“The Exorcist … possessed an entire subgenre, which extended beyond horror and even cinema in general to significant influence on just about every Judeo-Christian religious group in the hemisphere. But … there is no Father Karras to exorcise this cultural demon. No filmmaker since the end of Richard Nixon’s last full year as President has even tried (except John Boorman, wildly unsuccessfully, but that’s a subject for another article).”
Having written that paragraph, in my Sunday Scaries piece reflecting on the fifty-year-long iron grip The Exorcist has had on an entire subgenre of horror it effectively invented, it struck me that I had never actually seen The Exorcist II: The Heretic, despite being well-aware of its reputation as one of the most side-splitting, guffaw-inducing, gob-smacking, ridiculously stupid horror sequels ever produced. The thing I remember most vividly about its reputation was director John Boorman’s astonishing explanation for his film’s miserable failure with both critics and audiences, which indisputably ranks among the most iconic non-apologies in all of recorded human history:
No one at Awards Radar – not I, not Joey, not Myles, not even our favorite special boy – will ever write or say anything as epic as that. But I suppose some context is in order to understand where he was coming from when he said something so wild…
Horror sequels have certainly existed since the birth of the horror movie genre, though it wasn’t quite the guarantee that it is today. In the early 1970’s, only the most successful and popular of them would even be considered for an extension into a second installment, and The Exorcist certainly qualified more than any horror movie that came before it. But how to exactly… do that, was far from a settled formula back then. So, being in uncharted territory, at first they went with “Let’s just remake the first movie, only bigger and broader.” Realizing this was a stupid idea (but nowhere near as stupid as what actually ended up getting made), director William Friedkin and writer/producer William Peter Blatty noped out of it almost immediately. This left Warner Bros with the unenviable task of replacing the two individuals who shaped the narrative and themes of their original box office smash hit. But who would possibly be interested in trying to one-up those guys? For the screenplay, they commissioned playwright William Goodhart, whose stated interest in moving away from soul-rending terror to more ruminatively explore the metaphysical and consciousness-based aspects of religious dogma probably seemed, to producer Richard Lederer, at least, a worthier approach to continue on what seemed to be an un-continuable movie.
Tapping John Boorman to direct this heady concept would seem, on paper, a logical choice. After all, he certainly proved he could deliver great spiritual horror in Deliverance. He also was no stranger to depicting lean-and-mean brutality on screen as he had in Point Blank. However, there was one small problem: Boorman hated The Exorcist. He was outspoken in his condemnation of it as glorified exploitation trash and insisted that the real reason it was a hit was its willingness to indulge in the sordid, lewd curiosity of audiences. I hate to admit it, but… I actually think he’s on to something with that last part. But why would he even consider helming a sequel to something he so passionately disliked? Why in the world would Warner Bros hire such a
non-fan anti-fan to shepherd through the follow-up to a movie that made them so much money?
I have not yet found a definitive answer to that second question, even though I sort of admire that they did it. The idea of approaching a sequel to a popular movie from a radically different thematic or aesthetic angle is not, by itself, a bad one, and could potentially yield compelling results. Like the shift from Ridley Scott’s quietly terrifying, isolating tension of Alien to James Cameron’s mercilessly intense action spectacle defining the sequel Aliens. Or Rob Zombie’s welcome jettisoning of his tonally discombobulated, annoying film student tricks in his tiresome love letter to old grindhouse horror movies House of 1000 Corpses for the more sobering, guttural horror masterpiece sequel The Devil’s Rejects. Which does answer my first question! Boorman set out to balance out the nastiness and spiritual darkness of that first movie with a follow-up that built up more of a hopeful outlook on the conflict between divine good and Luciferian evil. Pretty interesting! Not anywhere near the cynical rehash that was originally conceived by Lederer. At a minimum, I cannot impugn the bold risk being undertaken.
As for what resulted out of that admirably risky endeavor, I… okay, I guess I should start by saying that even if everything else went perfectly, The Exorcist II: The Heretic would have still severely pissed off fans of the original movie, and for good reason. Here is a sequel that recasts the revered Father Merrin sent by the Catholic Church to lead the climactic exorcism in the first movie as a mutinous apostate on the edge of posthumous excommunication, Father Karras is barely mentioned at all here despite his sacrifice literally being the heroic act that saves young Reagan from the clutches of Pazuzu, and in fact, his sacrifice didn’t even work and Pazuzu is still within the now-teenaged Reagan. Oh, remember when I commended Friedkin for avoiding that name being said out loud in his film because it sounded so silly? That is not an aversion shared by Boorman and his script doctor Rospo Pallenberg, who reportedly did quite a number on Goodheart’s screenplay. They just love their actors saying “Pazuzu.” Out loud. With their mouths. In front of recording devices so audiences can hear them say that word. That anecdote about audiences literally chasing Warner Bros executives out of the theater at its premiere makes a little more sense now, doesn’t it?
But that is not even close to the most inexplicable miscalculation made by the creative team behind this sequel. There are so many “WTF” moments, including the scene screencapped above where Good Reagan and Evil Reagan fight for the soul of Reagan’s… therapist, maybe? It’s not actually clear what kind of medical professional Louise Fletcher (yes, the Academy Award-winning actress from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is supposed to be… by aggressively groping her left breast. This was poor Linda Blair’s second movie role after her Academy Award-nominated performance in The Exorcist, and apparently only signed on to reprise the role of Reagan because she shared my interest in Goodheart’s intriguing concept. It’s not clear exactly when, during the production, she realized she made a terrible mistake and should have followed her fictional mother Ellen Burstyn’s lead in staying as far away from it as possible. But I can definitely tell there was some point early on when she had this realization and checked the hell out of her performance for the rest of the shoot.
But we aren’t done yet with overqualified actors embarrassing themselves in this thing! Playing the lead-ish role of Father Lamont fell to Richard Burton. For those who are not aware of him, Burton was one of the most celebrated actors in the world and one of the biggest movie stars of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was nominated for an Academy Award seven times, but never won. There was an expectation that the Academy was finally going to give him a belated “career honor” Oscar for his performance as the stoic psychiatrist treating a disturbed young man with a penchant for blinding horses in Equus at the 50th Academy Awards ceremony, but they instead went with Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl. Look, speculating on what was in the hearts of Academy voters is always a fool’s errand. But, much like the rumors surrounding Eddie Murphy losing Best Supporting Actor for Dreamgirls shortly after the release of Norbit, a part of me does wonder if just enough voters saw Burton’s bug-eyed expressions in reaction shots that often seem in conflict with the immediate preceding shot, belabored line readings that would make Tommy Wiseau cringe, and just generally coming off like a parody of dated, Old Hollywood melodramatic playing-to-the-rafters that had fallen well by the wayside in 1977, in this trainwreck of a movie, no less, and thought to themselves, “I… no, I can’t. I just can’t do it. I have to vote for someone else.”
And we’re still not done with this movie embarrassing Oscar-nominated actors! Because we have James Earl Jones playing the possessed boy Father Merrin originally saved decades ago in a major subplot from the book that was severely cut down in the movie version, all grown up now and looking like this:
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. You are not looking at a photoshop prank. That is indeed a screenshot of the man who brought Darth Vader, Mufasa, Thulsa Doom, “Few Clothes” Johnson, Terence Mann, Jack Jefferson, and the King of Zamunda to indelible life in a decades-long, celebrated acting career in a makeshift locust costume. This is to aid his character’s lifelong mission to AND I QUOTE, “breed the evil out of locusts.” This is the direct sequel to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed horror movies ever made, just to remind everyone. This quest eventually leads to the revelation that he and Reagan are among a select few Special People™ with literal superpowers who are destined to fight demons like some kind of Ecumenical Avengers.
None of the actors emerge with their dignity intact, but no actor could have with the kinds of unspeakable lines they’re expected to deliver. Or having to deliver those howlers in cheap sets that don’t even make architectural sense (in one scene, inside the psychiatric institute where Reagan uses a mind-melding dream-sharing helmet to remember her possession and no I am not making that up, Burton and Fletcher are talking and a team of extras just… roll a giant red hexagon past them in the background, and that scene, I promise, will linger with you for a long time), in lighting that seems almost determined to reveal backgrounds as unfinished matte paintings, to advance a plot with a baffling number of nonsense symbolism and narrative cul-de-sacs.
That two-part opinion piece I wrote on the ten worst sequels ever made, relative to what was established in their predecessors? None of those movies come even close to this one. Oh dear jeebus in heaven, The Exorcist II: The Heretic is, in both concept and execution… I guess I’m struggling to find the right word, because calling it a “joke” or an “embarrassment” feels inadequate. This is, in fact, a disaster fully deserving of its legendary status even if you avoid comparisons to the film it follows. That it goes out of its way to stomp all over the narrative arcs of The Exorcist and sneer at everyone who liked that one is just the cherry on top of a film that is screamingly terrible by every possible metric one could measure the quality of cinema by.
Which is why I loved watching it so much. If we had a weekly series called Friday Funnies, I would have covered it there, instead. This aggressively terrible anti-masterpiece is a delightful farrago on the level of Cats. I promise you, with enough liquor and friends in a silly mood, you will have a great time watching it!