I have been haunted by The Exorcist II for over 35 years now. One scene in this film remains to my mind the most singularly, mind-numbingly terrifying sequence of modern cinema. It has nothing to do with demons or swarms of locusts or green vomit.
No, over all these years my nightmares have been plagued by visions of Linda Blair tap dancing.
But let me back up here a sec before I get too obsessed.
Movie sequels are of course hardly a new phenomenon. Hell, they were making sequels in the silent era. Son of Kong was released the same year as the original, and there were those endless Universal horror sequels beginning in the mid-’30s. But as late as the early ‘70s we still hadn’t entered the age of the obligatory sequel. No matter how big a film was, how much money it raked in, it wasn’t a given that the sequel would follow the next year. If a movie had an open ending and deserved it then fine, go ahead, what the hell. So Godfather II? Sure thing, makes sense. French Connection II? A little iffier maybe, but sure I can see that.
Then along came The Exorcist. Even if most audience members at the time didn’t exactly get the ending, it was all wrapped up neat and tidy (trust me). The devil was out of Regan and everyone was happy, with the possible exception of the priest at the bottom of the stairs. So when talk came of a sequel the obvious question was, well where the hell do you go from there? Do you repossess her or what?
For the next couple years there it sat sequelless and no one was complaining. Nobody involved in the film wanted to do a sequel anyway. William Peter Blatty didn’t. William Friedkin didn’t. None of the stars did. So no plans were made. Then Jaws came along and screwed everything up for everyone. Suddenly an Exorcist sequel seemed not only natural, but an absolute necessity. But that nagging question remained “where the hell do you go after that first one?” Unlike The Godfather or The French Connection, there was no more material in the original novel to dredge up. But then the boys in the Warner Brothers board room took another look at those box office receipts and answered their own question. “Where do we go from there? Y’know, it just doesn’t fucking matter.”
And given that the prevailing philosophy regarding a follow-up story was “it doesn’t fucking matter,” some joker thought it would be a funny little prank to suggest they bring in John Boorman to direct. He was just coming off Zardoz, and even though it hadn’t made any money, it sure left a lot of people feeling a little nauseous, and that was at least a start. Then on a roll he added, “Hey, and as far as the script goes, what say we hire that guy who wrote that 1969 Kim Darby hippie film no one went to see? The guy who hasn’t done a thing since?” Much to his shocked amazement, the dopes actually fell for it.
With those two minor slots filled, the next question was the cast. Linda Blair had been dead set against the idea of a sequel, but despite the fact that her career was on the UP UP UP after starring in a string of blockbusters like Born Innocent, Sweet Hostage, and Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, she had to admit that the script was “Um, really…ahh, really good. I guess.”
Ned Beatty and James Earl Jones were in, given that by contract they had to be in every single movie. Louise Fletcher was anxious to make people forget all about that Oscar she’d won for Cuckoo’s Nest as quickly as possible. And Richard Burton didn’t know what the hell he was doing those days. He just stumbled drunkenly around Hollywood, and whenever he wandered into a movie set by accident, they gave him top billing. That explains why he starred in the likes of The Klansman and The Death of Trotsky. As luck would have it (and in an eerie bit of foreshadowing) the producers were even able to snag a young, pre-Diff’rent Strokes Dana Plato to play an autistic girl.
After assembling a dream team like that and backing it with the largest budget in Warners history to date ($14 million) it’s hard to imagine how everything could go so horribly, tragically wrong, but the trouble seemed to start with something as simple as the poster. While the poster for the original became a classic of the form, more than anything the poster for Exorcist II: The Heretic seemed to echo an old Hitler campaign poster. But even worse than the whole Nazi connection (even the red, white and black color scheme fed into that), the designer lined up pictures of the stars in a row of small boxes across the bottom. Now, you see a row of boxed head shots of the stars across the bottom of a movie poster, run the other way, and fast. There has never been a good film whose poster featured a row of boxes at the bottom.
If that wasn’t enough to scare you off, there’s the movie itself. Boorman must be given credit for not taking the easy way out and simply rehashing the original with a couple new characters (maybe Dana Plato could get possessed and Linda Blair could throw the holy water). The problem is, no one knew exactly what the hell he WAS doing.
In an explanatory opening that wasn’t used in the film, Father Lamont (Burton) tells us that Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) from the original once exorcised a young boy in Africa who was possessed by a demon named Pazuzu. Now Pazuzu, see, was an Assyrian demon, the king of the evil spirits of the air. After being cast out of the young boy, he flew across the ocean to the States and possessed Regan instead. Father Merrin then tried to exorcise Regan, but that didn’t go real well. We’re also told that Father Lamont was a disciple of Father Merrin’s, see, and Merrin’s death made Lamont lose faith.
All very useful information, but given that the intro was never used we don’t learn any of this until about two-thirds of the way through the picture, and by then hoo-boy, it just doesn’t matter any more.
As things stand the film opens with Lamont attempting to cast a demon out of a young girl in South America, and blows it when the girl sets herself ablaze in one of the least convincing immolation scenes since those very early Hammer witch hunt movies. That really doesn’t help his faith much.
Then the tap dancing begins.
Now, Dr. Gene Tuskin (Fletcher) is a clinical psychologist who runs a hospital for both emotionally disturbed and, for some reason, deaf children. Regan is a regular outpatient of hers on account of that whole “devil” thing (and maybe her addiction to tap dancing, though this is never discussed). In her spare time Tuskin has also developed a gizmo called “The Synchronizer,” a device that allows two people to inhabit one person’s dreams simultaneously, and also provides an excuse to pull out clips from the original film since Blair refused to put on that damn makeup again. Even though this machine would represent an earthshattering breakthrough, something unheard of in the world of psychology, and on top of it a multi-million dollar invention, Tuskin just tosses it in her desk when she’s not using it.
Okay, so Lamont is instructed to investigate Merrin’s death, and this conveniently brings him together with Regan and Tuskin, and that’s when things start going a little haywire. Tuskin decides to give The Synchronizer (two biofeedback headbands connected to a pair of strobe lights and a waffle iron) a test run with Regan while Lamont is hanging around muttering about, as Burton so inimitably puts it, “Eee-villl.” Tuskin has a heart attack while watching a few clips from the original and gets stuck in Regan’s, dream, see? Lamont rips the headband off her head and without knowing a thing about the machine or how it works, still manages to enter the dream himself (where things are getting very crowded) and rescues her. Then they all have waffles.
After that it just gets stupider. While synching with Regan, Lamont is flown to Africa by Pazuzu and introduced to James Earl Jones who, see, was that kid who was possessed by Pazuzu all those years ago. Are you taking notes? There’s more tap dancing and a long stretch in Africa and a lot of talk about locusts and more film clips and a Father Merrin flashback and oh, it goes on. Oh, and Regan has psychic powers now or something, but it’s hard to really tell given that nearly every line of dialogue is a non-sequitur.
Burton is clearly drunk through most of his scenes, and perhaps understandably when he’s expected to spit out lines like, “Your machine! Has proven scientifically! That there is an ancient evil locked inside of her! We must find her! And help her!” Fletcher, meanwhile, is trying really, really hard to convince members of the Academy to come to her house and reclaim their statue. And in the four years since the original, Linda Blair had mastered the “eighth grade class play” acting technique that would serve her so well in Roller Boogie and Hell Night.
Given the savage critical response and the brutal reputation among the masses the film has earned over the years, out of sheer contrariness I was convinced it must be a masterpiece on some level. Boorman, after all, can be a brilliant filmmaker who has made some extremely intelligent, complex, and beautiful films, like Deliverance. He can also be staggeringly bad. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt here, to find that unrecognized timeless movie that topped the original, if only to toss some incisive insights into the face of the next moonpie who dragged it out as a cheap easy pickings example of bad filmmaking. To this end I’ve been watching it year after year, searching desperately for that spark everyone else was missing. Tap dancing aside, I knew it was there.
But no, it’s not. It’s just really fucking awful.
In one of those ironies that says something profound about the culture. Exorcist II: The Heretic was the only film of the entire franchise (save the original of course) to turn a profit during its theatrical run. Nevertheless, given the critical response upon its release, those same bright boys at Warners who insisted on a sequel immediately put a stop to any and all further sequels. For a little while, anyway.
Den of Geek Rating: 1.5 Out of 5 Stars