today’s standards. The only places that seem out-of-place now are a matter of taste, perhaps. It’s not even the standards of decency which caused such a stir back when the film was released.

If perhaps they’d only swapped Regan out with the doll more fleetingly, or perhaps given us a glance at the actual death of the detestable Burke Jennings. It works exceptionally as it is, though.

WeMissE:

I understand your desire to see Burke die, he is such a pompous ass.  But I kind of like the way that Burke’s and Father Merrin’s deaths happen off-screen.  I think it gives more weight to Karras’ sacrifice, which we do get to witness.

So we are left with a film that is a classic, by pretty much any standard, and a film (with Exorcist III) that is full of moments that don’t quite add up to a cohesive whole.  Maybe the director’s cut will help to fill in some of the missing pieces.

 

Possession is as good as it gets for it’s kind

The Possession – 2012

Director Ole Bornedal
Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgewick, Natasha Calis, Madison Davenport, Grant Show, Matisyahu, Ella Wade
Screenplay Juliet Snowden, Stiles White

There is a scene early in the film, Possession, where, with the process already started, older sister Hannah (Davenport) notices her sister, Emily (Calis) acting lethargically while the first-born practices a dance routine.  Hannah asks her what is wrong, Em, says she doesn’t feel like herself lately.  Hannah, caught in her own world like people of any age can be, thinks that this is an adverse reaction of her parents’ year-long separation finally culminating in a divorce.

“Sometimes,” the older sister tells her sister, “You have to act like you just don’t give a shit.”

Em slowly descends…

I think that she may have used a different word for that last one, but given the film is PG-13, I believe I am pretty accurate in my recollection.  The best thing I recall from that moment, though, is the feeling of how perfectly everything is executed to that moment.  In the plain, grey light of the off white garage and the gray sky, one can feel the impending pendulum of doom swinging ever back and forth, creeping ever downward.

By now, the idea of a demonic possession film script should be evolving.  Starting off with a bang with The Exorcist back in the early ’70’s, it is a road taken often, but never explored satisfactorily.  The Paranormal Activity series started off relatively strong, with 2 films that built on one another and a format that got more chills than we are used to, but the last one headed right into the ditch.  Finally both the documentary and possession formats hit their nadir with the wretched The Devil Inside, it seemed like there were no more ideas left than contorting bodies, eyes turning white and alternate voices.

Thank God for Possession, then.  It has less of the crap you’re tired of seeing by now, but

More human than human…

enough to keep it recognizable.  The script, acting and direction are incredibly cohesive.  The most important facet to the story, is that there is a story, and a deceptively simple one, at that.  With the relatively sad, but completely normal backdrop of a father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in his best performance since Watchmen) moving into his post-divorce house, we see the first night he is to spend there with both of his girls.  That night goes fine, if you count bribery as a good sign, and, the next day, needing some dishes for the new house, he heads out with Hannah and Emily to scour the local yard sales.  Very soon after this, the younger girl finds a mysterious looking box that gives her father no sense of worry, and, paying for it, they take it home.  After trying unsuccessfully to open the box, he leaves it to his daughter, who takes it into her room for the night.  There would be no movie, if the box stayed closed, so I will leave the rest of it to the viewer.

The performances throughout the film are quiet and effective.  Morgan has been on the verge of a breakout performance, since his portrayal of an evil superhero as well his television spots.  If this is not it, I am not sure if he will ever make it.  I have enjoyed him in a lot of bad films, and a few decent ones.  If he ever gets the right director, he could win an Oscar.  His approach to his daughter’s change in behavior is believable.  As a father of two girls myself, each move he makes, outside of turning on a light once in a while, mirror what I would pursue.  The gradual nature of the happenings could, individually, seem to not be connected.  When the dots become impossible to ignore, he throws himself into it with a mixture of horror and problem solving that most any father might feel while watching it unfold.

Calis gives a truly powerful performance of an innocent girl, afflicted both by circumstance and loneliness.  Of course no one can understand her until it’s quite apparent.  The importance to this story is that there is no foolish insistence that nothing be wrong.  Everyone around her, cares for her and has no concept what she is facing.  That it does not stop them from trying to face it with her makes this a winner.

Sedgewick, as her mother, dating a new, vacant vessel, (Show, in a thankless performance), has a lot on her hands when things seem to have taken a turn.  Leading to this, the chemistry of her relationship with the father of her children seems believable, when you see them watching an old video of themselves.  Once it appears that her ex-husband may have attacked their daughter, she stumbles out of the gate on her own.  She needs the help of her ex-though, and does not spend much of the film stubbornly resisting the idea.  The reasons for their split don’t amount to a lessened amount of attraction or love, just a practical nature that sees a split as inevitable.

That the divorce was handled so well is not an accident of the script, however.  The split works in an allegorical way as well.  As one who resents the casual way that divorce has been handled in Hollywood for the last 50 years, this effort goes into a special class of movies where they treated it in an adult way; the story benefits from it.

A credible performance by a holy man always helps.

Jewish rapper Matisyahu makes a virtuoso performance as a young rabbi who enters the story in the 3rd act and, once more, adds a thoughtful and faithful viewpoint to the proceedings.  By taking it as seriously as Fathers Merrin and Karras, we are drawn deeper into the story even when the climax involves a routine of flashing lights for no apparent reason.

The film is not without its flaws, but lo, these flaws are few and far between.  There is a call to common sense when people steadfastly refuse to turn out the lights.  There are some interesting characters introduced in a fascinating way but not rediscovered later.  The law of the economy of characters is not one I particularly appreciate, though.  It’s a ride down the middle of the road, and this reviewer, like Neil Young, can appreciate driving into the ditch occasionally.

(****1/2 out of *****)