DIRECTED BY: John Boorman
FEATURING: Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Kitty Winn, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow
PLOT: Four years after Father Merrin died casting a demon out of young Regan, a priest investigates the affair and discovers the demon isn’t completely gone; further investigation takes him to Africa in search of the evil spirit’s roots.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scenes like the one where James Earl Jones, dressed as an African prince, apparently turns into a leopard when he shouts at the devil made this goofy semi-Satanic sequel come closer than you might think to being considered for the List.
COMMENTS: You’ve probably heard that Exorcist II is a bad movie, and that’s certainly true. It’s important to note, however, that like most of John Boorman‘s bad movies, it may be laughable, but it’s never boring. Four decades out from its theatrical debut, the sense of outrage over the betrayal of William Friedkin’s horror classic has subsided, and more viewers are now willing to let The Heretic‘s hypnotic camp spell wash over them.
“Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views,” complains Richard Burton, speaking with the pseudo-Shakespearean diction he believes Catholic priests use (which includes pronouncing devil as “dev-ILL” and evil as “EEE-ville”). Burton already knew a thing or two about embarrassment, and he discovers a couple of new tricks in this outing. The Heretic goes completely off the rails very quickly when Burton’s priest, investigating the exorcism-related death of Father Merrick four years ago, is inexplicably invited to sit in on teenage Regan’s private post-possession stress disorder therapy sessions with her skeptical secular therapist. He arrives just in time for her first therapy session with a dual-user hypnosis machine which allows her to relive the repressed horrors of possession. The device also allows them to speak to the demon directly, gives the therapist atrial fibulation (which Burton fixes with a little psychic open heart surgery after he dons the machine’s disco headband), and causes girl and cleric to form a permanent psychic link. “Your machine has proved scientifically that there’s an ancient demon inside of her!” declares Burton, with conviction.
The hypnosis machine, with its strobe-lights and a methodology which involves syncing “tones” via biofeedback, is a perfect encapsulation of the blend of the eerily effective and utterly ridiculous that characterizes The Heretic. And believe me, it gets more unhinged from there, as Burton goes to Africa searching for the demon Pazuzu and Boorman goes into one of his famous directing frenzies where he lays logic aside to focus on hallucinatory set pieces. You get multiple shots from the locust cam, including a great locust tracking shot where we follow the speeding insect as he zips across the savannah accompanied by the sound of a cracking whip. You get scenes of tribespeople fighting off swarms of locusts on a golden-hued studio backlot. There’s a hidden city perched on top of a massive cliff, accessible only by scaling a narrow cleft between two mountains. And who could forget James Earl Jones dressed like an insect in his cave throne room, only when the priest puts a spike through his foot he turns out to be an entomologist? Meanwhile, back in New York City, demonic possession is a minor inconvenience for Regan, who is more concerned with her upcoming tap dance recital. It all has something to do with finding the “good locust” who will turn the swarm into “happy-go-lucky grasshoppers.”
As you can see, Exorcist II has a lot of issues, but being dull isn’t one of them. Long tracking shots through a theater-bound Africa, set to Ennio Morricone’s typically great, chant-heavy score, provide an appealing dreamlike character to long stretches of the film that make you want to forgive (or even embrace) the lapses in logic. Add in a hammy, over-enunciating Burton giving his all to lines like “is there no hope once the wings have brushed you?” and you have a bad movie that keeps you watching. It’s no Zardoz, but, whether they be good or bad, Boorman does not make boring movies (or at least he didn’t in the 70s and 80s). The Heretic is far more entertaining than its bad reputation suggests and, although it may sound like heresy to Exorcist fans, given the choice between re-watching the terrifying original or taking another crack at this rollicking disaster, I would hesitate for a moment. The choice would depend on whether I’m in the mood for shivers, or shivery chuckles.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…while [Boorman's] Zardoz is a legendarily misconceived act of bad moviemaking at its most epic, what’s even more terrifying is that it’s still better than The Heretic… It more than lives up to its reputation as the nadir of the Exorcist franchise, but it’s also, by far, the most fun of them all.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)