Saturday, April 26, 2008

#35: The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)

In one of my alternate fantasy lives, I'm a film programmer for a large repertory theater in a major city. For that theater, I program an annual series showing films that are either the only or one of a very small handful of films made by their directors. These directors are usually moonlighting from their day jobs (actors, writers, musicians, photographers, etc.) to realize a pet project no one else will touch. Usually, the film is their sole directorial credit, but sometimes they get to make two or three. I'd show Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, David Byrne's True Stories, Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade, Barbara Loden's Wanda, L.Q. Jones' A Boy and His Dog, James William Guercio's Electra Glide in Blue, Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil, Walter Murch's Return to Oz, Peter Newbrook's The Asphyx, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, Tim Roth's The War Zone, James Bond III's Def by Temptation, and Neil Young and Dean Stockwell's Human Highway. (Let's all forget about Perry Farrell's Gift.) Audience participation: If anyone has any others to add, I would love to hear them.
William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III fits right in with this series. Blatty is a writer of mediocre supermarket novels, including The Exorcist, and only reluctantly stepped into the director's chair twice. In 1980, he filmed his own novel, The Ninth Configuration, and ten years later, he filmed another of his novels, Legion, under the producer-mandated title of The Exorcist III after John Carpenter turned him down. Fortunately, Blatty makes a much more interesting director than a writer, and this second sequel is a weirdly effective mess. Sometimes people who don't really know how to make a movie end up making better, freer, more creative films than the pros. (Speaking of pros, great director John Boorman made the second Exorcist, one of the most notorious flops in film history. Long considered one of the worst films ever made, Boorman's sequel is worth checking out for the absurdity value alone. The film looks fantastic visually, but features possibly the dumbest screenplay ever written. Richard Burton amps his performance up to insane heights, Ennio Morricone provides a fantastic score, and James Earl Jones wears a giant locust costume. The film enraged Blatty and baffled the first film's director William Friedkin. Audiences booed. Both Martin Scorsese and famously contrarian critic Pauline Kael preferred it to the original. Scorsese called it his "favorite guilty pleasure.")
Blatty has assembled a great cast, including George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, and Scott Wilson. They keep the exposition-heavy, character-based film from imploding and know exactly when to underplay and when to kick the motherfucker into scenery-chewing overdrive. Scott's monologue about the carp swimming in his bathtub is alone worth the price of a rental. Blatty avoids much gore, but supplies three or four truly creepy shock scenes. Combining two of my favorite horror staples, serial killers and Catholics vs. Satanic demons, this sequel pleasantly surprised me. Jason Miller returns as Father Karras, but otherwise the story veers away from the original, despite a studio-mandated exorcism scene near the film's end. The film's priests aren't stereotypical, and the location-shot Georgetown setting provides a lot of atmosphere. I like it.

By the way, this film has some of the weirdest celebrity cameos I've ever seen. A restaurant scene features Larry King and C. Everett Koop, and a Fellini-esque dream sequence includes Fabio, Patrick Ewing, and Samuel L. Jackson. Huh?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

#34: The Evil Within (Alain Robak, 1990)

Note: The Evil Within was the title for this movie in the U.S., which is why the Fangoria book uses it. If you want to rent this movie, you can find it on DVD under its original title, Baby Blood. I think Baby Blood's a catchier and more ridiculous title anyway. On to the review, jerks!

France is a movie-mad country. Paris has more movie theaters than any other city in the world. A comprehensive list of notable directors and films from France would be much longer than a similar list from any other country of comparable size (and longer than most larger countries' lists). A French philosopher who had written a piece about a movie was asked in an interview about film and answered (this is paraphrased): "I don't know much about film. I'm just a casual filmgoer. I only go to the movie theater two or three times a week." However, the French, for the most part, don't make too many horror movies. I don't know if they're too happy or too depressed, but the French usually say mais non to decapitations, zombies, vampires, and bloodbaths. The list of notable French horror films proceeds as follows: 1928's The Fall of the House of Usher, 1955's Les Diaboliques, and 1960's Eyes Without a Face. These three films also fit more comfortably in the worlds of, respectively, part-literary adaptation/part-Surrealist experiment, Hitchcockian crime/suspense thriller, and elegant European art film. Also, they were made a long time ago.
Occasionally, though, France spews out a rare piece of genre horror, like this fucked-up chunk of weirdness from the relatively recent past of nearly twenty years ago. The story makes absolutely no sense, in textbook Eurotrash cinema style. In opening voice-over narration, we learn that at the dawn of time, when the first living organisms appeared and began evolving, our narrator appeared as well. We see lots of cool shots of lava erupting. Then we're transported to Africa in 1990 and given a cheetah's-eye-view from inside a cage while we're dragged all over the continent. Finally, we wind up in France at a circus. We alternate between cheetah's-eye-view and the glimpse of a highly abusive relationship between the jerk who owns the circus and his beautiful, if dentally Euro-challenged, lion-tamer girlfriend, Yanka. The other lions and tigers are spooked by the cheetah. Then the cheetah explodes. Then a weird, wormy thing crawls into Yanka's womb while she sleeps. This wormy thing is our narrator. He is apparently one of the oldest creatures on earth but also the next evolutionary leap. He says his kind will replace humans in 5 million years, but he also needs to be born from a human. In order to be born, he needs to drink human blood. Makes sense, right? Right? What will they do when man dies out in 5 million years? Whose blood will they drink then? This issue is never addressed in the film. Anyway, Yanka leaves the abusive jerk and wanders France, while her monster fetus telepathically orders her to kill and drink the blood so it can grow and be born again. (Fun fact: In the dubbed version, which is the one I watched, the fetus is voiced by an unbilled Gary Oldman!) It may sound like I gave everything away, but I've only told you some details from the first 20 minutes! Wowee zowee!
This is a very strange, very competently made, very bloody film. In at least every third scene, gallons of blood spray everywhere. The filmmakers skillfully move their cameras and expertly light, shoot, and frame the scenery. Yanka walks around nude for no particular reason. Many male chauvinist jerks get their comeuppance. That cheetah explodes. It's like Look Who's Talking with carotid arterial spray and no Kirstie Alley. I think everyone wins in that situation.
Seriously, though, this is a kind of unpleasant, but mostly funny, offbeat, and unusual horror film.