In the story – relayed to Friedkin by a studio executive – Warner Bros bigwigs attended the first sneak preview of Exorcist II. Confident in its brilliance, they sent their limo drivers to get something to eat and settled in the very back row of the cinema. But the film was demonic-level bad. Ten minutes in, one outraged viewer stood up and declared, “The people who made this piece of s––– are in this room!” The execs made a hasty escape. “They got up, they ran out of the theatre, they get outside – no cars!” said Friedkin. “The cars are all down at McDonalds! And they were chased down the street. That was the first public reaction to Exorcist II.”
Friedkin told the story at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in 2013. Though likely embellished for the sake of a good yarn, it’s an amusing coda to William Friedkin wanting absolutely nothing to do with directing the sequel. “He was the hottest director in the world at that point,” says Nat Segaloff, author of The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear. “He wasn’t going to rehash something he’d already done.” This was also long before big sequels became an essential piston in the Hollywood machine. “Making a sequel was a step down for any director,” adds Segaloff.
By the studio’s own admission, the 1977 sequel was meant to be nothing more than a cut-price re-run. But John Boorman’s finished version was anything but formulaic. More a ludicrous, ambitious farce in which a priest played by Richard Burton – befuddled to the point of catatonia – wanders the brainwaves of Linda Blair’s exorcism survivor, reawakens the demon within her, and flies to Ethiopia on the backside of a locust. Or, as Nat Segaloff puts it: “Up the ass of a grasshopper.”
The latest sequel, The Exorcist: Believer – in cinemas on October 6 – is the fourth attempt at a direct sequel to the original. The Exorcist III: Legion, released in 1990, ignored its predecessor (“The first rule of Exorcist III is: you do not talk about Exorcist II,” wrote Segaloff), while the Geena Davis TV series, which aired in 2016, had its own spin.
Exorcist II: The Heretic remains the hellish low point. Mark Kermode, The Exorcist’s number one fan, called it “clearly the worst film ever made by anyone ever”. Hyperbole, of course, but also a fair assessment of the disparity in quality between the first and second Exorcist films. Boorman himself admitted that Exorcist II failed because he didn’t give the audience what they wanted. Boorman had hated the original and wanted the sequel, a sermon on the power of good over evil, to be a sort of “antidote “– a holy water tonic, perhaps – to wash away the evil of Friedkin’s film.
“I should have known better,” Boorman wrote in his memoir. “Kubrick told me the only way to do a sequel to The Exorcist is to give them even more gore and horror than before. No one is interested in goodness.”
While the first Exorcist is known for its supposed curse, the same might be said about the sequel, which was struck down with a series of problems: script rewrites, death, fallings out, illness, and panicked re-edits. Even the film’s plague of locusts would lose the will to live, apparently opting to die instead of performing for the camera. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, technically and personally,” wrote Boorman. He recalled that a props man had warned him about meddling with dark forces: “That’s what happens when you play around with the occult.”
Exorcist II was the idea of John Calley, a big-name executive and then head of Warner Bros’ worldwide production. “It was a deal picture,” says Segaloff. “An astute business decision, but a very bad artistic decision.” Calley passed the project to Richard Lederer, a PR man-turned-producer. Lederer had in fact handled publicity on the first Exorcist.
William Peter Blatty, author of the original novel, had retained rights over sequels. As described in Segaloff’s book, Blatty didn’t want any involvement and threatened to sue, but he was won over by a sizable payoff. (Blatty’s integrity wasn’t for sale, however: he refused a fee of $100,000 – essentially for doing nothing – to allow Warner Bros to publish an Exorcist II novelisation. “Those are my characters,” Blatty told horror critic Douglas E. Winter. “Nobody else can use them in a novel.”)
A sequel was inevitable. The original film was Warner Bros’ highest grossing movie of all time and was nominated for ten Oscars. Bob McCabe, in his book The Exorcist: Out of Shadows, described how 1970s sequels weren’t “bigger, better, faster, more” but “cheaper, tackier, and considerably less”.
Lederer would agree. He planned to make it “a low-budget rehash” for just $3 million, built around unused scenes and shots from the original. “A rather cynical approach to moviemaking, I’ll admit,” said Lederer at the time. “But that was the start.”
A cheap knockoff Exorcist sequel now seems like a lost curio. A number of scenes had been cut from The Exorcist, including the infamous “spider-walk” sequence, which was eventually seen in Mark Kermode’s Fear of God documentary and then reinserted into a 2000 director’s cut. Could the spider walk sequence have crawled its way into an alternate universe version of Exorcist II?
If Exorcist II was cursed, the hiring of Boorman – vehemently anti-Exorcist – likely hexed it. The power of the original Exorcist had not compelled Boorman one iota. In fact, John Calley had offered Boorman the chance to direct The Exorcist but Boorman found Blatty’s story “repulsive”. For Boorman, The Exorcist was “a film about a child being tortured” – a point with which he took particular umbrage and often repeated (though he was quite happy to torture everyone else with Exorcist II). Boorman despised The Exorcist so much that he told Calley: “Not only will I not make this movie but I don’t want you to make it either.”
When it came to Exorcist II, however, Boorman was intrigued by the script – originally just called The Heretic – from playwright William Goodhart. Goodhart was inspired by ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and archaeologist – who said the next stage of human evolution was to connect telepathically. “I was tempted,” wrote Boorman. “I would get a substantial fee. I would have a large budget and resources at my disposal to make what amounted to an experimental metaphysical thriller involving innovative special effects and huge sets.”
Boorman later told the press that his sequel was a “continuation of the original, the same way French Connection II and Godfather II were continuations of the original”.
Certainly, Warner Bros wanted links to the first movie. Linda Blair, the first film’s cherubic victim, was back under the condition she didn’t have to suffer the ordeal of make-up effects again (which necessitated a not-entirely-convincing double). But original leading star Ellen Burstyn declined to be involved. Instead, Louise Fletcher was cast as an Ellen Burstyn-a-like part and Kitty Winn, who played Sharon from the first film, was drafted back (then cooked alive in the sequel’s grisliest moment).
Lee J. Cobb – Detective Kinderman in the original – was set for a big role but died, forcing a rewrite. Jon Voight – who starred in Boorman’s Deliverance – almost played the lead role of Father Lamont but dropped out, which led Boorman to cast Richard Burton, who was looking to bounce back after a series of flops, his turbulent marriage(s) with Elizabeth Taylor, and bouts with the bottle. “Letting Voight slip through my fingers and casting Burton against my instincts was another mistake,” wrote Boorman.
Boorman was certainly capable of drawing talented contributors. Louise Fletcher won an Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just before production began, and composer Ennio Morricone signed on to score the film. Most surprising was the return of Max von Sydow as the eponymous exorcist, Father Merrin, who was killed by the demon in the first film. Indeed, Exorcist II is both a sequel and prequel of sorts, with flashbacks to an exorcism Merrin performed in Africa, which is briefly mentioned in the original.
According to Boorman, von Sydow also hated The Exorcist. “I met Max and argued that by making the sequel he could perhaps repair the damage he had helped to inflict,” explained Boorman in his memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy. As detailed in Segaloff’s book, however, von Sydow told William Peter Blatty that he did Exorcist II for the payday, and pleaded for mercy. “Bill, I had to do it,” von Sydow told Blatty. “I didn’t want to do it. I never wanted to do it, but Bill, I had to think of my family. They gave me soooo much money to do it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
In the story, Father Philip Lamont (Burton) is tasked with investigating the original film’s exorcism to save the church’s blushes. Merrin is about to be posthumously charged with heresy – his writings on evil are too hot to handle for the Vatican. (“Satan has become an embarrassment to our progressive views,” says a red-faced Cardinal). Lamont finds Regan MacNeil (Blair) – who is now 17 years old and remembers nothing of her exorcism – in the care of a tech savvy psychiatrist, Dr Tuskin (Fletcher). Tuskin then connects Lamont and Regan using a “synchronizer” – a machine that allows users to enter each other’s mind by synchronised hypnosis. The priest wanders into Regan’s subconscious, learns the demon Pazuzu is still there – rendering the climax of the first film pointless – and sees visions of Merrin’s first exorcism in Ethiopia.
The idea is that Regan is so inherently good – a quality which manifests as an X-Men-like power to cure autistic children – that she attracts evil. This is neatly encapsulated by, er, a metaphorical locust. If that sounds head-spinningly ridiculous, that’s because it is. At least, it is in Boorman’s finished version.
Linda Blair had agreed to do the film on the strength of William Goodhart’s script. “I’m not gonna lie it was very, very well written,” said Blair in a Scream Factory interview. “Just not the project we shot.” She added: “We all left with great disappointment, I believe.”
Boorman and Goodhart’s working relationship broke down over rewrites. Boorman continued tinkering with the script with frequent collaborator Rospo Pallenberg. “The bones of Goodhart’s story remained, but a more hallucinatory screenplay took shape around them,” wrote Declan Neil Fernandez in Horrible and Fascinating, an excellent book on Exorcist II.
Script rewrites delayed the start of production by six months. Elsewhere, plans to film in the Vatican and Ethiopia were scuppered. Even Georgetown, Washington D.C. – the setting of the first film –didn’t want the crew there, forcing production to rebuild the house and “Hitchcock steps” in a studio. Lighting and special effects were problematic and sets weren’t ready on time. But even worse, the dirt shipped in to create the Ethiopian landscape gave Boorman valley fever, a fungal infection that put him out of action for a month. Louise Fletcher also had to leave production when her husband had heart surgery, and later underwent gallbladder surgery herself.
Especially tricky were the locusts – the physical embodiment of the demon Pazuzu. A job lot of 2,500 locusts (actually grasshoppers doubling as locusts) were shipped in but died at a rate of 100 per day. The ones that didn’t die refused to fly, so Boorman tried cutting their legs off. He resigned himself to using bits of brown-painted Styrofoam packing to create a demonic swarm. Among all of this, Pallenberg’s wife, Barbara Pallenberg, was commissioned to write a book on the making of the film and shadowed Boorman. That book, the director admitted, “has more horror in it than the film itself”.
According to Segaloff’s book, the film put Richard Burton back on the bottle. Though Boorman recalled that “Richard kept his drinking to the weekends.” That – compounded by what we can only assume was total bewilderment – might account for why Burton looks dead behind the eyes for much of the film and seems to talk directly into the camera. Linda Blair revealed that Burton actually used cue cards. And, like most of the dialogue, Burton’s lines linger in the air – like the stench of projectile-vomited pea soup (corkers such as “You do realise what we’re up against…? EVIL!” and “I flew with Pazuzu… in a trance!”) Burton’s wife, Suzy Miller, told him to never make another film like Exorcist II. “Not even for a million dollars,” she said.
Watched now, Exorcist II a dreamscape of thematic and visual twaddle, from the inexplicable and ill-conceived – the formerly-demonic Regan tapdancing and James Earl Jones, while dressed as a giant locust, regurgitating a whole tomato – to EastEnders-style over-the-shoulder acting. “Boorman, no question, is an artist,” says Segaloff. “But I believe he bit off more than he could chew with Exorcist II. On one hand, it’s so stylish. On the other hand, it’s so vapid. It tries to go down roads but doesn’t know how to get there. It’s an exercise in style that has nothing to do with substance.”
It might all be tolerable if Exorcist II had a killer ending to pull it all together. Instead, the climax – also subject to Boorman and Pallenberg rewrites – descends into textbook sequel fare by chucking more of the first film at the screen. Father Lamont and Regan return to the MacNeil house to battle a Pazuzu – a demon doppelganger of Regan herself – as the house cracks and crumbles under an attack of locusts. In one uncomfortable moment, the demon doppelganger of 17-year-old Linda Blair seduces 50-year-old Richard Burton. “It was weird,” said Blair.
Burton was mostly confused. “They must’ve shot 10 different ends and I didn’t understand one of them,” he told The New York Times.
As detailed by Fernandez, Boorman requested a preview screening but Warner Bros denied him – a decision that would prove costly. One executive did offer to show a preview to William Peter Blatty, but only if Blatty agreed to not publicly badmouth the film. Blatty said he couldn’t agree to that, and never heard back from the exec.
Exorcist II: The Heretic was released on June 17 1977 with significant fanfare. “It’s four years later… what does she remember?” read the tagline. Cinemas, expecting an Exorcist like blockbuster, agreed to give Warner Bros a hefty cut and to run the film for 12 weeks. But the reaction was disastrous. Audiences openly mocked and jeered at the film. Blatty – who admitted laughing through it himself – claimed that an incensed, unruly audience had torn apart the box office in one Los Angeles cinema. Blatty called Richard Lederer and urged him to withdraw the film and hand it over. He would keep the film exactly as it was but rewrite it as a silent, subtitled comedy. “And I was dead serious,” Blatty told Bob McCabe.
Exorcist II had Warner Bros’ then best ever weekend opening, but ticket sales dropped sharply. Boorman – who had returned to his home in Ireland – received word about the US reactions and dictated a hasty re-edit over the phone. He returned to California to supervise a second re-edit and – as the story goes – attended a screening and cut the bits that audiences laughed at. A third edit made 130 changes. The new versions were distributed to cinemas though it was too costly to recall all the original prints. A final cut was released overseas. According to Fernandez’s book, there were four versions playing at cinemas in 1977. It is the mark of a true cult film – to have legends of multiple versions swirling around in the ether. And Exorcist II does have its fans, including – quite incredibly – Martin Scorsese.
Exorcist II eventually made $30 million from a $14 million budget. What’s really frightening is the film’s rep – as Mark Kermode said, “the worst film ever made”.
Boorman certainly tried something different, but to release a film called Exorcist II in the wake of The Exorcist and not end with a bumper, almighty exorcism for Regan – or to have barely a shred of actual horror, in fact, when you’re waffling on about locusts and flying to Africa – is a sin. “It’s the red headed step child of the whole Exorcist oeuvre,” says Segaloff. “You have to love it for what it is, but it doesn’t have the prodigy that it should to succeed. It’s just a disaster of a film.”
The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear is available now