The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Exorcist II: The Heretic

John Boorman 1977

My favourite comment on Exorcist II: The Heretic is by Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies: "It doesn't work in all sorts of ways... However, like Ennio Morricone's mix of tribal and liturgical music, it does manage to be very interesting."

The first Exorcist film, directed by William Friedkin, is a thoroughly conventional, pretentiously bloated Hollywood horror movie, enlivened by fine performances and repulsive special effects. William Peter Blatty's novel is rather better. Exorcist III, a supernatural detective story written and directed by Blatty, is better paced, more imaginative and more interesting than either the first film or Blatty's novel, Legion, on which it is based.

Exorcist II: The Heretic, made by John Boorman in 1977, seems almost universally derided and despised, particularly among those who favour the first film for either its comfortable conventionality or its Catholic preachifying. Mark Kermode, for whom Friedkin's The Exorcist was apparently a revelatory experience, recently listed Exorcist II as the worst film of all time. A quarter of a century after its original, unprofitable release, Warner Brothers still has not forgiven it; surely The Heretic must be the only film which is deprecated even unto the (somewhat inaccurate) sleeve notes of its own soundtrack album.

The poor thing's problems are not lightly waved away. Richard Burton clearly (and with culpable lack of professionalism) indicates his wish to be elsewhere at every opportunity, and largely sleepwalks through the rest. This is less damaging than it might be, as his character does, in fact, spend a substantial portion of the story under hypnosis. The screenplay contains several gigglogenic lines and the exposition, at least in the shortened 99-minute version, is choppy and incoherent. But, yes, nevertheless - it really does manage to be very interesting.

The first and third films, as conceived by the Catholic Blatty, are interested mainly in Catholic priests and those who depend on them; The Heretic takes up the story of the possessee, Regan McNeil, and the fruitful question of why the demon picked on her. Blatty has no real answer for this; for him, as for other preachifiers like George W Bush, evil is evil is evil is evil, its vile machinations no more to be questioned than the goodness of God. Boorman's film jettisons this cosy obscurantism and provides an intriguing answer: the demon's attack was not merely an act of arbitrary vandalism undertaken to ensnare snow-white priestly souls, as Blatty implies, but part of a calculated strategy.

As Burton's Father Lamont discovers, Regan is a healer; one of a number of spiritually advanced people who have been possessed by the demon Pazuzu. Another such person is the African, Kokoumo, who was possessed as a young boy and exorcised by the then-youthful Father Merrin. Lamont traces Kokoumo, and (during one of those pedagogical hallucinations which come in so handy for spiritual teachers in feature films) learns that Regan and her kind are the hope of a humanity grown locust-like in its crowding and its devouring greed. In the spectacular finale, Regan and Lamont confront a sudden swarm of locusts at the shut-up McNeil home where the original possession took place.

The locust metaphor is neatly worked out with the aid of some stunning visuals; Regan's therapist (Louise Fletcher) produces an intriguing machine for inducing deep hypnosis; James Earl Jones, whether as tribal chieftain or as Western-educated biological researcher, makes an impressive Kokoumo; Ned Beatty has an amusing bit part as Ecumenical Edwards, delivery-man to the devout; Morricone's score ranges from aching lyricism through religious incantation to demonic cacophony; touching moments like Regan's encounter with an autistic child vie with the exhilaration of Lamont's flight on the wings of a demon; most of the performances are good, and Linda Blair's as Regan is exemplary. Even Burton has his moments.

With all its flaws, Exorcist II: The Heretic contains enough invention and originality to sustain half a dozen slicker films, and perhaps four times that many films with digits in their titles. Rehabilitation is long overdue.


  • At 9:14 pm , Blogger J McEvoy said...

    I rather like this one as well. I was turned onto it by a comment I read while randomly browsing the bad reviews at IMDb:

    "The final scene is particularly amazing in that Burton, having regained his senses, does not so much exorcise the demon as beat the (crap) out of her."

    Hope you're well.

  • At 9:58 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Nearly as accurate as the above-mentioned soundtrack notes, which proclaim that Regan gives birth to the climactic swarm of locusts. She doesn't, and when Father Lamont strikes her he is clearly not beating her up but attempting to "tear out her evil heart", thereby climaxing another motif which has appeared throughout the film.

    It's all very well to dislike a piece of work, but criticising it over scenes which are wholly imaginary seems a bit superfluous.

  • At 7:42 pm , Blogger J McEvoy said...

    Indeed. It seems the afterlife of this film is suitably haunted by mass hallucinations. Boormann said he didn't give audiences what they wanted, but it seems many people see what they want to see and then rubbish it anyway.

    I think the casting of Burton was inspired, not so much the casting of an actor than of a dessicated face - contrary to what many people believe, he was actually off the drink at this point, in preparation for the film of Equus. Still, that doesn't stop many witnesses from claiming they saw him staggering drunk through The Heretic.


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