As we kick off our latest installment of I Love That You Love It, I’ll admit I was a little bit worried coming off my last debate with Liam over Freddy’s Dead. I know it’s not what most people would call “transcendent of the horror genre,” or “any good at all,” but dammit I kinda love it. But I also acknowledge that love may come at the expense of my own credibility. After all, how can I expect people to take me seriously in questioning Liam’s taste in movies when I admit to liking what many consider the worst film of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise?
Well, Mr. O’Donnell has proven that he is indeed a gentleman of the highest order, as only a truly noble soul would give me the gift of defending this month’s film, John Boorman’s universally panned Exorcist II: The Heretic. Taking place four years after the events of the original, the sequel follows a teenage Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), who we meet having therapy sessions with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) where she claims to have no recollection of her possession by the demon Pazuzu. Meanwhile, Father Phillip Lamont (Richard Burton) has been tasked with investigating the circumstances of Father Lankester Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) death during his battle with Pazuzu. As he participates in a series of therapeutic hypnosis sessions with Regan, he soon learns that she may not be as freed of Pazuzu’s grasp as once believed.
So Liam, before we get into my take on the movie, do tell (stifles laughter) what do you think makes this movie worthy of defending?
Bryan, is it possible you have come to this good hearted meeting of the minds without any intention of hearing me out? I know you would certainly not assume that this film must have nothing to offer the viewer. Look, I am aware of the reputation of this film as being one of the most disappointing sequels of all time. I would suggest one can never bring the film up around any horror fan without that reputation pushing its way into the room, loudly, and making itself present. Yes, I am on board with the idea that the original Exorcist is a cultural phenomena and, for some folks, one of the scariest films ever made.
However, I suspect it is in fact because of the eruption of that film onto our cultural consciousness that so many have, in my mind, unfairly disregarded the sequel and refused to even give it’s quirky and off kilter charms a chance to win them over. The film is definitely flawed. One need only read a few interviews to discover the script went through a number of awkward rewrites and many of those involved in the film were deeply unhappy with the changes made from what they had signed on to be a part of.
Still, a flawed film can be fascinating and entertaining and even awesome if one is willing to accept some of it’s more off kilter aspects. In an awesome essay on the film our friend Rob Skvarla approvingly compared the film to Altered States and cited Pauline Kael’s description of the movie as apocalyptic in nature and perhaps scope. I have to agree, that while the script is indeed incoherent at time, it does manage to do something new and interesting while living in the shadow of what was considered one of the most important horror films of all time. Starting there, with the idea of doing something unique despite the weight of what had come before already makes the film worthy of some respect.
So wait, am I debating you or am I debating Rob Skvarla? I mean I get that you probably realized very quickly that you were in over your head with this argument, but did you really need to rope poor Rob into it?
And I, for one, am a firm believer that people can love films that they also acknowledge are deeply flawed. Those are often the ones that are the most fun to watch and even more so to discuss. But I have to admit, Liam, I’m a bit confused. In our very last encounter you eviscerated me just because I enjoyed a film that you referred to as a money grab. How then, sir, do you turn around and defend a film that original director William Friedkin and original writer William Peter Blatty had no interest in revisiting? How do you stand there with a straight face and justify a sequel that, according to co-producer Richard Lerner, was conceived as a low-budget rehash of the first film that would leverage unused footage to make it on the cheap and, in Lerner’s own words, was “a rather cynical approach to movie-making?” How do you, in defiance of God and nature, tell me that a film that Ellen Burstyn simply refused to participate in is, in fact, good?
I see you are confusing what it is I felt CAUSED the failure of Freddy’s Dead with the failure itself. That film was a cynical money grab that failed to add anything to the franchise, and in being so cynical and ill-conceived it was boring and lifeless. I would argue that of COURSE Richard Lerner sees Exorcist II that way, since he was the one who took what was according to everyone involved in the production, a very interesting script and worked it over and messed with it until it was almost unrecognizable to the people in the film. Yes, he WAS in fact very cynical as a producer. However, the interesting ideas are in fact still there, under the surface, and bursting through.
Yet again I say, while parts of the film seem corny or drag some, the idea of EXPANDING the world of the first film is in fact a brilliant one. The ways that it does, combining magic and science and creating a kind of alchemy involving a more murky understanding of good and evil? All of that is to me wonderful! Now, not all of it sings, but I would argue that there is something there all the same. In the same way that many horror films are just attempts to make some money, or even launder some money, this film was MEANT to just be a way to profit from the cultural phenomena of the first film, However, unlike other films we have discussed, this film is not willing to trade merely in clichés or trope, and it certainly is not seeking to simply recreate the first film. That, truly, should be the greatest sin of any sequel, to simply mimic what came before. Disgusting. No, this film ambitiously tries for an entirely new and unique cosmology and narrative, and almost gets there. A long the way it has some of the most trippy and apocalyptic sequences in horror, and is really a beauty at times to behold.
So, when you say they “expanded” the world of the first film, are you talking about how they completely erased Father Karras from the narrative? I mean, I can see why they would do that. After all, Karras was only the heart and soul of what made the original film so special. He’s the one who sacrifices himself in the film’s climax, allowing Pazuzu to possess him so as to finally free poor Regan from her plight. The dude is a goddamn hero, but sure, let’s just forget that he ever existed and present a story where it seems as though Father Merrin was the only one to do battle with Pazuzu.
But not to worry, right? Because since Merrin is dead and Karras apparently never existed, we get Richard Burton to remind us by comparison just how great both Jonathan Miller and Max von Sydow really were in the original. Look, I don’t want to take too many pot shots at Burton, who was just a few years coming off a bad battle with alcoholism and was suffering from long-term health issues that would plague him until his death. But that doesn’t change the fact that he just wasn’t very good in the movie, particularly when compared to his predecessors.
But, oh, maybe that wasn’t the expansion you were talking about. Actually, I’ll bet I know what you mean. The expansion you’re referring to must have been those groundbreaking trips to Africa via locust POV. And there’s certainly no way to go wrong by having a white screenwriter with one other movie to his credit try his hand at depicting African culture, am I right? That definitely won’t lead to James Earl Jones being made up to look like a caricature of a shaman for most of his time on-screen even though in reality his character is a fucking scientist. Truly, a magical world has been created here.
Heart and soul…? Oh I see, you bought into the none-too-subtle Catholic propaganda aspect of The Exorcist. Makes sense, as Blatty created Karras as a stand in for guilty white men like yourself so you would be wracked with guilt at your own faithlessness like Karras and repent. Sorry if I am more invested in Regan than I am the blood sacrifice of Sad Priest Man and how hard it is for him to be sad and a priest. Considering how wrapped up you also are in your own navel it makes sense you would be sad without his input. I mean fine, if you get your jollies from the cosmic S&M of penal substitution theory writ large on the flesh of an innocent girl, who am I to deny you both your guilt and your jollies?
Now, I will admit Burton is not the strongest in the film. The man is clearly half in the bag most of the movie, but I never found his performance distracting. Obviously he is no Max von Sydow, but Jason Miller is not that compelling to me anyway so I don’t much care one way or the other. Keep in mind, my point here is that this is a different KIND of movie, something that should be encouraged (as compared to simply copying your predecessor) but the film was punished unfairly. In this kind of more heightened, less drab and self involved environment, well I simply don’t mind Burton being a bit ridiculous. It is fun and the franchise desperately could benefit from fun.
Now, I will admit the caricature of Africa used in the film is not great, although the metaphor of Jones as both a scientist and a shaman, one functioning for the ancient world and the other for the modern was actually clever and clearly lost on you, I admit that the way Africa is present as a whole is a problem. Certainly, this issue of racism and also sexism is not present in the original…oh wait now.
In fact, the themes of shitty modern hierarchical structures is in fact the MOST consistent with the original. THE CONCEPT THAT BECAUSE REGAN’S MOM IS A MODERN ACTRESS SHE IS SOMEHOW SUSCEPTIBLE THE DEMON POSSESSION AND THE IDEA THAT THE DEVIL IS MORE INTERESTED IN STEALING A LITTLE GIRL’S SOUL THEN THE GENERATIONS OF OPPRESSION THIS COUNTRY IS BUILT ON ARE BOTH DISGUSTING. I get it, you are not well read, and thus have not yet read the famous essay by James Baldwin eviscerating both the inherent chauvinism and racism of the first film. But I suggest you crack a spine and get learnt.
The reality is, while there are some deeply poor decisions made in the making of this film, they are congruent in their failures with the original which is without a doubt one of the most regressive films of the decade. They still deserve some praise simply for trying to do something new and interesting in the wake of such an impactful piece of cultural phenomena.
I hate to rain on your parade, Captain Academia, but you literally just made the point that The Exorcist II is worthwhile because it’s taking chances with telling a different kind of story, then defended its racism by saying that it was only doing more of what made the first film racist. The circles you’re talking in seem to be trying to lead me up your ass, where your head has clearly taken up permanent residence. I think I’ll stay out here in the fresh air of sanity.
And while I’m out here, free of the sanctimonious rectum from which you pull most of your theses, I’ll point out that Blatty’s intent in the original doesn’t dictate my interpretation. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the Catholic propaganda Blatty was spewing, as I wasn’t raised with organized religion nor does it click with me at all. What I do care about is a man suffering and on the brink of despair finding a reason to forge ahead through service to a young girl in both physical and spiritual danger.
But you’re right, Liam, Exorcist II does take things in a different direction. It takes all the humanity that made the original Exorcist special and throws it right out the window, deciding instead to lean into all of the Catholic shenanigans and racial caricature that you say plagued the first movie. So you enjoy this little exercise in bad decisions, Mr. O’Donnell. I’ll be over here watching Exorcist III, a worthy successor to the original and frankly the only legitimate sequel in the franchise.