I’m probably going to lose a lot of credibility here (and maybe even some readers), but, gotta say it: I have a soft spot for 1977’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, now remastered in a special Blu-Ray edition from the lunatics at Scream Factory (in conjunction with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment).
The movie is notorious for its creators’ approach to a sure-fire sequel. Except the “can’t-miss” title infamously missed. It was literally laughed off the screen during its initial release, and trashed by critics like so many Jimi Hendrix guitars. I never quite understood all the hostility (I kinda do now, and will explain below).
Top-billed Linda Blair returns as Regan, an understandably troubled teen residing in a goofy Manhattan rehab center for screwball offspring of wealthier screwball adults. Since the original movie’s star Ellen Burstyn wouldn’t touch this project with a ten-foot crucifix, the suits remarkably took 1970s wags’ advice: if you can’t get Burstyn, get the knock-off, Louise Fletcher. So LF’s the surrogate mom/shrink who runs the fruitcake hostel. She’s also the inventor of a revolutionary “thought shared hypnosis transfer” machine (basically, an electrode-laden headband in desperate search of a colander) rendering results that George Zucco and Lionel Atwill could only dream about.
Entering this asylum is Cardinal-ordered Father Philip Lamont (the loopiest Richard Burton ever), a near-unhinged priest, obsessed with exorcism and, in particular, the Regan case. I don’t think one could actually call what Burton does in this pic “acting,” at least not in the traditional sense. It’s more like “braying” of the jackass variety (and one who’s been in the loco weed). When Burton tries on the brain device to exchange thoughts with Regan, it’s a bona fide Looney Tune fest (apt, from the studio that made them), and practically just as animated.
Regan, on the other hand, sees her new life as the half-full glass. She’s so terminally dippy throughout that Blair’s performance can only be described as “deliriously possessed Doris Day”; indeed, she even gets to dance in the nuthouse’s Christmas revue, clod-hopping to Lullaby of Broadway (replete with a choreography credit to Daniel Joseph Giaghi, who should have remained anonymous).
There are so many unintentional movie references in HERETIC that it’s difficult to keep track. I’ll go with my favorite: Regan’s homage to Blockheads, the 1938 Laurel & Hardy classic. Remember that hilarious moment when Ollie is reunited with Stan twenty years after the Great War? “Remember how dumb I used to be?,” sez Laurel. “Well, I’m better now.” Ollie soothes his pal, only until Stan causes immense slapstick havoc and destruction prompting the magnificent Hardy to mutter “I’m BETTER now.” Okay, so Regan, it seems, can now communicate with autistic children. When she finally gets one to speak, the stunned former mute (not making this up – it’s Dana Plato!), asks “What’s the matter with you?” And here comes (at least in my demented mind) the reference. “I was possessed by a demon. Oh, it’s okay. He’s gone.” If only Father Burton had been present, so that he could later bemoan “I’m BETTER now!” That said, during the pyrotechnic SFX gala climax, he does get to be pushin’ the cushion with a devil-controlled slutted-up Regan, an action that only Stan and Ollie hinted at in Their First Mistake.
But there’s more of a subplot (to compensate for subtext) to HERETIC. And it involves A) the King of the Demons, Pazuzu and B) his nemesis Kokumu, a gifted African boy Burton had heard of (and must find to save Regan). You see, the late Father Merrin (Max von Sydow in a flashback return appearance), only frightened the hell out of Regan’s uninvited visitor. The wascally malignancy still lives inside her – rent free. This is what Padre Lamont must address, and release. Kokumo, we learn, is currently (depending upon which alternative universe you choose to occupy) a grown human God or a modern physicist; both are impersonated by James Earl Jones and each visited in startling fashion by Burton.
It is at this juncture that we additionally are apprised of the Good Locust and the Bad Locust, an Oz-ian nod that only the director of Zardoz could have envisioned. Oh, did I say that this is a John Boorman picture? Well, it is, and fully decked out in all his visually splendid tricks, expertise and cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffery.
And here lies the problem I alluded to earlier, the tanking of HERETIC. The original Exorcist terrified millions of moviegoers worldwide because of its realistic slant, the fact that William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel truly seemed plausible. HERETIC doesn’t capitalize on this factor, but instead goes for a dark fairy-tale angle, right down to the quite ethereal (if not noisy), and genuinely lovely final imagery of Blair and Burton. Had the movie not been hyped as a sequel, the weirdness of this whole megillah might have passed muster. There’s no way anyone can take this seriously, nor probably should. Keeping this mindset, HERETIC is quite a thrilling joyride, brilliantly cinematic (thanks to the superb d.p. William A. Fraker and the always inventive Boorman), and, in the deranged hands of writers William Goodhart and (an uncredited) Rospo Pallenberg, hopelessly amusing. Certainly, this horror show is more akin to the director’s fantasy arenas of Point Blank and Excalibur, rather than Deliverance or Hell in the Pacific.
The other cast members certainly deserve mention. Fletcher, for her kinder, gentler medical practitioner (as the Burstyn wannabee Dr. Gene Tuskin), is best termed as Ratched-Doesn’t-Live-Here-Anymore. And, as another original Exorcist alumnus, Kitty Winn as Sharon Spencer sadly and creepily becomes taken over by Mephistophelian nasties causing her to look and act like a Satanic Marcia Clark. The only authentic touch of dignity is Paul Henreid, as the Cardinal who orders Burton to “investigate the circumstances involving the death of Father Merrin” (and then regrets it).
SIDEBAR: I recently spoke with the actor’s daughter, Monika Henreid, who revealed that when Warners first phoned their Casablanca star to appear in the pic, he absolutely refused. They continued to call, and he continued to hang up. Finally, a beleaguered production assistant weakly asked how much would it take for the thesp to do the two-day part? Henreid thought he had the upper hand, and shot back with a pie-in-sky figure. The assistant hung up, and shortly thereafter, Warners agreed to Henreid’s terms. “DAMN IT, now I have to do this film!” shouted celebrated veteran actor/director. That said, once shooting started, he thoroughly enjoyed himself. “My father was raised as a Roman Catholic, so he knew how to work those robes and admitted he had a lot of fun with the part.” It was his last screen appearance.
Boorman himself admitted the movie’s failure despite his original intention (“the idea of making a metaphysical thriller greatly appealed to my psyche”); of course, we know all too well what often happens to good intentions when combined with Hell infrastructure. True, in the series franchise, HERETIC should really not exist; it’s strictly “Go Directly to Legion” (but only the restored Blatty version/edition).
Weighing all the aforementioned pros (direction, photography, the daft premise), HERETIC’s fans can enthusiastically cap off this I Scream Sunday with the ultimate movie cherry on top: an absolutely gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone. The haunting main theme that melodiously drifts in and out of the narrative and plays over the end credits is a thing of beauty to behold (or is it to behear?).
The two-platter Scream Factory/Warner Bros. restoration of EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC looks pretty good, although occasionally replicating the “peachy,” muted look that seemingly plagued most Seventies American movies. One disc is the 102-minute 1977 theatrical release, the other an elongated director’s cut that adds fifteen minutes to the insanity (it’s the one to go with). Both versions have been remastered in new 2K High Definition scans (there’s also an option of the original mono track and a stereo-surround remix).
A number of great extras complete the package, including audio commentary from John Boorman, interviews with Linda Blair and the pic’s editor Tom Priestley, the theatrical trailer, and a still and poster gallery (including shots from deleted scenes).
So there you have it, one of my many guilty pleasures (except perhaps these days, NOT so guilty). I think you might find some gruesome laffs as well, should you choose to revisit this much-maligned freak show. Of course, this is coming from someone who is one of the few to have actually liked Alien Covenant, but that’s another story.
EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Scream Factory/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # SF 18987. SRP: $34.95.