TCM Underground: The Night Visitor (1971) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

The Night Visitor (1971)

Max Von Sydow plays Salem, an innocent man framed for a murder he didn’t commit.  He was a man with demons–he drank too much–but he was a patsy for a murder when someone saw too much, a plan devised to burn down a farmhouse for insurance money.  The witness, a farmhand, was killed with an ax and then Salem’s fingerprints were applied to the handle of the murder weapon.

Years later, people connected to the crime begin to wind up dead, and all of the evidence points toward Salem’s brother-in-law Anton, the town’s doctor.  Anton says he saw Salem in his room at night, but no one believes him.  Is he insane?

The answer, of course, and revealed incredibly early on is no, he’s not insane and that is indeed Salem doing all of the killing.  The basic plot and setup to the movie had me wondering, “Oh, man, what’s next?” and then, about twenty minutes into the movie, I had switched to, “Oh… oh!  That’s it?  Okay, then.”

At night, after a game of chess with the guard of the insane asylum Salem is sentenced to (possible shoutout to The Seventh Seal?), Salem goes through a pretty clever system of escape.  The doors, you see, can only be unlocked and opened from the outside.  He has a key he made himself on a long reach so that he can do just that, with a ball and pivot to spin the key from awkward angles.  He repels down from the incredibly high up window that his cell is on and then runs through the snowy terrain to enact his revenge.

The escape scene, done completely without dialogue, is thrilling stuff.  I loved it.  The problem is, the rest of the movie is unbelievably silly.  The scenes where Salem is stalking the people who conspired against him, he’s traipsing around in the snow in his underwear.  He’s lucky he doesn’t catch cold, or worse.  He looks like he’s asking for pneumonia doing that.  When you see him lurking through a house, rubbing his arms for warmth or blowing hot air into his cupped hands, somehow the suspense is lifted.  Or when you see Max Von Sydow, a tall guy, slinking around in the background in his undies, are you supposed to be scared?  They look like outtakes in an Ace Ventura movie.

While the escape sequence itself is well done, the purpose behind it doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny whatsoever.  Salem’s plan, in which he offs people one by one, is contingent on his accurately guessing the erratic behavior of the characters in this movie.  He has to somehow know that the Police Inspector (the character has no other name beyond that), the worst cop in the world, is going to jump to illogical conclusions that no cop, anywhere, ever, would ever jump to.  He must also possess knowledge that his sister, who was in on his being framed, is going to talk to the police and tell them incorrect information–that part I can understand, Salem knows his sister is duplicitous, but knowing exactly what she’s going to say is fucking ESP.

The score, courtesy of Henry Mancini, is really good.  The out-of-tune, discordant piano reminds me of Danny Elfman’s later score for A Simple Plan, another movie blanketed in snow while people plot against each other and the bodies keep piling up.  There’s a good movie in The Night Visitor somewhere, it was just not put together quite right.  Laslo Benedek (The Wild One) is a talented director, but maybe this kind of film isn’t what he’s best suited for.  The Night Visitor needed a lot more atmosphere, some build of suspense, and a lot less Max Von Sydow sneaking right behind people on his tippy-toes like a cartoon character.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

As a film series, the Exorcist films are a strange bunch to study.  There seems to be a controversy about each film and its multiple versions–the first one, the best by a mile, has the “Version You’ve Never Seen” which was the only version available on DVD for a long time, and it has some great moments, but is ultimately inferior to the original.  The third one, which was never meant to be a third one at all, rather a standalone plot written and directed by William Peter Blatty, was to be called Legion.  Thanks to Shout! Factory, you can see Blatty’s original version in a restored director’s cut that took years to put together.  The fourth one, a prequel, also exists in two versions, splitting after Paul Schrader was fired from production–Schrader’s original vision is quieter, darker, better, but still a mess.  An ambitious mess, but a mess all the same.

Let’s just take a moment to be grateful that only one version of Exorcist II: The Heretic exists, because holy shit, this movie.

The plot, I believe, was made as the result of a bet.  Someone asked, “How can you take a movie like The Exorcist, a terrifying film about demonic possession, and expand upon it in a sequel in a way that makes the original look not at all scary?  How can we ret-con the terror right out of that?”  And to that someone said, “It’ll turn out the demon that possessed Regan isn’t gone and not only that, the demon’s name is Pazuzu.  That’s right.  Pazuzu.  His name is Pazuzu and he’s, like, a giant locust or something.  We’ll have millions of locusts in this movie, too.  Where most horror movies will have a scare scene, we’ll have fucking thousands upon thousands of locusts.”

And with that, cinematic history was made.

Jason Miller played Father Karras in the original with a certain nuance.  He had doubts about his faith.  Religion didn’t make sense to him anymore.  Richard Burton, a talented actor, plays Father Lamont as a man fucking possessed (pun, I guess, intended).  His task, given to him by the Catholic Church, was to investigate the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow again tonight) and see what went wrong.  Like, right away, he sets out to ranting and raving about how Regan (Linda Blair) is still possessed and they gotta get that demon out of her.  Even the Church is like, I dunno, that’s not really what we sent you there for.

At no point, until the very end, is there ever any indication that Regan even is still possessed.  If she was, and I guess she was, the demon never made its presence known.  It never really did anything, it just sort of hung out and then called down an army of locusts when it started to get exorcised again.

Most of the plot is made possible by a piece of equipment that allows two people to be hypnotized together and sort of telepathically link.  This technique does not exist outside of science fiction.  At one point, though, Regan’s doctor says that she’s “only interested in science!” which, I don’t know, rationality doesn’t seem to exist in the world of Exorcist II.

Exorcist II has its defenders, including Martin Scorsese, but I’m guessing Scorsese only liked it because of his hangups with Catholicism and the Church.  The movie has lines like, “Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views,” that appeal to that Old World “let’s get the devil” Catholic faith.

Father Lamont is sort of like the shitty cop in action movies who shoots up neighborhoods during a drug bust and has the boss yell at him for being a loose cannon.  Lamont is involved in two exorcisms in the film:  The first one ends with the possessed lighting herself on fire and the second ends with an entire house falling down.  If he has a partner, that partner would be comic relief.

John Boorman is a good director.  Deliverance is one of the greatest suspense films ever crafted.  And Exorcist II has these little moments that are truly wonderful, like an early scene where we return to the house from the original film and there’s just this amazing sense of dread and fear in the air, underscored with ambient noise by Ennio Moriconne and it’s so fucking perfect, right until the whole thing ends up being watched by a really badly composited locust special effect.  That’s the movie in a nutshell.

Next Week: Looks like I’m in for an “Animals attack!” double feature with Razorback and Tentacles.