Here, I’ve got a fun exercise: let’s brainstorm some lists of words. OK, like, how would you describe The Exorcist? Hmmm. Let’s see: profitable, popular, well-loved, trendsetting, efficient, sleek, visceral, great. Well, now that we’ve established that, what words would you apply to its first sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)? Maybe “lumpy”? Incoherent? Work-for-hire? Dated? Oh, and you can’t leave out “really fucking weird.”
I actually pity Exorcist II; it’s the unsuccessful middle sibling of the Exorcist family. Forced to pick up where The Exorcist left off—with the demon successfully banished and both exorcists dead—it struggles to find a follow-up story worth telling, then gives up and resigns itself to half a dozen half-assed plot strands involving hypnotism, the Vatican, locusts, and James Earl Jones. It’s paced like a little kid trying to solve a maze, with nothing but false starts and dead ends.
As far as I can tell, this is what happens: a still-teenaged Regan Macneil lives in a Manhattan penthouse, cared for by a woman whom we’ll call “Ellen Burstyn Wouldn’t Come Back for the Sequel.” Sometimes she has counseling sessions with Louise Fletcher, who was then fresh off her Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Richard Burton’s a worn-out priest sent to investigate The Exorcism, and this leads to lots of redundant flashbacks. Then he goes to the magical, red-skied land of “Africa.” Then he comes back. He and Regan revisit her old house, some cars crash, Pazuzu is re-banished, and they walk off into the sunset. The end.
“Why?” you may ask. Also: “How? Who? What?” If so, I sympathize with your sputtering. Logic does not reign in Exorcist II; it plays by its own shitty rules. The film expends great time and energy establishing the import of both the wacky, newfangled hypnotism machine and Father Burton’s African adventure, yet neither one’s relevance is clear by the end. You’d have to struggle to write a screenplay lazier, clumsier, or stranger than the one for Exorcist II. Worst of all, the film never explains how Pazuzu is back, why the previous film’s exorcism was apparently in vain, or what kind of threat Pazuzu now poses.
Consequently, the audience has to stumble blindly through Exorcist II’s non sequiturs and hallucinations, occasionally baffled but never scared. (Unless, like me, you’re really freaked out by locusts.) To put it succinctly, this is a bad movie. And yet, somehow, I can’t condemn it or write it off entirely. That’s primarily because John Boorman’s direction, compounded by Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, gives the film a tacky, idiosyncratic flavor. Boorman plays odd visual tricks with mirrors and aerial shots, all colored by a fire-and-earth palette. This imagery isn’t strictly “good,” but it is interesting!
In fact, the best way to view Exorcist II might actually be as the spiritual sequel to Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). With its anti-logical flights of fancy, its fossilized mid-’70s aesthetic, and its fuzzy moral dilemmas, it has far more in common with that oft-mocked dystopian epic than it does with The Exorcist. Does this redeem it as a horror movie? No. But it’s still a hell of an experience.