“The Exorcist” contains one of the most chilling accounts of demonic possession in all of history, but there is another incident even more disturbing. It is reported that shortly after the film was released, certain men came under satanic influence and conspired to make a sequel to “The Exorcist.” Some call it urban legend, but it is true! “Exorcist II: The Heretic” is a real movie! I have seen it with my own eyes and lived to tell the tale.
It was released in June 1977, three and a half years after the original film terrified audiences and caused a spike in sales of split-pea soup. The story, cobbled together from several screenplays, is barely coherent. This should not have been a surprise, given that the director, John Boorman, had previously made “Zardoz,” which is one of the least coherent things ever produced by man or devil.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), now 17 years old, is living in New York with her guardian, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), while her mother is “away,” i.e., not in the movie, because Ellen Burstyn wanted nothing to do with it. Regan is seeing a counselor named Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), who is very compassionate, despite being a woman saddled with a man’s name and being played by Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Regan is perfectly happy and normal now and doesn’t remember the Bad Stuff that happened before. Dr. Tuskin doesn’t believe in nonsense like possession anyway. They must have a lot to talk about at their therapy sessions, discussing a thing the patient doesn’t remember that the doctor doesn’t believe in.
Along comes Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton), a priest who’s been assigned by the Vatican to investigate the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), the old guy who had a heart attack while casting the devil out of Regan four years ago. The church, despite being, you know, THE CHURCH, doesn’t really believe in “the devil” as an actual entity that can possess people, and they’re hoping Father Merrin was just an old loon whose ticker exploded while he was pretending to un-devil Regan. A heretical priest would definitely be preferable to acknowledging the existence of Satan. Father Lamont does not want this assignment. He experienced the reality of Satan when he tried to exorcise a demon from a girl, only to have the girl end up on fire, which is not the way religious ordinances are supposed to end, the Holy Sacrament of Burning Joan of Arc at the Stake excepted.
Father Lamont convinces Dr. Tuskin to hypnotize Regan in an effort to access the memories she has repressed. Tuskin goes along with it, and for some reason lets the priest hang out and watch. She uses a magical scientific device with a strobe light to synchronize her own mind with Regan’s, whereupon she can see Regan’s memories, because this is possible, with science. Then she lets Father Lamont try synching with Regan, because hey, why not? Surely Regan’s mother would not stand for this kind of exploitation if she weren’t “away.” And surely Regan’s guardian, Sharon, would not stand for it, either, if she weren’t an ineffectual guardian who’s only in the movie because the Regan character is too young to be plausibly living on her own.
Father Lamont sees Regan’s repressed memories of the exorcism, afterward describing them as “horrible, utterly horrible — and fascinating.” Ha ha, it would be funny to say that that’s a good description for this movie, too! Alas, it only works if Father Lamont revises his comments to say the exorcism was “horrible, utterly horrible — and boring, and not scary, and for some reason Ned Beatty was in it for one scene.”
Regan still doesn’t remember the exorcism, even though Dr. Tuskin and Father Lamont have seen it in her mind. If you’re scoring along at home, this means everyone has access to Regan’s memories except Regan. She starts doing creepy things like drawing a picture of Father Lamont surrounded by flames. The priest takes this to mean that there is currently a fire somewhere in the hospital, right now, and hurries with Dr. Tuskin down to the basement, where, sure enough, a box of junk has ignited in the storage area. Father Lamont tries to beat out the flames with a nearby wooden crutch (?) while Dr. Tuskin grabs the extinguisher hanging on the wall five feet away and actually puts out the fire. It’s comforting to know that the guy assigned by the Vatican to investigate a priest’s death is a man who believes you can put out a fire by hitting it with wood.
But Regan’s extra-sensory skills are not limited to predicting small fires in hospital basements. She also gets an autistic girl to talk! When she does, she asks Regan why she’s here, at the clinic. “I was possessed by a demon,” Regan replies casually, adding, “Oh, it’s OK. He’s gone.” Whew! For a moment, we thought this thriller might contain some actual thrills! Thank goodness the danger has passed.
Since Regan doesn’t have her own memories anymore, she starts using dead Father Merrin’s, in the form of dreams. Years ago, Father Merrin was in Africa, where he encountered a demon called Pazuzu. We’re told that it was this same demon that occupied Regan four years ago. But in the original film, it was pretty clear that Regan was possessed by Lucifer himself, not one of his lackeys, and certainly not by some lame demon called “Pazuzu.” That’s how bad this sequel is: They couldn’t even get Satan to appear in it.
Anyway, Father Merrin once cast Pazuzu out of an African boy named Kokumo, and now Father Lamont — who’s tapping Merrin’s memories through Regan’s mind — thinks Kokumo will know how to destroy Pazuzu altogether. But it’s not like Pazuzu is currently trying to possess Regan, or anyone else for that matter. I say let sleeping demons lie. Besides, how much trouble could a demon really be when its name sounds like something Jerry Lewis would exclaim?
Nonetheless, Father Lamont goes to Africa to find Kokumo. (He plans to get there fast and take it slow.) Kokumo has grown up to be James Earl Jones, so good for him. Ned Beatty is here, for some reason, as a pilot helping Father Lamont on his journey. Then Lamont upsets some villagers and they throw rocks at him. Meanwhile, back in New York, Regan is performing in a joyless, tap-dance-heavy production of “42nd Street” at her school, and since she’s psychically linked with Lamont — oh, by the way, Regan is psychically linked with Lamont now — she collapses when he gets stoned, right there in the middle of the show, several time zones away. “42nd Street” is not supposed to end like that, but hey, at least it ended early.
Like any good priest, Father Lamont can handle a mild stoning, and he hurries back to New York so that he and Regan can rush to Washington D.C., to the house where the first possession happened. The movie’s climax takes place here in the hopes that viewers will remember having been frightened at this location once before and will therefore believe that they are being frightened again now. But guess who/what is at Regan’s old house? Pazuzu, that’s who/what! Pazuzu appears as a second Regan, a very sexy Regan who tries to seduce Father Lamont. Seventeen-year-old Regan has been dressing like Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” for most of the movie anyway, but this second Regan, the one who’s actually Pazuzu, takes it too far. See, Pazuzu? This is why we can’t have nice things.
Fortunately, the Catholic priest has no interest in sexing up an adolescent girl — go ahead and make the joke, I’m not going to — and especially not one who is actually one of Satan’s minions. Instead, he fights with Demon Regan and yanks out its heart, while the real Regan looks on in horror, or perhaps fascination. Outside, Tuskin and Sharon (remember Sharon? Regan’s “guardian”?) show up just in time to wreck their car, thanks to Pazuzu’s interference, and then Sharon sets herself on fire, on account of it’s been a few minutes since anything in this movie has been on fire.
Where “The Exorcist” focused on exorcism, “Exorcist II: The Heretic” is entirely exorcism-free, focusing instead on psychic powers and visions of locusts and high school productions of “42nd Street.” And someone thought this would be a worthy follow-up to one of the scariest movies ever made. It would be interesting to access that person’s memories, and to punch those memories in the face.