Indulge me for a second and consider the challenge of following a cultural phenomenon like The Exorcist. You’re a bigwig at Warner Bros, and you understand there are potential millions to be made from a sequel, but nobody involved with the original will play ball. Friedkin and Blatty are both out, Burstyn says absolutely not. What do you do?
Well, you go full speed ahead of course, with a crazy metaphysical script that blends elements of every genre known to mankind, combines them in a blender, and splashes the screen with a druggy, hallucinatory concoction of ideas that rarely coalesce. Linda Blair, who originally said no but ultimately said yes, contends that the original script she was given was much better than the final product, and really anything might have been better than what was actually made. John Boorman was hired to direct, Max Von Sydow agreed to reprise his role as Merrin (in flashback scenes), and Kitty Wynn returned as Sharon to fill the vacancy left by Burstyn. Regardless, the completed Exorcist II was a movie that no audience member wanted, and it brought almost unanimous scorn upon itself from the moment it debuted in theaters (with the notable exception of both Martin Scorsese and Pauline Kael). The negative reactions to the film are now legendary – Friedkin told a story about how Warner Brothers executives were chased down the street by angry filmgoers who attended the film’s opening, and Blatty claimed to have been the first person to start laughing at the film when he saw it. After the disastrous opening, Boorman made alterations to the movie by actually going to theaters and cutting the prints right there on the spot, six theaters a day. The cuts did nothing to help.
But let go of all that. Let’s allow Exorcist II: The Heretic to be what it wants to be, and you may start to see the film differently. Most astonishingly, it is not a retread of the first film, which is probably what audiences *really* wanted. Instead, it thrusts us into totally unfamiliar territory, and it never gives in. We do get another Catholic priest as a hero, Richard Burton as Father Lamont, but it drops most of the Catholic imagery that the first film contained (and exploited for shock value). Instead, Father Lamont is seen haunting the psychiatric facility of Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), an ultra modern office space that can best be described as a glass honeycomb connected by sliding automatic doors that open and close like those on a spaceship. Lamont is on assignment from the Vatican, investigating the death of Father Merrin. Regan, now Tuskin’s psychiatric patient and apparently the most gentle teenager who ever existed, lives with Sharon in a Manhattan penthouse that would make even the most jaded Russian billionaire envious. Chris MacNeil is absent, apparently off-camera earning the laundry baskets full of money that would be required to fund such an extravagant lifestyle.
In addition to the film’s obvious horror elements, there’s an early detour into total science fiction in the form of a fictional machine that Tuskin has invented called the “synchronizer”. This flashing device allows two subjects to share a hypnotic connection — or something. It’s necessary, because it allows the characters to discover the demon Pazuzu still lurking in Regan’s subconscious, and to share psychedelic hallucinations of flying with Pazuzu, who is revealed to be a demon closely associated with locusts. We flash to scenes in a strange Catholic church in Africa, accessible only by a death-defying climb inside of a terrifying cliff formation. The jarring mixture of these exaggerated, unfamiliar scenarios and locations starts to have a strange effect on the viewer; Exorcist II rarely takes place in the ‘real’ world, and even when it does, the real world doesn’t seem to be populated by people with motivations we can understand – just try and figure out what’s going on when Regan starts having ‘flashbacks’ while she’s tap dancing in a high school talent show. She keeps convulsing during the number, yet nobody reacts to the fact that she’s having seizures, and the number continues until she finally dives right off the stage.
The film’s intriguing imagery envisions evil as something that is communicated from one individual to another, the way the brushing of wings between locusts transmits signals to other locusts to become a destructive swarm. Regan is special because her previous exorcism gives her the ability to resist evil instead of succumbing to it, therefore breaking its chain reaction. It also links her to an African named Kokumo (James Earl Jones), who was the little boy on whom Father Merrin once performed an exorcism many years before Regan. Conversely, Kitty Wynn’s character suffers a terrible fate because she, too, was touched by the evil of Regan’s possession and was unable to resist.
These bizarre concepts are the schizophrenic soul of Exorcist II. It’s easy to see why audiences rejected it, considering they were expecting more of the same, and what they got was a bad acid trip. Although it was not technically a financial failure, earning double its budget in theatrical release, it seriously underperformed and was eagerly forgotten by almost everyone involved. It was Boorman’s involvement that most likely kept the film heading into this commercial dead end, since he was involved in the screenplay and was determined to make a movie completely different from the first film. But he’s hardly the only one to blame, as the other screenwriters were apparently smoking the same thing. Many of the actors deliver stilted performances, and Burton is just plain hammy. We’re never quite sure who James Earl Jones’ character is in the film, his involvement is so limited. A scene where Blair uses her psychic healing abilities to get a mute little girl with autism (Dana Plato) to start talking comes off as laughable.
Regardless, I truly enjoy this insane film in spite of its failings. The visuals are often breathtaking, and probably looked incredible on a large theater screen. The film does inspire a few moments of excitement, the most notable being when Blair sleepwalks along the rooftop edge of the skyscraper where she lives, a terrifying scene that was achieved by having Blair actually walk along the edge of a skyscraper with no harness or means to catch her if she fell. The world is full of underperforming sequels, but there aren’t many as fascinatingly strange and unexpected as this one, and it’s interesting to take the film on its own peculiar terms.