Diary of a Cineater: ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977)

Some movie lovers can easily pick and choose what they want to consume when it comes to a film series. Not me. When I sit down to spend time with a series, as long as the first few installments interest me, I am in it for the long haul. Sometimes this results in what I like to call “cinemasochism”. Other times I end up finding a diamond in the rough. The only way to know for sure is to consume it all, tolerate the poison, and report back my findings. Now it’s time for you to sit back, relax, and let this Cineater imbibe whole franchises in order to sniff out which entries are actually worth your time. My latest subject: The Exorcist!

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Directed by John Boorman
Produced by John Boorman and Richard Lederer
Screenplay by William Goodhart, John Boorman, and Rospo Pallenberg
Starring Linda Blair, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Kitty Wynn, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty, Joey Green, Karen Knapp, and Max Von Sydow

How does one make a sequel to a film that many consider to be a masterpiece? Do you simply xerox the first film and hope people still like it or do you do something radically different? This is a dilemma that all filmmakers who direct sequels must face, as well as the producers (and studios) behind them.

Funnily enough, the initial plan for an Exorcist II did involve rehasing the Friedkin film to an almost alarming degree. Warner Bros. originally wanted to just select a bunch of outtakes and deleted scenes from the first one, shoot some new footage to bookend all of the existing scenes, and offer up a story that would have seen someone investigating the events of The Exorcist. It effectively would have been a cheap clipshow sequel that leaned heavily on unused footage shot by Friedkin. You’d be hard-pressed to conjure up a more cynical idea for a sequel to such a titanic hit, no matter the genre.

Thankfully, they eventually came to their senses. Since neither Friedkin nor Blatty wanted to return, the studio then set about trying to nail down another bold filmmaker to take up the reins for their follow-up. Stanley Kubrick was their first choice, but when turned it down, they settled on director John Boorman, the man behind such classics as Point Blank, Deliverance, Zardoz, and (eventually) Excalibur.

Despite having a respected director in place, the project continued to have multiple setbacks. Originally the plot involved Father Dyer investigating the death of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) on behalf of Rome, with Lt. Kinderman also investigating the matter from a legal standpoint. Caught in the middle would have been Regan and her mother, Chris. Unfortunately for the producers, both Father William O’Malley and Ellen Burstyn passed on returning as Father Dyer and Chris MacNeil (respectively). The former was then rewritten to be one of Merrin’s proteges, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), and the latter’s scenes were rewritten to be returning character Sharon Spencer (Kitty Wynn), who is Chris’ assistant.

Complicating matters even further was the fact that actor Lee J. Cobb died a mere three months before production, necessitating a last minute major rewrite to remove Kinderman from the film. Now what was once a highly-connected sequel becomes a less intricately-weaved follow-up. Why is all of this important? Because it goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the film’s odder nature. Instead of being a story about the aftermath of Regan’s exorcism for all, it’s now really only about how said event affected both Regan and Sharon.

The story is set four years after the events of the first film. Regan, now 16, is living with Sharon in a swanky high-rise apartment in New York City, while her actress mother is presumably off shooting another movie. When not making art or feeding birds from her balcony, Regan spends the bulk of her time hanging around a children’s psychiatric institute run by Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). While Regan is indeed receiving counseling there, she usually just wanders about the place helping out with the other patients. She still has bad dreams and has presumably begun to remember some of what happened to her during the possession, but she’s mostly just a well-adjusted, happy, and caring young girl who just wants to help others.

On the other side of things, Father Lamont has just returned from a failed exorcism in South America that just claimed the life of possessed girl. He’s visibly shaken by the ordeal and requests reassignment, no longer feeling fit enough to carry on as an exorcist. The cardinal (Paul Renreid) agrees to a point. In the wake of Father Merrin’s passing, some writings of his have been uncovered and the Church has deemed them to potentially be heretical. Lamont is tasked with investigating Merrin’s death in an effort to determine whether or not he went down fighting on God’s side or if he had switched his allegiance to Satan. And thus the tale begins in earnest.

One thing that’s really interesting about Exorcist II is that, aside from the opening failed exorcism with Lamont and a flashback one involving a young Merrin, there is neither a central possession nor an exorcism contained within the film. While the demon Pazuzu does indeed return, it does not possess anyone. Instead it only ever appears via visions or psychic manifestations. It doesn’t want Regan again, nor does it want the now-grown Kokumo (James Earl Jones), who we see Merrin save from its clutches in the aforementioned flashbacks.

Instead, it simply wants to seduce and corrupt Father Lamont with promises of power. Sure, Pazuzu is willing to lash out at others when given the opportunity and even causes a few deaths, but its goals are very this time around. As a result of this, the battle in the finale is not about Lamont saving Regan, but Regan saving Lamont from damnation.

Another interesting element at play is “the synchronizer”, which is an experimental machine that allows to people to enter each others’ dreams and memories while in simultaneous states of deep hypnosis. It is through this machine that we learn that Pazuzu actually stopped Merrin’s heart during the previous film. His heart didn’t give out naturally. He was murdered. The point of this machine seems to be to allow people to connect on a deeper level, with the goal of allowing them to come to greater understandings of one another. In theory, one could use synchronizers the world over and bring humanity to peace through understanding.

Of course, the problem with that notion is that not all people are inherently good. Open yourself up to another loving person (be it a human being or God) and your love and empathy might be increased. Open yourself up to malevolence (be it a bad person or Satan), however, and you might instead be destroyed. A world mind that is just as bad as it is good? Does that remind you of anything? It’s kind of hilarious to think that Exorcist II, of all things, predicted how the internet might change the world, but here we are.

As the film lays out, even when a demonic presence has been cast out of the person it was afflicting, traces of it will always remain within. Regan and Kokumo will always have a special connection to Pazuzu, whether they like it or not. By tapping into Regan’s deep subconsious, Father Lamont opens himself up to Pazuzu as well, paving the way for the demon’s attempted corruption of him.

Does that all sound a bit weird and metaphysical? It’s because it is. This isn’t a tale of levitating possessed people, green bile spewing, blasphemous foul language, or violent psychokinesis….although we do gets some self-immolations. This is instead a story where a priest with an open mind is shown strange (but not necessarily evil) visions by a demon that result in some measure clairvoyance and the promise of even more power if he seeks its audience.

In other words, this movie is batshit crazy and I haven’t even bothered to talk about all of the locust insanity!

It’s not hard to see why audiences turned on Exorcist II immediately upon release, nor why most horror fans still look upon it with disgust to this very day. Whatever they entered into their screenings thinking an Exorcist sequel might offer them, The Heretic absolutely did not meet this expectations. This is a bizarre metaphysical meditation on faith, hope, corruption, healing, and trauma. It has little interest in terrifying you or granting you any of the expected horror imagery. It doesn’t even contain any of the classic music from the original, instead dishing out a wild Ennio Morricone score (which is wonderfully present in the trailer below)!

If you sit down with Exorcist II expecting an exorcism and demonic possession movie, it’s only going to piss you off. If you are open to experiencing a sequel more interested in how we deal with trauma, while also offering up a more esoteric view of faith, you might actually find yourself enjoyed it’s weird, weird pleasures. Not many people love this movie, but I am one of them, and I urge everyone who has previously dismissed it to give it another look.

Diary of a Cineater: The Exorcist
The Exorcist (1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
The Exorcist III (1990)
Dominion (2004)
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
The Exorcist” (2016-2017)

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