Sometimes, every once in a while, a movie sequel comes along that defies the odds. Sometimes a sequel or continuation equals or even surpasses what came before. Think of "From Russia With Love," the follow-up film to "Dr. No." Think of "The Godfather, Part 2." Think of "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back." Do not, however, even consider "Exorcist II: The Heretic."
In 1973 "The Exorcist" scared half the world to death. The other half of the world didn't have a movie theater in their parts or they'd have been scared, too. You think people weren't waiting with eager anticipation for a follow-up? The film cried out for a sequel. Hollywood can't resist sequels. So, in 1977, Warner Bros. brought together what was left of the original cast, threw in Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher to boot, got noted filmmaker John Boorman ("Point Blank," "Deliverance," later "Excalibur") to direct, and produced one of the biggest bombs ever made.
I wish I could tell you what the film was about, but having seen it three times now, I still don't know. I do know that writer William Peter Blatty wanted nothing to do with it and that director Boorman tried to reedit it after its first appearance to make it into something watchable, but with no success. I also know that the sequel is about as far removed from the original as a sequel can get in terms of action, plot, tone, and characters.
Heck, as far as I could see, there wasn't even a real exorcism in the second movie, unless it went by in one of those moments I fell into a stupor in front of the set. Believe me, such moments will occur regularly in this film for most viewers, interspersed with stretches of stunned insensibility. For what it's worth, we have the complete version here on DVD before Boorman started tinkering with it. Nothing helps.
As I understand it, the story has something to do a priest, Father Lamont (Burton), being assigned to investigate the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), which took place in the famous exorcism several years before. Sydow appears in flashbacks, so he, too, was induced into reprising his part in this follow-up film, sort of. The Cardinal who sends Lamont out on his mission is played by the great Paul Henreid ("Casablanca," "Now, Voyager"), of all people, apparently lured out of retirement for one last film. Pity it had to be this one. Anyhow, Father Lamont starts his inquiries by visiting the girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), now a young woman, who is supposedly free of her demonic possession but is being treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), just in case. Regan and the doctor have this rig set up whereby the two of them put on connected headsets and delve into one another's inner psyches. Sort of like one of Mr. Spock's mind melds. That in itself seemed to me more demonic than anything the devil could conjure up.
Pressing on, the priest arrives and starts stirring things up with his questions and begins believing that perhaps Regan is still possessed, this time by an evil spirit of the air, a demon king of locusts or something. Which leads, in turn, to interminable sequences of African plains, phony-looking locust hordes invading African villages, a cameo appearance by Ned Beatty as a bush pilot, and a high spiritual leader named Kokumo, played by James Earl Jones in a role he must be at least a little embarrassed about today. He looks pretty silly in a bug costume.
In the meantime, back in New York, Regan is living in a lavish penthouse apartment while her movie-star mother is out on location (Ellen Burstyn was smart enough to sit this one out). Regan is being cared for by a lady named Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), who is back from the first movie. So, for almost two hours there's a lot of talk and a lot of locusts and a lot of boredom, until finally, we're back in Washington, DC, and the old house of the demonic possession and it's cracking up and there's supposed to be an evil spirit or something somewhere and some people die and some people don't die and it ends. I'm sure there's a movie in here somewhere, but I couldn't find it.
Burton as the priest chews up the scenery in virtually every shot, even though he has nothing of worth to say or do. Like any great actor, that doesn't stop him. At no point in the story can I remember his smiling. He merely goes about his business grim-faced, wandering from scene to scene probably questioning as much as the audience what was going on and why he was struck in this turkey. Ms. Fletcher as Dr. Tuskin tries mightily to imitate her Academy Award-winning role as Big Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), employing the same calm, even-tempered voice and sweetly deceptive demeanor she used before. Trouble is, here she's supposed to be an honestly sympathetic character, yet we can't help be reminded of the supreme villain she created with the same persona a couple of years earlier.
Then, there's the star, Ms. Blair, who simply shows up. Having grown into young womanhood, she is content to emphasize the fact by wearing a variety of negligees, and at one point she enters the doctor's office in what appears to be a wedding dress! Without a face full of grotesque makeup, she proves an unconvincing actress in this film, which may go a long way toward explaining why she was never asked to appear in any films of merit after this venture.
"Exorcist II: The Heretic" is rated R for reasons that continue to elude me. The movie contains no sex, no nudity, no profanity, and very little violence. In fact, when it's over you'll wonder if it contained anything. I can only assume it was given an R rating for its subject matter, demonic possession, but even there it's hard to say who was being possessed by what. This is a very strange movie, indeed.
The screen presentation is mediocre in a 1.74:1 size, enhanced for widescreen TVs. I say "mediocre" because there's nothing about it that sets it apart from a good video tape. Definition is average, color bleed-through is average; color brightness is average; color realism is average. About the only good things to say in its favor are that it is free of much grain and reveals no issues of age deterioration. Thank heaven for small favors.
If the video presentation is only average, the audio is doubly so. It's a standard monaural soundtrack that does little to impress except convey the dialogue of its participants. Expect no kind of dynamic range or frequency response that might make anything on the screen come to life; and, of course, expect nothing from your rear speakers.
Don't expect anything of interest here, either. The major bonus item is an alternative opening sequence that adds a couple of minutes of explanation to Father Lamont's biography. It helps to explain why he was performing the initial exorcism shown in the movie and why he was called to investigate Father Merrin's death. In addition, there's a brief cast and crew listing that provides a few filmographies. Completing this mini package of materials are thirty-one scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; spoken languages in English and French; and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chines, Bahasa, Thai, and Korean.
Are there any compelling reasons for watching "Exorcist II: The Heretic"? Well, there's Richard Burton's voice. He had a magnificent speaking voice, and just listening to the man reciting gibberish can be intoxicating. And, believe me, he has plenty of gibberish to recite in this film. Then, there's...uh.... Let's see, there's.... Oh, forget it. There are no reasons for watching this film.