The Good Intentions and Failures of Exorcist II: The Heretic

exorcist-II-heretic-linda-blair

Happy October! I’m resurrecting horror movie articles from my old blog and revamping them. This article is reworked from a 2013 post.

John Boorman has directed a number of classics, including three personal favorites, Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972), and Excalibur (1981). But lying like an oily stain in the middle of his career is the 1977 box-office disaster and audience-loathed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic.

But it’s not universally loathed. Martin Scorsese has expressed admiration for the film: “I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it. Maybe Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got.” Genre critic and historian Kim Newman acknowledges the film isn’t a success but that it does manage to be interesting.

I lead toward Newman’s perspective. Exorcist II: The Heretic contains fascinating ideas, wonderful visual moments, and a excellent score. It’s also weirdly off-kilter, unevenly acted and scripted, and edited on a bad glue-sniffing trip. It’s no surprise audiences in 1977 laughed it off the screen during its opening weekend.

I don’t think it’s right to call Exorcist II a misunderstood work. Most of what critics consider wrong with it are indeed serious problems. There isn’t any negative leveled at the movie I consider inaccurate. But it remains beguiling and intriguing: an ambitious piece sunk by a combination of overreach and production nightmares. I can see what John Boorman was trying to achieve beneath the haze of everything that doesn’t work, and it was a laudable goal.

But if not a complete failure, Exorcist II is primarily a failure. The metaphysical gropings of the story cannot overcome the many thundering  moments “What the … ?” splattering against the screen like locusts on the side of a Dust Bowl barn. The movie is also not remotely scary, so the “horror” aspect that made the first film such a smash hit is missing. This is an issue, as you might imagine.

A sequel to The Exorcist was inevitable. The 1973 film was the highest-grossing motion picture in history at the time of release, and Warner Bros. was not going to turn down a chance to pick up more box-office cash. But original director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty couldn’t develop any idea they liked to lure them back for a follow-up. Warner Bros. reputedly threw half a million dollars at them just to try to think up something over lunch.

After ditching the concept of making an ultra-cheap sequel recycling unused footage and angles from the first movie with a framing device (that would’ve been irredeemably awful) the studio got a script they liked from William Goodhart, a Broadway playwright interested in metaphysics and theology. They offered the picture to English director John Boorman. Boorman had turned down directing The Exorcist because he thought it was cruel to children. But the sequel script intrigued him with its notion of “goodness” as its driving force. Boorman was also coming off the box-office disappointment of Zardoz (1974), and perhaps thought Exorcist II would be an easy financial success and he could fund the King Arthur picture he’d dreamed about for almost twenty years.

Goodhart’s script underwent numerous rewrites, so it isn’t easy to assess what the original screenplay was like. Based on what initially interested Boorman and what ended up on screen, I think I can hazard a guess. Father Merrin, the exorcist of the original film, also takes the part of the subtitle of this film. He is a “heretic” who developed notions about ESP and people who appear to be born healers across the world. Father Merrin’s battle with the demon who possessed Regan in The Exorcist was a fight to free one of these healing souls from the clutches of an evil force that wanted to destroy this emerging power for good. The new story features a priest who, while investigating the possible heretical ideas of Father Merrin and its connections to Regan’s exorcism, comes to realize the importance of this network of healers. He takes on the demon to free them.

You know what? I like this idea. It’s almost a superhero story, but without upending what made Exorcist popular. It does a bit of retconning, but it offers a global challenge, a counter-argument to evil, and it could make for an epic horror film. It makes sense Boorman and Warner Bros. found this approach workable.

Then everything fell apart. Although the idea of Goodhart’s ideas excited Boorman, he didn’t apparently like actual script itself and pushed for Goodhart to rewrite it. Goodhart refused, so Boorman and his creative associate (and future Excalibur screenwriter) Rospo Pallenberg did rewrites. And rewrites. And rewrites. The script kept churning as filming started, and this turned into reshoots and delays and Boorman and two of the actress falling ill and the first editor quitting mid-production and …

What ended up on movie screens in the summer of ‘77 was a mess that continues to baffle audiences. Instead of pondering the nature of Good vs. Evil, viewers are asking questions like: “What was the deal with the grasshoppers?” and “Why did that lady go mental at the end and blow up the car?” and “Was Richard Burton taking back pain medicine for the entire film?” All legitimate questions given Exorcist II’s final form.

The main failing of Exorcist II is that once the central premise gets muddied, everything around it turns unintentionally comic. The metaphysical conceit changes into abrupt cuts that clash hysterically (the movie has a distaste for establishing shots, which might have eased the blow of cutting from a wild exorcism to a tap-dance performance), overdramatically pronounced dialogue that makes no sense, sprawling nonsensical jumps across the globe (with shots of landing airplanes that Ennio Morricone’s music informs us are supposed to be terrifying), and interminable scenes of people staring at blinking lights while wearing goofy headbands. Have I mentioned constant cuts to locusts? Or James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume? Linda Blair’s nonchalant comment to a girl, “I was possessed by a demon,” as a way of making comforting small talk? You can see how all this starts to resemble the aftermath of a flu epidemic instead of a movie.

Nothing here feels like it belongs in the same universe as the original Exorcist, and none of it is scary. Weird, but not scary. Boorman later stated he failed to give audiences what they wanted—by which I assume he meant a thrilling horror movie—and he’s exactly right. The struggle for capital “A” Art is admirable, but in the case of a horror movie I would prefer the struggle to be Scary capital “S” and Atmospheric capital “A” first.

Exorcist II: The Heretic had potential, but too many factors got in the way, and not all of them are Boorman’s fault. The director became sick during filming with a respiratory infection, which might explain the “too much Nyquil” sluggishness of parts. Budget restrictions reduced the global scale to fake studio-bound sets and poor visual effects. Richard Burton, who has to carry the major dramatic weight of the film, delivers a performance that feels as if he’s purposely acting against the movie: he either plays the lines with zero affect, or he hits them with a sledgehammer—and always the wrong style at the wrong time. Every time! Burton was in a career sinkhole in 1977, and certainly shows no signs he wants to climb out of it. I’m thankful that when he closed out his career, it was on one of its high notes, as O’Brien in Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Louise Fletcher, fresh off an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fares little better with her role as the psychotherapist with the blinky-light gimmick. Fletcher tries to act earnest, but the trappings around her in the weird science-fiction clinic are ridiculous. Every scene with the blinky-light hypnotism gizmo is a flop, much more likely to put the audience into a somnambulistic slumber than any of the characters.

Each time I watch Exorcist II: The Heretic, I feel a struggle to like it. The concept of the world’s healers united against pain and Regan’s central role in it, thus explaining the reason the demon Pazuzu possessed her in the first movie, is fascinating. The ties to Father Merrin’s exorcism in Africa many years ago (which Exorcist: The Beginning reworked) creates a bridge between the original film and the sequel. Some of the visuals have a sense of poetry. But in its final assembly, the movie is ludicrous and confounding. The stunning visuals that should stay with viewers when they leave the theater turn into out-of-place oddness, leaving the impression of accidental comedy.

It hurts to write this, but Ennio Morricone’s score, as great as it sounds on the album, contributes to the problem. Morricone mixes African tribal rhythms with choruses and sinister woodwinds, and laid on top of the overwrought scenes the music begins to feel as if the whole film is telegraphing itself. One of Morricone’s finest pieces written for the score, the lovely “Interrupted Melody,” never even appears in the film. Its gentleness could have helped counterbalance the film’s flaws. The extended “A Little Afro-Flemish Mass,” a clever melding of European and African ceremonial music, is sliced up and sprinkled around so it never expands to its full glory on screen. The cues of Morricone’s score that do appear in full, like “Regan’s Theme” (an eerie lullaby with guitar and a wordless female vocal) are never tracked at the right place or time. Quentin Tarantino used “Regan’s Theme” in The Hateful Eight, where it works better.

No sequel to The Exorcist has achieved general popularity, although the crime drama Exorcist III: Legion has a robust cult following (deserved, I believe). Yet each sequel tries something different in the battle to create an ongoing franchise—and Exorcist II: The Heretic has the most creative approach of all, since it wants to explore the power of good. Unfortunately, beyond that great concept, nothing else clicked into place and the director’s metaphysical style made the story almost impossible to grasp. Patient viewers can discover the kernel of what the filmmakers wanted to achieve in the development stage, and it was an admirable goal and not another case of trying to print money by copying what the previous film did.

Exorcist II: The Heretic was recently released on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory in a Collector’s Edition. I haven’t seen the new disc, so I can’t speak to its transfer or the special features, but Shout! Factory is usually dependable.