Reliving the Summer of 1990 - Week Thirteen
August 21, 2010
Greeting demons all over again with “The Exorcist III,” and watching Martin and Moranis die and go to “My Blue Heaven.”
Nutshell: Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) is a Georgetown cop finding evidence of a serial killer in the area long thought dead. Chasing the clues, Kinderman finds himself inside a mental asylum faced with a patient who claims to be famous Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), struggling with the demonic spirits within. As the bodies pile up, Kinderman is forced to confront a satanic reality, with the Killer using the visage of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) to tempt the broken cop, playing on his sympathies and fears, baiting him before his maniacal spirit kills again.
1990: There’s no juicy memory to accompany this entry, no lightly embarrassing tale of boy slipping cautiously into a horror picture, only to find a challenging piece of fright cinema shaking him to his very core. “The Exorcist III” didn’t go down like that. In fact, I only faintly recall a brief rental encounter with the film, likely viewed before I’d seen the original 1973 motion picture -- a blasphemous admission for any horror fanatic, but hey, I wasn’t the most considerate kid.
Even with a developing attention span, “Exorcist III” didn’t take, for whatever reason. Chalk it up to confusion, disinterest, or just bad luck, the picture simply hasn’t remained with me over the years. For that, I feel a little ashamed. But hey, there’s only room in my head for the 12 of us, so something has to give. This highly dubious sequel was one of a few casualties.
2010: Today, “The Exorcist III” is the very definition of a “flawed masterpiece.” Reworked some by a nervous studio wanting flashy product after writer/director William Peter Blatty (architect of the original picture as well) handed them frosty genre art, the picture has a tattered quality that’s understandable, perhaps even distracting, but the loose stitches hardly disfigure what an amazing accomplishment this feature is.
Of course, it’s all in the timing. By 1990, the “Exorcist” brand name was a deflated, sun-bleached thing left out on the pop culture roof for too long. It’s was unrealistic to try and revive the franchise, especially after the second picture, 1977’s “The Heretic,” left audiences in hysterics as the producers nudged growly demonic terror into the disco era. The title alone guaranteed few would want to partake in a third moviegoing experience, leaving the film to wilt at the box office. A crime.
In a cheap-thrill era of “Saw” and crass reboots, “Exorcist III” is an old-fashioned, precise nightmare machine, trusting the grip of psychological torment to generate wicked scares. It’s certainly a talky picture, but outrageously cinematic, with a predatory sound and visual design that seeps into the skin, gradually churning unease as Kinderman pieces together the ghastly details of the crimes. Blatty directs with an eye toward intangible menace, using composition and stillness as a way of creating threat -- there’s little about the film that plays by standard genre rules as we know them today. Sure, a few shocks strike from the shadows, and there’s a bit of gore to keep the hungry happy, but the majority of the film is played frigidly to optimize the creeps. I could kiss Blatty for making such a patient effort. “Exorcist III” is watchful, internalized, vulnerable. It’s, gasp, scary.
The picture is also extraordinarily acted by the likes of George C. Scott, who feels exhaustively invested in the role instead of halfheartedly perturbed, providing some of his best work as the discouraged cop stumbling upon the devil’s work. Scott’s national monument-like carriage is put to sublime use as Kinderman is hit across the face with mysterious satanic developments. Dourif is equally riveting as The Gemini Killer, with Blatty pointing his quaking, drooling thespian habits in all the right directions, delivering a tour de force performance as the taunting face of evil. Through primarily a visual experience with ornate, gorgeous cinematography, the actors ground the film in oddball, approachable characterization, creating a reality of daily life shoved aside by extravagant butchery and spiritual examination.
Also in the film’s favor? Cameos!
C. Everett Koop.
Carl “Oldy” Olsen.
And Kevin Corrigan, fresh from the third grade.
Had “Exorcist III” arrived in theaters in 1977, assuming first sequel position, I’m positive we would all be referring to the film as a classic today. Emerging directly from Blatty’s flowing creative fountain, the picture is a pure expression of the “Exorcist” mythos, and, in a few ways, it bests William Friedkin’s appetite for horror. While it lacks cohesion in the third act (the reshot conclusion is a head-scratcher, barely fused to the rest of the picture), “Exorcist III” wields a mighty sword of scares and contemplation, drilling into those primal areas of nail-chewing tension.
I have no idea where my head was at two decades ago, but now my vision is clear. This film is a humdinger.
My Blue Heaven
Nutshell: Placing Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli into the witness protection program, F.B.I. Agent Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis) hopes to keep the gangster safe so he’ll testify against his mob enemies. Finding the suburban life doesn’t agree with him, Vinnie starts up various criminal schemes to pass the time, enraging D.A. Hannah Stubbs (Joan Cusack), who isn’t allowed to arrest the idiot. Striking up a tentative friendship, Barney and Vinnie stroll through a series of shenanigans, with the outrageous crook attempting to play cupid with his bureau pal and his legal nemesis.
1990: With stars like Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, there was an undeniable expectation of laughs from “My Blue Heaven.” After all, these were two comedy giants kicking around a broad cinematic playground (the screenplay was written by Nora Ephron), fiddling with goombah stereotypes and cartoonish suburban imprisonment. The potential was there, the actors were there, but the film was never there.
I was protective of the talent in the Brichives, blaming the static atmosphere of the feature on the butterfingered production. “My Blue Heaven” simply didn’t click for me at the time, coming off agonizingly labored -- director Herbert Ross felt lost at sea here, frantically tying together stale jokes and a fractured narrative (portioned out as chapters from Vinnie’s autobiography) with a feeble grasp, leaving the picture winded right out of the gate and distractingly episodic.
Really, is there anything more depressing than arriving at a multiplex with your giggle bib tied on tight, only to exit 90 minutes later with a newfound appreciation for the blues? To watch Martin and Moranis squirm around this stillborn mess hurt the soul, back during a time when a Steve Martin comedy was something to look forward to. Of course, this was before “Leap of Faith,” “Housesitter,” and “Mixed Nuts.”
2010: While researching a bit on “My Blue Heaven,” I came across this nugget of a quote from Wikipedia: “(“My Blue Heaven”) is now considered to be one of Steve Martin's best movies by many of his fans and critics.”
Huh? Whaa? When did this happen? I was never consulted on this vote. So, I’m taking a moment here to make my opinion of this film crystal clear: it’s hideously unfunny, falling well beneath the capabilities of everyone involved. Even Nora Ephron.
There’s no vision to the film, no glorious comic tempo that rockets sitcom events into the bellylaugh stratosphere. “My Blue Heaven” is a bore, and a depressing one at that. It wastes such thespian potential on hoary mobster jokes and uptight whitey humor, lazily running along encouraging stupidity, when a nice, juicy slice of actual bitterness would’ve energized everyone involved. Sure, there’s an enchanting strangeness to the film, with both “My Blue Heaven” and “Goodfellas” based on the life and times of mob rat Henry Hill, but that eye-crossing piece of trivia doesn’t justify sitting through this sleepy effort. Ross isn’t building a comedy here, he’s trying to survive one.
Taking the flashy wise guy role, Martin is trapped in shtick coma, incapable of making Vinnie anything more than a one-joke persona. The high hair, tacky clothes, and Hanna-Barbera accent make Martin a fool, not a jolly jester, and his incessant exaggerated yammering brought a 90-minute-long cringe to my face. Moranis has the easier role, but there’s little made available to him. In the first stages of his “Dadening” career shift, Moranis is the straight man in “My Blue Heaven,” and follows along dutifully, trying to keep up with Martin during the more physical sections of the story. Moranis isn’t dreadful here, but bland. Achingly bland. I’d rather see him flame out than do an impression of skim milk. The actors bring shockingly little life to the feature, leaving the movie a heap of nothing prodded along by an annoyingly whimsical soundtrack, led by a repeated use of the Fats Domino cover version of the title track.
Oh, Rick Moranis. I can’t stay mad at you. After all, you’re responsible for three of my favorite film/TV characters.
“My Blue Heaven” is a lifeless drag, easily more dreary now than it was in 1990. Looks like I have some Wikipedia editing to tend to.
Coming next week…
Summer comes to a close with a superhero corker from Sam Raimi.
Christian Slater attempts to define a generation.
And Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen make a garbage man comedy.