Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature, and a special Halloween edition, no less: John Boorman’s notorious 1977 sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Some ideas are so ill-conceived, there may be nothing that can make them work. Exorcist II: The Heretic, the 1977 follow-up to the 1973 smash, is suspiciously missing both writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin; co-star Ellen Burstyn took a pass as well. But there’s no shortage of impressive personnel: Friedkin’s shoes were filled by the more-than-capable John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance), who supplemented returning co-stars Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Kitty Wynn with six-time Oscar nominee Richard Burton and recent winner Louise Fletcher. James Earl Jones and Ned Beatty appear in supporting roles. Maestro Ennio Morricone provides the music. On paper, Exorcist II should work — except it shouldn’t, because an Exorcist sequel is a really stupid idea, and this one plays like the blatant cash grab that it is.
What’s most striking about the film now, decades after its release, is how staggeringly dull it is. Boorman is a fine director, but it’s as though no one bothered to tell him he was making a horror movie. Instead, it’s 118 minutes of endless flashy-light hypnotism, staggeringly terrible locust effects, and Richard Burton wandering around what appears to be Tatooine. The plot, such as it is, finds Burton’s Father Philip Lamont being dispatched by the Vatican to discover exactly what happened to Father Merrin (von Sydow) after the events of the first film. To do so, he must tap into the repressed memories of poor little Regan (Blair), with the help of her doctor (Fletcher).
Blair is top-billed, but it’s undeniably Richard Burton’s movie, and from his opening scene, thundering “SILENCIO! SILENCIO!” at a possessed South American woman, it’s clear that he’s going to make a meal out of this thing. “Overacting” seems too polite a word for what Burton is doing here; going on and on about the “Ee-ville” of Satan, mugging shamelessly in his reaction shots, and dropping in more pregnant pauses that the lovechild of Shatner and Walken, his performance is about the only consistently entertaining element of the movie. But hey, at least the sexual tension with Fletcher is white-hot! (Her: “Don’t you ever need a woman, Father?” Him: “Yes.” Awkward pause.)
Not that Blair fairs much better. Though she clearly did some, um, growing up between the films, she also became a pretty terrible actress, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the closing passages, when she and Father Lamont return to the Georgetwon home where it all went down, and she approaches the door with some kind of weirdly giddy anticipation. Once inside, she inexplicably takes two forms — a “good” Regan and a “bad” one, vamping it up on the bed, motioning the lapsed priest over for a make-out session, and hissing “kill her!” re: her other half. The scene is, to put it mildly, problematic, but the “best” bit comes a little earlier, when a performance in some sort of tap dance show is interrupted by her psychic connection to Lamont, who is at that moment being chased by African villagers, who are throwing rocks at him (“an epic foreshadowing of the public response this film would receive,” snarked the Medved brothers in The Golden Turkey Awards). Her goofy running, reactions, and general spasms are unintentionally hilarious, but they are certainly an improvement over the previous choreography.
Somewhere in the middle of that scene, it’s worth remembering that this was supposed to be a sequel to one of the scariest movies ever made. But that’s a ball Boorman fumbles throughout the picture; it’s not just that it’s not scary, but that he doesn’t even seem to try. (About the only thing that even made me antsy was the inexplicable open balcony of Regan’s high-rise apartment.) He won’t even take the easy shortcuts — i.e., not even a courtesy cue-up of “Tubular Bells.”
But there’s something instructive about the failure of the movie, which arrived in the post-Godfather Part II world where Hollywood was really starting to wrap its arms around this idea of slapping a II on anything that made a dime. (And for the record, it did make money—just nowhere near as much as anyone anticipated.) Film trivia buffs know all about its famously rejiggered ending; Boorman spent $1 million of Warner Brothers’ money to reshoot and reedit the final reel, mostly to add in a seriously comical locust taming dance from Regan, and then reworked the ending yet again for the international release. But the ending wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Boorman and screenwriter William Goodhart decided to take the opportunity of the sequel to explain what had possessed Regan, a specific demon whom they even bothered to give the ridiculous name of “Pazuzu.” It previously possessed an African named Kukumo, which not only allows Burton to say the insane line “Kukumo can help me find Pazuzu,” but helps put a slightly modified version of that terrible Beach Boys song “Kokomo” into your brain for a couple of days. (Another fun after-the-fact distraction is Blair’s peculiar resemblance to Amy Schumer, so enjoy imagining her taking over the role.)
Point is, the lesson that Hollywood didn’t learn from Exorcist II and still hasn’t is that evil, like so many other things about the stories we love, shouldn’t be explained. The Pazuzu sections of Exorcist II play like some kind of devil “origin story,” and as with most origin stories, it’s lame and uninteresting and doesn’t tell us anything we actually wanted to know. Exorcist II’s reception back in June of 1977 (it was released a mere three weeks after Star Wars) was hostile bordering on violent; audiences literally threw things at the screen. But as is always the case, there are those who swear by it — including such not-for-nothing names as Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese, both of whom preferred it to the original. It would be nice to think they were ahead of the curve, but I’m still trying to see what they did in this overinflated turkey. Of the events in the startlingly incoherent climax, Fletcher insists, “The world won’t understand. Not yet.” Maybe she was talking about the movie too.
Exorcist II: The Heretic is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and on demand. Special thanks to fellow bad movie watchers Mac Welch and Amber Malott.