My Year Of Flops Case File # 32: Exorcist II: The Heretic
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Does a film series exist that's more cursed than The Exorcist franchise? A flop the magnitude of Exorcist II: The Heretic would kill most franchises, but the series survived to flop again. And again. It's telling that the only theatrical release of an Exorcist movie that's made any money since 1973 was 2000's re-release of William Friedkin's original, which packed movie houses and scared the bejeesus out of audiences even after nearly three decades of spoofs, knock-offs, and sequels should have greatly dulled its impact.
The franchise's odd resilience is in large part a testament to the enduring popularity and resonance of the 1973 classic. Now it has become popular in some circles, such as The A.V Club, to dismiss The Exorcist as a slick, soulless scare machine, which I think is unfair and reductive. People tend to dismiss certain genre films as "just funny" or "just scary", which I find maddening. Making a genuinely funny or scary movie is a considerable achievement in itself. Anybody can get a cheap shock from a black cat leaping out from the darkness, but to sustain a mood of visceral, nerve-jangling terror for two straight hours the way The Exorcist does should not be dismissed as a triumph of empty craftsmanship.
So it's perfectly understandable why Warner Brothers was intent on pumping out a sequel, even after Friedkin expressed zero interest in returning as director and original star Ellen Burstyn opted out. So in a fit of frothing, utter reasonableness, Warner Brothers handed over its prize franchise and the largest budget in its long and storied history to a man whose last film was Zardoz.
The result, perhaps not surprisingly, was one of the craziest films ever released by a major studio, a semi-coherent Grand Guignol romp involving telekinesis, James Earl Jones in a bee costume, and an airborne demon named "Pazuzu".
In between the filming of The Exorcist and its sequel, two rather disconcerting things happened to Linda Blair. She blossomed into womanhood (i.e. got hot) and became the kind of terrible actress who delivers a line like "I was possessed by a demon" with the off-handed casualness of someone ordering lunch from a Chinese take-out place. Without Friedkin around to terrorize her into excellence, Blair comes off as a total ditz. Her fetching airhead never seems to have experienced anything as traumatic as watching a movie as scary as The Exorcist, let alone experiencing its most agonizing moments firsthand. Part of that is by design: Blair seems to have repressed memories of her earlier exorcism. Or not. On this matter, as on many others, the film is fuzzy and not terribly lucid. Blair visits the progressive clinic of hypno-headshrinker/anal-rapist Louise Fletcher, who puts her under hypnosis and achieves some weird Vulcan-mind meld in which she can apparently loiter around in Blair's psyche and relive past traumas involving Pazuzu, the demon who possessed her in the first movie and is hungry for a return engagement. The stakes were abundantly clear in The Exorcist, but I had a hard time figuring out exactly what Pazuzu was aiming for this time around. Re-possession of Blair's soul? Renting out Studio 54 for a super-decadent Satanic disco orgy? Spreading bad mojo indiscriminately? Bringing down Warner Brothers?
In a performance that can only be called "Shatnerian" Richard Burton plays a troubled priest/part-time exorcist sent to investigate the death of Max Von Sydow's exorcist from the first film. This involves traveling to Africa to meet a magical, previously possessed black man named Kokumo (played as an adult by James Earl Jones) with the power to repel the demon Pazuzu. Burton eventually learns that Pazuzu travels the world through swarms of locusts and has sinister plans for humanity.
Burton's impeccably hammy line readings wrap each impossibly purple line of dialogue in cheap velvet. I love Burton's sonorous voice and hamtastic delivery, but then James Earl Jones comes along and makes Burton sound like a pre-pubescent girl sucking down helium by comparison. Burton's trembling man of God is haunted by demons literal and figurative, but all I could think was "man, does Richard Burton look like he could use a stiff drink".
Perhaps the film's central miscalculation, beyond not making much sense and being crazier than 2Pac in that flick called Juice, is expecting audiences to fear a villain named "Pazuzu". Now Pazuzu is an actual figure from Assyrian and Babylonian mythology and figures prominently in Blatty's novel, but that doesn't make his name any less ridiculous. No matter how scary the film makes him out to be, "Pazuzu" still sounds like a zany sound effect a slide whistle might make or a baggy-pants vaudevillian's catchphrase. How frightening would Silence of the Lambs be if Hannibal Lector's name was changed to Schnitzie Pretzelpants? Would audiences cower in terror at the image of Schniztie Pretzelpants?
Exorcist II: The Heretic certainly has its defenders, chief among them Martin Scorsese, Pauline Kael, and Keith Phipps. Scorsese preferred it to The Exorcist while Pauline Kael gushed that it "had more visual magic than a dozen movies," which is true only if those movies were directed by Uwe Boll or shot on grandma's video camera.
I would argue that Exorcist II has enough visual magic to fill about ten minutes of screen time. There are some stunning, virtuoso sequences in the film, from a thrilling aerial jaunt over Africa from the perspective of a demonic locust to locusts descending upon Washington D.C. like a modern-day biblical plague. And though it's widely ridiculed, I actually found the scene involving James Earl Jones in an elaborate bee costume an enormously haunting and powerful exploration of faith and faithlessness. It's one of the few sequences in the film where Boorman and ace cinematographer William Fraker achieve the hallucinatory dream state they're aiming for. I also enjoyed Ned Beatty's brief cameo as a pilot who sees right through Burton.
It would be a lot easier to buy Exorcist II: The Heretic as a mood piece if it was able to sustain a tone beyond clumsy exposition and hysterical camp for longer than a few minutes. As a cinephile, I admire films that subvert audience expectations and travel in unexpected directions. But as a horror film fan and movie lover, I nurse this strange conviction that horror movies should be scary in something beyond an abstract, intellectual sense. In that respect, Exorcist II: The Heretic resembles Paul Schrader's similarly muddled revamp of the series, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, which also has its defenders. My colleague Scott Tobias loved that film so much he actually married it late in 2005. As for me, well, I find that movies like Exorcist II and Dominion, that try to scare audiences and make them think generally accomplish neither goal.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success:Fiasco