Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Here at Smith’s Verdict, I (Tanner Smith) try to bestow through words an enlightened point of view on the films I choose to review. (Or, at least, that’s what I try to do nowadays—do you know how many of my earlier reviews I would like to rewrite/revise?!) With that said, let’s talk about what many critics and audiences declared one of the worst films ever made—John Boorman’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”
How badly was this film received? Within ten minutes of its Chicago critics’ screening, the crowd chased the executives away in anger. At a theater in Hollywood Blvd., the audience threw things at the screen (at least these people actually stayed through the film to the end). On the night of the premiere, audiences straight-up laughed at the film, as they couldn’t take it seriously. And among the critics who slammed it harshly, Gene Siskel wrote in his review for the Chicago Tribune, “’Exorcist II’ is the worst motion picture I’ve seen in almost eight years on the job [as a film critic].” (I feel sorry that Siskel saw worse films in his remaining 22 years of life ‘til his death in ‘99.) Is it truly worth the hate it receives? Let’s take a look…
It should be noted that despite taking the opportunity to direct a sequel to “The Exorcist,” one of the greatest (and most profitable) horror films of all time, director John Boorman did not care for the original film, calling the original script “rather repulsive.” For the sequel, he set out to make a film in his own vision—one that would take risks while sending the audience on a journey that was “positive, about good, essentially” (according to Boorman in an interview). So, where did he go wrong and did he succeed in some way(s)?
Before I answer that, I’ll talk about the story. Four years after the exorcism of Regan O’Neil, which resulted in the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) (oh, and also the death of Father Kerras, but never mind about him until “Exorcist III,” if you can help it), a preacher struggling with his faith, named Lamont (Richard Burton), is sent to investigate what truly happened back then, after Church authorities declare they don’t want to acknowledge that demons and Satan exist. The now-teenaged Regan (Linda Blair) is monitored by a psychiatric institute because she claims she doesn’t remember anything from the experience. Psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) believes her memories are simply repressed and has a method that can help find them.
OK, this is where you really have to suspend your disbelief when this method is introduced—it’s a device that can apparently cause two people to go under hypnosis and visit each other’s minds…I’m not entirely sure that’s how that works.
Tuskin wants to use the machine to find out what really happened to Regan. While continuing his investigation, Lamont becomes involved and tries questioning Regan, which Tuskin doesn’t see as doing as much good as harm. Things get even more complicated when Lamont hooks himself up to the machine with Regan, which leads to more questions needing to be answered.
So, you can probably spot the first point in which “Exorcist II: The Heretic” goes downhill. This machine, a “synchronizer,” seems highly implausible, especially after the first film had such a gritty, realistic feel to it and made the supernatural elements feel more plausible with each scene. The way this device is set up feels more at home in a science-fiction film. I would believe in hypnotherapy as an attempt to solve the problem of interpreting Regan’s past trauma, but not this thing. In fact, this was the very thing I mentioned before that caused audiences to give up and laugh at its premiere. It seemed to start out fine, with an exorcism prologue that is creepy enough for audiences…and then it cuts to Regan being introduced to Tuskin’s machine. Odd segue, eh?
Is that the only problem with “Exorcist II: The Heretic?” Well…no. As much as there is scientific babble about how the machine “synchronizes brain waves,” there’s a lot of spiritual babble as well. Much of it is actually kind of fascinating (which I’ll get into later), but for the most part, it’s either not written well or not delivered well. It’s a little difficult to understand what the film is saying for the most part because of confusing dialogue. I think I have some idea of what the film was building up to, but I’ve seen the film twice now (once out of curiosity, twice to review it) and I can say this: when Tuskin delivers one of the final lines of dialogue, “I understand now but the world won’t,” I was confused because I was still a little lost, much like “the world.”
It also doesn’t help that Richard Burton, who takes up a good chunk of the film’s spiritual aspects, delivers his lines like he’s talking in his sleep. Burton looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than in this film. His character is supposed to be a troubled priest seeking answers beyond his comprehension, but the way Burton plays it gives off the impression that he could use a drink. Hearing him say the central demon’s name “Pazuzu” multiple times out of what is supposed to be fear just comes off as silly. (But to be fair…the demon’s name is “Pazuzu.” I dare you to say that name at least twice without cracking up.)
And while it has its talk of the spirit world, the demon world, exorcism, and so forth, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” also shows a little of the “terror.” But the problem there is, as “The Exorcist” proved successfully, less is more. There are many laughable visuals in the film, most notably a giant locust that flies around Africa in search of a new victim. And there’s also James Earl Jones in a locust costume…need I say more?
So I’ve talked about the confusion the film generates, the ridiculous plot device that’s literally a device, and Richard Burton’s embarrassing performance. Is there anything positive to say about this film that most people called one of the worst of all time?
I think so. For one thing, I admire that the film is a continuation (even if four years after the original event is a little too long) and they don’t try the same things the original did. The narrative allows more to be discovered, such as when Regan develops somewhat of a psychic ability and has an interesting conversation with Lamont about it and about how it can used to someone’s advantage before it can be used for evil. And when Lamont goes from place to place, country to country, finding out more than he expected, I was interested to find out more of what was beneath the surface of the mystery (even if the name “Pazuzu” is off-putting). And there are some chilling moments, such as the prologue and Lamont’s encounter with James Earl Jones’ Kucomo. But those chilling moments make way for conversations that sound false and moments that seem silly rather than frightening (such as loud chanting when the characters are in Africa). “Exorcist II: The Heretic” isn’t trying to be a horror film, necessarily, but more of an odd, unusual, spiritual journey in which characters find themselves facing against the Devil. And considering one of these characters (Regan) spent an entire film (the original “Exorcist”) with a demon inside her, that journey is all the more fascinating, especially when she develops her psychic gift (or is it a curse?). It almost feels like she’s being tested by God to make the right choices.
But sadly, Boorman doesn’t execute that intriguing element well, and it leads to a confusing climactic scene in which, again, I’m not entirely sure what happened and what was learned from it. I just know…there were a lot of locusts.
“Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a very strange film, but it’s not one of the worst movies ever made. There are parts I find interesting to watch and other parts I find maddening to watch, as well as parts that are simply absurd (such as when Regan casually says the line, “I was possessed by a demon”). I think if the plot was tighter, the people behind the making of the film were more confident about what they were trying to accomplish here, and, like I said, hypnotherapy was involved in the story (instead of that ridiculous machine), people would think differently about it. As is, it’s a mess, but it’s an intriguing mess.