A true bad movie classic! A nominal sequel to THE EXORCIST (admittedly a hard act to follow), this is a staggeringly ambitious, globe-spanning vision of ancient evil and redemption that’s also colossally misguided.
Back in the 1970s nobody could make a bad movie quite like John Boorman. Boorman has directed many good, even great films–POINT BLANK, DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR–but his failures are in many ways just as interesting. For proof see LEO THE LAST (1970) and ZARDOZ (1974), two near-otherworldly awful but ambitious and fascinating misfires (more recent Boorman bummers like WHERE THE HEART IS and BEYOND RANGOON, alas, lack the fascination of his seventies-era bombs). 1977’s EXORCIST II fits right in with those films in its scope, ambition and sheer wrong-headedness.
Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller didn’t return from THE EXORCIST, but its other headliners Linda Blair, Kitty Winn and Max Von Sydow (in an effort to atone for appearing in the first film, which Sydow viewed as “spiritually incorrect”) did…unfortunately! Also along for the ride were Louise Fletcher, Ned Beatty, James Earl Jones and Richard Burton.
EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC was a bomb, needless to say. It has, however, gained a cult following, and in 1991 received some unwelcome notoriety for the fact that it was playing on the TV of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer the night of his arrest!
Four years have passed since the events of THE EXORCIST. Regan MacNeil, the focus of those events, is now a teenager, living, unlikely enough, in an art deco apartment situated on the top floor of a New York City high rise. She remembers nothing of her demonic possession but suffers from horrific nightmares.
Dr. Gene Tuskin, a sympathetic psychiatrist, tries to get to the root of Regan’s nightmares via a weird hypnotism machine called a Synchronizer. In the process Gene is attacked by a specter of the possessed Regan from the first EXORCIST, who grabs Gene’s heart in her chest and nearly squashes it. Also present at this hypnosis session is Father Lamont, a Vatican-appointed investigator who recognizes Regan’s tormentor as the demon Pazazu, the “king of the evil spirits of the air.”
To deal with Pazazu, Lamont has Regan flash back to the early days of Father Merrin, who exorcised her in the first film (and lost his life in the process). In another hypnotism session Regan and Lamont witness Father Merrin’s exploits in an African mud city, where Pazazu takes the form of a virulent locust fought off by a powerful sorcerer named Kokumo.
In defiance of the wishes of his superiors, Father Lamont flies to the African city where Kokumo is situated. He and Regan stay in telepathic communication throughout the trip…which, outside some pretty scenery, yields very little.
Lamont returns to the US. He and Regan head back to her childhood home in Washington D.C., where they’re greeted by a swarm of locusts. Lamont is possessed by Pazazu but Regan resists, becoming the “good locust” who stands apart from the rest of the horde.
This film has its charms, but as a sequel to THE EXORCIST it’s totally unsatisfying. The Catholic-tinged horror of the original is replaced by a weird African-based locust menace, and the violence and unpleasantness have also been dialed down considerably, in a film that’s ultimately closer to visionary fantasy than pure horror.
What’s truly fascinating about EXORCIST II is how uniformly bad its every element is, despite the fact that quite a few talented people worked on the film, starting with John Boorman. Didn’t he or anyone else notice that the desert set where much of action occurs (where seemingly every shot takes place before a patently obvious painted sunset) is tacky in the extreme? That the extensive model work isn’t the slightest bit convincing? That the score by Ennio Morricone sounds like the soundtrack of a bad seventies-era porno? That the cinematography by the talented William A. Fraker is ugly (with a vomit-like yellow sheen) and rarely ever matches from one scene to the next? That co-star Louise Fletcher delivers essentially the same performance she did as the soulless Nurse Ratched (in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST)? That Richard Burton in the lead role is even hammier than usual?
Yet the film does contain a lot of good ideas. An early shot of Louise Fletcher flanked by Father Merrin on one side and the possessed Regan on the other, accomplished through a complex system of glass and mirrors, is nearly as impressive as it portends (it falls short, however, because Boorman’s recreations of scenes from the original EXORCIST are so tacky). So are the highly innovative (for the time) flying locust POV shots and the final special effects destruction fest. If ambition were enough to make a successful film than EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC would be a classic–which it is, although not in the way its makers intended.
EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC
Director: John Boorman
Producers: John Boorman, Richard Lederer
Screenplay: William Goodhart
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Editing: Tom Priestly
Cast: Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, New Beatty, Belinha Beatty, Rose Portillo