Exorcist II: The Heretic
Dir. John Boorman
Premiered June 17, 1977
In 1971, Robert Altman was tapped to adapt the Korean War novel MASH, despite hating the source material. To him, Richard Hooker’s book was an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. But he still managed to make a faithful adaptation, as his movie is an incoherent, joyless slog of bigotry and loathing. Mind you, MASH is till a very respected film due to its innovative use of overlapping dialogue, but try watching it now, because if you ask me, any film whose merits are purely technical is guaranteed to have a short shelf life. Just look at Avatar.
Point being, maybe it’s not the best idea to have filmmakers adapt material they don’t like. At best you’ll get another MASH, at worst you’ll get Exorcist II: The Heretic.
The movie’s director, John Boorman, might be considered the New Hollywood counterpart to today’s Wachowskis: an instantly recognizable talent with a solid reputation but a tendency toward too much ambition and too little follow-through. Boorman hated the original Exorcist, and excoriated it in a bout of muddled if well-intentioned progressivism, so it stood to reason that The Exorcist II: The Heretic would be his way of “fixing” the franchise.
So unlike sequels like Jurassic Park II or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, which sloppily fell prey to the trends the original films set, The Exorcist II’s jarring incompatibility with William Friedkin’s 1973 classic is by design. Which is to say it’s not a horror movie– not at all. It’s a John Boorman movie, a vaguely highbrow mashup of sci-fantasy and spiritual exotica. And it might be his worst.
Three years have passed since the events of The Exorcist. Because Ellen Burstyn wisely declined to return for the sequel, Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) now lives in a glitzy Manhattan apartment made entirely out of mirrors (Boorman loves his reflective surfaces) with her caretaker Sharon (Kitty Winn). In between home life and practicing for her high school’s upcoming musical theater production, Regan spends extensive periods at a bizarre, beehive-inspired mental hospital where she receives psychic therapy from Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) with the help of an electric psychic dream machine (read: a stick with two flashing lights on the end) called a synchronizer. This is treated as perfectly normal, as is Gene’s insistence that repressed memories– such as that of Regan’s possession and exorcism– remain repressed.
At the same time Regan begins therapy with the sync, the Catholic Church sends Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) to investigate the events of the first film. In an unorthodox turn of events (though in this movie, everything is unorthodox), Fr. Lamont uses the sync with Regan, and a lasting psychic bond forms between them. Regan’s improving memory of her exorcism causes the demon to return, and we get a name– Pazuzu.
Now, obviously, an unnamed evil is better than a named one, but if you have to give it a name, anything is better than what sounds like a pet name for a woman named Pazelda. I know this was the name of the demon in the original book of The Exorcist, but book loyalty doesn’t make something good, especially when the filmmaker is making a deliberate effort to destroy the legacy of the first movie. Considering every mention of the name Pazuzu seems to rub its in the audience’s face, neither Boorman nor screenwriter William Goodhart seem to respect anyone who might be watching.
Fr. Lamont suspects Regan might be the vanguard of a long-theorized event whereby humanity will coalesce into a single “world-mind,” as demonstrated by her newfound ability to predict the future through abstract art and cure a small girl of autism, leading Lamont to seek out another vanguard previously exorcised by the first film’s Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow). This takes him first to a mountaintop abbey in Ethiopia that just happens to perfectly match a background painting in a display at New York’s Natural History Museum, then to somewhere in West Africa, where he finds Pazuzu’s previous victim, a scientist named Kukumo (James Earl Jones) trying to stop locusts from swarming while psychically manifesting as a leopard.
It goes on like that.
As a follow-up to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic is a fucking insult. As a standalone film, it’s pretentious gibberish. As a follow-up to Boorman’s previous film Zardoz, it makes a creepy amount of sense, like when Regan absentmindedly gropes Gene’s breasts during a therapy session, or when Fr. Lamont breaks the fourth wall to say “it was horrible, utterly horrible, and fascinating.” All of this makes the movie hard to analyze fairly. I could say that it gets everything completely wrong about the original, which was a grounded, accessible horror thriller preying on parental anxieties that are nowhere to be found here, but that’s on purpose. Then again, does that make it better? And does that mean Boorman succeeded in what he set out to do? He claimed to have wanted to make “a film about journeys that were positive,” but Exorcist II: The Heretic is not that film. It is an expression of contempt, wholly lacking in humanity. If you liked The Exorcist, or you like yourself, stay the hell away.
How Did It Do?
Exorcist II: The Heretic grossed $30.7 million against a $14 million budget, barely breaking even. Were it not a sequel to a nine-figure mega-blockbuster, this would be an acceptable outcome, but that wasn’t the case. Exorcist Author William Peter Blatty, who would have nothing to do with the film, eventually made a third film…in 1990, with none of the original cast.
Critics– other than obstinate iconoclast Pauline Kael– absolutely loathed The Heretic, earning a 20% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It’s continued to be a subject of fascination for film critics and historians, being profiled– and ridiculed by both Doug Walker and Brad Jones within the past decade. At least three critics have recommended watching it with the sound off. Others have given it positive reviews by virtue of being such a fiasco. Among the film’s biggest detractors was original Exorcist director William Friedkin, who called it “as bad as seeing a traffic accident in the street.” If you have the time, I recommend reading some of these reviews, they’re quite fun.
Before Exorcist II, John Boorman had been lobbying for a three-hour epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Thankfully, this film’s failure cost him that project, though he was able to funnel some of its creative efforts into 1981’s Excalibur.
Next Time: New York, New York