Is ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ Really One of the Worst Movies Ever Made?
In The IMDB.O. List, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer watches every single movie on the Internet Movie Database’s Lowest Rated Movies list to determine whether they truly are the worst movies ever made. Previous chapters can be found here.
Movie #8 (In Honor of Halloween): Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Director: John Boorman
Writer: William Goodhart
Release Date: June 17, 1977
U.S. box office: $30.7 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 17 percent
Metacritic score: 39
Letterboxd average grade: 2.0
IMDb Bottom 100 Ranking: 83
Is This Movie Bad?
Your answer to that question will depend in part on your feelings about this question: Does a movie called Exorcist II: The Heretic need to have an exorcism in it? If you think it does, you may want to seek entertainment elsewhere. (And even if you don’t, you might want to do that too.)
How Bad Is It?
There’s a telling anecdote about Exorcist II: The Heretic director John Boorman. Supposedly, Warner Bros approached Boorman to direct the original Exorcist. Boorman turned them down flat. He found the script — not to mention the very idea of a young woman becoming possessed by a devil — “repulsive.”
Now, look. I’m not a smart man. Frankly, I’m a moron. (I mean, you’ve seen what I eat.) But I know this much: If I was the studio executive in charge of trying to follow up one of the most financially and creatively successful horror movies in the history of cinema, my one rule would be don’t pick a director who thinks the first film is a pile of flaming dog crap. At bare minimum, the man or woman selected to direct this sequel would be required to believe he’s making an entry in a non-repulsive franchise. That is not what Warner Bros. did. Instead, they picked the guy who thought their Exorcist movie — which, again, made enough money to bribe Satan into leaving Linda Blair alone instead of having to douse her with holy water and hurl yourself a window — was a monstrosity.
Not surprisingly, Boorman’s The Heretic is completely different than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. A few characters overlap, including a now teenaged Regan MacNeil (Blair), the little girl who was bitten by a radioactive demon and gained the proportional strength of a Luciferian bloodbeast on a school field trip to the DMV. (Haven’t watched the original Exorcist in a couple years, hit me up on Twitter if I’m getting any of the facts wrong.) And technically speaking, the main protagonist, Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is an exorcist.
After Exorcist II’s prologue though, the only demons Lamont exorcises are metaphorical ones, and Regan isn’t really possessed again at any point (though there are a few flashbacks to the exorcism from the first film). Lamont has been sent by the Catholic Church to investigate the death of Father Merrin during Regan’s exorcism. Merrin is once again played by Max von Sydow, who returns for a few flashback scenes. (Thanks to all these flashbacks, the best scenes in Exorcist II are all scenes from Exorcist I.) Lamont finds Regan in the care of an experimental therapist (Louise Fletcher) and a nanny (Kitty Winn). She seems to have absolutely no memory of what occurred near those ominous steps in Georgetown.
She also has absolutely no idea where her mother is. Ellen Burstyn couldn’t be convinced to reprise the role of Chris MacNeil, and so Regan’s mom is just ... not around (she’s supposedly on vacation). Look, I hate to sound judgey — and I know Chris went through a lot with the whole Satan turning her daughter into a human Super Soaker full of pea soup — but if her daughter is as mentally screwed up as Exorcist II insists she is, maybe now’s not the time for a trip to Cabo? Chris doesn’t even leave Regan with a relative. Kitty Winn’s character is basically just a family friend. Meanwhile, this sweaty, manic priest keeps forcing her kid to confront this buried supernatural trauma at the hands of a sentient locust.
Yes, as it turns out, Fletcher’s Dr. Tuskin (who is a lot nicer than Nurse Rached, but arguably even more psychologically destructive) is a believer in an advanced piece of hypnosis technology which allows two people to sync their brainwaves and enter into a kind of shared trance where they can experience memories together. So Lamont, who wants evidence that Merrin and his far-out theories about the Devil were accurate, straps poor Regan in this thing and then has her relive this horrible incident at great length.
While I’m pretty sure this qualifies as both psychiatric and spiritual malpractice, these sequences are also the best in Boorman’s picture. These bizarre superimpositions of past and present, with the characters in the flashback physically interacting with the ones in 1977, must have been extremely difficult to pull off. They look incredible. And while the whole notion of shared hypnotic freakouts is pretty silly — as is Dr. Tuskin’s office, which is like an explosion at the beige factory — the visual compositions are really striking and memorable. They’re also a very rich concept if you want to think about Exorcist II’s ideas about the collective unconscious and the nature of good and evil as counterbalancing forces. (For all these reasons, Exorcist II is probably amazing to watch when you’re high. In fact, if someone tells you they’re a big Exorcist II fan, your next question should immediately be “Okay, and what were you smoking when you watched it?” I guarantee if they want you to believe this is some misunderstood masterpiece they were high as hell when they watched it.)
Those of us in our right minds will find a much more mixed experience, one with a few provocative concepts plus a flimsy plot and some very bad performances. Blair is bizarrely chipper for a woman who we’re repeatedly told is in an extremely fragile emotional state. Even as Lamont helps her break down the mental barriers to these memories, even after she nearly falls to her death from the roof of a New York skyscraper, even after swarms of locusts are flying through her old house where she was once the puppet of evil incarnate, she never seems fazed by anything. Burton also struggles to act appropriately concerned. He’s fixated on this teen girl and hunting the living embodiment of Satan in Africa, and he sounds like he’s reciting words off cue cards.
(Yes, Lamont goes to Africa — or really a hilariously fake African set on the Warner Bros. lot — and meets Kokumo, played by James Earl Jones, dressed like a giant locust. Like I said, it probably helps to be high if you’re going to sit through this mess.)
Boorman is quoted as saying that “the idea of making a metaphysical thriller greatly appealed to my psyche.”` This is a nice way of saying “I hated The Exorcist, but if I slapped the word Exorcist in the title of the weird-ass movie about brain-linking I wanted make, I could get away with it.” The metaphysical stuff is undeniably the best parts of Exorcist II but it’s at odds with the spiritual horror of Friedkin’s movie. It’s almost like two different personalities and tones fighting it out within a single movie — like Regan and Pazuzu battling for control of her body. If only that echo seemed like deliberate formal cleverness, and not like a director wrestling with his source material.
Does It Belong On a List of the Worst Movies Ever Made?
I wouldn’t put Exorcist II on a list of the Worst Movies Ever. It is a very bizarre sequel, though. The fact that it was directed by a man who hated the very idea of the first film is not shocking. If someone had deliberately set out to destroy The Exorcist franchise, if they tried with all their heart and soul to salt this plot of cinematic earth so it would remain uninhabited for decades, they couldn’t have done a much better job than this.
Exorcist II: The Heretic is currently available to rent. Next week on another Halloween month edition of The IMDB.O. List: We are guided by the hands of fate to our first film from the IMDb Bottom 10.
My Personal Ranking of the IMDB.O. List So Far From Worst to Least Crappy:
- The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure
- The Master of Disguise
- The Fog (2005)
- The Avengers
- Jaws 3-D
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
- Exorcist II: The Heretic
- Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
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