Exorcist II: The Heretic. 1977. Directed by John Boorman. Screenplay by William Goodhart.
Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Max von Sydow, Kitty Winn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, & Ned Beatty.
Rated R. 118 minutes.
I’m not going to try and tell you that John Boorman’s sequel to the original William Friedkin masterpiece is a great movie. It isn’t, and I know that. But still, despite the fact it isn’t what it ought to, there’s enough for me personally to appreciate.
Exorcist II: The Heretic suffered due to constant rewrites, number one. Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (who in all fairness did good work with the director on Excalibur and The Emerald Forest) seemed to have rewritten continuously, consistently on and off set, just hammering the original work by playwright William Goodhart into an unrecognisable form. Even Linda Blair herself said the original script was good, but clearly got lost in the process.
I love the central ideas and themes in this film. From what it looks like at the core, Goodhart merely wanted to approach demonic possession through a standpoint of centring around the human psyche, effectively merging theology and science into one. However, Boorman and Pallenberg filled the script with too much exposition, which bogs down the pace and wastes the fine acting of Blair, and the man, the legend Richard Burton.
Disowned even by the director himself, this is an unfairly treated sequel. Again, it’s not good. I don’t agree it’s trash, either. It could never hope to match Friedkin’s original, that is no debate. Sitting in the shadow of that first film it often doesn’t get the proper attention it deserves. Look past the blemishes; they are legion. I won’t pretend to be blind and not see them. I also won’t bash this sequel simply because its predecessor is a masterpiece and everything isn’t executed as well as hoped.
What encompasses my feeling about Boorman’s movie is how Martin Scorsese put it, in terms of theological perspective. He said that when you look at that central concept – poignantly observed by Father Merrin (Max von Sydow): “Does great goodness draw evil upon itself?” – then it’s possible to likewise view Regan MacNeil (Blair) as a saint. God is putting her through the tortures of the damned, testing her. And yes, the heavy-handed writing in the final script harps on that point much too blatantly. I can’t knock it too hard because the idea is still within reach. That’s the ultimate problem with Boorman and Pallenberg rewriting everything, there’s no telling how well things might have sounded if Goodhart’s words remained as he wrote them in the beginning; I can’t help feeling a playwright such as himself would try trimming things a bit. Although I do believe Scorsese has a great point. This movie has interesting themes, particularly in the vein of viewing Regan’s possession as saintly tribulation.
Most of all I dig how thematically this sequel goes for a merge of science and religion. The synchroniser, essentially a biofeedback unit, allows Father Lamont (Burton) an opportunity of validation – seeing a verifiable instance of possession, by way of scientific equipment. Of course the dialogue, once more, goes too hard on the expository side, but just the themes alone are worth entertaining. Lamont is plagued by guilt after having botched an exorcism. He starts wondering if there even is a God, demons, any of it, believing himself to have been duped, or at least allowing himself to fall into a bad way. The plot taking him into Regan’s possession, the fact Pazuzu essentially has latched onto her psyche, it’s a path towards redemption in some way for Lamont. Boorman mangles the execution of the journey there. If not this could easily be a worthy successor to the original.
One big part of why I do enjoy the film is because von Sydow graciously returned to play Father Merrin. Through Father Lamont, we’re able to take a look back at how Merrin first came in contact with the demon Pazuzu whilst visiting Africa. There’s so much awesome stuff in these parts, even once Lamont himself goes to Africa. First, when we see Merrin witness the boy Kokumo (later played in grownup form by James Earl Jones) taken by the demon, announcing “I am Pazuzu” with locusts swarming all over his face, the fabled confrontation alluded to in the original comes to life. Mostly what that does for me is make me want to watch the original because you gain this further sense, even in their brief initial scene, of the struggle of Merrin to cast this demon out. Later in the film when Lamont travels to Africa, just the locations (obviously set work) are a lot of fun. Boorman wanted to do everything on location in Africa, although that was too much cash to splurge for the production. I feel that this little portion actually works, and for not shooting anywhere near Africa (a combination of Arizona desert and soundstage set) Boorman at least managed to give these scenes an eerie look to compliment the story.
Ennio Morricone’s score and the cinematography of William A. Fraker are major elements of Exorcist II: The Heretic which feed its atmosphere. Morricone is always a treat, in any film his work appears. Here, he combines tribal sounds with those of a Christian mass, moving between wailing, chattering African rhythms to dreadful Roman hymnals, voices flickering in and out alongside sharp brass in staccato patterns. There’s too many pieces to mention, an epic score if there ever were one in a horror; sadly, the rest of the movie can’t live up to its awesomeness. At least Fraker – whose work includes Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, Looking For Mr. Goodbar, among others – captures a lot of good looking shots. The excellent feel of those African scenes is mostly due to his prowess behind the camera. He and Boorman conjure up interesting things during the synchroniser scenes when we see Regan’s two selves, the demon grabbing at the heart, so on. If it weren’t for Fraker and Morricone doing their best on the technical side of things, I probably wouldn’t enjoy this half as much as I do.
I love this movie. Simultaneously being capable of recognising it’s many, many flaws. I know why people hate it, I certainly get that. But there’s a lot to love beneath the shitty rewritten script. Boorman is a favourite of mine as a filmmaker, although he’s got a few big rotten duds in his catalogue. Simply, I admire his willingness to do what he wants, to do things his own way. That doesn’t always translate well. Yet bless him for trying and having a vision.
Exorcist II: The Heretic is one of those movies you can laugh at a bit, and if you really want to, look inside some of what Boorman tries to get at. Ignore his botched work in certain scenes, go deeper to examine those themes of where religion and science might (or can) intersect. More than that there are hard looks at faith, guilt, and how people deal with the traumas of their own respective experiences.
This won’t satisfy you if looking for a sequel that’ll carry Friedkin’s legacy of the original on with dignity. It’s not a worthy follow-up in most cases. I still think it’s a 3&1/2 out of 5 star bit of horror. Because of the uneven directing and writing from Boorman (as well as Pallenberg on the script), the viewer is left to do most of the work in finding the diamonds in the rough. Believe me, though: it gets rough.