Film Archive: Exorcist II: The Heretic is a fascinating, strangely addictive, failure

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Sometimes the films that don’t work – the failures, the hit-and-misses, the ones that never quite manage to achieve what they set out to do – are the most interesting. This is how I feel about a much maligned film Exorcist II: The Heretic.

As you can hopefully guess from the title, it is a sequel to the 1973 blockbuster horror hit The Exorcist. That film was directed by William Friedkin, and it is one of the best motion pictures ever made. The sequel is directed by John Boorman, who had directed Deliverance five years previously. If this second instalment in what was to become a franchise of Exorcist films had been made today, I wouldn’t have been surprised if had used the same format of the first film: child is happy, child gets troubled, child is possessed, exorcists are brought in, let the power of Christ compel you, etc. But Boorman’s movie, which uses a screenplay by William Goodhart, doesn’t attempt to keep a format going. The film does something different.

The narrative is wide-ranging and complex. The storyline given the most focus is the continuation of Regan’s (Linda Blair) possession. In The Exorcist, she was the little girl possessed by dark forces. Now, as a teenager, she willingly undergoes hypnosis using a machine which links two minds together. This process reveals that she was not fully exorcised, and part of the demon still lurks within her. Another level of the plot revolves around Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who is told to investigate the death of the priest who died during Regan’s exorcism. This gives way to conversations with her, and a trip to Africa to investigate another case of possession.

There is some awful rubbish in this film. The script is, at times, nothing short of dire. Conversations feel false, as if Blair and Burton are more than a little embarrassed about the words they are being paid to say. Some of the horror doesn’t work either (especially the bits where we are asked to find chanting and singing in Africa terrifying – it isn’t really). But having said this, the film does have a menacing power that is different, but still evocative of, Friedkin’s original film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel.

Although generally hated by critics, the film does have some quite prominent defenders. Martin Scorsese found interest in the questions it posses: ‘The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it’s God testing the good.’ (Film Comment, May/June 1998). He also said he felt the film surpassed the original. Respected film critic Pauline Kael also defended the film. She praised it for having ‘a swirling, hallucinogenic, apocalyptic quality’ and said it contained ‘enough visual magic in it for a dozen good movies’ (New Yorker Magazine). Kael does however highlight – and it’s a point I have to agree with her on – the film’s lack of judgement.

In my opinion, Exorcist II’s downfall was caused by a production team who were too precious with their material. There are sequences that could have been removed altogether at script stage. The plot needed to be tighter, and the final few scenes tip too far into trashy-movie hysteria. But even though I am well aware of its flaws, I continue to revisit Exorcist II: The Heretic. It is a strange film to experience, and an even stranger one when you try to piece it together in your mind after viewing. I wouldn’t argue, as Scorsese does, that it has the intelligence to surpass the original (only a handful of films manage to do that), but I find the affect it has on me strangely addictive. It’s very hard to describe. Try watching it.

A note on the disc: Warner Brothers’ DVD of the film is a decent transfer. Colours look a little too light and greyish in some scenes, but generally speaking the definition is clear. The picture looks very good when upscaled to near-HD on a blu-ray disc player.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), directed by John Boorman, is distributed on DVD in the UK by Warner Bros, Certificate 18. 

 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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