Cast: Richard Burton, Linda Blair, Louise Fletcher
Director: John Boorman
Synopsis: Heady mix of imagery and diabolical demonic dabblings, locusts and Richard Button chewing up the scenery in one of the most despised films ever produced.
“an absolute fiasco ” Creature Features
“an absurd sequel” Splatter Movies
“preposterous turkey” Maltin’s
“Dennis Wheatley fans, at least, will love it” Time Out
“Highly unsatisfactory psychic melodrama…falls flat on it’s face – unintelligible” – Halliwell’s Guide
“A turkey” – Video Movies Guide
“Can make a legitimate claim for worst major motion picture of all time” – Videohound
Being a person who believes in second chances it made sense in revisiting Exorcist 2: The Heretic; on Blu Ray once again just to see the film from a different perspective after all the years. Was it truly the King Sized Turkey that the consensus agrees upon or was there some deeper intellectual theme going on that only the few could see? Was it another “Heaven’s Gate” for example – a movie derided out of town upon release but one which has gained quite a reputation among serious cinema fans as a near classic over a period of time. Is The Heretic an unheralded gem or does it deserve the foul reputation it has been stuck with as one of the worst films ever made, THE worst sequel ever and by far the worst of the Exorcist bunch.
The first time this film was viewed was when the spell of The Exorcist had already been cast and it almost took a certain amount of courage to watch the second installment, that too in a fleapit cinema in Amman, Jordan not so far from Mosul, where the chilling opening scenes of the original had been shot. Fact is Friedkin’s Exorcist had traumatized me far beyond any other experience had in my guarded young life (14 years old is an impressionable age to watch a movie as potent as The Exorcist) and therefor the thought of a similar onslaught on the senses was met with trepidation and excitement in equal measures. The film kicks off with the familiar crimson titles on a stark black background; familiar territory to Exorcist fans. Not so familiar are the African percussion instruments that merge into the opening bars of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack and the opening scene that follows rather debunks the tone of the first Exorcist film which very much set in a modern world.
Richard Burton as Father Lamont is seen to be presiding over an Exorcism of some unfortunate young woman in Italy where things get out of hand with her dress catching fire and she writhes in delight as the flames engulf her. Later, somewhat chastened, he is given the task by his Papal elders to discover exactly what happened to Father Merrin who exorcised “that girl in America”. Burton retorts “but I’m not worthy” before trudging off to Washington to start his investigation and thus his own spiritual soul searching.
First stop is at Dr. Louise Fletcher’s chambers at a very plush looking facility for the care of patients with psychological disorders where Regan McNeil, seemingly cured of her horrors is a regular visitor. Regan and Fletcher have a friendly Dr. to patient banter before the former agrees to try out this new fancy gadget that Fletcher has acquired for the purpose of “synchronized hypnotism”. It looks like a stand with two light bulbs on either side, but clearly it is capable of so much more.
Regan hops into her seat and straps up with the electrode head band and it is not long before she is lulled into her room as Fletcher calmly instructs her to “go deep, deep, deeper and lower her tone” and the bulb pulses slower and slower and seemingly works like a charm. Within moments Dr. Fletcher or Nurse Ratchet or whatever you want to call her soon joins Regan in THAT room by hypnosis and starts to go into a strange state and her breathing starts to falter as distress sets in and her hearts starts “fibrillation”. In jumps father Lamont who in three minutes of having watched a device he has never seen in his life before, has mastered how to use the hypnotizer and whips on the electrodes with a confident “I Know how to find her” and enters the fray trying hastily to find the “tone” so that he can discover Regan’s bedroom and whip Fletcher out of there and rescue her.
While this drama is going on there is a reappearance of the scene of Merrin’s death and while Father Lamont is busy mesmerized by what he is viewing, Regan meanwhile appears to be physically massaging/molesting Fletchers heart causing some distress. Meanwhile the “good” Regan in the office pinching and plucking at the “evil” Regan’s hand trying to stop her from massaging her therapist’s heart which she doesn’t seem to enjoy at all. High drama of majestic proportions within the first twenty minutes of the movie and when the film played in theatres, the projectiles had already started to fly at screens where the movie was being screened.
Exorcist fans were already totally bewildered and bemused by what they were viewing on screen and reacted demonically in some instances literally throwing stuff at the screen. John Boorman at this stage went rushing back into the editing room with his scissors and hacked off good segments of the original theatrical release in order to stop the tide of abuse from turning into an irreversible torrent. It was too late, the damage control ineffective as the film was laughed out of town, rapidly earning the reputation of the worst film ever made. Indeed in (pre internet age) polls, the film ranked second only to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space as one of the “Worst Ever”. Certainly fans of the Exorcist seemed to think so.
But, this viewing was supposed to be from a detached point of view, trying to view the film on its own merits rather than as a sequel to one of the established classics of the horror genre. Indeed some critics have named The Exorcist as the Best Film Ever (Mark Kermode of the BBC). Obviously following in the footsteps was like following in the footsteps of Spielberg’s Jaws, an extremely unenviable task but one that had to be done and to be judged by the same yardstick was always going to be brutal. So, from an utterly laughable, preposterous first quarter of an hour with Burton threatening to outdo Neil Hamilton of Batman for sheer bravura gravitas things could only get better, right? Read on.
Innocent, goody- two-shoes Regan draws a picture of Father Lamont that has him reacting with great concern and he goes scampering off to show Dr. Fletcher “the flames…they are getting bigger” he exclaims which is a little odd considering he just met Regan and wouldn’t have been familiar with her previous drawings but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt considering he is a man of the cloth. Anyway, Father Lamont goes bustling around the building in a total flap, Regan’s drawing in hand, creating a huge fuss about “Evil” and that there is a fire somewhere – and then guess what? Lo and behold there is some crate on fire and Father Lamont takes to beating the flames with a wooden crutch like a man possessed while Louise Fletcher returns with a fire extinguisher and pauses momentarily as she chillingly see’s Father Lamont in the exact pose as drawn by Regan. (Omen territory?).
With that flame crisis over Father Lamont goes into overdrive insisting that he use the Synchronized Hypnotizing gizmo with Regan to get her to take him to her tone by which he can unravel the mystery of not only Merrin’s death but further mysteries beyond.
Their hypnotism session is a spectacular success as Regan is able to take Father Lamont on a weird journey in a land that looks like drought ravaged Africa and there is a giant locust that flies around causing mayhem and havoc, lots of death and disease and destruction. In her hypnotized state Regan demands that Lamont call her by “her name” and when he calls her Pazuzu is when he gets his response. Pazuzu is the one of the great evil lords of the wind and rides around in the form of a locust causing pestilence and death wherever he appears. A child has been possessed by Pazuzu and is that Father Merrin trying hard to battle his old foe? Meanwhile Regan living in her high rise Manhattan apartment and fast asleep is suddenly gripped by an unseen force and voice that forces her to the brink of falling to her death. She too has visions of the locust swarm causing havoc in Africa.
Lamont pays a visit to the old house in Georgetown and pays a visit to Regan’s room where a rather large locust hovers in the corner rather menacingly. Things start getting “heavy” at this stage and what you see is not what you get. Lamont soon has his bosses calling him telling him to take a break as he is getting too involved for his own good. Of course Burton doesn’t listen and follows his and Regan’s visions by flying out to the Dark Continent in search of his ultimate foe; Pazuzu.
Lamont and Regan develop this rather touching psychic link after their experience with the Hypnotizer and rather like Siamese twins, when one is in distress; the other appears to feel the torment, when one is pushed in Africa, the other stumbles thousands of miles away. They are united in the battle against evil and It’s quite a surreal sight to watch Regan stumble and fall during a tap dancing performance as Father Lamont is set about by Pazuzu and his evils.
Burton’s arrival in Africa signals the already swirling plot into overdrive and things go deliciously out of control with a script that is either taking itself way too seriously or not seriously enough or a director reeling to make some sense of the monstrous mess he has created. Burton’s Father Lamont goes into overdrive and clearly set the tone for the magnificent Rod Steiger in The Amityville Horror a couple of years later.
Events lumber to a dizzying conclusion that leaves most audience members scratching their heads in utter bewilderment but a few who were dazzled by the elevated theme and its brilliant exposition. One or two very irate e mails have been received over the years with readers mocking a lowly intellect for failing to grasp the subtle spiritual and metaphysical nuances of The Heretic and how it works only for those who have the ability to think beyond the plodding mundane everyday possession film.
Kokumu (James Earl Jones) is finally tracked down wearing some splendid head gear and Burton must face his convictions in order to advance. As the film crawls to its climax the audience is treated to a National Geographic like mini documentary about how nasty and horrible locusts can be but there is a silver lining in this black cloud as we learn that there is also a good locust who can maybe stand up to the evil locusts and save the day. Father Lamont almost cracks a smile at this triumphant breakthrough, now all he has to do is find him some “good locusts”. But is it that easy to conquer Pazuzu and his plague of evil? Very doubtful indeed.
The hair-raising, locust filled climax eventually takes place at the old house in Georgetown where father Lamont returns with Regan to confront the ultimate evil. Diabolical mayhem is unleashed on Georgetown like never before as a cloud of evil locusts descend on the city and the earth literally caves in as the showdown between good and evil, faith and faithless, good Regan and Bad Regan comes to a crunching, barnstorming climax. Sad thing is, almost everyone who has ever watched this movie has lost interest long, long ago and it’s only the brave, the brilliant or the exceptionally foolish who actually watch all the way to the end.
The film was laughed off screens upon release and it’s not difficult to imagine why. Clearly audiences were expecting more of what they had experienced in William Friedkin’s movie and as it becomes evident fairly early on in the movie that the audience is in for a very rude and unpleasant shock as the film flies off in a different tangent altogether retaining almost none of the elements that propelled the original into one of the biggest money spinners of all time.
It is not difficult to imagine audiences, drooling in excitement to finally watch an Exorcist sequel only to discover they had paid for a fangled fantasy adventure sci fi horror epic set largely in Africa featuring a giant locust as the representative of pure evil on earth. The reports of audiences literally trashing cinemas in anger are clearly not exaggerated yet the film retains its die-hard fans who insist that it’s a fantastic film not meant for the undiscerning crowd and that only people with a certain level of understanding can even begin to comprehend it.
As the dust settles after all these years finally re-watching the film all over again it is still shocking as to how it single handedly alienated a huge fan base, murdered a franchise dead in its tracks and introduced elements to the narrative that actually lessen the impact of Friedkin’s masterwork.
The attempt at going pseudo-intellectual was woefully misguided and so awful is the result that it even makes the cardinal sin of detracting from the original by introducing such infantile rubbish such as even mentioning and naming the demon as “Pazuzu”. The faceless, nameless evil being given a truly ridiculous persona as “Paz-bloody-zuzu!
The Heretic is such a dreadful and dreary mess that even the rather spectacular if ridiculous scenes set in Africa are laughable and for a moment you would wonder exactly what genre of movie you were actually watching as a giant locust has herds of animals running for cover. That final National Geographic scene explaining the lifestyle of the nasty locust is mind bogglingly dull as is most of the film. Pretty much the only saving grace is Richard Burton’s monumentally brilliant performance as Father Lamont who plays his tortured, guilt ridden, obsessive character with remarkable gravitas and urgency.
There are some who consider this film to be one of the “so bad it’s good” category, but in my book for that, however awful, a film must at least be entertaining and The Exorcist 2; The Heretic is absolute not that and requires a major effort to even sit through to the end. Is the film worth watching? Absolutely yes but only for true horror geeks and those interested in why the film remains one of the most hated and maligned of the modern era.
Incidentally we did receive some irate mail regarding our review of The Heretic and our reviews in general. Take a look:
The film clearly does have its fans however and here is some angry correspondence we received attacking our review as being retarded:
I THINK THIS MOVIE WAS GREAT I THINK YOU DO NOT NO WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. GIVE THE MOVIE A FREAKIN CHANCE AND LEAVE YOUR BRAINWASHED HEADS LISTEN AND MAYBE YOU WILL LIKE IT. AND I HOPE THEY WILL PUT THIS CLASSIC ON DVD. BECAUSE I AM GOING TO BUY IT. FROM NOW ON. AT LEAST KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON BEFORE YOU TRY TO MAKE A LOGICAL REVIEW WHICH I MAY ADD WAS RETARDED. THANK YOU!
He added later…
,,,,You are obviously too immature to realize the whole story behind the movie. It is people like you that I try to stay away from. I am sorry, but self-involved people like yourself put others with real taste to shame. Like I have previously stated, DO NOT WRITE A REVIEW UNLESS YOU COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND IT. You have proven to me that your intellect and judgment are as sorry as you are. Goodbye,
And that was the last we heard from that particular reader. The great thing is how movies elicit different responses from different people. A review is only one person’s opinion, nothing more. A reader has every right to agree or disagree or just ignore it. It’s the name of the game.