EXORCIST II THE HERETIC, 1977
Director: John Boorman
Stars: Richard Burton, Linda Blair and Louise Fletcher
Review by Mark Engberg
A girl once possessed by a demon finds that it still lurks within her. Meanwhile, a priest investigates the death of the girl's exorcist.
During our podcast discussion regarding the best horror films of all time, WILDsound founder Matthew Toffolo asked me a brilliant question: what defines a horror movie?
Cheating an answer out of Wikipedia, I said that a horror movie tries to evoke a negative reaction from the audience by playing on their primal fears and anxieties. So, here is a follow-up question: what makes a bad horror movie?
Is it bad acting? Like any other genre, bad acting in a horror feature can certainly damage its integrity. But it seems unfair to blame a movie's appeal based solely on the acting abilities, or lack thereof, of its principle stars. Besides, if you were going to condemn a horror movie for its unbelievable acting, the list of bad ones would be endless.
Is it bad because of its unbelievability? That hardly seems the case. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child's Play are among some of the most beloved and successful horror films released in the past twenty-five years. And you would be hard pressed to explain that the premise for either franchise is in any way plausible.
Or does it only appear bad based on its low budget? I can't go with that one either. Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Blair Witch Project are two of my favorite horror films of all time. The production team behind Henry spent about $110 grand on its budget, while The Blair Witch spent about half of that amount.
It can be inferred that a bad horror film fails to elicit a reaction from the audience by playing on their own emotions. In other words, it is boring.
And if Exorcist II: The Heretic were merely a boring picture, I could still look past its narrative shortcomings and acknowledge that sequels rarely live up to their predecessors. But Boorman's take on the story is an incomprehensible mish-mash of locust swarms and doppelgangers. The story loses so much focus in its final act, I thought I was possessed by a demon spirit myself because all I wanted to do was vomit green bile all over the place.
Richard Burton and Linda Blair seem to be playing a game as to who can do the worst acting throughout the picture. Burton constantly undercuts his Father Lamont with sad, motionless expressions that convey nothing. Blair might as well be doing a spot for an Informercial reenactment.
She herself blames the flawed story structure on the fact that it went through too many rewrites due to creative differences between Boorman and screenwriter William Goodhart. Eventually, Goodhart was replaced by Rospo Pallenberg, who rewrote the script with Boorman. Even though I never read Goodhart's original script, I feel bad for the playwright, who must have endured a lifetime of harsh criticism for something he did not write.
The production crew had its own set of problems. Burton, allegedly, started drinking again. Boorman contracted a respiratory fungal infection, which offset production for a costly month. Blair refused to wear the demon make-up this time, which meant that her demon scenes had to be performed by a double. The animal wranglers had trouble with the grasshoppers they needed for the ridiculous locust scenes. The City of Washington DC denied the crew permission to film at the famous staircase in Georgetown.
The entire filmed seemed doomed from its inception. Even one of the producers, Richard Lederer, admits in Bob McCabe's book The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows that the sequel was conceived as a low-budget rehash of the original, using deleted scenes from the original to give audiences something new.
When the film opened, it was laughed off the screen by crowds who were probably initially intimidated when the lights first dimmed. In fact, Boorman yanked the film out of theaters and attempted numerous re-cuts and alternate endings to no avail. When there is so much wrong with your picture, there is only so much you can do.
The plot is a dull concept regarding Burton's Father Lamont and his assignment to investigate the death of Father Merrin (once again played by the great Max von Sydow). When Lamont visits the tormented yet oblivious Regan MacNeil at a NYC psychiatric institute, the plot quickly sinks into absurdity. They experience synchronized hypnosis together using a pair of wires and headbands when Lamont discovers an unquiet spirit still residing within Regan.
The rest of the movie mostly consists of terrible looking sets of African tribes that were filmed at the Warner Bros' backlot. Lamont has delusions and unintentionally hilarious visions of James Earl Jones in a locust costume. But the most troubling aspect comes at the end, when Father Lamont confronts the evil Pazuzu spirit dwelling within Regan's body . . . even though she is standing behind him. I don't understand why there were two Regans in the final act. More importantly, I didn't care. I just wanted it to end.
For those looking for some of the old metaphysical and supernatural nerve of the original, be advised to skip this entry and check out The Exorcist III: Legion instead. That movie was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the author of the original novel. It goes without saying that he is thankful for having nothing to do with this absurd chapter. Wisely, he chose to ignore its subject matter in his own feature.