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Remembering the Fascinating Misfire of Exorcist II: The Heretic
Looking back at one of the weirdest sequels ever made.
Making a sequel to The Exorcist was a no-brainer. It set box office records ranging from individual theater grosses to landing the highest total for an R-rated horror film ever up to that point, and won the studio two Oscars in 1974, becoming a bona fide classic along the way. Of course the studio wanted more, because there was gold to be mined there, even if original director William Friedkin and original writer William Peter Blatty weren't along for the ride this time around.
With all of this in mind, it would be easy to write off 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic as a cynical sequel, a follow-up that never needed to happen which recycles ideas and images from the original in order to keep the franchise going for another round. But while there's certainly a portion of that kind of behavior going on in The Heretic, the film turned out to be a good deal more experimental than anyone was expecting, which was part of the problem when it hit theaters and was panned by critics and generated a fraction of its predecessor's box office.
Looking back at it today, I'm sorry to say that Exorcist II has not managed to get much better with age, despite my love of reappraising misunderstood or overly ambitious horror films decades after their release. It's a plodding, wildly inconsistent film that mixes memorable imagery with a plot that never really comes together, and wastes a wide array of talent on a story that never takes a breath long enough to let us really get to know any of them.
That said, if you're an Exorcist completist, and you want to see all the directions the franchise has gone ahead of The Exorcist: Believer's eagerly anticipated release next month, you'll still want to check out The Heretic. It's not good, but it is bad in an absolutely fascinating way.
Following Up on a Classic
Set four years after the original film, The Heretic sets out to once again tell a two-pronged story. On one side you've got a now-teenaged Regan MacNeil, who's grown into a vivacious young woman living in New York City with her mother's friend (Ellen Burstyn also declined to return) and attending regular therapy sessions with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Despite the therapy, Regan claims she has no memory of what really happened to her in Georgetown four years earlier, other than "nightmares" and the vaguest possible version of events that basically paint her possession as a long, difficult illness. In other ways, she has no memory of a demon being in her body...unless she's repressed it, something Dr. Tuskin is determined to uncover.
On the other side of the two-hander, there's Father Lamont (Richard Burton), a priest struggling after an exorcism gone wrong, who's been tasked by the church with investigating what happened to Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow, who appears in flashbacks) in Georgetown. Was he killed by demonic forces or did he just have an unfortunately timed heart attack? Lamont is assigned the case, and therefore must get close to Regan in an effort to find out what really went on in that room that made her the only survivor of the exorcism ritual.
Already, we've got the ingredients for something that could be really cool, as Dr. Tuskin's science takes on Regan's experiences and memories at the same time that Father Lamont's religion digs in, giving us a certain sense of duality that might make Regan better, or might send her back into a world of terror and pain. Director John Boorman (best known for films like Deliverance and Excalibur) digs into this at first, creating wonderful visual contrasts between Tuskin and Lamont's respective worlds, and even leaning into the idea that perhaps Regan doesn't need to be toyed with again, because she seems to be living a pretty nice life in New York. There's a lot of potential, and it's a potential that's amplified by the presence of heavy hitters like Fletcher, Burton, and supporting players like James Earl Jones and Ned Beatty. They even got Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to do the music! This is a recipe for success, right?
A Bonkers Horror Turn
Sadly, all this talent can't turn Exorcist II into something that works. Original writer William Goodhart saw the film as more cerebral, focused on the blending of spirituality and science and the consequences a real-life demonic possession might have for someone psychologically, while Boorman wanted things a little more image-and-action-driven, and the studio of course wanted to shoehorn another exorcism scene into the film, which helps explain why it climaxes at the MacNeils' Georgetown house after spending most of its time in New York and elsewhere.
The combination of sensibilities clashing over the film means that one minute you're watching Regan undergo hypnosis with an experimental device that's supposed to sync up brainwaves, and the next you're watching LaMont go to Africa to...talk about locusts, basically. There are flashes of something really interesting in there, and when Boorman is able to take things into pure dark fantasy madness he's having fun, but it's all a mess in the end, a film that's trying too hard to be the follow-up to one of the most successful horror films ever made, and not hard enough to be something distinctive on its own.
All that said, Exorcist II is still worth watching because it is fascinating, even outright bonkers, in the conclusions it draws trying to get back to the lightning in a bottle of the first film. So, if you're heading back through the franchise, consider it an interesting detour.
The Exorcist franchise continues with The Exorcist: Believer, in theaters Oct. 6. Get tickets at Fandango.