Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977)
I am somewhat notorious in certain circles for preferring Exorcist II: The Heretic to the original Exorcist. The first film, in fact, is a film I downright dislike, so as far as I’m concerned anyway, it wouldn’t be too hard for any sequel to be at least fractionally superior to the original. As it happens, however, I think Exorcist II is a pretty fantastic film in its own right and it certainly isn’t deserving of the bad reputation it has acquired.
When Warner Bros. took the then still somwhat bold move to commission a sequel to what remains to this day their most successful ever production, the studio had envisioned a low-budget cheapie, which would rehash the storyline of the original film, and use up any footage left over by its director, William Friedkin. What they got instead couldn’t have been any further removed from that initial, lazy synopsis. With Friedkin unwilling to return for part two, Warners instead signed up part-English gentleman, part visionary madman John Boorman; a huge, commanding name in Hollywood at the time with a string of trailblazing, bona fide hits behind him, including Point Blank, Hell In The Pacific and Deliverance. Moreover, Boorman’s most recent effort had been warped sci-fi fable Zardoz, which is perhaps still the most insane mainstream film of all time, a grand and dazzling head-fuck, featuring a post-Bond Sean Connery, clambering all over a magical emasculated future, clad in a bright red nappy. They could at least, then, expect their new director to turn in something different.
And different is what they most certainly got. Eschewing the schlock horror theatrics of the earlier film, Boorman instead takes us on an admittedly often shambolic, rambling, metaphysical, spiritual adventure romp. Linda Blair reprises the role of Regan, who four years on from her possession, is now receiving psychiatric treatment to help her confront her all too literal demons. She has also developed a startling knack for healing the sick and seemingly incurable, which puts her into contact with troubled priest Father Lamont (Richard Burton). Lamont has been studying the writings of Father Merrin, the titular exorcist of the first film, and is on a mission to vanquish the demon Pazazu, who apparently possesses people with special healing powers, such as Regan in the earlier film, in an attempt to destroy them. This quest leads Lamont and Regan on an epic and darkly psychedelic journey, taking in both darkest Africa and the very recesses of the mind, via pilgrimage, telepathy and religious vision, before culminating in a showdown back on the infamous steps on which Regan’s first exorcism reached a grisly climax four years before.
However, they aren’t the actual “Exorcist steps”, as for one reason or another Boorman and his crew were refused permission to film there and as much as I like Exorcist II, it is a film that is noticeably hamstrung by production problems. The most notorious and evident example of this is the massive re-editing job done on the film to make its storyline more comprehensible, following poor test-screening results. As many noted at the time however, these changes served only to make Exorcist II even more incomprehensible and it would seem that the film that John Boorman really wanted to make was far too ambitious and laden with ideas to ever really get off the ground. This doesn’t necessarily cripple Exorcist II completely, however, and as protracted and confused as it often is, it still throws up more in the way of interesting ideas than its predecessor and indeed many notable films of the 1970s; with the core theme of miraculous good inevitably drawing upon itself unspeakable evil being particularly strong. One of the reasons it generated such feelings of contempt and disappointment on its release was Boorman’s decision to steer the film away from all-out horror and make it something a little more brooding and intellectual. As noted, he didn’t quite pull this off, but he still manages to serve up a visual feast of a film, creating a creepy, magical atmosphere that manages to be grand, dreamy and moody all at the same time. The cast, despite many members not quite firing on all cylinders, is quite a treat too, counting the aforementioned Blair (likeable and believable as the teenaged Regan), Burton (evidently worse for the booze), Louise Fletcher, James Earl Jones and a returning Max Von Sydow.
How much you like Exorcist II may depend largely on if you can swallow some of its often strange and elaborate set-pieces, a prime example being an early appearance made by Pazazu via an odd telepathy/mind-reading/hypnosis machine thingy. I know a lot of people who howl with derisive laughter at the very mention of this scene, but I really rather admire the baffling strangeness of it, and doff my cap to Joh Boorman for trying something different. After all, anybody can throw a bucket of cold pea soup at the screen, a la William Friedkin in the first film. Indeed, much of the bad press attached to Exorcist II was generated thanks to some graceless gutter-sniping by notorious dickhead Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel on which The Exorcist was based. Friedkin even took it upon himself to personally insult Boorman, but these attacks were no doubt inspired by more than a tad of jealousy, as Boorman was and is an infinitely more talented director than Friedkin could ever dream of being and despite being rather flawed, Exorcist II: The Heretic is more interesting, rewarding and weirdly enjoyable than any film William Friedkin has ever made (with the possible exception of The French Connection – what about the video to Laura Brannigan’s ‘Self Control’? Eh, Alan? – Aneet. That’s not a film, Aneet, but it is quality. Cruising is pretty good, too - Alan). We should also dispel the notion that the film was a catastrophic flop on release. Despite being Warner Bros. most expensive production to date at the time, Exorcist II comfortably made back over double it’s budget. That’s more than any of William Friedkin’s post-Exorcist films can say!
So ignore the pompous and unimaginative critics of this authentic mega-budget curio and give Exorcist II: The Heretic another go. Even if all else fails, you’re guaranteed to enjoy one of Ennio Morricone’s greatest ever soundtracks. Take it away, Aneet.
Facing the mammoth task of following the huge success of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as well as trying to capture the three well documented themes of the film (as the liner notes explain -tribalism of the African rituals, the standard musical staples of the horror movie and a dreamlike weightlessness linked to redemption and the triumph of good over evil.), Morricone responded with one his finest scores of all time.
The late seventies didn’t bode well with our Ennio, his stock was falling and he was struggling to adapt and evolve his signature sound. It was on Exorcist II that he was able to combine elements of his golden 60′s period with something new entirely. Believe it or not, Exorcist II was his first Hollywood score but it was not his first experience with crazy demonic possession movies – check out his absolutely gorgeous score for Alberto De Martino’s 1974 Exorcist rip-off L’Antichristo.
The remarkable thing about Morricone’s score – and why it remains such a key soundtrack of his career is because of the versatility and beguiling brilliance of each track as well being the blueprint for many of his future compositions (e.g. shades of ‘Interrupted Melody’ can be heard on Once Upon A Time In America). The scope and sound of this soundtrack never ceases to amaze me – from the sumptuous ‘Regan’s Theme’ to the insane psychedelic rocker ‘Magic And Ecstasy’ as well as the intricate and bewitching African drums and rhythms. It’s an album of extremes, from the abstract to the intimate, the comforting to the down-right scary (and to the unintentional hilarity) – it pretty much sums up the film too. Maestro – we salute you!!
Till next week’s Morricone Madness, I’ve left you with a track off the album that wasn’t actually featured in the movie but only on the trailers and half-way through the end-credits (so there was a reason to sit through the end!) it’s the aforementioned mad-fuzz nightmare ‘Magic And Ecstasy’.