The Hills Have Eyes (1977)


The Hills Have Eyes
Dir. Wes Craven
Premiered July 22, 1977

The last time I was in the Mojave desert was last year, shooting an Italian motorcycle commercial that quickly turned into a Fellinian bacchanal– you put attractive young people and weird neon lighting into the middle of the desert with no air conditioning and see what happens. It wasn’t my first time out there by any means, but it was my first time off the main roads, on one of the dozens of clandestine movie sets hidden among the Joshua trees, and anyone who has been out there in the wild has had the same thought: I could die out here and nobody would find me.

Wes Craven got this. And while he never wanted to be just a horror director, the genre called to him because of the kind of intuitive terror that brought us The Hills Have Eyes.

On their way to California, a retired police detective (Russ Grieve) stops for gas in the desert near an air force base, his wife (Virginia Vincent), daughters (Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, Robert Houston), son-in-law (Martin Speer) and infant granddaughter (Brenda Marinoff) in tow. His goal for the day is to go searching for silver in an abandoned mine for his 25th wedding anniversary, but the ancient gas attendant (John Steadman) pleads with the family to keep going to Los Angeles, later revealing a terrifying story: he once had a gigantic, violent son who he released into the wild after trying to kill him in self-defense. Now, his son (James Whitworth) is leader of a feral band of cave-dwellers on the brink of starvation, and they will stop at nothing to eat.

Watching The Hills Have Eyes brings up a lot of different thoughts. As the plot kicked in, I began wonder if this qualified as a western. It’s worth remembering that the earliest days of Hollywood were also the last days of the Wild West, when Apache and Comanche insurgents were still shooting to kill. The Hills Have Eyes recall the terror that might have captured our great-grandparents as they crossed the desert themselves. And rather than being misunderstood people infringed upon by the white man, the hill people– based in part on a legendary family of incestuous Scottish cannibals– are something of our own making.

Secondly, its pacing is a wondrous improvement over the avalanche of B-movies from this period that seemed to think being padded and overlong qualified as making their movie good. On the other hand, I wish it had been a little slower; we barely get to know either of the two families in question, and it would have been better all around to get a better sense of these characters. Likewise, I was frustrated by the suddenness of the film’s ending. Wes Craven was long interested by the dehumanizing effects of violence, and it’s put to great effect here, but then it just ends. I left the movie with my heart racing– surely the sign of a good film, but equally a symptom of the general lack of closure. Either way, it’s still a classic of horror.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Son-in-law Doug has a CB radio. Of course it doesn’t work. The old man settled in the desert in 1929. There’s a torn poster of Jaws in the family trailer, which kicked off a long series of horror filmmakers putting each others’ posters in their movies as a bit of friendly competition.

How Did It Do?
The Hills Have Eyes grossed $25 million against a $230,000 budget. Wes Craven had made a big splash with his Manson family-inspired 1972 outing The Last House on the Left, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to this sophomore success. The film was generally well-received by critics, most of whom praised its unflinching descent into violence while also expressing discomfort with its unflinching descent into violence. It’s complicated, I know.

Craven became a mainstay of horror cinema throughout the 1970s and 80s, flourishing throughout the slasher era. Craven himself wasn’t fully comfortable with this, but even if he was pigeonholed, he did some great work. Unfortunately, The Hills Have Eyes, like many classic horror films, got a bad remake in 2006.

Next Time: House


Orca (1977)


Dir. Michael Anderson
Premiered July 15, 1977

Orca is the last of the Jaws clones. And while not the worst of them– a low bar indeed– it’s still quite awful.

At a university in Newfoundland, a fisherman named Nolan (Richard Harris) has begun sitting in on marine biology classes held by Rachel (Charlotte Rampling), as he is intrigued by the supposed superintelligence of the Orca whale. Nolan and Rachel become quite close during her class– no need to show us this, though; Rampling merely narrates everything to spare the film any kind of heavy lifting. Anyway, Rachel’s lectures give Nolan the idea to capture and sell an Orca in order to pay off the mortgage on his boat. But it all goes wrong: rather than capture the male, he injures the pregnant female, who attempts suicide by propeller, miscarries, and eventually dies.

And that’s when this movie goes fucking crazy, because the surviving male orca vows revenge. Obviously he doesn’t talk, but “vow” is absolutely the right word, as he is shown to be capable of plotting revenge, sabotaging buildings, and holding the fishing village hostage until Nolan returns to sea for a fair fight, which he eventually does, taking Rachel, his crew, and the town’s token Native (Will Sampson) on a chase leading all the way to the Arctic.

Orca is basically Jaws: the Revenge meets Free Willy, but not as compellingly ridiculous as that sounds– though it makes Jaws: the Revenge all the worse for coming out ten years later. This is an oddly subdued film. And the theme song at the end, written by Ennio Moriccone of all people, is atrocious.

How Did It Do?
Orca grossed $14.7 million against a $6 million budget. Critics hated it. 15%. Compared it to Jaws. Yadda yadda yadda. Can I watch something interesting?

Next Time: The Hills Have Eyes

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)


The Spy Who Loved Me
Dir. Lewis Gilbert
Premiered July 7, 1977

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of James Bond movies. I only saw them as an adult, and watched them all at once at that, so most of them are blurred together. If I had to pick favorites, I’d probably say From Russia With Love and Casino Royale, and my favorite of Roger More, the Bond of 1977, is For Your Eyes Only. My interest in espionage is strictly of the hardboiled John Le Carré variety.

My biggest problem, I think, is the series’ fundamentalist approach to the formula established in 1964’s Goldfinger– flirting with Moneypenny, a brief from M, gadgets from Q, two countries visited, two girls bonked, the first one dies, etc. It’s weird, right? No other successful film franchise does this, and if they did, people would endlessly complain about it. I can’t always speak to the quality of the movies that break from this template, but the usual adherence has always kept me at arm’s length, even when it comes to what is generally regarded as “the other good Roger Moore movie.”

Britain and the Soviet Union both lose a nuclear submarine so that independent villain Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) can start World War III and rebuild global society in his own image. James Bond (Roger Moore) is put on the case for the British Navy and ends up in Cairo, where he faces against his Soviet counterpart, Agent XXX (Barbara Bach). While they both want the same thing, their relationship is emphatically non-cooperative. But when they’re faced down by iron-toothed, super-strong henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), and more importantly the Stromberg mission brings the KGB and MI6 together, 007 and XXX fall for each other. Little does XXX know that Bond is the man responsible for her lover’s death during a routine ski chase.

So yeah, I’d agree that it’s the other good Roger Moore movie. In many ways, it’s a cleaner, less convoluted take on the formula established by Goldfinger. It does most of the tropes, but does them well: good action, good gadgets, a respectfully subdued but mercifully present sense of humor. There’s not much else to say; halfway through 1977, it’s in my top 10. Just don’t expect it to stay there.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Bond says “you’re on Candid Camera.” However, Allen Funt never comes boogieing on out. Detente is namedropped, and is the entire subtext of the movie. The score is all lush Marvin Hamlisch piano pieces, including the theme by Carly Simon, with the one exception of the Bond theme’s disco remix. Eat your heart out, Meco!

Next Time: Orca

Empire of the Ants (1977)


Empire of the Ants
Dir. Bert I. Gordon
Premiered June 29, 1977

What’s stupider than Jaws with an octopus? Jaws with ants! Produced by drive-in b-movie stalwart American Independent Pictures, and based on and having nothing to do with the H.G. Wells story of the same name, Empire of the Ants is a glorious first: the first so-bad-it’s-good flick of 1977.

The film opens simply enough, with the first of several long, lingering shots of slow-moving boats. This particular boat is off the coast of Florida, where some people– it just occurred to me that we never know who they are– dumping radioactive waste into the sea. One drum of waste floats onto the beach, leaks, and attracts ants.

The same day, a con artist (Joan Collins) has arranged for a party of speculators to check out her beachfront property with the promise of turning it into a small community. The land is worthless, but bigger problems arise when the irradiated ants grow to tremendous size and begin killing the party off one by one. With the help of the group’s boat captain (Robert Lansing), they escape to a town. Unfortunately, the local population has already been enslaved by the ants through the power of pheromones.

Let’s be clear: none of that makes sense. Radioactive waste doesn’t float, for one. Nor are ants telepathic, as shown here, occasionally screaming like human women. And there’s no way they could show up on the beach and take over a town miles away instantaneously. Far weirder is Empire of the Ants’ habit of having its characters constantly reference conversations that weren’t in the movie, but logically should have been, although said conversations still wouldn’t make sense in context, making it seem like there was no script. Each character is such a stereotype that you can tell the order in which they’ll be killed off.

But you’re not here for story; you’re here for effects, and you won’t be disappointed. The ant effects come in several different flavors. Sometimes the actors are placed in a split-screen with blown-up footage of real ants, albeit in visibly grainier film stock. At other times, live ants are placed on models, where they appear way larger than in any other form. Then there’s the puppets, which are lovingly detailed but can barely move, forcing the actors to stand patiently still in order to be slowly, gingerly gored. The most sublimely ridiculous gimmick, though, is when the ants appear to be drawn onto the film itself with black Sharpie.

At the very least, however, the film leaves plenty of dialogue-free moments to riff on. Mystery Science Theater 3000 take note!

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The men and women all wear variations on the same respective outfits, and they are disco-tastic.

How Did It Do?
Empire of the Ants grossed $2.5 million against an unknown budget– unknown, but probably tiny considering its shoddy effects and reckless production. It also earned an impressive-for-all-the-wrong-reasons 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.

Next Time: The Spy Who Loved Me

Sorcerer (1977)


Dir. William Friedkin
Premiered June 24, 1977

If you asked Peter Biskind, author of the seminal New Hollywood history Easy Riders Raging Bulls, to pick one film contributed directly to the end of this particular era of studio filmmaking, he’d probably say Heaven’s Gate. If you asked him to name two, he’d probably say 1941. But if you asked for a third, he’d probably say Sorcerer.

Based on the French novel The Wages of Fear, which had already inspired to films in the 1950s, it was the second-most expensive movie of 1977, a massive co-production between Universal and Paramount studios. Director William Friedkin, fresh off the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist, was given carte blanche on the sole condition that the film star Jaws’ Roy Scheider, and used this power to turn the film into a subtle protest of Paramount, then owned by oil conglomerate Gulf and Western. To hear Biskind say it, Sorcerer was an overindulgent disaster.

It’s genius.

The film begins with the story of four criminals:

  • “Nilo” (Francisco Rabal) a suave, mysterious Mexican assassin fresh off a job in Veracruz.

  • “Martinez” (Amidou), a Palestinian terrorist who is the only member of his cell to escape his Israeli pursuers after a bombing in Jerusalem.

  • “Serrano” (Bruno Cremer), a French banker under investigation for millions in fraud.

  • “Dominguez” (Roy Scheider), an American gangster who narrowly escapes a brutal car accident after robbing a rival gang’s church.

By chance, the fugitives all converge on Porvenir, a poor village in an unnamed Latin American country where an American oil company has recently completed a pipeline to a new well 200 miles away. When the well catches fire, the four men are chosen to drive a dangerously corroded payload of TNT through the jungle to seal the well, using two ancient, heavily modified trucks. In exchange, the corporation will provide them each $20,000 and brand new identities.

With its jittery, frantic cinematography and interconnected narrative, Sorcerer belongs more in post-9/11 Hollywood than in 1977. In fact, its influence on films of that era, such as Blood Diamond, There Will Be Blood, and even some of the movies of Wes Anderson are unmistakable. In many ways, it’s far less pedantic than most exotically-set, high-budget message movies since. Complementing the visual flair is an unending sense of grit and terror. These men know that their cargo could kill them at any moment, and the challenges that await them on the road seem impossible. The result is a film of herculean– some might say Herzogian– proportions, one of the true epics of the New Hollywood.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The unusual score, by techno collective Tangerine Dream: synths, but definitely not ‘80s synths. Germans and the PLO still go hand-in-hand.

How Did It Do?
With a budget of $21.6 million, Sorcerer was the second-most expensive film of 1977; with a total box-office gross of $12 million, it was also the year’s biggest flop. If one estimates marketing costs, Sorcerer’s losses were bigger than the box-office receipts for all but the ten highest-grossing films of the year. Across the United States, paying moviegoers were seen walking out and demanding refunds. Critics, however, adored it, earning an 80% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Those who dissented largely found themselves unable to get into it, or found it too bleak.

Much like At Long Last Love for Peter Bogdanovich and Health for Robert Altman, Sorcerer marked Friedkin’s descent from hitmaker to cult icon, languishing with such films as Cruising and charming niche audiences with To Live and Die in L.A. before moving on to television, returning to form with 2011’s Killer Joe.

In 1979, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert declared Sorcerer to be one of the most overlooked gems of the entire 1970s; someday to be remembered as a classic. Siskel even theorized that the film underperformed due to its title, which may have led potential audiences to mistake it for high fantasy (which, with the sole exception of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has never been a commercially viable film genre), especially with Friedkin coming off The Exorcist. On both accounts, he was right. Sorcerer is a great film and demands to be seen as such.

Next Time: Empire of the Ants

The Rescuers (1977)


The Rescuers
Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery, and Art Stevens
23rd entry in the Disney Animated Canon
Premiered June 22, 1977

The Rescuers was one of my favorite Disney movies as a kid, and I barely remember any of it. Having watched it again, I understand the latter, but not the former, nor why it was so popular with my mom’s students for however long she held on to our VHS copy. In its own time, The Rescuers was a return to form that saved the Walt Disney Company from certain doom. Today, nobody much cares for it, at least not adults. What changed?

The Rescuers was the last film to have any creative involvement from Walt Disney himself, having optioned Margery Sharp’s book of the same name as well as some of its spinoffs back in 1962. The original plot centered around the titular rescuers helping a Russian poet imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, but Disney thought it was too heavy duty and gave up on the project. By the ‘70s, though, the company was so starved for new content that they revived the picture as a placeholder– as they did the previous entry, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh– until they could make something more ambitious.

Mind you, it may not be political, but The Rescuers is very dark, in both its visuals and its story. It begins with a little girl named Penny (Michelle Stacy) dropping a message in a bottle into a swamp, where it floats into the sea, and thence into the sea, washing ashore in New York City to the tune of a very depressing song called “The Journey” by Shelby Flint. Arriving in New York, the message is taken to the Rescue Aid Society, a subsection of the United Nations run entirely by mice. Penny’s message is garbled due to water damage, and Hungarian delegate Bianca (Eva Gabor) volunteers to investigate. When pressed to choose a partner, she selects Bernard (Bob Newhart), the Society’s oafish but kind janitor.

The investigation takes them first to the orphanage where Penny ran away out of frustration over not being adopted, then to a sketchy pawn shop run by a haggard and villainous woman named Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page), who, after receiving a phone call about “the girl,” takes off to Louisiana; Bernard and Bianca in hot pursuit with help from a pilot/albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan). Arriving there, they discover that Medusa and her stooge Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) have been keeping Penny as a slave on a condemned riverboat, taking advantage of her small size to get into a tidal cave that houses a sunken treasure called the Devil’s Eye Diamond.

In spite of the decided maturity and darkness of the story– you really sense the involvement of animator Don Bluth here– The Rescuers comes off as kinda half-assed. Penny is irritatingly cutesy. In fact, that’s her only defining characteristic, and the effect is dulling. All we care about is Bernard and Bianca. There are a handful of genuinely cute animal characters, like the orphanage cat (John McIntyre), Orville, and tiny, voiceless Evinrude the Dragonfly (James MacDonald). But then there’s an overload of ancillary characters living in the swamp who are little more than stereotypes and cameos, let alone the villains. Madame Medusa may not look much like 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, but she certainly feels like a less fun version of her. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film that prominently features child slavery, alcohol, and firearms, but it doesn’t give the audience much to grab onto. Much less her henchman Snoops, who has no personality at all except as her toady.

Little of it adds up to a coherent whole, at least for a movie that’s trying to tell a complete story, unlike The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and especially a film this short, topping off at 77 minutes. With so little time, the padding is even more desperate and the jokes ever more repetitive.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • The head of Rescue Aid Society makes a weirdly non-committal semi-endorsement of the unprecedented act of sending a female mouse on a rescue mission.

  • When Bernard and Bianca enter the Morningside Orphanage, they enter on top of a chest belonging to “Jimmy Jones.” That would have been horrifying a year and a half later. Also, orphanages still exist in the United States.

  • Though not a musical in the conventional sense, The Rescuers features three original songs, all of them easy listening pieces performed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal inspiration Shelby Flint, and all but the very dark opener are awful.

Additional Notes
The Rescue Aid Society has a delegate from “Africa.” You know, that country Africa. More strangely, it has a delegate from Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time.

Penny’s teddy bear looks an awful lot like Winnie the Pooh.

How Did It Do?
Although you wouldn’t guess it now, The Rescuers was Disney’s biggest success of the 1970s; earning $48 million against a $7.5 million budget, receiving the biggest opening weekend box office of any animated film up to that point, and beating Star Wars in France. Critics flocked to the film as well, giving it an 83% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes; the company had failed to recover from Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and subsequently fell behind the rest of Hollywood creatively and financially, to the point that many wondered if the studio would fold entirely (it almost did). The Rescuers demonstrated that they still had it– though much of that credit belongs to Don Bluth, who would soon leave Disney and spend most of the 1980s beating them at their own game. At the same time, most people I know who’ve seen The Rescuers are way more lukewarm about it.

On the strength of its 1977 debut, The Rescuers became the first (and until 2011 only) WDAS film to receive an official sequel, 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. In many ways, the sequel’s fortunes were directly inverse to that of the original: it flopped when Disney panickingly pulled all advertising after a 4th-place opening, and critics at the time didn’t like it as much as the original, but it is now widely regarded as the far superior film. Which it is: funny, exciting, and gorgeous to look at. In many ways, The Rescuers Down Under is a product of the Hollywood blockbuster model that was emerging when the original made its debut.

Next Time: Sorcerer

New York, New York (1977)


New York, New York
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Premiered June 21, 1977

New York, New York is a difficult film. It was a tribute to the big-band musicals of Old Hollywood in a time when paying tribute to Old Hollywood was on par with fascism. As the follow-up to director Martin Scorsese’s breakout hit Taxi Driver, it wasn’t what people expected. Scorsese was barely able to control the production and shot for a gargantuan 4 1/2 hour running time. Watching New York, New York is watching a good film buried by convention, compromise, and overambition.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, shifty saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) endlessly pesters USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minelli) for a date. She’ll have none of it, and the more she learns about him the less she likes, but when circumstances lead the two to perform together, something changes. What is otherwise a fine working relationship is mistaken for romance.

For the next couple of years, Jimmy and Francine tour as part of a touring jazz band, which becomes increasingly difficult as Middle America settles down and stops going out to dance. Jimmy and Francine marry while traveling, and when Jimmy is made bandleader, he is overcome with anger, jealousy, and control issues– all of which are inflicted most on Francine and her own rising star.

Many critics have decried the folly of combining an ostentatiously artificial throwback to postwar musicals with moody character-based drama, but the issues are more with each of the two parts than their combination. The toxic relationship between Jimmy and Francine is well-acted and well-written, but in no way does it justify two full hours of screentime. Equally, the third act, which we may assume was originally the second half, and is by far the most engaging and visually interesting portion, is preposterously truncated. That this proverbial money shot was subject to the majority of cuts by the studio is baffling. The music works a little too well; by emulating the golden age of movie musicals, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have managed to sound like everything else, and only the title track is memorable.

Altogether, New York, New York is both a technical achievement and a failed experiment. Everyone involved is capable of better.

Additional Notes
Francine is cast in a big movie musical wherein she stars as an usherette at a musical theater who experiences a long Singin’ in the Rain–esque digression wherein she fantasizes about starring in a musical. Let me repeat: Liza Minelli stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $14 million against a $16 million budget, New York, New York was a notorious flop. The film ended Scorsese’s marriage to author Julia Cameron, and began his severe descent into depression drug abuse, as well as his relationship with star Liza Minelli, who ended up saving his life when he experienced what can only be described as Ebola-like symptoms after taking a bad batch of cocaine while directing the following year’s The Last Waltz.

Most critics have been kinder than one might expect, considering the movie’s reputation, earning a 67% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, though the majority of positive reviews prominently feature major caveats about its quality.

Of course, the legacy of New York, New York doesn’t end there. Or should I say the legacy of “New York, New York.” In 1981, Frank Sinatra recorded a cover of the main theme, and while not a hit, it has had some serious staying power, most notably as the victory song for most New York-based sports teams, as well as any number of film and television montages about New York City.

Next Time: The Rescuers

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)


Exorcist II: The Heretic
Dir. John Boorman
Premiered June 17, 1977

In 1971, Robert Altman was tapped to adapt the Korean War novel MASH, despite hating the source material. To him, Richard Hooker’s book was an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. But he still managed to make a faithful adaptation, as his movie is an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. Mind you, MASH is till a very respected film due to its innovative use of overlapping dialogue, but try watching it now, because if you ask me, any film whose merits are purely technical is guaranteed to have a short shelf life. Just look at Avatar.

Point being, maybe it’s not the best idea to have filmmakers adapt material they don’t like. At best you’ll get another MASH, at worst you’ll get Exorcist II: The Heretic.

The movie’s director, John Boorman, might be considered the New Hollywood counterpart to today’s Wachowskis: an instantly recognizable talent with a solid reputation but a tendency toward too much ambition and too little follow-through. Boorman hated the original Exorcist, and excoriated it in a bout of muddled if well-intentioned progressivism, so it stood to reason that The Exorcist II: The Heretic would be his way of “fixing” the franchise.

So unlike sequels like Jurassic Park II or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, which sloppily fell prey to the trends the original films set, The Exorcist II’s jarring incompatibility with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic is by design. Which is to say it’s not a horror movie– not at all. It’s a John Boorman movie, a vaguely highbrow mashup of sci-fantasy and spiritual exotica. And it might be his worst.

Three years have passed since the events of The Exorcist. Because Ellen Burstyn wisely declined to return for the sequel, Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) now lives in a glitzy Manhattan apartment made entirely out of mirrors (Boorman loves his reflective surfaces) with her caretaker Sharon (Kitty Winn). In between home life and practicing for her high school’s upcoming musical theater production, Regan spends extensive periods at a bizarre, beehive-inspired mental hospital where she receives psychic therapy from Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) with the help of an electric psychic dream machine (read: a stick with two flashing lights on the end) called a synchronizer. This is treated as perfectly normal, as is Gene’s insistence that repressed memories– such as that of Regan’s possession and exorcism– remain repressed.

At the same time Regan begins therapy with the sync, the Catholic Church sends Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) to investigate the events of the first film. In an unorthodox turn of events (though in this movie, everything is unorthodox), Fr. Lamont uses the sync with Regan, and a lasting psychic bond forms between them. Regan’s improving memory of her exorcism causes the demon to return, and we get a name– Pazuzu.

Now, obviously, an unnamed evil is better than a named one, but if you have to give it a name, anything is better than what sounds like a pet name for a woman named Pazelda. I know this was the name of the demon in the original book of The Exorcist, but book loyalty doesn’t make something good, especially when the filmmaker is making a deliberate effort to destroy the legacy of the first movie. Considering every mention of the name Pazuzu seems to rub its in the audience’s face, neither Boorman nor screenwriter William Goodhart seem to respect anyone who might be watching.

Fr. Lamont suspects Regan might be the vanguard of a long-theorized event whereby humanity will coalesce into a single “world-mind,” as demonstrated by her newfound ability to predict the future through abstract art and cure a small girl of autism, leading Lamont to seek out another vanguard previously exorcised by the first film’s Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow). This takes him first to a mountaintop abbey in Ethiopia that just happens to perfectly match a background painting in a display at New York’s Natural History Museum, then to somewhere in West Africa, where he finds Pazuzu’s previous victim, a scientist named Kukumo (James Earl Jones) trying to stop locusts from swarming while psychically manifesting as a leopard.

It goes on like that.

As a follow-up to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic is a fucking insult. As a standalone film, it’s pretentious gibberish. As a follow-up to Boorman’s previous film Zardoz, it makes a creepy amount of sense, like when Regan absentmindedly gropes Gene’s breasts during a therapy session, or when Fr. Lamont breaks the fourth wall to say “it was horrible, utterly horrible, and fascinating.” All of this makes the movie hard to analyze fairly. I could say that it gets everything completely wrong about the original, which was a grounded, accessible horror thriller preying on parental anxieties that are nowhere to be found here, but that’s on purpose. Then again, does that make it better? And does that mean Boorman succeeded in what he set out to do? He claimed to have wanted to make “a film about journeys that were positive,” but Exorcist II: The Heretic is not that film. It is an expression of contempt, wholly lacking in humanity. If you liked The Exorcist, or you like yourself, stay the hell away.

How Did It Do?
Exorcist II: The Heretic grossed $30.7 million against a $14 million budget, barely breaking even. Were it not a sequel to a nine-figure mega-blockbuster, this would be an acceptable outcome, but that wasn’t the case. Exorcist Author William Peter Blatty, who would have nothing to do with the film, eventually made a third film…in 1990, with none of the original cast.

Critics– other than obstinate iconoclast Pauline Kael– absolutely loathed The Heretic, earning a 20% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It’s continued to be a subject of fascination for film critics and historians, being profiled– and ridiculed by both Doug Walker and Brad Jones within the past decade. At least three critics have recommended watching it with the sound off. Others have given it positive reviews by virtue of being such a fiasco. Among the film’s biggest detractors was original Exorcist director William Friedkin, who called it “as bad as seeing a traffic accident in the street.” If you have the time, I recommend reading some of these reviews, they’re quite fun.

Before Exorcist II, John Boorman had been lobbying for a three-hour epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Thankfully, this film’s failure cost him that project, though he was able to funnel some of its creative efforts into 1981’s Excalibur.

Next Time: New York, New York

The Deep (1977)


The Deep
Dir. Peter Yates
Premiered June 17, 1977

This project has already brought us one terrible Jaws ripoff, and it will bring another. In the meantime, Peter Yates’ The Deep is a rare pleasure: the good Jaws ripoff! Adapted from Peter Benchley’s follow-up to Jaws, and co-starring Robert Shaw, things are already off to a better start than they were with, say, Tentacles. It’s also a very different kind of story: an old-fashioned mystery/adventure with all the resources the 1970s had to offer.

On holiday in Bermuda, treasure-hunting couple David (Nick Nolte) and Gail (Jacqueline Bisset) explore the Goliath, a sunken World War II vessel that’s off-limits to tourists– and not for no reason; it’s loaded with unexploded munitions. But as the two discover, it also has another treasure: thousands upon thousands of vials of morphine. Looking for assistance, David seeks out the island’s resident explorer Romer Treece (Robert Shaw), but word of the payload has already gotten out, placing the lot of them in the crosshairs of Hatian gangster Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.), and arousing the displeasure of one of the Goliath’s original crew (Eli Wallach). Undeterred, David and Gail return to the wreck with Treece, where a chance rockslide uncovers an even bigger treasure: under the Goliath is another shipwreck far older and far more valuable.

The Deep’s main draw is its underwater sequences, which rank among the best I’ve ever seen. The film has a handful of flaws around its periphery: For every three minutes of great shipwreck footage, there’s one minute of bad day-for-night scenes. The villains were ill-defined; I never got a feel for Cloche, or much understood his plan– and his gang is awfully ostentatious for such a small community, engaging in stereotypical voodoo rituals for effect. Nonetheless, The Deep remains a tense thriller with a real sense of adventure and mystery.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The Deep’s score is not exactly timeless, but it’s classy. At least until the credits roll, when it descends into an embarrassing disco medley.

How Did It Do?
The Deep was the #8 film of 1977, earning $47.4 million against a $9 million budget. It also received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and Best Original Song. For those of you who took umbrage with my mild disinterest in Stroszek, Eraserhead, 3 Women, and Iphigenia, let me balance it out: I’m thoroughly in the minority in liking The Deep, which earned a 36% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and was slammed by the majority of critics as a terse attempt to recapture the box-office success of Jaws. To that I say that aside from the involvement of Benchley, Shaw, and the Atlantic, The Deep is not Jaws, nor is it trying to be, and it’s much appreciated.

Next Time: Exorcist II: The Heretic

Grand Theft Auto (1977)


Grand Theft Auto
Dir. Ron Howard
Premiered June 16, 1977

With Grand Theft Auto, we see the debut of another great Hollywood filmmaker, Ron Howard. But unlike the year’s other alums Lynch, Gilliam, or Ridley Scott, Ron Howard is not a stylistically recognizable filmmaker, despite being a very famous one. His films have ranged from frathouse comedy to awe-inspiring historical drama to literary pulp. And his debut is no different, as Grand Theft Auto is a genuine Roger Corman grindhouse picture.

The trouble begins when Los Angeles heiress Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) announces to her parents (Barry Cahill and Elizabeth Rogers) that she’s going to marry working-class Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) rather than well-born horse enthusiast Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke). Her car keys taken by her father, a candidate for Governor of California, Paula steals his beloved Rolls Royce and tears off with Sam to elope in Las Vegas.

When Collins finds out what’s happened, he’s convinced that Paula has been brainwashed Patty Hearst-style, steals a succession of vehicles to chase after them, and calls into a popular radio station offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch them before they reach Vegas. In turn, Collins’ mother (Marion Ross) goes on a spree of her own, offering her own $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch her son. What follows is a nonstop car chase involving private detectives (led by Rance Howard), the mafia (led by Garry Marshall), a profusion of fortune-seekers, and the radio DJ himself (Don Steele).

Grand Theft Auto starts promisingly; you really get a sense of the main characters and root for them, as well as laughing at their pursuers. But it quickly becomes too much. With every new character and scenario brought into the chase– and I lost count fairly early– the film transforms from a goofy chase movie into a headache. To add insult to injury, the film also becomes progressively shoddier, and what had begun as a series of impressive car stunts turns into a mess of cheap editing tricks. If you’re that interested in Ron Howard’s origins as a director, I’d say check it out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Los Angeles has some five skyscrapers. Las Vegas has none, and is still a pretty small town. Paula has rich parents but lives at home.

Additional Notes
Amusing how the above poster has Howard behind the wheel. He never drives in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Grand Theft Auto grossed $15 million worldwide against an astonishingly tiny $600,000 budget. Most of that gross came from overseas, and US critics were none too thrilled with the movie, earning it a 25% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Howard returned to television, directing a series of made-for-TV-movies before breaking out with 1982’s Night Shift, and the rest is history.

But the real question you’re probably all wondering: does this have anything to do with the famous series of videogames? Honestly, the scenarios in the movie bear a striking resemblance to GTA’s gameplay, but as far as can be told, there’s no relation. There was a big lawsuit between Roger Corman and Rockstar Games, and that’s about it.

Next Time: The Deep