Exorcist 2 The Heretic (1977)

Director: John Boorman

Starring: Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty

Four years after one of the most highly-regarded horror movies ever made, one of the most notorious sequels of all-time was released… or some might say “escaped.” “The Exorcist” had been 1973’s top draw at the box office (and, when accounting for inflation, remains one of Hollywood’s all-time box office draws), so it was inevitable that Warner Bros. would want to cash in on that success with a second film about demons possessing the innocent. At the time, the studio was still free to create whatever story they wanted to without much cause for complaint from either fans or from novelist William Peter Blatty, who was still six years away from publishing his own follow-up, “Legion.” The solution they came up with was to revisit the life of Regan MacNeil. Linda Blair would be returning, as would Kitty Winn (as Regan’s legal guardian, Sharon Spencer) and Max von Sydow (the late Father Lankester Merrin, in flashback form). New additions to the cast this time around included the characters of Father Philip Lamont (veteran actor Richard Burton), Dr. Gene Tuskin (Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher, in a role initially intended for a male actor), and Kukumo (James Earl Jones). Perhaps the best addition, in my opinion, would be composer Ennio Morricone (The previous film had no original score, sampling other works instead).

Sequels that perform well do so generally because they expand upon what came before by offering the audience something new and provocative, while still maintaining a certain familiarity. Those that are not successful are caused to fail by a variety of on-set and/or off-set problems. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” has the unfortunate stigma of being the unsuccessful kind of sequel. There are those who have called it the worst sequel ever made. Does this film deserve to be despised for what it isn’t, or is there more to the tale than simply being unable to step out of the shadow of its predecessor? One of the worst problems a film can be faced with during production is rewrites. “Exorcist II” went through no less than five script revisions. That’s a big no-no. It was also one of the most expensive movies ever produced by Warner Bros. at the time. When you spend a truckload of money on a movie, you’d better make sure you’ve invested in a sure thing. But arrogance and naivety must have been plentiful, or else the impact of “Exorcist II” would have been much different.

The comprehensible (and some incomprehensible) portions of the film go a little something like this: Father Lamont fails in an attempted exorcism of a female “healer,” and is subsequently assigned by the Church to investigate the demise of Father Merrin from four years earlier. Regan MacNeil, from whom Father Merrin is credited with exorcizing the demon Pazuzu (no mention at all is made of the REAL hero, Father Karras, in this film), is staying with Sharon while her mother is out pursuing her acting career (actually, Ellen Burstyn had refused to return). Regan is also seeing Dr. Tuskin at some sort of mental hospital where, if you ask me, Regan seems to be the only person who doesn’t belong there. She’s not crazy, not visibly depressed, nor is she autistic like one such little girl (Dana Plato).

The film is not even ten minutes old before it goes horribly wrong very quickly. What this film should have been about was the argument of science vs. religion (not in an “Inherit the Wind” manner, mind you, but you get the idea). Instead, with the repeated use of some hypnosis-based contraption called the “synchronizer,” it’s more like science-fiction vs. religion. Even that is put to rest quickly when Father Lamont shows an uninhibited willingness to use the synchronizer. The device helps establish two other things: 1) exactly how Father Merrin died & 2) the fact that Pazuzu is still living inside Regan. Wow… Fathers Karras and Merrin died for nothing. How depressing.

After Regan has a truly bizzare dream involving Father Merrin’s observation of an African boy repelling a swarm of locusts, it is learned that Merrin had encountered the demon Pazuzu before, within the mind of the African child. Through another session with the synchronizer, Father Lamont gets Pazuzu to show him where the boy is now. His name is Kukumo and, now fully grown, he resides in Ethiopia. We also find out, as I had personally suspected, that Regan remembers everything that happened in the first movie… despite her mother’s claims to the contrary. The reason why Pazuzu chooses his victims is also made clear. Regan, like the girl Father Lamont couldn’t save, is apparently also a healer. That autistic girl I told you about? Regan gets into her head and helps her to talk for the first time.

When Father Lamont goes to Ethiopia in search of Kukumo, I always laugh when he attempts to explain how he knows how to find the body of a man who died during Kukumo’s exorcism. Instead of lying by saying that Father Merrin told him, he tells them that the demon Pazuzu showed him in a vision. Responding out of fear, the villagers try to stone him to death. Establishing that Lamont and Regan have become psychically linked by the synchronizer, she feels it when he gets hit by the rocks. She is also able to communicate with him while under sedation (i.e. whilst doing a particularly crap job of acting) telepathically to point him to the location of Kukumo.

When Lamont finally reaches Kukumo… *sigh*… I’ve seen this movie a few times, and I’ve never once been able to figure out this scene. First, he meets Kukumo in a cavern where the man is dressed in some sort of tribal costume that resembles a locust. There is a bed of spikes, over which Lamont is expected to cross. He takes one step, impales his foot, falls down and… Suddenly we’re in a science lab where the main subject of study is locusts. Kukumo now wears glasses and a labcoat. What’s real and what’s not?! I… don’t… get it! The only thing I do get is that Kukumo is demonstrating to Lamont the existence of a female “good locust,” a not-so-subtle foreshadowing reference to Regan herself.

Back in the U.S., Regan and Lamont run off with the synchronizer. This session leaves Lamont in a trance until he and Regan arrive at their destination: the MacNeil house in Georgetown. Dr. Tuskin and Sharon attempt to beat them there, but are blocked by several unbelievable and convenient obstacles. The conclusion to “Exorcist II” is as hard to decipher as most any other part of it.

There’s no getting around the fact that “Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a huge mess of a movie. It was such a financial and critical disaster that some reputations and careers, most notably Linda Blair’s, never recovered. Yet I still find myself fascinated with it… as much or more than with the first film. Whether it is personal sympathy for the amount of flack the movie gets, or if perhaps the attraction is the same one feels toward the films of Edward D. Wood Jr., I do have a terrific experience every time I see this movie. Louise Fletcher could not have been given anything more perfect to say when she uttered the film’s closing dialogue: “I understand now, Regan. The world won’t. Not yet.”  It’s been 37 years. We still don’t understand!!!

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