One of the universe's greatest truisms is that whenever anything is successful, a sequel is inevitable, so when William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST (1973) raked in the samoleons at the box office (over 66 mil in early-1970's dollars, and that ain't hay!) it was only a matter of time until a followup graced the screen. But any sequel to THE EXORCIST would have been a daunting task; how to follow an instant classic that shattered onscreen taboos regarding language, religious improprieties (Ouch! That crucifix!), and truly creative cussing while maintaining the high standard of quality set by the original would have proved daunting to any writer or director, and as per the nature of sequels one would assume that the general public would have been expecting more of the same, perhaps with the blasphemous ante being cranked up a notch or two. So what to do in order to meet the public's expectations and make an assload of box office at the same time?
The answer to that question cannot be found in 1977's EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, a literally unholy mess of a film whose reputation as possibly the single worst sequel in major motion picture history seems pretty much set in stone.
Helmed by world-class oddball director John Boorman, the guy who gave us the jaw-dropping Sean Connery vehicle ZARDOZ (1974), EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC unwisely chooses to focus on the possibility that Reagan McNeal (Linda Blair, reprising the role that made her famous) may still harbor memories of the excruciating details of her exorcism some three years prior to the events of this film. Sent by the Vatican to dig up all the necessary dirt while investigating the death of the priest who performed Reagan's excorcism — Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, reprising his role as a much younger version of his character in the original film) — Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton, looking and acting like he's in the midst of a week-long bender) journeys to Manhattan where a high school-aged Reagan lives and volunteers at a bizarro clinic that helps the mentally ill/challenged. The place is run by Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, here pulling a total one-eighty from her Oscar-winning role as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), who breaks out this trippy-looking strobe light and bio-feedback headsets that looked like something you'd have found in a head shop at the time and uses it to hypnotize Reagan into remembering her forgotten experience of demonic possession. That turns out to be a bad idea because the second Reagan's fully under she starts sounding like Lucille Ball during her autumn years, her face gets all evil and fucked-up-looking, and the demon identifies itself as Pazuzu, a malevolent ancient Assyrian wind spirit and "one of the lords of the air."
As of that point the film nosedives into a nigh-incomprehensible mess of questioned faith, misguided attempts at psychedelia, bullshit psychobabble, flashabcks to Father Merrin's first exorcism, all manner of bizarre mystic visions and mumbo-jumbo, accented with Linda Blair performing in an utterly awful chorus line production of "Lullaby of Broadway," and the unforgettable sight of James Earl Jones as an African holy man in a ridiculous locust costume. It all culminates in a confusing fistfight between Father Lamont and Pazuzu in the form of Reagan's evil twin, a bout settled when the good Reagan arrives and fends off a swarm of demonically-controlled locusts by imitating the movements made by Jones' character during his youth as he used a bull-roarer to drive the evil bugs from his village, all while father Lamont literally tears out Pazuzu's heart.
A lot more crazy shit happens, and if any of this sounds coherent, let me assure you that it isn't. When I first saw EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC during its network television premiere — the night after THE EXORCIST, so the edited-for-TV version of that was fresh in my mind — I watched it with my mom, and the two of us nearly laughed ourselves to death. To this day we can still crack each other up with random quotes from the film ("Pazuzu will help me find Kokumo!!!"), and while it is an unmitigated turd storm, I must confess to finding it entertaining as hell, and loaded to the gills with visuals that bring to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky in his more accessible moments. Boorman's visual imagination was given free reign, and the film is replete with beautiful and bizarre imagery and gorgeous cinematography. Too bad there wasn't a script good enough to properly complement Boorman's vision.
Perhaps the saddest thing about EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is that when it is carefully examined, there are the building blocks for what could have been a genuinely good and scary film that could have used the original flick as a starting point and really run with some of the story's themes. My two major points on this are as follows:
- The first thing they should have done was lose Reagan entirely; she was successfully rid of demonic influence at the end of the first story, and not much the worse for wear thanks to having psychologically blocked out the entire hellish experience. By bringing her back when her arc was clearly over and done with for audiences who demand more of the same — or at the behest of studio execs who can't think beyond the immediately familiar — , the film renders Father Merrin's heroic efforts and sacrifice, as well as Father Karras's, without meaning or impact, pissing all over the power of Catholicism that supposedly saved Reagan's soul. And when we find out that demons like Pazuzu run around possessing folks like Reagan because they are so pure and good that they have what amounts to superpowers, it throws a cheesy X-Men kind of vibe over the proceedings.
- The film should have focused on Father Lamont's investigative efforts and his own crisis of faith in the face of the returned Pazuzu. (Who, by the way, was not identified in the original, but was implied to be the Devil himself; by having Pazuzu turn out to be pretty much just a badassed grasshopper, his terror level is considerably diminished.) Lamont's tracing of Kokumo, the kid long ago exorcised by Merrin, could have gone down many fascinating and potentially terrifying avenues, all of which could have been well served by Boorman's imagination. The interaction between the Christian, specifically Catholic, powers that be and their opposite numbers has fueled horror stories from day one, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to have come up with a great Campbellish "hero's journey" for Lamont that would have seen him lose his faith only to have it restored in the aftermath of the throwdown with Pazuzu. The long-running Vertigo comics series HELLBLAZER pulled off many such stories as a matter of course, so there's really no excuse, especially when tons of money are thrown into such a project (yes, I know HELLBLAZER was bastardized up the ass for the awful CONSTANTINE movie, so I won't even go there).
So, yes, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a spectacular misfire, but there's too much good material to be found amidst this cinematic dog's breakfast to fully write it off as one of the worst films ever made. I've certainly seen far worse, both from low-budget schlockmeisters like Al Adamson and from the major studios, and unlike many other bad films, at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC entertained the crap out of me, something I cannot say about would-be blockbusters like SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, PEARL HARBOR, or LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. Give EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC a second chance, and this time while you're laughing take note of the cool shit it possesses (sorry) and grieve for could have been a glorious entry in the horror genre.
Poster for the original theatrical release.