When revisiting a film for an anniversary, it’s easy to say: “That’s not as bad as I remember!” Time has a habit of healing old wounds, and we’re often inclined to give “bad” films reconsideration as they age. Rare is the case of a film that isn’t given some kind of favorable critical reappraisal.
Exorcist II: The Heretic is that anomaly.
It’s one of the few horror films of the last 40 years whose infamy has only grown with time. There are fans out there, sure, but they’re few and far between. Even reviews which try to highlight the positives inevitably devolve into reminders of just how hated John Boorman’s sequel is among film fans.
Exorcist II ostensibly tells the story of Regan MacNeil as she undergoes therapy to cope with the trauma she experienced during the first film, but is actually about the journey of Father Phillip Lamont, a Catholic priest tasked with interviewing the participants of the original film to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Father Merrin. Lamont is grappling with questions of faith and the existence of God after engaging in a failed exorcism of a faith healer while on a mission to South America. Regan and Lamont are brought together by Dr. Gene Tuskin, a psychologist who has developed a revolutionary new form of psychoanalysis called The Synchronizer. Tuskin’s device allows her to immerse patients into their repressed memories so they can work through trauma by returning to the source of those memories.
Sounds interesting, right? Well, yes and no. To be clear, Exorcist II: The Heretic is not a good film in the conventional sense. Admittedly, it’s a mess. The acting is almost uniformly poor, with the exception being Richard Burton, who seemingly wandered in off the set of his production of Equus, still in character. The script is ludicrous and stumbles well beyond incoherence into Lovecraftian gibbering madness more often than not. And the tug-of-war pitting faith against science, but using Catholic guilt and new-age psycho-babble as surrogates, is laughably transparent in its outright contempt for the viewer. Where Exorcist II overcomes these flaws, however, is in Boorman’s translation of Lamont’s spiritual journey from script to screen. When critics and audiences attacked the film, what they missed was that Exorcist II was never meant to be viewed in the same way the original Exorcist was. In fact, Exorcist II has more in common with other late ‘70s and early ‘80s psychedelic genre films than it does its own series.
Film critic Pauline Kael once wrote — approvingly! — that Exorcist II had a “swirling, hallucinogenic, apocalyptic quality” about it. In that sense, the film aligns more closely with Ken Russell’s Altered States (another film with a mixed critical history which foregoes a coherent narrative in favor of visual insanity) than William Friedkin’s original Exorcist. Both Exorcist II and Altered States have plots which hinge heavily on Westerners traipsing off to foreign lands to learn from noble savages; in the case of Exorcist II, it’s an African shaman, while Altered States uses a Mexican one. Of course, Exorcist II is occasionally clever, so that African shaman turns out to be an entomologist (still of the mystical variety, naturally). Both leads, Father Lamont and Edward Jessup, find spiritual salves at the end of their journeys, although one is metaphysical in nature while the other is psychedelic. Lamont uses the ancient knowledge bestowed on him to lift Regan out of the darkness of Pazuzu’s influence, and Jessup attempts to reach a higher state of being by devolving into primitive man. Regardless of intent, both men discover the past is a place we must return to and learn from if we’re to move forward.
Boorman and Russell translate their movies to the screen with a manic intensity not unlike the ecstatic visions of Christian mystics. Boorman’s renderings of Lamont’s travels in Africa are the most vibrant portions of his film, using a combination of on-location shots and elaborately designed sets. Russell similarly combines the two to create some of the most iconic visuals of late 20th-century cinema. Where the two films, and directors, diverge is in how they use these visuals to treat the psychological states of their characters. Altered States is about the explicit; we see Jessup move between states of being multiple times throughout the film. Eventually, Jessup is reduced to barks and grunts as he loses any semblance of humanity. By contrast, in spite of its bluster and visual bravura, Exorcist II is a film about interiors. Boorman conceived of it as a “metaphysical drama” and this becomes clear when you realize the entirety of the movie is spent on characters communicating to each other how they feel, and speaking about their dreams. Fittingly, we never actually see Regan transform into the demon Pazuzu. It haunts her in the present by lingering in the past, a vision that can be made manifest at any time through the act of memory. Similarly, Lamont never undergoes a literal transformation. By the time Pazuzu overtakes Lamont, we don’t need to see his physical transformation because we’ve spent enough time with the character to get who he is and how he acts. Boorman still offers hints in the guise of in-camera tricks by placing Lamont at the edge of the frame, obscuring our view of him through panes of glass or reflecting his image in mirrors, but we come to know the characters to the extent that his shift in personality is enough to show his transformation.
This isn’t to say Boorman doesn’t have problems of his own. His direction is, at times, uneven. You could argue that there are two films happening at the same time, and in conflict with each other. The horror is almost non-existent and what appears on-screen feels shoehorned in to please fans of the original. This is at odds with the religious drama which wants to address grander questions like whether or not great evil brings with it great good. On-screen, this plays out in ham-fisted fashion as the film veers wildly between those two stories, resulting in extreme tonal shifts. The two sides rarely seems to meet in the center except for a handful of scenes which somehow find a way to tie the disparate threads together, with the best example being a moment early in the film when Regan and Pazuzu literally fight over Dr. Tuskin. In the scene, the specter of Pazuzu reaches into Tuskin’s chest and sinks its fingers into her heart, trying to force a heart attack, but Regan, like an angel, stands on her other shoulder and massages her chest. It’s the only scene in the movie which works in a conventional understanding of horror, because Boorman appears to be uneasy with the idea of immersing himself in pure genre trappings, and, strangely, works as a part of Boorman’s metaphysical drama by falling back on simple imagery of good battling evil for the soul of an innocent.
Boorman, and Exorcist II by extension, is most effective when he throws off any pretense of horror and embraces the bugfuck insanity of the psychedelic spiritual quest to Africa. When mixed with Ennio Morricone’s experimental soundtrack, his work owes more to the avant-garde than Hollywood blockbusters of the era. This might be why Exorcist II is such a chore for so many people. Yes, much of it is genuinely bad and lacks the scares of first Exorcist, but even the portions that are good require more of an audience than other crowd-pleaser proto-blockbusters like, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was released the same year (and went on to greater success and acclaim). That film operates like much of Spielberg’s oeuvre on easily-understood schmaltz. Exorcist II‘s spiritual journey isn’t one that offers any easy answers. By the end of the film, we still don’t have an answer as to whether evil accompanies good where it travels. Boorman may have intended to tell a positive story, but there’s enough doubt left even after Regan dispels a plague of locusts in the film’s finale that the audience can believe Pazuzu may return again. (Spoiler Alert: There’s an Exorcist III.)
When placed in the context of the Exorcist series, Exorcist II: The Heretic holds a place similar to that of Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Both films abandon their predecessors in an attempt to exist as separate entities, and both are regarded as black sheep because of that. Like Halloween III, Exorcist II isn’t nearly as bad as its legacy may lead you to believe, and in fact, holds up against other entries in its series. It’s certainly better than the Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin prequels. As to whether it’s the best in the series, that’s a matter of preference. It’s definitely the oddest, and that’s part of its charm. You’re not likely to see surreal imagery like a locust-clad James Earl Jones spitting at a priest in the original, but you also don’t have to deal with the unintentional comedy found in the dialogue of the first film (“Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker!”). For these very reasons, you could make a case that it’s the best AND worst film in the series. Its highs match those of the original but its lows are so misguided and so off-the-charts bad, it’s hard to argue that anything else in the series comes close. What isn’t up for debate is that, of the five Exorcist films, it’s the most interesting of all because it takes chances none of the other films are willing to risk.