"Exorcist II is demonstrably the worst film ever made. It took the greatest film ever made and trashed it in a way that was on one level farcically stupid and on another level absolutely unforgivable. Everyone involved in this, apart from Linda Blair, should be ashamed for all eternity." (Mark Kermode)
The reputation of Exorcist II: The Heretic greatly precedes the film itself. In lists of the worst movies ever made, it makes frequent appearances, frequently cited as a sacrilegious attack of a sequel to one of the most iconic horror films of the 20th century. William Peter Blatty, the author of the book The Exorcist, claimed to have been the first person in his theater to start laughing when he saw it. The director of the first film, William Friedkin, claimed it was "as bad as seeing a traffic accident in the street. It was horrible. It's just a stupid mess made by a dumb guy." Even the man who made it, Oscar-nominated director John Boorman, admitted he'd probably made a mistake in creating a film that has no real interest in pandering to audience expectations.
The film has some notable fans. Pauline Kael appreciated its visual flair, and none other than Martin Scorsese said it surpassed the original in terms of its take on Catholic guilt. Still, the film is generally considered a misguided failure at best and a desecration of a genre classic at worst. Even people who have never seen the film are quick to dismiss it. So, is Exorcist II: The Heretic really the worst sequel ever made?
To put it bluntly, no. The film is way too weird to be irredeemably bad. John Boorman may not have especially liked the first Exorcist film — he even turned down the opportunity to direct it because he found the story “rather repulsive” — but he fully understands the metaphysical oddities of faith. He also understood the impossible task that came with directing a sequel to a film that had had such an earth-shattering effect on pop culture and society alike. The first Exorcist movie was the second-highest-grossing film of 1973 and remains one of the most profitable movies ever made. Its controversial content inspired walk-outs, protests and the occasional report of vomiting in the theater. In the UK, the home video release was pulled and the movie became unavailable to buy for over a decade. Everyone knows the iconography of Linda Blair’s spinning head, the pea green sick and that oft-imitated silhouette of Father Merrin arriving in Georgetown. Nowadays, we expect every horror movie to become a never-ending sequel machine, but to do it with The Exorcist seemed rash, even foolish, especially since the film hadn’t even been out for five years when The Heretic premiered.
The film’s producers wanted a cheap cash-in of a sequel. John Boorman was never going to be so dull. After all, this is the man who made Deliverance and Zardoz. The director behind Sean Connery in a red bondage diaper and the number-one reason people are scared of rafting and banjos was never going to churn out a cheap and cheerful movie that copied what had worked before. He wasn’t going to make it easy either. As detailed in Barbara Pallenberg's book The Making of Exorcist II: The Heretic, the script went through massive changes during filming, production went around $1.5 million over budget, thousands of locusts died, and Boorman himself almost died after contracting San Joaquin Valley Fever.
In The Heretic, Regan is now living in New York with her guardian Sharon (Kitty Winn), where she goes to school and attends therapy sessions with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher, in a role originally written for a man). Her psychiatrist wants to use a special machine, called a synchronizer, to put Regan into a deep state of hypnosis that will allow them to confront her repressed trauma over the exorcism, which Dr. Tuskin sees as more mental health based than anything truly spiritual. They are brought together with Father Lamont (Richard Burton), a former student of Father Merrin from the first film, who is investigating the Regan incident and soon discovers the plight of Pazuzu, the demon who possessed her and his further devious plans.
The Heretic doesn’t necessarily want to be a sequel to The Exorcist but it is interested in continuing its themes of faith, guilt and the roots of evil. Boorman saw the film less as a follow-up and more a response to the original’s issues. Boorman took umbrage with what he saw as the first film’s “torturing” of Regan, as played by Linda Blair, so in his film, she is a more autonomous woman whose trauma from the exorcism has been locked away in her mind. Blair gets more to do in The Heretic from a purely character-based point-of-view. As an adolescent, her Regan is warm, attuned to others’ emotions, but also aware of how everyone around her still sees her as an incapable child, one scarred by unimaginable pain that she may or may not fully remember. The Heretic may not offer a visual of Regan as striking as her tied to the bed and screaming at Max Von Sydow in the first film, but there is something to be said for seeing her deal with her past.
From a purely visual perspective, The Heretic is gloriously bonkers. Various scenes take place in multi-mirrored rooms that make you want to high-five the cinematographer for managing to stay out of shot. Most moments are lit as if by candlelight, creating an expressionist flair that only heightens the hypnotic oddities that follow. A POV shot involving a locust remains a movie highlight. It’s as if Boorman looked at William Friedkin’s film and decided to do the polar opposite of everything that film chose to be visually. The same goes for how it sounds too. Everyone remembers the "Tubular Bells" of the first film’s score, but Ennio Morricone’s score for The Heretic is aurally fascinating, partway between a religious dirge and tribal ceremony.
The Heretic is an oddly multi-faith-focused film given the original’s status as arguably the most Catholic movie of the 20th century. The Catholicism is all here but it’s mixed with New Age ideology and old world Gnosticism. If the first film is about the ultimate battle of good versus evil, the second one is more concerned with a trickier concept: What if the strongest attractor of great evil is great good? The notion of good people being tested with the cruelest of evil is some full-on Old Testament Christianity, and Boorman blends it with other faiths rather than having Catholicism be the saving grace. Nobody can ever win this battle because the two forces are destined to reckon with one another forever. It’s a lot less hopeful a concept than the idea of a priest finding his faith and the power to tackle the darkness within.
The film is certainly not short of ambition, but on the basic script level, it can’t keep up with all those ideas. There are plenty of terrible lines of dialogue ("I flew with Pazuzu in a trance! It's difficult to explain, I was under hypnosis.") and certain character arcs, like the evolution of Father Lamont, feel rushed or unfinished. Scenes that use the synchronizer cannot help but feel hokey, perhaps because audiences are too used to seeing badly done hypnotism on film. Linda Blair is great as a grown-up Regan, but you can practically smell the odor of gin radiating from Richard Burton in every scene thanks to his distant performance and look of perpetual confusion that goes beyond Father Lamont’s own conflict and well into the territory of an actor who just doesn’t care.
For some, The Heretic will simply be too silly to take seriously. The hypnosis scenes will be too unintentionally comical, the visual choices too out there to absorb with the desired emotions, and moments like James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust growling like a leopard too un-Exorcist. That will be the obstacle many viewers just can’t overcome. This isn’t The Exorcist and it’s not really a sequel to The Exorcist. That’s probably what inspires such derision towards the movie, although it’s certainly not deserving of the label of the worst sequel ever made. Way too many Transformers movies exist for that to happen. Exorcist II: The Heretic is a curiosity to many film fans who know it only by its bad reputation, but it’s completely worthy of re-evaluation. In an age where every horror film gets 17 sequels, spin-offs, and their own cinematic universe, it’s striking to see a sequel in the genre whose ambitions lie elsewhere.