Director – John Boorman, Screenplay – William Goodhart, Producers – John Boorman & Richard Lederer, Photography – William A. Fraker, Music – Ennio Morricone, Photographic Effects – Van Der Veer Photographic Effects & Albert Whitlock, Special Effects – Jim Blount, Wayne Edgar, Chuck Gaspar & Roy Kelly, Makeup – Dick Smith, Production Design – Richard MacDonald. Production Company – Warner Brothers
Richard Burton (Father Phillip Lamont), Linda Blair (Reagan MacNeil), Louise Fletcher (Dr Gene Tuskin), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), James Earl Jones (Dr Kokumo)
Father Philip Lamont is assigned by the Catholic Church to investigate the circumstances of Father Merrin’s death. Lamont finds Regan MacNeil living in New York City but having repressed all memory of her possession. Using the synchronizer, a psychoanalytical device that allows a person to enter another’s dream state, Lamont discovers that Reagan’s body and mind are a battleground between good and evil demonic forces. The good demon guides Lamont to Africa to meet a witch doctor that can help combat Regan’s evil side.
Exorcist II: The Heretic is by some consensus one of, if not the, worst sequel ever made. It was a colossal disaster upon release and was widely pilloried by both critics and audiences alike. It was reportedly booed at its premiere and the studio (Warner Brothers) even spent a then-sizeable million dollars after the film first went out into general American release re-editing it in a vain attempt to try and salvage the film. When the Medved Brothers published The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), Exorcist II: The Heretic ran a second place only to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) in the write-in poll as the Worst Film of All Time.
Exorcist II is certainly an entirely different film from The Exorcist (1973). Firstly, director John Boorman had renounced the barf-bag shock theatrics that were the single selling point of the original. The film is thoroughly subdued in the horror department – there are no vomitings, no crucifix masturbations, no head-turnings, no children being foul-mouthed. By and large, out also goes most of the tenets of Jesuit canon that the first film was solidly founded on – The Exorcist was steeped in Catholic cant but here John Boorman takes a murkily mystical flight of claptrap – so much so that it is a hard stretch to say that Exorcist II is a film even founded in Christianity any longer. In fact, though the film features another Jesuit priest as hero, there is very little about Catholic faith in Exorcist II: The Heretic. Thus, while the first film was about a priest rediscovering Catholic faith, Exorcist II: The Heretic bizarrely seems to be about a Catholic priest abandoning his faith and discovering a wacky mix of voodoo religion and fringe science. The Exorcist drew a critical dichotomy between faith and science; Exorcist II: The Heretic tends to reverse things and aim for a muddled melding between the two. Here the film readily jumps aboard a heap of 1970s Age of Aquarius nonsense – including references to the hoax Uri Geller spoon bending fad and with Richard Burton quoting from the Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin.
There is a phenomenal silliness to a greater part of Exorcist II – not the least of which is the script compounding the plot with almost-comical science-fictional devices that allow people to not only enter others’ dreams but also experience events the dreaming party was not even incident to. There are some amazingly silly scenes where Louise Fletcher nearly has a heart-attack in The Synchronizer and we see two hands fighting over her breast and cuts away to her beating heart, not to mention a series of completely unconvincing flashbacks to the original exorcism. There are priceless pieces of bad dialogue like when a kid asks Linda Blair: “What’s wrong with you?” “I was possessed by a demon. But I’m alright now.” Ennio Morricone’s attempts at an ethnic score also become amazingly foolish. And the question of who or what the ‘heretic’ mentioned in the subtitle is is never raised. The film arrives at a totally loopy climax that involves a race to the original house in Washington, Richard Burton becoming possessed, two Regans – one good and one evil, Kitty Winn becoming possessed and for some reason setting herself on fire, a locust swarm that starts to tear the house apart as Richard Burton struggles to tear evil Regan’s heart out, before the good Regan banishes the swarm by doing a dance.
Richard Burton overacts with a call that goes far beyond the bounds of duty into what one might call masochism or hysteria – one scene trying to beat out a fire with a crutch has a silliness that defies all belief. At the point he made Exorcist II: The Heretic, Burton was suffering from poor health and a bad drinking problem – the decade preceding was fairly much a career slough for Burton with either ludicrous performances or ill-chosen roles in films like Boom! (1968), Candy (1968), The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), Bluebeard (1972) and The Medusa Touch (1978). Linda Blair is now eighteen years old and has filled out considerably, although is never as memorable as she was in the original.
Nevertheless, Exorcist II: The Heretic is a John Boorman film. John Boorman is a director who can create magnificent flights of fantasy and dramatic intensity – like Deliverance (1972) and Excalibur (1981) – and then without predictability just as often allow his work to be taken over by godawful pretensions – like Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II. (In an interesting trivia note, Boorman was originally asked to direct The Exorcist but turned it down because he considered it to be too nasty to children). As a result, Exorcist II: The Heretichas something to it at times that almost manages to stagger up out of its own silliness. One is not prepared to go to the extent that Peter Nicholls did in his genre study Fantastic Cinema (1983) in making the provocative claim that Exorcist II is superior to The Exorcist but there are occasional moments to the film. The dream scenes where the demon takes Richard Burton hovering on the wings on a locust storm across beautifully photographed African landscapes and finally to an adobe city precariously built on a mountainside has an extraordinarily weird mystical beauty to it. And some of John Boorman’s almost Zoroastrian visions of the demonic struggle are seductively appealing. It is not nearly enough to justify the film but by no means is Exorcist II: The Heretic entirely the failure it is dismissed as.
There were two subsequent sequels, original writer William Peter Blatty’s unexpectedly good The Exorcist III (1990), and Renny Harlin’s prequel Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), which was regarded by the public as an even worse film than this. There is also Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), the original version of Exorcist: The Beginning that was filmed by Paul Schrader but was dumped and reshot by the studio. The Exorcist (2016-8) is a tv series loosely based on the original featuring Geena Davis as a now adult Regan whose own daughter becomes possessed.
John Boorman’s other genre films are:– the Backwoods Brutality film Deliverance (1972); the pretentious future Utopian sf film Zardoz (1974); Excalibur (1981); the Amazonian rainforest drama The Emerald Forest (1985), which has Magical Realist elements; and the doppelganger film The Tiger’s Tail (2006). Boorman also produced the children’ film Dream One (1984). During the 1970s, John Boorman also attempted to mount a live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. In the early 2000s, Boorman announced plans for an animated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although this has so far yet to be greenlit.