Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Linda Blair is haunted by both a demon and a mean-spirited Al Hirschfield sketch in "Exorcist II: The Heretic."

Directed by John Boorman. Written by William Goodhart. Based on characters created by William Peter Blatty. Produced by John Boorman, Richard Lederer. Music by Ennio Morricone. Photographed by William A. Fraker. Edited by Tom Priestly. Production designed by Richard Macdonald. Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty, Belinda Beatty.

I certainly would not be the first to suggest that there is a fundamental problem with most horror sequels. Aside from the standard diminishing returns that you get when you add the number two into a title, there’s also this: when you bring back ultimate evil for a second round of fun, you almost invariably cheapen it. Since if it was defeated once before, it has by definition lost some of its power to intimidate. If true horror is fear of the unknown, then we as audience members risk a venture into the absurd once we begin to know the adversary and anticipate its movements, and that can happen when it keeps appearing in sequel after sequel with the regularity of special guest star Charles Nelson Reilly popping his head in to preside on “Hollywood Squares.”  All of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that Exorcist II: The Heretic had its work cut out for it, particularly as a follow-up to one of the most successful horror films ever made. It was bound to be disappointing, so let us acknowledge the film’s big achievement: it’s not merely disappointing, it’s an complete and utter disaster. It’s always nice to see a movie willing to go the extra mile.

Oh, yes. Exorcist II is terrifically bad. It’s badly written, flatly directed. The acting is cringe-inducing, the effects downright laughable. The story doesn’t defy description, but it does do its best to frustrate it. And one of the saddest mistakes it makes is to completely misidentify what made the original film work. I’m sure at some later date I will have the freedom to discuss The Exorcist (1973) at greater length, so let me just touch on the fact that the key to that brilliant film’s effectiveness is its surgical command of tone, and its realistic details that both further character and create a very recognizable stage for its horror to play out upon. Most thrillers are anxious to get to the freak show antics, but what makes Exorcist great is the way it lingers over scenes of a mother worrying about her “sick” daughter. They both feel like genuine people, and their supernatural guest seems like a real intruder, not a horror movie conceit. One of the most chilling scenes in the original, for me, is where Chris McNeal (Ellen Burstyn) sits in a conference room with dozens of defeated doctors and specialists, none of them having the first idea what is happening, or what to do, or where to go. It’s frightening to see our societal crutches like science and reason dissolve, and it provides a welcome baseline for the film’s horror elements, so that we accept them even when they grow ridiculous. Exorcist II has a dissimilar strategy, perhaps because it assumes the first film provided all the grounding that this franchise needs: instead of starting small, it is ludicrous from the word go.

Already anticipating the inevitable devaluing of a horror heavy that comes with the long haul of a series, Exorcist II is proactive and officially demotes the series villain, from being Satan himself to an evil demon named Pazuzu. Never mind the fact that the possessed Regan called herself Satan in the first film, apparently identity theft goes on even in Hell, which makes a lot of sense, actually. The existence of Satan is indeed an open question for the Catholic Church in Exorcist II: their revised dogmas make no reference to Satan as an entity, and therefore the late Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), with his heretical writings about the Devil, is being brought up on posthumous charges of heresy (ahh…there’s the title). It’s up to Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) to clear Merrin’s name, so he hops on a plane to New York to meet Regan McNeil, now fully recovered from her experience a few years ago…or is she? (Pencils down, class: no, she’s not.) Regan, played again by Linda Blair, seems ok, is living with her guardian, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) in New York. She’s being monitored by a psychiatric institute, under the watchful eye of Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Tuskin, brilliant mind that she is, has invented a new tool for psychiatric care called a “synchronizer”: it puts subjects under a deep hypnotic trance, and then allows a second subject to match that trance, effectively allowing them to share a hallucination of repressed memories. Strangely, at no point does anyone ask to see Dr. Tuskin’s credentials. Just between you and me, I don’t think she’s a real doctor.

Through this “synchronizer,” Father Lamont gets a deeper understanding of the circumstances of Father Merrin’s death, and his life, because it puts him into contact with the evil Pazuzu, and puts Regan into danger. At least…that’s what I think happens. Trust me, I was paying attention, and yet Exorcist II is a seriously convoluted film that I’m not sure makes the slightest lick of sense. The film’s implications on what exactly Pazuzu is doing, and why, and to whom, are murky, let alone the question of when and how he shows up. It is implied that Dr. Tuskin’s invasive mind therapies with Regan are partially to blame for awakening the dormant demon, but does that mean Pazuzu is simply a repressed memory? Doubtful, given the backstory we are spoon-fed about Pazuzu and Merrin’s previous confrontation in Africa, with the soul of a sick boy in the balance. While I appreciate the screenplay’s efforts to maintain the original’s ambiguity over whether science or faith is the key here, I think the cards have already been dealt, and we are firmly in the camp of “it’s the devil.” So why be coy?

And there are more questions. If Regan is indeed a target of Pazuzu, as she was several years ago in Georgetown, why did he never actively try to possess her again, instead being prompted by quack psychotherapy? Was he waiting in Hell, trying to rack up enough frequent flyer miles to come back? How did Satan feel about Pazuzu pretending to be him? How lame does a story have to be before we’re questioning the motivations of a demon in human terms, anyway? If Pazuzu does have control of Regan, why is it that the best he can manage is silly games of almost making her walk off a rooftop? What does Pazuzu want with Father Lamont, anyway, or does he care?

The movie does at least have an explanation for some of Pazuzu’s actions: he’s trying to rub out a select group of individuals (including Regan) who have developed magical abilities to heal the sick, and also see the future. That’s why the boy formerly possessed, Kokumo, was able to shake off the demon (literally), and that’s why Regan seems to have the ability to heal the sick, like in that cloying scene where she gets an autistic boy to come out of his shell! See, these people truly have been touched by the grace of God, and must be eliminated by the forces of evil. It all makes sense!

Um. Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, Exorcist II.

So this is bad enough. It’s not helped by Blair’s performance as Regan, now about sixteen and still acting like a twelve-year-old-girl. I know it’s meant to be juxtaposed against the evil thing inside her, but there’s contrast and then there’s overdoing it. She’s so chirpy and sweet that after five minutes with her, you can’t wait for her to turn evil, just so she’ll stop being so insufferable. Not that she’s given much support: her first conference with Dr. Tuskin is astonishing in its banality, this scene between a girl who was once possessed by a demon and the woman who once played Nurse Rached. There are so many flat line readings and indifferent facial reactions that it almost plays like a self-aware parody of how to annoy audience expectations.

But none of them fare like Richard Burton. There’s no way around this: Burton gives a thoroughly rotten performance as Father Lamont, oozing such contempt for the material, barely even seeming to try. He’s not helped by a script that gives Lamont no back story, no motivations, no reason for existing other than being the prop priest in an Exorcist movie, which gives him a hall pass to fly around on the church’s dime, first to New York, and then to Africa (actually just a lousy set made to look unconvincingly like Africa). Whether he’s battling a demonic storm, visiting an African witch doctor, or leering inappropriately after Regan McNeil, he constantly conveys the attitude of an actor who does not give a damn, and is offended that you expect him to. If you ever want to see one of the most hilariously bad bits of acting in a big studio film by a respected actor, pop in your Exorcist II DVD and go to about 25 minutes in, right after Lamont sits in on a synchronizer session, and then grabs the device’s headset to go on his own trip. He recounts his experience thusly: “It was horrible. Utterly horrible…(portentous pause)…and fascinating.” Then he stares right at the camera and zones out for a full beat, like he’s forgotten his lines. Louise Fletcher, skilled actress, gracefully tries to get the scene back on track, but the damage is done; it’s positively hilarious. My only explanation is that director John Boorman selected which dailies to print without looking at any of them.

You know, there’s more…lots more to the movie, and yet much less. It involves ancient tribal dances,  a swarm of locusts, James Earl Jones in a weird African headdress, the importance of being positive even when being beset by hellish monsters, and an apocalyptic finale imported from Poltergeist, as if a bunch of special effects showed up in the lab mysteriously, and the filmmakers were intent on putting them in the movie somehow—it’s so tonally wrong. Lamont’s creepy fascination with Regan reaches its pinnacle during the climax, when Pazuzu takes the form of a succubus (also played by Linda Blair) and compels Lamont to kill Regan and “join” with her, which he tries for a minute. The moment where Lamont gives into temptation and lustfully falls into bed with a demonic eighteen-year-old Linda Blair is really weird, and unpleasant, and squicky, and makes one feel unclean. (That was the probably the point in the script in which, Burton, reading it, got that look on his face that he retained throughout all of filming.) After the surefooted confidence of the first film, the pervasive desperation on display couldn’t be more jarring.

But you know what? All of this is dancing around the real issue here, which is that Exorcist II is frightfully dull, talky, and never seems the slightest bit concerned about working up a legitimate scare or two. And that’s just so painfully reductive; if the original Exorcist treated evil seriously (even during its more exploitative moments), Exorcist II reduces Satan’s presence to a cheap, schlocky parlor trick. Honestly, The Heretic may be the very best recruitment ad the Catholic Church ever made, if only because it presents Beelzebub’s star quarterback not as an entertaining presence, but as an ineffectual, unfunny party guest who refuses to leave. What a terrible shame; this is a horror sequel that not only fails to live up to its legacy, but also drunkenly insults everyone it can and then tumbles down the stairs in disgrace. Who knew the company of Satan could be such a colossal bore?


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