Update mid-2018: The Exorcist II remains truly singular: spellbindingly hedonistic, unabashedly oneiric, and deliciously overwrought, an unapologetic product of John Boorman’s supremely monomaniacal ego as well as an apotheosis of his lunacy. Too many films, good and bad alike, evoke the polished, prefabricated air of professionalization, the hand of a skilled but acquiescent artisan. Boorman’s picture has, instead, the unholy eye of a demonic cinematic fanatic, a director for whom every idea and shot quivers with thematic weight and cinematic possibility. The film does not always, or mostly, fulfill this possibility, so watch at your own risk, but, for good or ill, I still consider it essential cinema.
Ah, but John Boorman was not done with the world after Zardoz. Failure, after all, was nothing to kill a human of such vision as he. And with his sequel to The Exorcist, one of the most well-received horror films ever made and an instant popular hit upon its release in 1973, vision is what he had. It is all he had, of course, but he had it in spades. Concept is not the failing of The Heretic, not by any means. In fact, Boorman was somewhat onto something. He had a vast interest in critiquing and expanding the first film in confrontational new ways. It is exactly this desire that drove him to the script of William Goodhart, hired to create a small, tight recreation of the first film and perhaps a work to quietly make a quick buck on the side. And it is exactly this desire which drove him to essentially re-write the script until it fit only his vision of what The Exorcist ought to be. He had a point, at that, as the first Exorcist has always had a slight puritanical must about it, as though it was designed more to shock than to induce proper dread or a lingering crawl of dysfunction and fear. What Boorman attempted to do with Goodhart’s script was to accentuate its more exploratory qualities, and to flip the first film on its head, invest its energies in the larger, broader mythology of the characters while also growing still deeper and tighter with character introspection and psychological depth.
He failed, although that doesn’t mean the film is worthless. In many ways, it is a decidedly fascinating and challenging beast, but it must be said that it does not succeed in any way at telling a narrative. All the meta-text surrounding The Heretic, all the absolutely ambitious and challenging things it tries to accomplish, and all the huge resources it utilizes to attempt to accomplish these things, cannot hide some of its fundamental failures as cinema. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Boorman was a man who gave new meaning to hit-and-miss, and it is impossible to write off his failures as “side projects”, the results of simple disinterest while he was working on a project that fancied him more. Boorman was passionate about virtually every one of the films, and Boorman’s passion didn’t have much to do with Boorman’s ability to pursue that passion in a way that made any sense to anyone but Boorman himself.
What he essentially did with The Heretic was turn a relatively small-scale retread of The Exorcist into a haphazard anti-masterpiece of misfiring on all cylinders, fixating on some of the specific idiosyncrasies of the film and rushing through some of the more functional material he had little interest in. The disagreement between the original scriptwriter’s vision and the director’s is palpable to the point of pummeling. In his desire to take over the project without paying much mind to the specifics of the script, he has been recorded saying that he was essentially using the success of the first film and the name brand to tell his own completely unrelated story of much greater thematic ambition and weight, such ambition and weight that the film is always on the verge of collapsing in on itself. Having before written that Boorman should have broken the New Wave with his indulgent disregard for budget, I now realize that Exorcist II is the culmination of this trend; had it not been a horror film, and thus a work easy to write off as failed genre cinema rather than an honest-to-god New Wave auteur piece, it probably would have raised some heads in the production companies the next time a director went about asking for too much money and proved dead set on using that money without discretion or over-sight. Everything Boorman tried to do – film across the world in lengthy, complicated sets and real-world locations, invest in and dissect good and evil, and understand the entirety of the human condition in the span of two hours – fits wholly within the aesthetic of the mad incompetent genius New Waver auteur whose conceptual ambitions were under-matched by their ability to execute on that ambition.
In all fairness, it isn’t entirely his fault. He, along with many cast members, contracted serious diseases, his editor quit mid-production, and some of his more ambitious ideas (one involving thousands of locusts for instance) were logistically un-sound and beset by difficulties a mile wide. But then again, part of being director is being able to control the madness of making a film, to help everyone along and induce communalism and teamwork, to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met, and that one’s ideas are logistically sound and valid. It is the great failure of many auteurs that none of these things matter in the slightest when pressed up against their single-minded egos, and Boorman is a quintessential auteur of the ’70s.
So then, what is Exorcist II: The Heretic? It is the story of Regan Macneil (Linda Blair), still suffering from trauma after the whole being-possessed fiasco of the first film, and Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), who is treating her in one of the most bizarrely constructed buildings ever captured on film (some sort of children’s research center, I suppose). The good doctor invents a machine that allows minds to meld so that she can investigate the inner regions of Regan all the more thoroughly. Of course, if science is on the brain and it is the 1970s, the intersection of science and religion must be on the brain as well. Which is where Father Phillip Lamont (Richard Burton) enters the picture. He approaches Regan on orders to investigate the death of Father Merrin, who saved her during the first film at the cost of his own life. Locations, characters, themes, science, religion, modernity, fate determinism, free will, faith, probably religion a second time, and everything else that makes up the human contraption collides. All of this is, if anything, not the simple B-budgeted throw-away sequel it should have been.
Rather, it is a personal piece of surprising purity, and its successes and failures are very much part and parcel with the phrase “auteur piece”. There’s nothing as wonderfully, personally incompetent as, say, the lunatic-fringe hall-of-mirrors and massacre sequences that climaxed Zardoz, but the personal touch abounds. Admittedly, it isn’t all Boorman. The Ennio Morricone score certainly helps to galvanize the film in unspeakable weirdness, sounding truly unearthly in a way that gives the word new meaning, drifting between classical strings that cut like bloody knives and warble-screams that approximate music in the most intoxicatingly perverse possible way. When these shrieks bleed between the score and the diegetic action of the film, anyone seeking true psychotic genius in bad-film-land may touch a little bit of heaven.
But too much of what interests this film is too tied into Boorman’s visual vision to ever come down to anyone but him. Right from the beginning, Boorman contrasts an obscure demon-worshiping cult mid-ritual with the labyrinthine, grotesque halls of the American research facility that looks like someone’s vision of futurist-’70s sci-fi scribbled down on paper, intended for use in another film, and then placed in this film because nothing else was available to use it. Only, Boorman doesn’t contrast these locations; he compares them, finding in each its own form of visual confusion and pseudo-expressionist dread, essentially saying within the first few minutes of the film – in a deliberately hyperbolic manner mind you – that the civilized world and its medicinal nature is no more sane or worldly than the superstitious demon-worshipping coven we horror-movie lovers and Western world dwellers love to ostracize.
From there, the set design and the editing only grow all the more nonsensical and enraptured with their own thematic complication, slowly but surely growing more confused and confusing as time goes on. There is so much inescapably wonderful going on with visual technique that it almost strangles the film, taking the narrative over and running away with the “why”. The disconcerting and the silly become one-in-the-same, especially in a very long-in-the-tooth climax. The unthinkably brilliant and the atrociously, magnificently over-indulgent exist in tandem, with all manner of difficult-to-swallow symbolism transfixing the eye even as it sacrifices any semblance of subtlety, narrative momentum, or ability to fulfill the potential of the stated themes. The line between “intentionally playing with film form to disconcert and break-down common sense” and “not really knowing what the hell is going on behind-the-camera” is at its finest and most invisible in The Heretic; it becomes almost impossible to accurately judge whether Boorman’s work is too subtle to not register, too painstakingly obvious to actually advance anything at all, or some sort of precarious carnival-esque monstrosity of accidental or intentional genius that works on a plane no mere mortal can understand. That is the trouble with horror movies; breaking the normative laws of how a film functions can be the greatest tool the genre has, but it can also be someone fooling around in the dark without rhyme or reason. Figuring out which is which can be a herculean task. Horror, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
Which of course fails to explore how this sort of fooling around may be a purpose in itself. Above all, Exorcist II: The Heretic has the air of a work that was made primarily to please John Boorman, something with a purpose in airing out his fascinations with the world and descending into the depths of experimental contrasts. By virtue of this fact, it also appears to have been made without consideration that anyone else would ever watch the finished product (something Boorman has alluded to in discussing the film, in a famous quote about Christians and lions I won’t repeat here, but you should really look it up if you have any interest in egotistical film directors being their indifferently lovable egotistical selfs). When the script drops plot threads left and right, moves forward on arcane whims it invents on the spot, ventures to one of the most ludicrous, orientalist on-screen Africas ever found in a modern film and spends an inordinate amount of time there just being weird for the sake of it, and asks its actors to read patently non-human dialogue like the robots that children develop in their minds, something is up with The Heretic. Whether that something is intentionally good, intentionally bad, accidentally good, or accidentally bad I cannot say, but it is indescribable all the same. And all of this without even discussing the film’s incredibly and pointlessly packed backgrounds that occasionally verge into outright surrealism.
So, in the final analysis, what matters less is the ability of The Heretic to successfully sell the “sequel to The Exorcist” blood in its veins, for it doesn’t in all honesty have much of The Exorcist’s blood in its veins at all. Except, of course, in that it absolutely does not want to be a sequel to The Exorcist in any way (except as a pretense for Boorman’s own thematic noodlings), which is at any rate a fascinating if less than ideal basis for a film sequel. What matters is how this life-blood manifests in a film all its own, and whether the film’s patented distaste for The Exorcist leads to something that is superior to that film. The answer: not really if we are being honest, but certainly not for lack of trying! That is John Boorman for you: trying in all the hardest ways, generally making it difficult for himself, shooting himself in the foot, and still producing something that is endlessly fascinating in the process. It is something that inevitably succeeds at nothing, except “being fascinating while it is busy not succeeding at anything else”. It is, undeniably however, a work of total and complete disorienting passion for thoroughly misguided reasons that probably does not work in the slightest, but is magnetic nonetheless.
So how good is it really?: 2.5/5 (hard to tell; it is an almost impossible to follow work of basic filmmaking, but some of the individual sections and artistic decisions are monumentally inspired)
But how “good” is it?: 3/5 (again, many of the individual bits are deliriously silly as cinema goes, but the whole project is too serious with a capital S that it sort of kills the fun over the long haul)