Exorcist II: The Heretic

Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: William Goodhart
Stars: Linda Blair (Regan), Richard Burton (Father Lamont), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Jean Tuskin), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), James Earl Jones (Kokumo), Ned Beatty (Edwards)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1977
Country: USA
Because "The Exorcist" made $165 million at the box office and became a world-wide phenomenon in 1973, it was only a matter of time before the executives at Warner Brothers got together a crew to churn out a sequel. As one would expect, the sequel to one of the most influential horror films of all time could not possibly compete with its predecessor.

Instead, director John Boorman ("Deliverance") decided to take the sequel, "Exorcist II: The Heretic," as far in the opposite direction of William Friedkin's original as he could, substituting surrealism for realism, taking out religion and replacing it with psychobabble and mysticism, and diving headlong into the mysteries the original film had chosen to leave unexplained. Although Boorman should be commended for attempting originality in an arena that is usually marked by simple regurgitation of old ideas, in his zeal to impress, he created one of the most bloated, preposterous, and unintentionally silly films of the 1970s.

Richard Burton stars as Father Lamont, a Vatican official who is ordered by the Cardinal to investigate the death of Father Merrin, the priest played by Max von Sydow who died during the exorcism of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) four years earlier. Apparently, there is some controversy over Father Merrin, and he has been accused of being a Satanist, and the Vatican wants to clear his name (I assume the film's subtitle, "The Heretic," is referring to Father Merrin, but the script never makes this clear; it is possible that it is referring to Burton's character, who defies the Cardinal's orders later in the film in order to solve the mystery).

Regan is now 16 years old, and although her body has certainly matured, her pudgy round face is still as childish as ever. She is under the care of Dr. Jean Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), a skeptical psychiatrist who doesn't believe that Regan can't remember anything of the traumatic events that took place in Georgetown four years earlier. As she with Father Lamont begin to explore Regan's mind, they realize that something is definitely wrong. Dr. Tuskin, always the rationalist, wants to explain it in scientific terms, but Father Lamont is convinced that the demon is still hiding inside Regan.

From there, the film dives with reckless abandon into a confused, unsustainable narrative that takes Father Lamont to the heart of Africa where he finds Kokumo (James Earl Jones), a man who was possessed by Pazuzu, the demon that also possessed Regan. Kokumo was referred to briefly in the original film--Father Merrin (von Sydow) was said to have performed an exorcism in Africa many years earlier. Von Sydow appears in a few brief flashbacks that show this exorcism, and somehow that event turned Kokumo into a man of supernatural powers who can fight Pazuzu. But, like much of the film, this is never really explained; instead, it is visualized as a swarm of locusts that are first seen in the African flashbacks, but continue throughout the film until they explode through Regan's old house in Georgetown in the confusing, apocalyptic finale.

"Exorcist II: The Heretic" was lambasted by both critics and audiences when it first played it 1977 (people actually threw things at the screen). It only took one screening for Boorman to yank the reels and recut the film, chopping seven minutes and altering the ending. But, it was all to no avail because no amount of tinkering in the editing room could repair "The Heretic." It fails in conception long before it fails in execution. The entirety of the film is overwrought; it suffers from lack of explication and a script that defies the laws of logic and intelligence.

The original "Exorcist" drew its power and impact from the rooting of an extraordinary, evil supernatural event in the recognizable, everyday world. That everyday world is nonexistence in "The Heretic." Even something as commonplace as Dr. Tuskin's office is turned into a architectural wonder of octagonal-shaped rooms, electric sliding doors, and glass walls, which seems like the worst choice imaginable for a place where people are supposed to confide their deepest feelings, fears, and impulses. Instead of living in a normal house, Regan now lives atop a bizarre glass skyscraper, the rooms filled with minimalist modern furniture and deck featuring the oddest birdhouse you will ever see, filled not with pigeons, but lovely white doves.

Part of the realism of the original film was its depiction of believable medical procedures. In juxtaposing science and religion, director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty wisely kept the temporal and the spiritual aspects of Regan's dilemma separate. In "The Heretic," screenwriter William Goodhart mixes and matches them at his disposal--at one point Father Lamont says, "You've proved scientifically that there's an ancient demon locked within her."

This combination of the scientific and the religious is most notable in the ridiculous scenes where Dr. Tuskin uses the synchronizer, an utterly unconvincing psychiatric machine that uses wires and strobe lights to connect the minds of two people--"synchronized hypnosis" or "sinking with another mind," as it's called in the film. Boorman drops this elaborate piece of implausible psychotechnology into the middle of the narrative as if it were no more outrageous than a couch. In fact, the synchronizer is an unbelievable plot contrivance that detracts substantially from the story and gives the viewers pause before investing themselves too deep in the narrative; with something that bizarre taking place in a psychiatrist's office, what's so earth-shattering about demon possession?

Along these same lines, "The Heretic" also seems to normalize possession and exorcism, which was treated as a rare and almost extinct occurrence in the original film. Thus, it was mysterious and perplexing, a remnant from ancient times needed from time to time by the progressive, modern society--a reminder that all the technology in the world can never truly overcome the spiritual dimension of life. "The Heretic," on the other hand, treats exorcism like it happens all the time: the film opens with an exorcism in Mexico, and at one point, the Cardinal refers to the events of the original film as "that American exorcism," suggesting that these sacred rites are regular events that must be labeled by nationality to keep them separated.

"The Heretic" does have great moments of visual audacity, some of which are so impressive they almost make the film worth sitting through. It's hard to forget some of the epic dream sequences, especially the one that depicts an African village and field being attacked by a swarm of locusts from the sky, all bathed in the red-golden light of the setting sun. Ennio Morricone's strange and lyrical score--a combination of tribal sounds, liturgical music, and electronic beats--gives these sequences an absorbing, otherworldly quality.

But then, the actors have to go and speak dialogue, and "The Heretic" reduces its audience to laughter. Pauline Kael once wrote that this film might be considered a classic if we didn't know English. The dialogue, in both its conception and its delivery, is uniformly atrocious. The film features three supremely bad performance from Richard Burton, who is so rigid that he has no hope of convincing the audience of his sincerity; Louise Fletcher, who was coming off an Oscar win for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975); and Linda Blair, who proved that she couldn't carry her childish charm into more adult roles. These three overtaxed actors spend the majority of the film stumbling mightily over inane dialogue, and there are so many moments of high camp, it's hard to pin down any one as the supreme moment of silliness.

There's the scene where Father Lamont is describing to Dr. Tuskin what it was like when, in a trance, he saw the demon-possessed Regan killing Father Merrin. Burton intones with grave seriousness, "It was horrible, utterly horrible." Dr. Tuskin walks out of the frame, and Burton inexplicably turns as if addressing the audience, and delivers the unintentionally hilarious addition, "And fascinating." But the real punchline is the three seconds where Burton continues staring at the audience, and when Dr. Tuskin walks back into the frame and says something, Burton pulls his eyes away, almost as if he's embarrassed at having made an aside.

Of course, there's also the scene where Regan is speaking to a small girl who confides in her that she is autistic. When the girl asks what's wrong with Regan, she replies, "I was possessed by a demon." When the girl looks horrified, Regan soothes her by saying, "Oh, it's okay. He's gone." I don't know if any actor, no matter how talented, could have pulled that scene off, but Blair comes nowhere close.

Despite all these flaws, "The Heretic" is not completely without merit, and it is certainly more watchable than many stoic films that have been positively reviewed. It has a kind of aggressive energy, as if it's constantly trying to convince you that it has merit. Of course, this energy usually translates into unintentional laughs, but it keeps the movie flowing. All the time you're watching it, you feel that you're in the presence of something important: a monumental flop.

As mentioned earlier, Boorman's film does have a keen sense of visual impact, and the sheer fact that it attempted to be original is worth noting. Boorman is a fascinating director, one who can deliver masterpieces of fluid storytelling like "Deliverance" (1972) and "Hope and Glory" (1987) just as surely as he can turn out overambitious turkeys like "Zardoz" (1974) and "The Heretic," movies that seem ludicrous on paper and even worse on celluloid. For this reason along, "Exorcist II: The Heretic" is worth a look, just to satisfy the curiosity of those who have heard about it, but never experienced it for themselves. Fascinating to a fault, "The Heretic" is one flop that will never die.

©1999 James Kendrick

Review posted
January 6, 1999

Overall Rating: (1.5)

James Kendrick

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