One of the most jeered-at, overcooked sequels of all time thoroughly deserves its reputation as a train wreck of a movie. In hindsight we see a heap of resources and cinematic fireworks thrown at a project with little chance of survival. ‘There must be a sequel’ spake Warner Bros., and lo Sir John of Boorman stepped up to the plate. I think a lot of the scorn was blowback from the power of the original Friedkin picture, a blockbuster that was just too profane of an act to follow.
Exorcist II: The Heretic
1977 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 118 and 102 min. / Collector’s Edition / Street Date September 25, 2018 34.93
Starring: Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty, Belinda Beatty, Rose Portillo.
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Film Editor: Tom Priestley
Special Visual Effects: Bill Hansard, Albert Whitlock, Frank Van Der Veer
Special Makeup Effects: Dick Smith
Production Design: Richard MacDonald
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by William Goodhart
Produced by John Boorman, Richard Lederer
Directed by John Boorman
About eight years ago I finally got to express (exorcise?) my misgivings over the original William Friedkin The Exorcist. I no longer despise the movie, but still feel that it is unconscionably cruel and ruthless in its use of religious ideas to bludgeon audiences — That’s Entertainment! Warners possessed the contractual clout to ordain a sequel, even if Friedkin, author William Peter Blatty and actress Ellen Burstyn weren’t willing to play ball. Young Linda Blair returned with enthusiasm — she receives top billing, even above Richard Burton. I suppose he was accustomed to Liz taking the top spot, however.
Although the Peter Hyams sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey is a pedestrian trifle compared to Kubrick’s original, it’s also a passable version of a book sequel. Not so with John Boorman’s return to the saga of Father Merrin and Regan MacNeil. Exorcist II: The Heretic was released just a few weeks after the incredibly popular premiere of Star Wars. You’d think that almost any movie would wilt in the wake of Lucas’s box office behemoth, but in reality, Luke Skywalker put people back into the movie-going habit again, just as had Jaws two years earlier. But Warners shot themselves in the foot just before their movie opened. Friends asked if I wanted to rush out and see the new Exorcist film on its first night: the word was out that because John Boorman’s cut had previewed so badly, Warners was rushing out a re-edited, shorter replacement version. But it wasn’t out of the lab yet, and if we went the first or second night we’d be able to see the original, something that might never be projected again.
Having no interest in anything Exorcist, I didn’t go. Those that did said that the movie was silly, but no more stupid than other overdone movies. My special effects associates liked some of the techniques used — Albert Whitlock was respected as much as our own Douglas Trumbull. In either version Exorcist II sank like a rock. Has a last-minute re-edit ever saved any movie? How many of us want to see the 2.5-hour cut of Heaven’s Gate?
Unlike the expertly, creatively marketed original, Exorcist II: The Heretic has the unenviable task of topping a film remembered by audiences as a real gut shaker. Unfortunately, the new scattershot drama drags in a circus of new ideas, none of them established with the gravity brought by William Friedkin to the first film. Friedkin alluded to awful, ugly content in a way that kept us on the defensive at all times. The Heretic has no unexpected shocks. It instead gives us things to laugh at right off the top, even if it’s just Linda Blair’s crossed eyes when she’s strapped into that EKG harness. Events just get goofier from there. In many ways, the show is a TWYJGS: A Train Wreck You Just Gotta See.
Filmmaker John Boorman is no slacker, even when he serves up reels of funky, flaky non-special effects in his oddly likable Zardoz. But nothing can save this crazy show. All a horror movie needs is some consistently scary content for us to dread. We’ll accept a single demon from Hell, or an eagle statue that bursts to life. This sequel mounts an entire circus of mostly silly events and sights.
We object to almost everything we see and hear. We find out that Father Merrin’s ultimate sacrifice in Regan’s room was for naught, because Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) is still possessed. As if trying to establish a franchise in which Bluer Blue Meanie demons will keep popping up whenever a sequel is needed, the show has followup priest-investigator Philip Marlowe Lamont find that other victims of possession attended by Father Merrin have been given powers of goodness before expiring. One Mexican woman (Rose Portillo) has cured people before Pazuzu makes her set herself aflame. Sugar ‘n’ spice teen Regan finds she has the same talent when she cures another girl of a serious malady, an inability to talk. The scene redefines the notion of triteness:
“Hi! I’m aw, aw, autistic.
“I was possessed by a demon. But I’m not any more. Hey, let’s be friends!”
Regan’s psychiatrist & protector Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) more or less takes the place of Regan’s missing (and missed) mom, who is reportedly off somewhere out of touch, acting in another movie. Tuskin doesn’t like Lamont’s ominous mumblings about demons and “EVIL!” and isn’t particularly happy when Regan and Lamont begin to bond as buddies. As this is 1977, nobody worries about any other reasons that the frankly tormented-looking Father Lamont might want to spend so much time with a perky teenaged girl.
Dreams of Africa lead Father Lamont on a tropical quest straight out of a Chandu movie. He climbs a ridiculously tall crevasse to reach a Thief of Bagdad– like palace in the sky, where he partakes of a pagan Communion (?) and suffers a stoning because the local head honcho thinks he’s a devil worshipper. But he reaches a wise man named Kokumo (James Earl Jones), who first appears as a witch doctor wearing a locust costume. But that’s an illusion: Kokumo is actually a modern, westernized insect researcher. Lamont must have a sense of humor, for he doesn’t complain when he finds out that being impaled on a bed of spikes was just one of Pazuzu’s good-natured practical jokes.
Lo and behold, Kokumo has the key Lamont seeks. He theorizes that the locusts an form a communally powerful ‘overmind,’ which ties in with a philosophy Lamont has quoted about mankind perhaps progressing to a desired ‘overmind,’ a shared soul free of sin and violence. Kokumo also talks about genetically altered ‘good locusts’ to combat the ‘bad locusts.’ Yes, Regan and those other possessed young girls are really ‘good locusts’ with the power to heal and who-knows what else. They’ve been possessed because Satan dispatched Pazuzu to wipe them out, a battle that still rages. Yep, Father Lamont must return to New York, take Regan away from Dr. Tuskin and get back to that haunted house in Georgetown to defeat Pazuzu once more.
You can’t say the show is dull, starting with the way it looks. But some of Richard Macdonald’s art direction is difficult to understand. Both Tuskin’s child psych center and a hospital where Regan recovers are designed like glass honeycombs. All of these children have problems, and it would seem likely that a disturbed kid acting up in one glass cubicle would disturb kids in adjoining panels. Regan’s Manhattan penthouse also has various hall-of-mirrors design motifs. The really insane thing is its balcony railing, which is designed with big gaps so people can accidentally walk off and take a twenty-story drop.
In Africa the special effects run riot, with some excellent blue screen and (I think) front projection work. Perhaps inspired by the dusty orange Pazuzu statue that was so effective in The Exorcist, much of Africa seems artificially bathed in orange light. Again, that sky palace seems a place where 1,000 foot falls would be a daily occurrence — it reminds me of the giddy, insane slaughter climbing the ‘Mutia Escarpment’ in the pre-Code classic Tarzan and His Mate.
Violent dream imagery blasts in early and often. A triple-exposure placing Merrin and The Demon over images of Regan and Lamont just seems silly, like the overly-literal imagery expressing a split personality way back in Arch Oboler’s goofy 1945 noir drama Bewitched. When the Revelations- like locust plagues begin, Albert Whitlock gets to reprise visuals of a cloud of pests descending from the classic The Good Earth. ‘Locust vision’ shots give us close-up images of flying bugs that Bert I. Gordon would envy — one flying locust angle seems taken from The Deadly Mantis. But the horror/thriller payoff from these elaborate visuals is minimal.
Richard Burton’s besieged Priest seems to become possessed as well, as he turns into a manic fearless Pazuzu killer. With nowhere to go but sillier, the final chase to Georgetown contrasts big phenomena (More locusts! Crumbling walls!) with various dirty demonic tricks to slow up Dr. Tuskin’s progress. Yes, it can now be confirmed, traffic delays and other people’s misfortunes are just The Devil’s work to inconvenience you. Pay them no mind.
Remember Sharon (Kitty Winn), Regan’s mother’s secretary? She’s now Regan’s paid companion. Actress Winn got shafted out of several scenes in the first movie, and here she’s misused as collateral damage of Pazuzu’s climactic full court press. We know poor Sharon will be paying a penalty when she doubts and scoffs at Father Lamont’s faith, and when she gives Dr. Tuskin a hard time. Sharon sadly becomes the movie’s equivalent of a Red Shirt spaceman in Star Trek.
The overall problem here is that the concept reduces the notion of Faith to a lot of magical hocus-pocus. You can’t turn something like exorcisms into a thriller adventure without being offensive. Conversely, the assertion that the Catholic Church is fighting a battle for mankind’s soul won’t go down well with nonbelievers, or those of other faiths. In this context religion is coarsened into a superstitious denial of science and reality. You just can’t have it both ways. Father Lamont defies his superior to pursue his African quest, which at least makes him a double renegade: both The Cardinal (Paul Henreid) and Dr. Tuskin think his obsession is gumming things up. And he certainly is acting erratically. When Lamont and Regan need to get someplace private, they hideout in a hot-sheets flophouse hotel… he’ll have a hard time listing that on his expense report.
Another crazy idea in The Heretic is a goofball invention called a hypnosis synchronizer. Basically an electric Super Ouija Board from Radio Shack, it’s a silly gimmick one would expect to see in the farce Ghostbusters. Dr. Tuskin initially uses it to access Regan’s suppressed memories of trauma. Since she’s still possessed, the machine acts like a faucet, revealing the persistence of Demonic influence, along with a flood of flashback-like reprises of demon imagery from the first movie. The hypnosis synchronizer cues Father Lamont as to what’s going wrong, but Pazuzu also can use it to reassert its power. Regan and Lamont strap themselves in:
“Don’t be afraid! Father Merrin will help us!”
The final conflagration has none of the original’s dread, where some suggestible viewers became concerned that the world was being ripped apart by demonic powers. In this show, all that happens is that ‘goody goody’ Regan has to overcome the ‘witchy demon’ Regan. The conflict is identical to that in Black Sunday, figuring out which Barbara Steele is the satanic vampire. Old cultural lies are reinforced once again: remember folks, WOMEN are the conduit for EVIL in this world.
Ding Dong the witch is dead! It looks like half of Georgetown is blasted by fantastic phenomena, but Dr. Tuskin feels that it’s not worth trying to tell anybody what really happened. Lamont and Regan walk off together, perhaps to use her ‘good locust’ powers to heal the world! As they exit, I really wanted to hear Regan say,
“Padre, something tells me this is going to be the beginning of a great friendship.”
The indigestible story and script swallow the actors whole. Linda Blair has a pleasant smile yet doesn’t bring much to the demands of the role — she acts as if she wants this movie to be her Shirley Temple transition-to-adulthood. The next stop was rollerskating and women-in-prison movies. Audiences got a big laugh when Regan transforms into a sexy Jezebel-Pazuzu, and Father Lamont leaps atop her on the bed. We immediately remember an earlier unintentional laugh line, where Dr. Tuskin asks Lamont if he ever needs a woman. The question comes out of nowhere, and Lamont’s deadpan answer makes him sound like he’s hiding a bottomless pit of lust.
Burton tries harder than he does in some of his other late-career movies, pushing the yelling and screaming as far he can without making an utter fool of himself. He’s got a pretty good wig going for him. Louise Fletcher is a serious casualty, though — her uninflected speech makes her sound as if she’s in a trance. Almost none of her dialogue sounds natural; I wonder how much of this is the result of overdone replacement dubbing. Either that, or the lines fall flat because the characters consistently act nonchalant in the presence of phenomena that would render any normal person immobile with fear. And how is Dr. Tuskin supposed to explain to Regan’s mother what has happened to her daughter? Ms. Fletcher was willing to go the distance in other fantastic films so it’s a shame that her role here is so tame … although I’m not suggesting that Dr. Tuskin should do something gross like eat a frog.
James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid and Ned Beatty are reduced to brief walk-ons; I wonder what a full shooting script originally gave Beatty to do. Look at his credits for these years and it’s obvious that Beatty was one of the most in-demand talents going… he’s in everything, doing excellent work. He’s even great doing a Dagwood Bumstead impression in 1941. We have to remind ourselves that Max von Sydow’s advanced age in the first film was makeup by Dick Smith; when we see him looking younger in flashbacks in this picture, we at first think someone’s made a mistake. I don’t think Father Merrin ever talks here; so it looks like von Sydow graciously consented to cooperate with the sequel-makers for the needed cutaways and flashbacks.
I found Exorcist II: The Heretic to be fun in an inverted sense — I didn’t guffaw the way I’m told audiences once did, but neither did much of it seem to be working. Now we understand that one of the producers was a Warners publicity expert who had spun gold for various releases going back ten years; perhaps nobody else wanted to have their careers sunk by the project. The consensus must have been to solve the sequel problem by throwing a basket of money at John Boorman. Heck, John Frankenheimer had just made a successful sequel to Friedkin’s The French Connection; how hard could this be? At least now I know the true context of some crazy images I’ve been seeing for years — odd superimpositions of a sexy / possessed Linda Blair, and shots where we think Richard Burton was shoved in an aerospace wind tunnel, and pelted by supersonic corn flakes.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Exorcist II: The Heretic is a two-disc set with both versions of the film (I hear there are more hybrids out there). The one I watched is billed as the original premiere version, at 118 minutes; the one I didn’t see is 102 minutes in duration, adding some scenes reminding viewers of events in the first movie, and reworking the climax. I realize that Warners is now licensing a few titles to other vendors, and I wonder if this show was hired out because of its dismal reputation. It would seem a fine idea then, for a boutique like Scream Factory to press for access to Ken Russell’s The Devils, a title that WB seemingly prefers to pretend doesn’t exist.
The Heretic picture looks great and the mono sound is strong as well. With such a good copy, it was fun trying to guess how some of the effects were done. Of particular interest is Ennio Morricone’s film score. The main theme uses a rock guitar in combination with a noise something like a whip crack — it sounds as if Morricone were trying to imagine a wild party in Hell, with Satan cracking the whip. Two or three times in the picture we hear possessed wailing and screaming, and with Morricone’s familiar tone underscore working, we almost expect the ultimate scream of Navajo Joe to break through, from that film’s soundtrack album. When Father Lamont is asked to walk over the bed of spikes, the choice of music inspired in me my only moment of partial dread.
The full list of extras is below. I listened to part of John Boorman’s commentary, and he’s just as interesting here as he is talking about Zardoz or Hope and Glory. Linda Blair’s extended interview doesn’t give us much to chew on, except obvious things like her being excited about working with Richard Burton.
A film editor basically says how he got the job and then dawdles explaining what a Movieola is, and other such details.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Exorcist II: The Heretic
Movie: Fair+++ (pretty interesting)
Supplements (as listed by Scream Factory): DISC ONE (118 Minute Cut): all new extras: Audio commentary with John Boorman, audio commentary with Project Consultant Scott Bosco; What Does She Remember? interview with Linda Blair; interview With editor Tom Priestley.
DISC TWO (102 Minute Cut): New audio commentary With Mike White; Teaser and theatrical Trailers, galleries with production stills, BTS stills, deleted scene stills, posters and lobby cards.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Eli Roth on Exorcist II: