As we touched upon yesterday, William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST is a great movie, a horror classic, the godfather of “elevated horror,” beloved by horror fans and non horror fans alike, making it a smash hit, box office record breaker, and cultural phenomenon. It was the first horror movie ever nominated for best picture, and received 10 Oscar nominations total, winning for adapted screenplay and sound. It caused mass freakouts and faintings and many still believe it’s the scariest film of all time. Its success launched an entire genre of demonic possession movies, pretty much all of which just rehash the last act but without a fraction of the directorial flair, and those movies still do well.
For all of these reasons, many people really weren’t (and still aren’t) open to the idea of somebody else making a sequel to THE EXORCIST. When EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC came along four years later, numerous major critics, even some of the ones who disliked the first one, called the sequel ludicrous, preposterous, incomprehensible, unjustifiable, the worst or stupidest movie ever made. And the late great Friedkin, who wanted no part in a sequel for both artistic and legal reasons, deemed the half hour of it he saw “a stupid mess made by a dumb guy… Scurrilous. A horrible picture” and “the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen… a freaking disgrace… made by a demented mind.”
Okay, fair enough. But to me, a guy who did not direct THE EXORCIST, a philistine and Freddy fan raised Presbyterian, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC stands high among horror sequels, a tradition I personally hold more sacred than I hold THE EXORCIST, as much as I like it. THE HERETIC is not as consistently good as the first film, but it’s a fun time and it’s very weird and different from what anybody would’ve expected from a sequel to that movie. To me that’s a good thing, to be admired, to be appreciated, to be cherished.
The sequel hook: A Cardinal (Paul Henreid, CASABLANCA) is concerned about the legacy of the late Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, STRANGE BREW), the first of two exorcists who died during the exorcism in THE EXORCIST. (In my opinion the non-titular exorcist.) Since his death some have smeared his name, even accused him of satanism and talking to demons, perhaps also noticed that him finding that Pazuzu medallion might’ve unleashed him and caused the whole mess in the first place. But the Cardinal wants to clear his name so he assigns Father Paul Lamont (Richard Burton, WHERE EAGLES DARE), a priest struggling with his faith but who knew Merrin and his teachings, to go investigate exactly what happened during the exorcism.
Father Lamont also has his own experience as an exorcist. The movie opens with him somewhere in South America, in a crowded place where a possessed young woman said to be a healer knocks over a table of candles, setting her dress on fire, and smiles as she burns to a crisp. I love how this cuts to a scene about Regan (Linda Blair, CHAINED HEAT, who I think is very good in this) practicing a tapdancing routine. Some people recover from their demon possessions better than others.
Part of that recovery is regular sessions with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, fresh off of her ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST Oscar win) at what seems to be a very fancy, somewhat experimental psychiatric institute. Regan still has weird dreams but swears she’s fine and just goes to therapy to keep her mom happy. Of her traumatic experience in Washington DC she just says, “I remember being very sick, and having nightmares, and that’s all.”
You remember that Regan’s mom, Chris MacNeil, is a famous movie actress, so in today’s terms Regan is a “nepo baby.” She lives in a kickass modern penthouse, looked after by Sharon (Kitty Winn, PEEPER), Chris’ assistant and Regan’s tutor in the first film. Chris is said to be off somewhere filming a movie (I hope it’s CRASH COURSE II: SEMESTER AT SEA), and seems to have become a distant parent. This is of course their way around the fact that Ellen Burstyn didn’t want to do a sequel, but I think it really works, it makes sense, and it changes the dynamics of the story since it no longer centers on the protective mother.
When Father Lamont shows up at the institute to ask Regan what she remembers about Merrin, Dr. Tuskin correctly tells him she can’t allow it because it would dredge up traumatic memories for Regan. But Regan – who already surmised that this priest being here has something to do with her – barges in, starts talking to him, and seems open to it. So the doctor changes her mind and, in what I think is the least justifiable bad decision in the movie, invites Father Lamont to attend Regan’s first hypnotherapy session, asking his questions while she’s under hypnosis! Regan consents, but it’s definitely not an informed consent, and I don’t know what the fuck the doctor is thinking here. What the fuck. I’m filing a complaint.
Yesterday I talked about my uneasiness with THE EXORCIST and other movies that bank on some of their audience actually believing in devils and demons and shit. It’s probly a silly hang up, but when a movie like this poses a belief in science vs. a belief in religion, or has Lamont noting that “Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views,” and I know it’s ultimately going to have religion and the existence of Satan winning out over science and progressive views, it’s hard for me to separate from the real world, where I have seen no evidence of an evil devil monster, while there’s a clear record of danger to our lives and freedoms coming from the superstitious people who actually believe in that shit.
I bring that up this early in the review because I want to note the irony that when THE HERETIC poses a choice between science or religion its representative of modern science, Dr. Tuskin, relies on a new technology called a synchronizer that uses biofeedback headbands and timed flashes of light to synchronize the brainwaves of two hypnotized people and then they can experience a memory or dream together. In other words, what the movie has the scientist doing is just as much hooey as all the supernatural demon shit. That’s a win for part 1. Angiograms are real.
So I had to get over that, but once I did I really enjoyed this sequel. Dr. Tuskin uses the synchronizer to understand her patient better by seeing her memories of the exorcism, but it’s so horrifying or cursed or something that her heart fibrillates, and Father Lamont puts on the headband, insisting he knows where to “find her.” But this also seems to link him telepathically to Regan and to her former demon associate, Pazuzu. After Regan gives Lamont a tour of the old house in Georgetown they jack into psycherspace again and this time he has a crazy vision of Merrin in Africa, a boy named Kokumo (Joey Green), and even flies around in the perspective of Pazuzu, taking the form of a locust.
The original film has that whole prologue in Iraq, and to me when THE HERETIC really gets steam is when Father Lamont goes off book (disobeying a direct order from the Cardinal, like a cop who plays by his own rules) and goes to Africa in Merrin’s footsteps, searching for Kokumo. He visits two interesting churches, including one that you have to climb up a cliff to get to. In the middle of his adventure there’s another funny smash cut to Regan tapdancing, this time with sequins and top hat. I like it just for flavor, but it turns out to be important because when Lamont tells his hosts how he found the place they think he’s a satanist and try to stone him, which causes Regan to freak out and fall off the stage. Similar to E.T. and Elliott.
At this point Regan can no longer suppress her connection to this Pazuzu business, and/or she feels bad because she blames herself for Lamont’s crazy quest. They bring her to the hospital but she leaves and meets up with Lamont to go back to the house in Georgetown with a plan to confront this evil. He got a weird theory from the grown up Kokumo (James Earl Jones, BEST OF THE BEST), who he first experiences in a temple dressed in a locust outfit, then as a scientist studying locusts. I like the ambiguity as to whether the first part is a holy vision or a mentally ill delusion on Lamont’s part.
A little touch that really works for me is when Regan calls Dr. Tuskin to apologize for running off with the synchronizer, and tells her she’s going to Georgetown with Lamont. It gives her some of the ol’ agency and layers of characterization not always seen in a character like hers.
It also sends Dr. Tuskin and Sharon to Georgetown to try to head them off. Their trip is full of chaos, which I think is supposed to be Pazuzu putting up a supernatural firewall, but it’s also just a cool way to raise the tension and dread. Very close to the airport they come upon a car accident, a guy with a bloody head stumbling into the road screaming for help. At first they try to ignore him but Tuskin gets all Hippocratic and stops the car. She’s walking out into the highway at night, looking at this guy’s headwound, Sharon snapping “I guess Regan can wait,” a low-flying jet roaring above their heads. Such a nightmare. And then they’re on a plane themselves and experience horrible turbulence, the kind where they had to build an airplane set on a lift to shake the actors around.
Then at the airport everyone’s fighting over cabs, and the one they do get is held back at another accident, where Dr. Tuskin gets out again. When Sharon explains to the cabbie that she’s a doctor I really can’t tell if she’s being acerbic or has come to accept it.
When they finally make it to the house the car sort of gets swept up in a supernatural whirlwind of locusts, spinning like a top, the entire windshield cracked into little bits and obscuring their view until the driver finally punches it out, then they crash into the previously-established gate, and are trapped in a hellish twist of car wreckage and barb wire. I imagine this is one of the parts people laugh at, but I think it’s cool.
In the climax they face Pazuzu in the same bedroom, the demon appearing as possessed-Regan on the bed, though the real Regan is a separate being standing there too. This is one of the few parts of the movie that feels like the rote sequel one would expect, rehashing an iconic scene with less impact. But I think they pull it off through the time honored sequelization technique of going bigger – the entire floor splits apart, a swarm of locusts fills the room, the whole building falls like the House of Usher. And they don’t make the mistake of pretty much every other EXORCIST wannabe, of having the exorcist read passages and hold up a cross and shit. We’ve seen that before. It’s not exciting anymore.
What is exciting is when Regan has successfully used an African ritual to expel Pazuzu/the locusts and the house is in ruins – another one of those beautifully artificial looking sets. Dr. Tuskin is a believer now (though science hasn’t been entirely defeated – it took Kokumo’s studies of locust swarms to stop Pazuzu) and tells Lamont to take care of Regan. They walk into the artificial horizon like it’s the end of THE BEYOND, like they’re wandering into a different realm. The camera rotates around the doctor as suddenly she’s surrounded by sirens and witnesses and first responders asking questions, and it’s like she’s snapping back to reality.
That really works for me, and whatever the climax may be lacking, it sure gets some extra mileage from the score by Ennio Morricone. I love this score – there are some weird chants and sounds mixed in with his orchestral music, plus a theme-from-MAGNUM-FORCE-meets-Goblin type jam called “Magic and Ecstasy.” More importantly there are some sports (like “Regan’s Theme” at the end) where those vocals kick in and it’s that Morricone who can make anything – an epic western, a killer whale movie, this – seem in the moment like the most beautiful and emotional thing you’ve ever seen.
Sequels were, of course, less common and more frowned upon in those days. And one of the producers has admitted that the initial plan was for a cynical, low budget exploitation affair that made heavy use of stock footage from the first movie. So I think it’s notable that they instead went the auteur/prestige route and gave a pretty big budget to John Boorman (POINT BLANK, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, DELIVERANCE), a director with an ambitious vision. It’s the weirdo studio sequel sandwiched between ZARDOZ and EXCALIBUR on his filmography, and it boasts a pretty lofty crew: cinematographer William Fraker (ROSEMARY’S BABY, BULLITT), editor Tom Priestley (DELIVERANCE), production designer Richard Macdonald (JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, MARATHON MAN), returning makeup man Dick Smith, visual effects by Albert Whitlock (THE BIRDS, MUNSTER GO HOME!, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, FRENZY, EARTHQUAKE).
The script is by playwright William Goodhart (CLOUD DANCER), rewritten by Boorman associate Rospo Pallenberg, who’s also credited as second unit director and “creative associate,” allegedly for directing a few scenes. (His only official directing credit is CUTTING CLASS, the 1989 slasher comedy co-starring Brad Pitt!)
In the first paragraph I mentioned some of the reasons why people would not want a sequel to THE EXORCIST or would hold one to very high standards. That plus the strangeness of Boorman’s movie are a pretty good explanation for why it was widely hated in ’77, but I really don’t understand why to this day it has a reputation as one of the worst all time, and still makes people angry when you bring it up. I watched the original cut, as opposed to the 15 minutes shorter video cut also included on the Scream Factory blu-ray, but when I tried to Google which one I should watch I found people asking that question and receiving no helpful responses, just people claiming it was the worst movie they ever saw and that no one should ever watch any version of it. (I disagree.)
Unfortunately Blair herself has a low opinion of it – not enough to refuse an interview for the blu-ray, but she does immediately explain that the movie is totally different from the script that got her to sign on.
Let’s go over some of the things that might’ve made people hate this sequel. Number one, it has locusts in it. I don’t get it, I think locusts are fuckin creepy, they buzz and click and look bizarre and eat crops and they’re in the Bible I believe. But people got weirdly mad that there were locusts in JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION, and that might’ve been the case here too. They just don’t want to see locusts in sequels to movies that didn’t have locusts. They want to be able to go in thinking hey, this is a series without locusts, and it will always remain that way, because that’s the rule.
There could also be some substantive rejections based on individual theological or philosophical readings of the two films. Boorman, the dumb guy with the demented mind, intentionally wanted to say something different from Friedkin – that the possessed people are targeted by Pazuzu for the good they offer the world, and that good can overpower evil. I like that, but it’s fair to prefer the other message (whatever you think that may be) or find it scarier or less corny.
There are also those surface level sequel things – being disappointed they didn’t get Burstyn to return, or not buying their re-creations of locations. To me one of the weak points is Regan’s first hypnotic vision of Father Merrin during the exorcism. I like the clever photographic effects they use, but the scene really doesn’t look the same or as good as when we saw it in the original film, so I found it a little goofy. (Also, why is Father Karras not in her memories? He’s the titular Exorcist!)
I didn’t know this, but I’m sure other people did, that the house and the famous stairway had to be simulated on sets, because (in another example of people not wanting there to be a sequel) they were refused permission to shoot in either location.
I suspect people also hate that the sequel uses soundstages, matte paintings, miniatures and greenscreens for things like the rock church and the flight of the locust. The original film had such a real texture to it, which I praised in yesterday’s review, and this is the opposite approach. But that’s okay, because it’s a different movie! Personally I love this heightened, theatrical look – it makes the scenes more dreamlike, and then it’s even cooler when Dr. Tuskin suggests that Regan’s visions of Africa might not be actual memories, but fantasies inspired by the dioramas she saw at the natural history museum (which we see later).
I believe this is another happy accident – Boorman wanted to film on location in Ethiopia, but didn’t have the budget. To me, this looks better. It’s beautiful! It’s kind of like the first movie is THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and the second is EATEN ALIVE.
Maybe the character arcs are too muddled to get across some of the movie’s ideas. In particular, Sharon takes a turn at the end that I think is interesting and well-acted, but the way Lamont talks about it it seems like it was supposed to be the culmination of a journey she was going on that I didn’t really pick up on.
Lamont is obviously set up from the beginning as a man questioning his faith, and I think he probly comes across as more of a mess than he’s supposed to, but I like that about the character. I like the scene where he meets a connection in Africa (Ned Beatty in an odd cameo) and introduces himself as an archaeologist, but the guy still calls him Father. I’m also intrigued by this part early on where Dr. Tuskin asks “Don’t you ever need a woman, Father?” and he matter of factly says, “Yes.” They don’t get to discuss it further and I thought it was to set up some sexual tension between the two, but in the climax Pazuzu taunts him in the form of a dolled up Regan and, under the influence of evil magic shit, he jumps on her lustily! In other scenes it seemed like Dr. Tuskin and Sharon were starting to get concerned about this adult man’s interest in Regan, but I never suspected that maybe he really was a creep. Pazuzu did, though! I doubt it was meant as a dig at one of the Catholic Church’s ongoing problems, but it works as one.
Originally Boorman wanted the movie to center on Father Dyer, Father Karras’ friend who comforts him after his mom dies, and you wouldn’t know this because it’s only in The Version You’ve Never Seen, but he befriends Lieutenant Kinderman in the last scene. That didn’t work out because William J. O’Malley (the real life priest and theologian [and later alleged child molester] who played him) couldn’t do it, so they made up Father Lamont and pictures him as a younger priest who’d idolized Merrin. Jon Voight was cast, but left due to creative differences. Burton was in his early fifties (and seems older than today’s people in their early fifties) and I think that works well, because if a guy that age is meeting with a teenager and climbing cliffs in Africa and shit you know there’s something obsessive and unreasonable about him. Gives him kind of a Dr. Loomis quality.
I’m the kind of guy who loves a movie full of strange images and weird goings on. I have already mentioned plenty of them, but there’s another one that must be described. After narrowly escaping execution by stoning, Father Lamont is trying to locate a city he saw in his vision. He’s in a beachfront cafe pointing at a map, talking to a nun, trying to describe a Muslim city with mud walls, but she only speaks French. Through the window behind him we see a small plane pull up on the beach, between a soccer game and some nuns, who help the pilot (who turns out to be the Ned Beatty character) carry a huge crucifix out of the plane. Father Lamont turns and gives a “what the fuck?” look to this whole thing, and if there is a significance to it I don’t even need to know what it is because I love it even with no significance. It’s one of those scenes, like the marching band passing the chainsaw store in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, that can have all kinds of things read into it but also just makes the movie come alive with its seeming randomness.
Another fun scene is right after that when he’s in the city he’s looking for, doesn’t speak the language, and no one understands English, but he tries to ask the locals about Kokumo. Some of them light up and excitedly lead him down some narrow paths but turn out to, I believe, be taking him to a prostitute. And I don’t think it was an honest misunderstanding, judging from the way they laugh and celebrate after he turns her down. They just enjoy fucking with tourists.
It doesn’t seem to me that THE HERETIC has received significant reappraisal, so I don’t really expect it to. There are a few big names who like the movie. Pauline Kael did, but she had off-the-beaten-path takes all the time. I was more excited to read that Martin Scorsese was a fan. In a 1998 Film Comment piece listing ten of his so-called guilty pleasures he wrote, “The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it’s God testing the good… I like the first EXORCIST because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but THE HERETIC surpasses it. Maybe Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got.”
For those of us who aren’t Scorsese, it’s the kind of movie you get accused of being a contrarian for liking, but I’m afraid it’s true – I just like it. I hadn’t seen it since I was young, and my only memories were the locusts and Africa and some crazy music, and that I respected it for being weird. On this viewing the first hypnotherapy session had me thinking I wasn’t gonna like it as much anymore, but it quickly won me over. It’s a strange and creepy experience, it has atmosphere and unpredictability, it seems not quite right in the head, its unwieldiness may come from a legendarily troubled production (including a break of over a month when Boorman contracted a respiratory fungal infection) but it seems more like a natural extension of its subject matter than a flaw. It takes me on the shaky, uncomfortable ride I want out of a horror sequel.