Bizarre nightmares plague Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) four years after her possession and exorcism. Has the demon returned? And if so, can the combined faith and knowledge of a Vatican investigator (Richard Burton) and a hypnotic research specialist (Louise Fletcher) free her from its grasp?
Employing production design and special effects that are dizzily exhilarating and a supporting cast (Max von Sydow, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones) of compelling distinction, director John Boorman draws us into the tangible experience of evil. We fly with the demon, feel the African landscape vibrate and get engulfed in the terror of swarming locusts as Exorcist II: The Heretic weaves its fascinating, frightful spell.
eyelights: Regan is all growned up. Ennio Morricone’s score.
eyesores: the plot is nonsensical. it’s a sci-fi film, not a horror film. the dialogues are clunky. the performances are weak. Richard Burton rants like a lunatic. the sets are crappy. there’s a silly locust cam.
“It was horrible, utterly horrible… and fascinating!”
‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ is the much-derided sequel to ‘The Exorcist‘. Released in 1977, it was considered a tremendous disappointment by the studio, despite turning a minor profit. It was openly mocked by critics and despised by fans and is now widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made.
And it is. It really is.
The picture takes us four years after the events of the first film. Regan, who remembers nothing of that fateful night, now consults a therapist to placate her mother, who is worried about her. The therapist decides to hypnotize her to help her deal with the memories that she’s repressed.
In comes Father Lamont, who has been assigned by a Cardinal to investigate Father Merrin’s death – a long-time friend of both men. During the hypnosis, he becomes aware of Pazuzu and goes on a quest to Africa to find a boy Merrin has exorcised years ago, in the hope it will help him vanquish this evil force.
It doesn’t sound so bad when put that way, but ‘The Heretic’ suffered from incessant script rewrites during filming, ungodly performances, and despite a significant budget (it was Warner Bros.’s most expensive picture ever at the time), it looks like it was made on the cheapest possible sets.
I can’t fathom why everything looked so artificial, but at least the use of sets is justified: director John Boorman had wanted to shoot on location in Ethiopia and The Vatican but was turned down. Furthermore, they were unable to get the permission to film in the original house or even at the iconic outdoor staircase.
They were also unable to get the cast and crew that they would have wanted: Before Boorman signed on, the studio tried to get William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty to return as director and screenwriter, but neither wanted anything to do with a sequel to their film; at the time, they wanted to leave it alone.
Further to that, Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair refused to return in the picture. Blair eventually changed her mind, but she was the only scoop the film had. Even the casting of Father Lamont became problematic: no one wanted the part, and Richard Burton only agreed to do it if he the studio financed a picture near and dear to his heart, ‘Equus’.
Now why would a studio insist on making a picture that has so many strikes against it, that seems nearly doomed to fail? Money. Pure and simple. ‘The Exorcist’ was one of the biggest box office successes in history and they wanted more of it. And sometimes ambition can obscure even the most foolhardy notions.
And thus ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ was made – and crashed and burned upon arrival. People were so incensed by it that it is said that studio execs were chased out of the cinema and into the streets the night of its premiere. Boorman ended up recutting the film right away and reissued it twice, both miserable failures.
Warning: The following rant will comprise of a gajillion spoilers (as if the movie isn’t spoiled already).
It’s an utterly ridiculous picture right out of the box: It starts with a then-unknown Father Lamont doing an exorcism. In his Bible, inexplicably, there is a picture of Father Merrin. Lamont is afraid, hesitates and, consequently, the woman he was there to save ends up burning to death. Ouch. Poor exposition, an incomprehensible situation, and an unknown character. We’re off to the races!
Meanwhile, we get to watch Regan practicing her tap-dancing for school. Utter excitement. It’s totally pointless, but it must have been in Blair’s contract. We’ll get to see her tap-dance again later: under attack by Pazuzu, we get to laugh at her convulsions as she attempts to carry on dancing. Pfft!
Then she goes to visit her therapist, Dr. Tuskin (played by the inimitable Louise Fletcher), who works with autistic and other challenged children. After we’ve established that Regan doesn’t remember the past and only goes to see Tuskin to please her mother, Lamont shows up.
I have a few questions about that:
- Now, why would Lamont visit the clinic to speak with Regan, instead of going to see her at home or consult her mom first? Quick answer: Ellen Burstyn wasn’t in the picture.
- Why would Dr. Tuskin refuse to let Father Lamont see Regan for the sake of protecting her from her past… and yet want to hypnotize her to explore the past with her. Seems contradictory.
- Why would Regan initially decline to do the hypnotism… only to change her mind when she saw Lamont, even agreeing for him to join them? Writers’ convenience, mayhaps?
Another quick question:
- How do we know that Regan the therapist are hypnotized? Because they roll their eyes, that’s how! Hahaha!
You see, they are using a “synchronizer”, which hypnotizes both of them at once, so that Dr. Tuskin can be in touch with Regan’s mind. But it requires them to work as a team, so after Dr. Tuskin hypnotizes Regan, Regan then brings Tuskin down to her “tone” – whatever that means!
First, let’s forget the retarded notion that they can join their minds somehow – that’s just completely moronic and easily discreditable. But how is it even possible for Regan to help Tuskin along? Isn’t she hypnotized? Who knows!
In any case, as can be expected, something goes wrong and Dr. Tuskin is stuck in that mode. No one knows what to do, but Father Lamont jumps in, putting the apparatus on and going after her… like a pro! Ha! He made it seem so easy-peasy! My hero!!!
Anyway, in so doing, he sees the conflict taking place between Father Merrin and Pazuzu (in Regan’s body) back in 1973 – except that it’s all new footage, and it looks nothing like the original film. It looks like crap, like a cheap set, and neither Merrin or Regan look the same.
Why didn’t they just use the old footage, you might ask? Because they had to show Pazuzu reaching for Dr. Tuskin’s heart, and Regan caressing it in the clinic, their hands covering each other. They’re basically fighting for her life, even though there’s the small matter of this Pazuzu being a memory.
It gets richer: Lamont stops Pazuzu by saying “My God!” (or something to that effect). Hahaha!!!
Not long after, for some reason, Regan draws a picture of Lamont with fire around him. When he sees it, it immediately means to him that there’s and actual fire in the building! I don’t know how he divined that, but he then finds the fire right away (in a huge building, no less) and starts to stomp it out. Too much!
The fire means the evacuation of the whole building, and we come to realize that, strangely, although it’s late at night, the kids are still at the clinic. Hmmm. Later in the film, we discover that they sleep there. We don’t know where the beds come from, as the clinic is clearly not set up for beds. But there you have it.
In any case, for now Regan goes home to sleep. While she’s dreaming, Pazuzu takes her to Africa to watch an epidemic of locusts. As one might expect (!), this makes her sleepwalk from her room right to the edge of the penthouse’s large terrace – which has no barrier or railing for some reason. Ridiculous.
The worst thing is that, apparently, this was not staged and there were no stuntmen involved: Linda Blair actually stood on the edge like that for the scene. Anyway, Regan screams when she wakes up there, but the next thing we know she’s out on the roof playing with pigeons, as though nothing had happened.
Then Father Lamont and Sharon, Regan’s minder, take off and go on a tour of their old Georgetown house. Basically, he looks around while a locust watches him. And that’s it. Nothing happens. What was the point? Was it just to remind the audience of this $#!tty-@$$ picture’s roots? Well, that’s a double-edged sword!
Upon his return, Lamont and Regan and Burton synchronize. Of course he did: you have to give Richard Burton something to do other than just watch the others have fun!
Anyway, for some reason, together they see a young Father Merrin in Africa. He found a boy who was also possessed by Pazuzu. Too funny: a servant carrying the boy up a cliff falls to his death, but it looks like a b-movie. Somehow, Regan then taps into Pazuzu’s consciousness and shows Burton POV shots of a locust. Haha! Locust cam! Sigh…
Later, Regan and Lamont coincidentally meet at a museum and it so happens that one of the displays there is exactly the place that Merrin went to… because Africa is so small that this one place would just have to show up in a museum!
Then Lamont goes to Africa to find Kukumo, the boy that Merrin exorcised. Wow, I didn’t know that Africa looked like a bad movie set. But it MUST be Africa because there are Africans dancing, trancelike – exactly like they tend to do.
There’s this terrific scene in which Burton is talking to a “French” nun, waiting for a delivery of a large crucifix. Coincidentally, the man (played by Ned Beatty, the world’s most subtle actor) delivering it knows exactly the place Burton is looking for. So he takes him.
What’s great about this scene, aside for the coincidence, is that the guy arrived by plane, on the beach, and there’s no trace of the plane landing anywhere. Also, while the two discuss their destination, the nuns are behind them, pretty much fondling the crucifix. Oh boy…
While he’s in Africa, somehow Regan and Lamont are telepathically linked. Seems that, since first synchronizing, Regan has developing ESP and healing powers. Makes total sense. Um, not. Plus it’s totally in keeping with the original film, which is about demonic possession! *rolls eyes*
Anyway, Lamont wanders around Africa asking around for Kukomo (who, b-t-w, turns out to be Darth Vader), as though he’d lost his puppy: “Kukumo? Kukumo?”, he asks the air. He’s got to be the worst investigator ever! In the end, the message that he gets from his journey is: good and evil are fighting inside Regan.
Regan, doing her best Amanda Bynes imitation, steals the synchronizer and goes to the museum, where Lamont somehow meets her. Then they go rent a cheap motel room. After synchronizing, Burton leaves, all zombie-like, and takes the train to Georgetown. Regan doesn’t get to trash the room before leaving. Too bad.
Alerted by Regan, Dr. Tuskin Raider and Sharon take a plane to head the other two off at the old house. It becomes a tension-filled chase: a train vs a plane. Um, yeah. Quick question: If Regan and Lamont go to Georgetown at 150 km/hr and Dr. Tuskin and Sharon go to the same destination at 800 km/hr, who will get there first?
(For the record, it’s over 370 km from New York to Georgetown. I hope that helps.)
So Regan and Lamont arrive at the bottom of the steps by city bus. Talk about a terrific transit system! It kind of cheapens the setting though, which should be ominous, not mundane. Meanwhile, Tuskin and Sharon have taken a cab (backed by the worst rear projection ever – it actually shakes!) and it crashes into the old house’s gate. Hahaha!
The ending is so unbelievably bad that it elicits laughter instead of chills. It plays like a bad Italian b-movie – not evena good Italian b-movie! Finally, Regan and Lamont walk off into the wilderness. Good riddance, I say (although one has to wonder where they are planning to go, and what the future holds for them…).
Suddenly, out of nowhere, arrive the police, the neighbours, and passersby. Everyone shows up. But where from? Before that very moment, Dr. Tuskin Raider was screaming for help in the street and it was dead quiet, deserted. Utterly ridiculous…
The thing is, if only the actors had been smolderingly hot, then perhaps some of the ridiculousness would have been easier to ignore. As much as a great film can be ruined by terrible performances, a terrible film can be improved by great performances. Alas, ‘The Heretic’ enjoyed the benefits of neither.
As in the original picture, Linda Blair is one of two centrepieces to the picture. In all fairness, she was given some ungodly dialogues and was asked to do stupid crap, but she is near-unwatchable here – especially at the end, when there’s an alternate, possessed Regan: It’s so funny to watch her facial tics! Worst actress ever! Except that, in the first film, she was so exceptionally good. So, what happened in between? Could it be… bad direction?
Richard Burton‘s Father Lamont is the other centrepiece (as was Father Karras in the original). But where Karras was a worn, but well-intentioned, man of faith, one you could care for, Lamont is a ranting, sweating lunatic. Burton is just not credible here. I’ve seen him in a few other films and have always found him a tad artificial, but I suspect that most of this performance is influenced by Burton’s raging alcoholism. It’s sad to watch, really.
Louise Fletcher won an Academy Award in 1975 for her turn as Nurse Ratched in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. It was richly deserved. But what’s notable is that her detached, Novocained delivery as Ratched is not very far removed from her performances in subsequent films (at least the ones I’ve seen), limiting her emotional range. And while that worked in ‘Cuckoo’, it simply doesn’t work elsewhere, not even in this gross misfire.
The rest of the cast isn’t even worth mentioning: they’re all either dang bad, or they’re so artificial that you can’t buy into it one bit. Again, in all fairness, the cast had been handed a script full of clunky dialogues, and it kept being rewritten at the last minute. Between that and the artificial production, and the obviously poor direction, how could any of them bring their best to the table? They were doomed to fail, much as ‘The Heretic’ was.
Ennio Morricone’s score is the only thing of any value in this whole picture, what with its sweeping arrangements and African rhythms. I thought that it was good enough that it might actually be worth getting on CD, to listen to separately. But it’s not especially scary, and it frequently didn’t work with the scenes (I wouldn’t be surprised if his music wasn’t used as intended).
But that’s pretty much the only nice thing I can say about ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’. It’s one gawdawful movie! It’s contrived to the Nth degree, it doesn’t make sense, it looks unconvincing and it plods along with the most absurd dialogues and performances. To make matter worse, it’s bad enough to start with, but it’s f-ing horrible as an ‘Exorcist’ film. It just doesn’t gel.
How this movie hasn’t become the victim of a RiffTrax commentary is frankly beyond me; it’s so ripe for the picking and could be turned into one of those so-bad-it’s-good types of cult films. In fact, I wonder why studios don’t try to promote that angle, to hire the RiffTrax gang and sponsor showings that make fun of their biggest misfires.
If they can’t exorcise these stinkers, at least this could resurrect them.
Date of viewing: October 12, 2014