April 03, 2008

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) no longer the worst sequel

(1977, USA)

You’d be mad if you didn’t make a sequel to one of the hugest movie hits ever, but a disastrous critical reaction, and even laughter during the premiere, buried its reputation almost immediately, despite high credentials.

It's not a film I'd heartily recommend, but it's interesting as a direct sequel to the classic, with many of the original cast reappearing. It’s no more misjudged than the recent prequel Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). After years of being the worst of the Exorcist movies, (Exorcist III: Legion was definitely the best sequel), Exorcist II: The Heretic can finally move out of last place.

It takes place four years after the events of The Exorcist. Hardly surprisingly, young Regan (Linda Blair) is still in therapy. A priest (Richard Burton), sent to investigate Father Merrin's conduct during that exorcism, is interested in the psychiatrist’s results. As the Dr (Louise Fletcher) uses an experimental hypnotic device to help Regan remember, it reignites the battle for her soul. Father Merrin's very first exorcism of a possessed boy in Africa, might hold the key to a new demon that starts attacking her…

While Linda Blair returns as Regan, she’s now more of a stroppy teenager than an innocent little girl. Father Merrin is played once more by Max Von sydow. His old age make-up was so convincing in the first film, that it was a shock for many to see him in the flashbacks as a younger man in Africa. Ellen Burstyn, as Regan’s mother, is notably missing from the cast, with her housekeeper Kitty, effectively gets her role.

To bolster the cast, Louise Fletcher plays Regan’s therapist, but she’s miscast here if we’re supposed to trust her. Fletcher is hardly reassuring as a medical professional after her turn as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest! Her character uses a silly hypnotic device that looked low-tech in 1978, (two flashing lights nailed to a stick), but this electronic approach to metaphysics heavily influenced the climax of the Japanese sequel Ring 2, one of the many interesting revelations in Dennis Meikle’s book, The Ring Companion. Richard Burton is also miscast, with a one-note performance that lends little light to his character's motivations, crucial to understanding the story.

In the story, the combined efforts of both religion and science trigger a vision of the original exorcism. But the scene is flawed in reimagining the world-famous scene by using a different actress and a different voice. Nothing about this ‘replay’ reminds us of the original. It’s a great pity, because technically it's an imaginative special effects scene, inter-connecting the past and the present in a spectacularly lined-up stage effect.

There are further mis-steps throughout the film. Having a demon attack via African locusts seems more to do with director John Boorman's love of ecological subtexts than cinematic logic. They don't appear at all demonic looking, more like clouds of tea leaves, or as a single locust glued in front of a back-projection screen. Boorman’s most successful visual rant against civilisation’s rape of the land is still Deliverance (1972), though that message was similarly buried under a confusing storyline. In fact, several of his films start off exceedingly well and go completely ga-ga by the end. Zardoz, I’ll say no more.

The film isn’t helped by unrealistic studio-bound locations and even more disorientating plotting, mixing up ESP with hypnotism. The far-fetched storyline is completely at odds with the painstaking efforts of the first film, to make supernatural events seem possible, by rooting them firmly in reality. In The Heretic, nothing seems real or realistic. Add to this a supposedly dramatic disaster at a tap-dancing contest and the damage is done - unintentional laughs in a horror film.

And James Earl Jones in a locust hat!

The Making of Exorcist II: The Heretic
The reasons behind many of these shortcomings are partly explained in the 'making of' paperback. It details the optical special effects used – whereas the original made an effort not to use optical effects in order to appear real. The overuse of back-projection in the sequel is nasty and noticeable, with silly model shots, insect close-ups and studio sets representing all of the African scenes. Everything is intricately mounted, but still unconvincing.

The technical process of producing a huge studio film is described and supplemented by minor showbiz gossip. Richard Burton was completing one of his many divorces during his time on the film. His role was nearly played by a pre Deer Hunter Christopher Walken. Actress Ellen Burstyn didn't return to the sequel because she definitely didn’t want to be in it. The director also had to talk round Max Von Sydow to get him to return.

The spectacular rooftop apartment where Regan lives was actually purpose-built on top of a Manhattan skyscraper. Linda Blair even does a dangerous stunt on the roof edge with no safety harness. But New York was the only location outside of Hollywood, not for the want of trying. The African locations they wanted were either inaccessible or a war zone. Even a return to the original house in Washington D.C. was nixed by the owner. So the house, inside and out, also had to be constructed as sets, right down to the iconic stone steps.

Effects make-up genius Dick Smith returned to the crew, but apart from one spectacularly nasty effect, basically just recreates his make-ups from the original. His skills would have been better used in the originally envisaged climax, (supposedly never filmed, rather than scrapped and reshot). Originally the ending was to be another intimate exorcism, with a multitude of make-up effects to represent the demons identities. The book mentions a locust mask, a kabuki mask and an effect of flesh falling away from a skull. But unfortunately we get a flashy, stunt-heavy disaster-movie ending.

The book wisely ends with the night of the US premiere – the precise point at which a happy ending didn’t happen. Since then The Heretic has had the usual rough ride enjoyed by studio embarassments – they are lucky to get to home video at all, and certainly don’t get love lavished on them as special editions. My VHS of the UK release has almost every scene in a completely different order to the US DVD - each scene is cut differently and there are many additional scenes, plus a longer climax. So, like the recent prequel, there are two versions out there. If either one was markedly better, I might list the differences, but it’s not really worth the effort. Like many last-minute re-edits, it rarely improves the mistakes of the original.

Lastly, several elements reminded me of Holocaust 2000 (1977), which also has a glass-walled asylum and a beautiful Ennio Morricone score.

Exorcist II: The Heretic was released in the US and UK as a single DVD several years ago, that may be hard to find now. I don't know which version was released in the UK, but I presume it's the same as the US release, rather than the alternate UK cut. It's also currently part of an anthology DVD boxset of all the Exorcist films, available in the UK and US.

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  1. Amazing that so much talent and potential can produce such a joke. Spent $4.31 on DVD, maybe I can use it as a clay pigeon

  2. Maybe hang on to it. I'd be interested which one you think is worse - Boorman's Exorcist II, or Boorman's Zardoz...

  3. 'The Exorcist' is a classic and is a stand alone film.. that didn't need a sequel!..what were they thinking?..oh I know..$$$$$$$..it didn't work!..Linda Blair said recently that the original script which was 'fairly decent' was thrown out and Boorman relplaced the first director!..and the film was doomed..I agree.