Following the international sensation provoked by director William Friedkin's 1973 classic The Exorcist - which, to the best of my knowledge, remains the most financially successful horror film ever – there was understandably much excitement when Warner Bros announced its plans for a sequel. However, plans for a sequel hit an early stumbling block when both William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty (writer of the original novel on which The Exorcist was based, and writer/co-producer of the original film) made it clear they wished to have no part in the project. Wishing to have such a major project in a seemingly safe pair of hands Warner's entrusted the task of directing and co-writing to English filmmaker John Boorman whose most famous credit to that time had been his wildly successful survivalist thriller Deliverance (1972) starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty.
It soon became apparent too that Warner's were sparing no expense having spent an estimated $14,000,000 on the film, making it the most expensive film the studio had ever produced up to that point. However, behind closed doors Exorcist II: The Heretic was proving a troubled and turbulent production due to a mixture of rewrites to the script, tensions between the cast, illness and the alleged dissatisfaction of Boorman who is said to have threatened to walk out on the film during production and was only dissuaded from doing so by the counter threat of legal action. Most of this centred around Boorman's dislike of William Goodhart's script and this eventually led to Boorman and "creative associate" Rospo Pallenberg performing several hasty re-writes during production without Goodhart's involvement. However, despite its production troubles the sense of public and critical anticipation for Exorcist II: The Heretic was increasing tenfold, thanks primarily to the debut of its superbly edited trailer which hinted tantalisingly at a film even more frightening than its predecessor.
When Exorcist II: The Heretic was finally unveiled however, few could quite believe the bizarre, deliberately difficult, and frequently incomprehensible yet - in horror terms - relatively tame motion picture that Boorman and company had produced. After the audience (which included none other than William Peter Blatty) that attended the films premiere in New York City laughed Boorman's original preferred 118 minute cut off the screen Warner executives promptly flew into a panic and approached Boorman to re-edit the film to make the narrative "easier to follow". However, the resultant, re-cut 110 minute theatrical cut faired no better and upon its eventual theatrical release both critics and audiences alike united in panning the film. In one notorious incident the audience present at the Hollywood Boulevard premiere of Exorcist II: The Heretic voiced their disdain for the film by pelting the screen with rubbish. An unmitigated commercial and critical disaster having been slated by seemingly everyone, Exorcist II: The Heretic grossed modestyly profitable yet very disappointing $30,000,000 in the United States (The Exorcist took an initial American gross of around $165,000,000) and swiftly came to be regarded as one of the worst sequels ever made, a reputation that had stuck to the film ever since.
The plot of Exorcist II: The Heretic takes place around four years after the infamous events of The Exorcist. The now teenage Regan MacNeil still suffers from persistent nightmares and bouts of sleepwalking due to her spell under the alleged possession of a demonic entity. As a result the otherwise friendly, outgoing and well adjusted girl is undergoing treatment at the hands of Dr Gene Tuskin, a psychologist who specialises in the treatment of disturbed children.
Meanwhile Father Philip Lamont is appointed by the Catholic Church to make a low profile, "unsanctioned" investigation into the circumstances behind the death of the late Father Merrin who died mysteriously whilst allegedly attempting to exorcise the demon inhabiting the body of young Regan MacNeil on that fateful night in Georgetown just a few years before. Using Dr Tuskin's pioneering method of synchronised hypnosis Father Lamont is able to travel psychologically together with Regan into her recollections of the night Father Merrin died. The demon which Regan was possessed by is identified as Pazuzu, an evil spirit of the air originating from Africa where – funnily enough – the late Father Merrin had previously encountered it some years prior to his death whilst performing an exorcism of a stricken young boy.
Father Lamont gradually becomes convinced that the demon Pazuzu is not actually exorcised at all and is still lying dormant within Regan waiting for a time when it can once again take possession of her. Meanwhile Dr Tuskin and Regan's guardian Sharon Spencer become increasingly agitated with Father Lamont, believing that his increasing obsession with Regan is having a detrimental effect on the girl's already fragile mental health. Lamont's seniors in the church are also anxious for him to end his investigation as they believe he is becoming dangerously involved on a personal level. In defiance of the church Father Lamont pays a visit to Africa which confirms his initial suspicions and upon his return Lamont whisks Regan off and returns with her to the site of her initial possession in Georgetown in a last, desperate bid to exorcise Pazuzu from her body and mind once and for all.
Even if viewed now retrospectively in Boorman's original, preferred 118 minute cut it is painfully easy to see just why Exorcist II: The Heretic has met with such universal derision over the years. It is quite frankly a film so abysmally bad in both conception and execution that no amount of post production tinkering and re-editing could ever have redeemed it even slightly. The viewer is left to watch in horrified bemusement as Boorman, writer William Goodhart and "creative associate" Rospo Pallenberg systematically strip away any sense of everything that made the original such a runaway success. Instead they opt to pitch Exorcist II: The Heretic as an overblown, self indulgent and pretentious cinematic essay on the turbulent quest for balance between good and evil that is fought upon the higher, spiritual plane (or something). The result, no matter which version you are unfortunate enough to see it in, is a hideously convoluted and more or less completely incomprehensible headfuck of a motion picture that can barely be described as a horror film at all, let alone be took seriously as a legitimate sequel to The Exorcist. Indeed, anyone expecting anything resembling a horror film of any description is in for a shock as any inverted crucifixes or satanic imagery gets safely tucked away as Boorman and his cohorts drag their bemused and unwilling audience kicking and screaming on an insufferable and seemingly endless journey into nonsensical pretension.
To their eternal credit the cast do actually try hard with the woeful excuse for a script they were given to work with. Linda Blair is especially good and surprisingly subtle in her depiction of a teenaged Regan who has by now matured into a sweet natured yet emotionally and psychologically scarred young woman. Indeed in many respects she is often the saving grace of the film and it is actually a shame that typecasting prevented her career from really going anywhere in subsequent years. Less satisfying is Richard Burton as Father Lamont who initially seems to get his teeth into the role but as the film ebbs on descends into some unbearably hammy overacting. Indeed, by the final act Burton's "performance" has become so hilariously overwrought that he almost manages to eclipse Rod Steiger's awful ham turn in The Amityville Horror (1979) when it comes to the dubious accolade of the worst depiction of a priest by a name actor in a mainstream horror film. It will therefore come as a surprise to no one that Burton’s notorious dalliances with the demon drink – which plagued the latter days of his career – were largely responsible for this. Despite beginning the shoot in a rare state of sobriety Burton soon began hitting the sauce with his usual trademark vigour and as the production rolled on was, by all accounts, frequently drunk during shooting.
Elsewhere the supporting cast treat the script with far more respect than it deserves and Louise Fletcher (who allegedly hated the script and lobbied for rewrites), Ned Beatty and especially returnee Kitty Winn all escape from the ensuing fiasco with their dignity and professional reputations intact so kudos to them! What a shame then that their collectively belligerent efforts are rendered all for nought by the ridiculous excuse for a script that calls on them to spout line after unfathomable line of meaningless, sub religious gobbledygook. At times it feels as if not just Blair but the entire cast are demonically possessed and resultantly speaking in tongues, also sods law automatically dictates that the inebriated Burton is blessed with all of the most cringe-inducing snippets of dialogue, which is a recipe for disaster for obvious reasons.
Technically of course the film is an absolute marvel, especially on a visual level, boasting what were for the time pioneering special effects and superb make-up work courtesy of the maestro Dick Smith. Thanks to a mixture of this technical wizardry and some fine cinematography courtesy of William A. Fraker, Exorcist II: The Heretic does actually manage to throw up the occasional, genuinely startling image. This would seemingly prove enough to win Exorcist II: The Heretic at least one notable admirer in the form of famed film critic Pauline Kael who didn't much care for Friedkin's original film but was positive in her assessment of Boorman’s sequel remarking that it "had more visual magic than a dozen movies". I can only surmise that Kael viewed a silent print of the film or slept through all the dialogue passages because for me the presence of several long and seemingly meaningless special effects only heighten the films already uniform badness. As swarms of locusts flood the screen for no good reason and James Earl Jones parades foolishly in silly costumes to the accompaniment of ceaseless tribal drums and a typically fine but in this case totally misappropriated Ennio Morricone score, the sublime but bizarre imagery only serve to increase the already overwhelming sense of confusion and narrative incoherence to a level that flies straight off the scale. In fairness Boorman and company do muster up a little excitement in the shape of a fairly well done, special effects laden finale in which Regan and Father Lamont return to Georgetown for a final confrontation with Pazuzu, but by then it's frankly too little too late.
In contrast to the likes of Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino whose career and professional credibility was unceremoniously squelched by the unmitigated failure of his infamous epic flop Heaven's Gate, John Boorman was amazingly able to salvage his career and would go on to direct the engaging and brutal Arthurian fantasy Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985) and the critically acclaimed The General (1998). Perhaps even more amazing, however is that Exorcist II: The Heretic itself has also gained a retrospective cult following with its small fan base citing the aesthetic merits of its effects, cinematography and Morricone score as justification for a more positive widespread reappraisal for Boorman's pretentious dog of a sequel. I cannot even begin to imagine the kind of banned substances they must be acting under the influence of to arrive at such an opinion. To cut straight to the point Exorcist II: The Heretic is a rambling, turgid, wholly misconceived, completely incomprehensible and depressing mess which is not even redeemed from oblivion by the fact that it is at least proficiently made and performed. It is a film that thoroughly warrants every criticism ever levelled at it and one that should be at the forefront of any serious discussion about the worst sequels in cinematic history. It's only conceivable appeal must lie with die hard bad movie aficionado's and those who derive a perverse, almost sado-masochistic enjoyment from attempting to decipher the hidden meaning behind completely unfathomable and god awful films which don't actually have any real meaning at all.
Recommended? You must be fucking joking?
Exorcist II: The Heretic is available on both UK region two or US region one DVD courtesy of Warner Bros and can be purchased either a stand alone release or alternatively as part of numerous box sets containing both this and the other films in the Exorcist series. It should however be noted that every available DVD version to date, to the best of my knowledge, contains director John Boorman's original 118 minute cut of the film, as opposed to the re-edited, shorter 110 minute version released theatrically and on video. Gluttons for punishment who wish to own both cuts might therefore wish to seek out an older VHS copy in addition to the Warner DVD.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Warner Home Video - UK R2 DVD): amazon.co.uk