Exorcist 2 – The Heretic (1977)

Here is an apology for the motion picture as collaborative effort... with studios worried about spending, and egos of many different sorts colliding, what you see on screen often belies a fraught production story, replete with its own dramas, and disasters. Generally however the production in hand is made, and usually the results are decent if not fabulous. Sometimes on the other hand these collisions result in a horrific guddle that nobody wants to see, hear or even talk about.


Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher

Before we get down to the facts of Richard Burton in The Exorcist 2 let’s have a quick rundown on the rest of the class, starting with director John Boorman, who made a few meaningful films like Point Blank (1967) Hell in the Pacific (1968) Deliverance (1972) and Excalibur (1981), as well as a few curiosities such as Zardoz (1973) and Where the Heart Is (1990). Boorman was among the first to plan a movie of Lord of the Rings, and he even corresponded with Tolkien about this, although of course the idea proved to be too costly. Given the special effects levels of Exorcist 2 – The Heretic (1977), I am really glad he didn’t.

Then there’s Linda Blair, who reprised her role of Regan MacNeil, with which she had done so much in 1973 in The Exorcist. Although Linda Blair has described Exorcist 2 – The Heretic (1977) as a career low, her resume wouldn’t suggest this was the case. Possibly the only actor properly engaged in Exorcist 2 – The Heretic is Louise Fletcher, whose Oscar winning role as Nurse Ratched blew us all away in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). You can see her nowadays in the US Showtime remake of the British comedy series, Shameless.

Moving on to the more pishy roles in Exorcist 2, we find James Earl Jones cast into the hellish mix as a brooding, pouting and shouting Ethiopian healer, and more tragically still, Ned Beatty in an exceptionally pointless role, which seemed to last all of five minutes and serve very little effect.

I talked about fraught productions and Wikipedia (here for the Exorcit 2 The Heretic entry) and other factual sites offer endless lists of people that were offered parts, that rejected parts, or who made huge demands, and it appears that Richard Burton only really took the role as part of an agreement in which he was allowed to play Dysart in the film of Equus (1977) later that same year.

Burton was offered $750,000 to play the part in Exorcist 2, and this later turned into $1,000,000, and although there’s plenty trademark stuff (by which I mean Burton stillness, shaking, anger, and wrathful explosion) he did confess to being confused by the film. Linda Blair said later that Richard Burton was very sweet to work with, and that he often quoted Shakespeare to her — but she also noted that he did often become progressively drunk as the days went on. Burton’s agent at the time, Robbie Lantz, saw it as a perfect money-spinner, which was exactly what Burton needed at the time. In a second divorce settlement, Elizabeth Taylor had really cleaned Burton out, taking all her jewellery, their house in Puerto Vallarta, and all their remaining artworks.

She took the Artworks

I think Richard Burton looks a little strange in this era, somehow with too large a head on top of his body, perhaps the effect of the black priest’s clothing. On top of that the special effects in Exorcist 2 – The Heretic, as I have mentioned above, are fairly pitiful, even for 1977. For a start the effects in the 1973 The Exorcist were far more believable, and there are a few in this sequel that will even make you laugh. There is a weird tendency in Exorcist 2 – The Heretic to superimpose faces, which never really works, and there is also a bizarre super-imposition of footage of the young Regan (cut out of the original film, I understand) which looks messy as opposed to creepy.

Watching Exorcist 2 – The Heretic it is quite clear that John Boorman did not want to make a horror film. Worse, in approaching the genre he basically takes on The Omen (1976) on its own turf, a very bad idea given the huge power that Richard Donner’s screaming success had.  The models and the sets are likewise poor, and so much of it seems half thought out. For example, the filmmakers had to replicate the famous Hitchcock Steps adjacent to the MacNeil house in The Exorcist, rebuilding them in plastic for a five second shot, because they were refused permission by Washington City to shoot on the real steps. It looks like the city legislators knew how poor the film was going to be.

One effect I like, which recurs, is a locust hovering before the camera, and sometimes flying about the place. It’s a big fake, but quite a creepy one, and much better than the locusts which appear at the climax of the film. Boorman experimented with quite a few things to get these final locusts correct, and this included using grasshoppers that they had mutilated, by removing their legs. In the end, Boorman settled on using peanuts, which were blown around the room using giant fans; and although you can’t see the fans, and although you will have lost all interest by this point anyway, you can really see the peanuts pelting the characters at the end.

The worst effect however is the plot device known as ‘the synchroniser’, a headset which the characters wear. When Linda Blair puts hers on, she spaces out and when Richard Burton puts his on, he shakes and looks fierce as only he can. The overall effect of the synchroniser is however risible, and by all accounts, it caused not a little laughter at the film’s premier. Again, on Wikipedia, it’s reported that the first person to laugh out loud at Exorcist 2 – The Heretic, was none other than William Peter Blatty himself.

One note. If you are watching Exorcist 2 – The Heretic, you would be advised to view it with the alternative opening, which has Richard Burton narrate a few lines concerning the past history of the first film, and introduces him on location in Rio de Janeiro, where he meets a flaming woman in a shanty town shack. Watching the theatrical release, we cut straight to the flaming woman, without knowing who she is, why we are there, or even where we are. Great as it is to see Richard Burton looking awestruck and feart in this scene, it does make much more sense with the introduction, but you won’t care much about any of that by the end, because quite a lot of the film doesn’t make sense at all, as it flits between Ethiopia and Manhattan, with very little explanation as to what is going on with Burton’s character or even Regan.

I do believe that career artists should choose more carefully what they do, although you can’t forgive any of them for going for the money now and then, especially if they’ve come from the kind of indigent backgrounds that Burton had. But here, Richard Burton, somewhat ravaged by age and sporting his biggest droop of a double chin did himself no favours. The Exorcist 2 – The Heretic was roundly hated at the time (although it did make a profit) and it continues to be despised, regularly appearing in lists of the worst films of all time. This is of course down to pedigree. There are many worse films out there, but because so many people hold The Exorcist so dear that this film is rightly named ‘The Heretic’ — for that is what it is.

Linda Blair at Warner Bros Manhattan Offices

In the picture’s defence, Ennio Morricone's mix of tribal and liturgical music really succeeds, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find some folks out there willing to champion it — no lesser characters than Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese must be taking the piss, or is so overdosed on poor quality epics that technically deficient films with dire plots have become a benchmark irony for excellence, the world having gone full circle.  Some of Exorcist 2 – The Heretic was also filmed at Warner Bros’ Manhattan offices, which you should see for the stunning Manhattan location, although you have to worry for the young Linda Blair, up there on the roof with no stunt double and nothing between her and the street, which looks to be many miles below.