Written by: William Goodhart
Directed by: John Boorman
Starring: Richard Burton, Linda Blair, and Louise Fletcher
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"If Pazuzu comes for you, I will spit a leopard."
Heaping praise upon Exorcist II: The Heretic is difficult, but, at the very least, it canít be accused of simply retreading the original in the most exploitative way possible (as was the rigueur du jour in grindhouses across the globe). Indeed, that was actually the original plan: to shoot it quick and on the cheap, going so far as to employ unused footage and alternate takes from the first film, sort of like the prototype of future shoestring sequels like Silent Night, Deadly Night 2. In an alternate universe, The Exorcist II is whispered in the same sentence with the likes of that.
Or is that the universe weíre actually in? John Boormanís film is damn near universally reviled and certainly stands as one of the most bewildering and disappointing follow-ups to an absolute masterpiece. If it were merely bewildering, thatíd be one thingóin fact, its utter weirdness is almost downright commendable, if only because the film feels nothing like its predecessor. However, the final product doesnít resemble a conscious step in another direction so much as it feels like an aimless, wandering attempt at coaxing answers from a film that thrived on ambiguity and inexplicability. It goes without saying that such an approach rarely works out in horror films: evil is only diminished once the curtainís been pulled back on it.
So it goes with The Heretic. Unfolding four years after the events in The Exorcist (and forever in its shadow), it finds Regan MacNeill (Linda Blair) leading a rather charmed life considering her previous ordeal. Now 16 years old, she lives in a high-rise apartment with guardian Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn, assuming a somewhat maternal role in the wake of Ellen Burstynís refusal to return); while she still undergoes regular treatment with psychotherapist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), sheís found success as a stage dancer and has mostly put her tumultuous past behind her. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has found it more difficult to move on from those events: some within its ranks have branded the late Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) a heretic, so one of his acolytes (Richard Burton) is dispatched to investigate his death and clear his name.
His intrusion naturally disrupts Reganís relatively tranquil life, and, in the first of several things that donít make much sense, the obsessed priest coerces Tuskin in trying out an experimental form of hypnosis on her patient, a decision that sends Father Lamont down the bizarre path thatís made this sequel so infamous, one thatís lined with incomprehensible mind-melds, African jaunts, James Earl Jones, Assyrian demons, and bugs. At times, The Heretic is the weirdest possible sequel to The Exorcist, as it often doesnít even feel as though it hails from the same universe as Friedkinís film. Somehow, its connection with its predecessor feels absolutely tenuous despite the return of three characters and a central conceit concerned with illuminating the events of that film.
The Exorcist II is a fine example of a film that canít thrive on weirdness alone, with its various tangents and tonal inconsistencies merely resulting in frustration and dullness instead of genuine intrigue. Even considering it from a train-wreck cinema standpoint isnít all that rewarding: sure, the film is an oddball, and youíre sometimes left wondering just how Warner Brothers let Boorman get away with this (it's arguably one of the last gasps of faith in New Hollywood), but itís not even awe-inspiring in its messinessóitís just a directionless muddle that seems to actively undo Friedkinís masterful blending of clinical horror with a feverish, nightmarish verve that shook audiences to their core.
Instead, Boormanís sequel is almost perfectly bifurcated between the world of science and mysticism, which arenít at war here as much as theyíre both just sort of there, with the former taking the shape of dry psychoanalysis sessions that canít be all that productive given Reganís suppression of her trauma and her doctorís disbelief in it anyway. Managing to return Blair to her most famous role initially feels like a coup until itís clear that the script has very little direction for her. Only nebulous ideas arise, nearly all of which manage to undercut the inexplicability of her previous suffering: it turns out Regan might be one of many special snowflakes predicted by Merrin to eventually emerge into the world and combat evil. While this clearly shifts the paradigm of the original, itís at least a fascinating idea that could allow the film to explore the notion of Regan as a martyr, sort of a modern Joan of Arc, forever haunted by the burden of thwarting evil (even despite Blairís acting ability refusing to grow up with heróRegan MacNeill might have been among the most ditzy saints ever).
But instead of exploring this, The Heretic has Father Lamont hop on over to Africa to investigate Merrinís other encounter with evil several years earlier in Northern Africa, a diversion Iím of two minds about: on the one hand, itís an awful early indicator of Hollywoodís compulsive need to explain everything. Merrinís brief, furtive mentions in the original were enough, but that doesnít stop the sequel from delivering unnecessary flashbacks and almost completely deflating the nature of the beast, so to speak. Turns out Reganís bout wasnít with Satan himself but rather an ancient demon named Pazuzu, a discovery thatís kind of like watching your favorite team beat a bunch of second-stringersóyou almost feel compelled to put an asterisk beside Merrinís victory in The Exorcist.
However, on the other hand, the Africa tangent does make up the most compelling stretch of the film. Nearly everything thatís made The Heretic notorious derives from this interlude, which is the only time The Heretic even approaches an otherworldly, fever-dreamy mood to give it some manner of distinction. In the filmís most invigorating scene, Boormanís camera swoops over the African landscape (read: a WB sound stage but humor me) to reveal the boy Merrin once exorcised, now a fully-grown tribal leader played by Jones. All of this is courtesy of a vision that impels Lamont to actually make a visit, at which point an already bewildered Burton seems even more mystified by just what in the fuck is going on. Having seen the film multiple times, I am still in no position to offer any explanation. All I can give is empathy and direct it towards Burtonís perpetually furrowed brow, as there are precious few moments where this otherwise stalwart performer seems comfortable. If thereís any desperation to be found, you have to assume it owes to Burtonís palpable longing to somehow negotiate his way out of this mess before itís too late.
He wasnít so fortunate, of course, and goes down the ship alongside everyone and everything else, including whatever sense of coherence the film manages. For all its insistence on departing from the original, The Heretic canít resist literally retracing its steps by returning to the scene of its famous climax (reconstructed, again, on setóthey couldnít even get the actual house to come back for this shit). A faint thematic thread centered on denial (Regan, her doctor, and even the Church reject the possibility of actual, Satanic evil) is woven only to be lost in a nonsensical conclusion that reveals just how oblique Pazuzuís plan has been the entire movie; with no clear goals stated up until this point, the demon merely resorts to the olí corruption-of-the-cloth routine, only with 100% less cocksucking barbs and more heart-rippings and nubile Linda Blair temptation (there are somehow two Regans during the finale, which, all things considered, isnít the weirdest thing that happens since self-immolation is also involved).
Disappointment abounds in The Exorcist II, but its cop-out finale is among the most disheartening elements, especially in light of the studioís apparent decision to go big and bold instead of making a quick cash-in (at this point, The Heretic carried the biggest budget in WBís history). Ultimately, youíre left with exactly what youíve come to expect from half-hearted sequels: more of the same, only itís been diluted the second time around. In this case, though, it feels almost impossible because Boormanís vision is otherwise quite grandiose and his resources more than adequate (Blair aside, this is a helluva cast, plus Ennio Morriconeís score provides a subtle Eurohorror vibe thatís otherwise sadly muted)óitís just that itís so untamed and delivered without any sense of actual direction or clarity. Make no mistake: The Exorcist II is a very strange, almost admirably peculiar departure, but almost none of it works outside of Boormanís occasionally artful flourishes that hint at a film that could have existed on the same metaphysical plane as the original. Falling well short of that, it rests in an unfortunate purgatory reserved for bad movies that aren't really bad enough. Rent it!
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