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Ham Salad: "Exorcist II: the Heretic"

Ham Salad: "Exorcist II: the Heretic"

Movie sequels are a game of chance. Some turn out to be masterpieces in their own right, like Aliens. Most simply play the same notes over and over, to ever diminishing returns. Every once in a while, however, you come across one that so spectacularly fails to live up to its predecessor that it becomes a separate being, a cinematic Brundlefly of hubris, incoherence, and incompetence.

Even rarer than that is something like 1977's Exorcist II: the Heretic, which pisses in The Exorcist's eye sockets, making it look somehow better and worse than it really was. As is often the case with legendarily bad movies, the story behind the making of Exorcist II is at least as entertaining as the movie itself. Noting that Hollywood still wasn't done with the demonic possession craze (and, indeed, it still isn't, more than forty years later), producer Richard Lederer was looking to cash in on the title that started it all. Unfortunately for him, not only did the owners of the Washington, D.C. townhouse where The Exorcist was shot refuse to allow a film crew to return, absolutely no one else involved in the making of it wanted anything to do with a sequel either, save for Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow (who's in about three scenes and barely has any dialogue), and Kitty Winn, who played Sharon, the least essential character in the movie. 

Not even William O'Malley, the real life priest who played Father Dyer in the original, could be talked into returning, even though in an early draft of the Exorcist II script he was the hero. But hey, no house, no priest, no problemo! The story's setting was changed to New York City instead, and Father Dyer was rewritten as Father Lamont, an entirely new character. An incredible list of oh my god could you imagine actors were considered to play Lamont, including Jon Voight, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson (!), and Christopher Walken (!!!!). Voight actually was cast, but left before filming began, when "differences about the role could not be resolved" (meaning he had actually sat down and read the entire script). Even though Father Lamont was written to be a young priest who idolized Father Merrin, they ended up casting 52 year-old Richard Burton, who never met a piece of scenery he didn't want to chew.

Burton looks like he prepared for his role by watching Jason Miller in The Exorcist, then writing "DO THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT" on a piece of paper to keep in his pants pocket as a reminder. All bulging eyes and sweat pouring down his face, Father Lamont is from the same religious order as Father Delaney in The Amityville Horror, that of the Holy Brotherhood of the Triple Decker Ham Sandwich. It says a lot that Linda Blair is the only actor that comes away from Exorcist II with her dignity intact, even after she had to perform a tap dance routine while wearing a mesh top hat.

But hey, after talking about the lousy cash grabs and the appalling acting, we might as well take a stab at the incomprehensible plot too. Four years after the events of The Exorcist, Regan lives with Sharon in New York, presumably after her mother was eaten by bears, or disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Regan seems to be doing okay after her horrifying ordeal, but her psychiatrist, Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, just a year after winning an Academy Award for playing Nurse Ratched), thinks she's repressing memories of the event. Meanwhile, Father Lamont is investigating Father Merrin's death, and his research of Pazuzu, an Assyrian demon--get used to the name "Pazuzu," because it's said roughly 287 times in less than two hours.

After connecting with Regan through some sort of "high tech" biofeedback device that looks like a JC Penney belt with wires hanging off of it, Lamont discovers that Regan is not just telepathic, but also a psychic healer, which is why Pazuzu was so intent on attacking her. There's also some shit involving locust swarms, some made up by whitey "African folklore," and doppelgangers, and you know what, it doesn't matter. It does not matter. I've seen The Exorcist II at least twice, once even willingly, and any attempt I could make at trying to explain what this movie is about will only sound like the babbling of someone just coming out from under anesthesia. While being utterly terrifying, The Exorcist also has a simple, high concept plot. Exorcist II requires multiple paragraphs to describe its plot, while being about as frightening as Halloween at Disneyland.

But again, it doesn't matter. The only reason anyone remembers Exorcist II is for Richard Burton's performance, because once you see it, it's tattooed into your brain forever, like the name of the first person you kissed. It's not fair of me to say that Burton treats the film like it's a house made of sticks and he's the Big Bad Wolf. Sometimes he just sits there silently staring into space too, like he just woke up on set immediately before filming began. You never know what you're going to get from one scene to the next, making it a bad acting rollercoaster ride. But have no fear, he comes out for the film's ending with both guns blazing, when Lamont and Regan go to the Georgetown house (or rather, a Warner Brothers backlot) to confront Pazuzu for the last time.

Pazuzu takes the form of a sexy, evil version of Regan, wearing a lot of frosted pink lip gloss and a negligee that looks like something a middle-aged housewife would put on in an attempt to spice up her marriage. She makes a few come hither faces at Lamont, and that's enough to get him to attack the real Regan, repeatedly slamming her against a wall while shouting "The wings are brushing me! The wings! Are brushing me!" Lamont's bearings eventually return, however, and he and evil Regan wrestle it out, in a duel to the death that feels longer than the fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live.

As a massive swarm of locusts flies into the city and destroys the house (locusts play a big part in this movie, with even a few shots filmed to look as if there's a tiny camera strapped to a locust's back), Lamont and evil Regan tussle in a way that presumably was meant to look both sexual and violent, but considering Richard Burton made the curious creative decision to stare at the wall in front of him the entire time, it comes off as unintentionally creepy. Good(?) does eventually triumph over evil after several very long minutes (and Linda Blair endlessly screaming as the real Regan), when Lamont rips out evil Regan's heart. Somehow this defeats Pazuzu, even though he's a non-corporeal being who shouldn't need to rely on human biological functions to survive and--eh, like I said already, it does not matter

To look at Richard Burton's filmography, particularly from the late 60s and beyond, is like watching the current stock exchange--every once in a while things seemed to be looking up, and then there was a huge, heart-stopping plunge. It wasn't just that he made bad decisions about what movies he starred in, he also acted on just two settings: "annihilate" and "who could give a shit?" Many of Burton's late career performances were so bad that some critics went back and reassessed his career as a whole, wondering if they were duped into thinking he was ever a good actor in the first place. He was, initially, but alcoholism, the extravagant life he led with ex-wife twice over Elizabeth Taylor, and burning bridges in the industry all contributed to Burton having to take what he could get for acting jobs, which sometimes meant critically acclaimed roles in movies like Equus, which earned him his fifth Academy Award nomination, but more often led to him having to take a part in something like, well, Exorcist II.

But you know what? While Richard Burton may be the worst part of Exorcist II, he's also the best part of it. Can you remember anybody else's performance in this movie, other than Linda Blair's? Would you have remembered that Louise Fletcher was in it if I didn't mention her? Of course not, because everybody else took what they were doing seriously, duped by the producers and director John Boorman into thinking they were making "art." Richard Burton, even if he was probably doing most of his acting from the bottom of a Macallan bottle, knew the best way to treat a nonsense script: you dig your teeth in and you shake it until it begs for mercy.


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