Exorcist II: The Heretic – Horror as Anti-Horror

“People only go to movies for three reasons – to laugh, cry, or be frightened.”

-William Friedkin

Whether the book was a cautionary tale or not, the film based on The Exorcist exalts grossness, if not by design then at least by reception. Despite its high-minded moral dialogue, it inspired in the audience both a feeling of nausea at society's impending moral trajectory and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church’s power over the villainies of pop culture, as per its direct involvement with the film. The drama used saintly-heroic movie mothers and the withered warnings of priests as a meaningful backdrop to the attraction (and it was an attraction, one that people dared themselves to see a third time) of a telekinetic little girl fucking herself with a crucifix while pushing her mom's face into her bloody vagina and telling her to lick it. People were horrified at these images yet took from its wretched obviousness the lesson that a sensation of blatant terror crossed with stomach upset was an admirable thrill in its own way, when dressed as a lesson about the cultural loss of the traditional household. Yet, the film had technique; it was an exhibition of William Friedkin’s wild talent for exaggeration enclosed in the cinematographer Owen Roizman’s eye for dramatic blocking (the same he brought to Friedkin’s The French Connection two years earlier). By delivering a sequel that did not agree with nor attempt to recreate the appeal of this vomit-soaked moralism disguised as excitement, John Boorman with Exorcist II: The Heretic created the single most over-hated film in the history of horror.

“There’s this wild beast out there which is the audience,” Boorman recollected later, cornered into admitting his guilt, “I created this arena, and I just didn't throw enough Christians into it.” Boorman was not a horror fan by the conventional definition. After all, he refused to direct the first Exorcist on principle, describing it as “child torture.” When he accepted the job directing the sequel, he seemed to be on his own holy mission to swerve the brand’s thematic intent away from a celebration of obscenity to a story about goodness. Had he made a chop shop horror sequel, like all the ones that pass through the box office and out of memory forever as pseudo-remakes built from the scraps of better films, he would not have been accused of anything more heinous than technical inadequacy. He was vilified, accused of defilement, because instead of making Halloween II, Jaws 2, or Friday the 13th Part 2, he made a film that challenged the appeal of its beloved first entry. He avoided the genre’s more profitable spiritual bankruptcy, by his own admission denying the audience what they wanted. The film he made is a stumbling mess that fails in every way the original film succeeded. Yet it also succeeds where the original left moral gaps. If any film review should consider the technical-emotional aspects of a movie and weigh them as being at least as important as a sequel’s “faith” to its franchise, Exorcist II should be criticized for technical blunders but not publicly executed like the film equivalent of an infidel. This film, which was named the second worst ever made in The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, behind Plan 9 From Outer Space, has not received a fair treatment.

The Exorcist II’s major problem was a production issue, owing to competing visions of the script, partly resulting from Boorman’s aversion to letting the film devolve into his impression of the “tastelessness” of its genre. Passed around, changed on the fly, reshaped from one scene to the next, the screenplay, ultimately credited to the playwright William Goodhart, had no hope of cohering. Every scene in the film is a dramatization of its on-set conflict, with tone and meaning shifting and snagging on every line and every change in direction. Even the most serious plea from well-meaning actors like Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher becomes accidental camp because of the film’s intolerance for the kind of movie it was destined to be yet refused to enjoy. Nothing in the film resonates with the kind of holy gravity it hopes to inspire by moving the conflict between good and evil to the battlefield of consciousness itself, a clearheaded but ill-fated ambition by a playwright more experienced in the existential sentimentality of the English stage. Nothing established in this film ever meaningfully resolves. Even its ambiguity feels unfinished.

Some memorable loose ends include establishing a psychic connection between Regan (Linda Blair) and Father Lamont (Burton) that lasts only one scene, Regan’s non-escalating attempts at suicide, her single psychiatric session with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Fletcher), Regan’s mentioned yet conspicuously absent mother, and the entire cast’s mad dash to the house from the first film at the end, as though the screenplay at that point hoped that everyone doing the same thing in a hurry might invent the impression of a ticking clock, even if none was established. Perhaps the most awkward is Lamont’s adventure to Africa, which might have been a whole film or at least a prologue on its own but instead is dispensed with rushed inconsequence. “Where’s Father Lamont?” Regan innocently asks, “He went to Africa,” Dr. Tuskin replies, with the tone of saying that he went out for a smoke.

That sensation of being forced on track by an ambiguous screenplay carries over to how actors deliver their scenes. The cardinal, played by Paul Henreid in his final film role (best known as Ingrid Bergman’s new lover, Victor Laszlo, in Casablanca), threatens to demote Father Lamont if he disobeys him, yet Lamont’s immediate disobedience is never questioned, observed, or revisited. Even consequences established in the film are literally of no consequence. That exchange exists as a beat of tension in a script that had to create them for the sake of the feeling, without the time to rehearse the logic or escalate the terms (it plays out like the meeting that all hotheaded detectives have at some point with their wrathful police chief, just without any cost or resolution). The device of the mind-meld machine is another example of the film requesting to be taken at its word without offering dramatic collateral to weigh against the request; only the actors speaking of it in blatant significance carry the device (or try to). In one scene, it is established and forgotten that Regan can predict the future, which she does in a painting of Father Lamont in flames as he ventures into the basement of the office in a sweaty daze, looking for a fire to put out. It is a completely unacknowledged plot point that has no context, resolution, or apparent purpose other than a scene that pretends to be vaguely ominous in a screenplay as even as a confetti gun. Figuring out the locations of the characters at any given time is not only guesswork – it’s a frantic conjuring act. Remember in Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers when Gromit threw down model train tracks in front of the toy train he was currently riding to prevent it from crashing? That’s a visualization of the on-set screenwriting at work in Exorcist II.

Yet the movie has a kind of chaotic beauty for which it is never credited. The great William A. Fraker, who suffocated his subjects in enclosing rooms in Rosemary’s Baby, shoots the visuals of Exorcist II with the passion of a creepy epic. At times, the film is clear and cold, playing with reflections. Regan visits a psychiatric ward that is a room of glass honeycomb chambers and goes home to an apotheotic apartment that has as much shiny geometry as the living quarters in Logan’s Run; when she climbs to the roof in a trance to feed the doves, she’s copied a dozen times in the reflections of daylight in the building’s windows. In one scene, Dr. Tuskin is hooked into her repressed dreams of the first film and the demon Regan fades into the side of the window’s reflection, reaching for her heart. In dreams of Africa, the film unspools a golden landscape, like a cave painting of an apocalypse, with tall grass and a vibrant sun; cities of clay jut from the horizon and send sunlight patterns into the lens over dioramas of prehistory.

Exorcist II

As a visual journey alone, the film cannot be considered, as Gene Siskel, Mark Kermode, and others have attested, “demonstrably the worst film ever made” (Kermode’s words). One screenshot of Exorcist II dispels this claim; only the height of the pedestal on which The Exorcist is placed by the critics responsible for the exaggeration could create a distance great enough from the sequel to proclaim it worse than Jaws the Revenge or Disaster Movie or Movie 43. Ennio Morricone uses his passion for that tribal outback tone he imbued into Sergio Leone’s Westerns to craft an addicting, haunting score for Exorcist II that is equal parts mythic-heathen lullaby and Western-liturgical hymn. Morricone, like Fraker, offers a sensory justification for the film’s intended impression of spiritual meaning.

The dialogue by contrast cannot live up to itself. Every line is dropped into its scene like a rock into a well. The actors lose themselves (and the plot) with every sentence; Blair’s wide, wholesome eyes tell the audience the struggle of trying to wrap her well-meaning personality around those lines. She’s like a saint being told to read advertising copy. Burton on the opposite end of the spectrum of dramatic training applies the surety of the stage to dead-end dialogue that seems to portend great events yet does not mean a thing. And yet, these actors driving the film with such confident meaningfulness turn its excesses into the enjoyment of high camp. Exorcist II does not have the stoic resonance of a holy text, but its serious performers help it retain the watchability of a penny dreadful. It’s a high-minded horror fairytale about a girl who dreamed she bonded with a demon, now living without knowing that she needs mental redemption, accidentally executed with the tone of Adam West solving riddles in Batman. The original audience (stories exist of people angrily chasing producers out of the theater and up the street) could not get past the impression of defiling their great monument, which was as much a memorial to tasteless excess as to technique to begin with.

In their defense, laughter is often justified at the stylistic excess of Exorcist II (laughter, but not anger). At one point, Regan tap-dances with a chippy grin against a red neon haze (it looks like the prom from Carrie), while flailing in pain because of her psychic connection with Lamont, who at that moment has journeyed to Africa on the smallest amount of evidence imaginable and is currently being stoned. The scene is ominous in the most awkward way, combining the actresses’ playful cabaret appearances with a simulated seizure; the whole scene feels like a cut take. The editor, Tom Priestly, had the outrightly impossible task of minimizing the laughs in this scene, at which point it should have been clear that Regan should have gone to Africa with him (and it might have been, at that point – the wisdom was probably all in retrospect on that set).

Yet I’ve heard other criticisms, involving practically every decision in the film, including Lamont’s blind acceptance of his mind-meld with Regan as a representation of real events. But this is not an example of the screenplay covering its ragged behind. As a man of faith, a belief in spiritual evil drives his actions. His lack of skepticism is a conscious choice as well as a curse. Regan’s vision, as it has been in men of the church for thousands of years, was as good as reality to him because his reality is defined by spiritual action. It may not be a motive expressed well by the dialogue, but the character is not invalid because the plot is sloppy. Reassessed as a partial failure to do something grand and different, rather than a graffiti artist in a holy temple, this sequel can be absolved of some of its choices and enjoyed on many of its own terms.

Nothing damned Exorcist II as a horror film more than the absence of a tangible threat. The characters are never in any danger, physically, from a marauding bad guy, the kind that offers far worse films the tone of excitement and release, that emotional horror catharsis that gives off a sense of danger with the rhythm of quick sex. Unlike the first film, the demon’s power in Exorcist II is never expressed in a tangible form that impacts the pacing of the movie, outside of the climax. Had Boorman dropped a slinking, leathery badass into a maze with helpless screamers in wet tank tops, there would be legions to defend his choices, even if the film was shot with the artistic quality of a car insurance ad. The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that is the cinematic equivalent of peeing in a bean can, has the tropes that earn it passionate defenses from the right crowd. Had Boorman made a movie like that, he may not have been praised, but he never would have been crucified for not killing enough sinners.

In the forced retrospect that I got by watching Exorcist II for the first time in 2022, the lack of a physical baddie is not a flaw. The spiritual danger for Regan is an extension of the first film’s anxiety over the children of the future and the influences they carry in their souls to create a new world, one that scared their parents to predict. The demon is attracted to her because she is pure, a role that Blair grasps clumsily but never trips over (she has cheeks that seem to squeak like baby doll plastic when they move). She’s an innocent, which was more important for her to be than a great actress. To Father Lamont, this adventure is not just a question of saving Regan but of holding onto a thread of hope. “Does great goodness draw evil upon itself?” That is the question he asks when confronting the reality of demons in a world supposedly ruled by god. In the form of the possessed Regan, Lamont is tempted by the only thing he could be tempted by – the comparatively simpler task of believing in a demon who feeds on purity, rather than a god that delights in it. Regan wakes him from his delusion with one question, from a child to a priest: “Why me?”

Lamont's temptation by Regan quietly confronts the Catholic Church's sins (as opposed to the first film, which only deals in its spiritual triumphs), which its perpetrators have often justified as a kind of sexual exorcism (see the Rev. Dr. William Weaver, a priest who claimed that oral sex allowed him to "suck out demons"). A redemption story for a tempted priest by an innocent girl is a strange ambition for a horror sequel, one that likely could not have been good enough to justify its concept or had a hope of being scary, even with a finished script. But an association with a more famous film should not be able to expunge all its effort. The film is really a reassertion of faith for a good priest tempted to fear the world more than he believes in it, an arc redesigned by M. Night Shyamalan for Signs, which coincidentally was almost as misunderstood when it came out. As Martin Scorsese put it, “It's God testing the good. In this sense, Regan is a modern-day saint … I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it.” I might not go that far, but its crazed intentions in the face of the looming pressure to reheat predictable thrills isn’t something I take lightly, especially in the age of the “legacy” sequel, such as the most recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) and Halloween reboots. Among that group, The Heretic is as solid as scripture through intent alone.

Father Lamont becomes a heretic when he asks the demon for help in his quest for answers before he asks god. But the title might just as well be referring to Boorman since his punishment for continuing and in some sense nullifying the fear of the first film was as severe as if he spat on a holy text. As a result, Exorcist II has been branded by film history as not only a bad film but an evil one, one that viewers seem to believe should have been aborted before it grew up into a demon. When Friedkin said that people only want to laugh, cry, or be frightened at the movies, he was speaking in terms of an industry driven by emotional spectacle. In the context of The Exorcist, he admits with that axiom that people were not drawn to it to feel saddened or empathetic for the sacrificial priests or helpless child, since those things are not a laugh, a cry, or a scream; audiences were only frightened, gleefully, to watch them struggle. Friedkin was aware of the spectacle status of a film whose acolytes have now read great wisdom between the lines of vomit. Disgust was its version of pleasure.

His words are sad truths of an industry driven by limited emotional instincts, but they do not have to be interpreted as commandments, as though that is all a movie should aspire to do just because the average film doesn’t aspire to do more. People may not go to the movies to be confused, to see goodness triumph, or to interpret the coarse successes of a wild artistic instinct like the one on display in every swooning image and misdelivered line in Exorcist II. But at the risk of sounding like a heretic myself, I want to add a fourth possible purpose for going to the movies onto Friedkin’s cynically small list – to be interested. Above the list a mile long of the films whose badness (and goodness) did not interest me, Exorcist II deserves, if not an inscription in the catalog of horror saints, at least exoneration from the black book of its outcasts. No October has gone by since 1977 without five worse horror films going to theaters unpunished.

Images are screenshots from the film: ©Warner Bros.

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1 thought on “Exorcist II: The Heretic – Horror as Anti-Horror”

  1. I haven’t read a more clear-eyed and clever view of this film. M.C. Meyers saw the movie for the first time only in 2022. I have no idea how old he is but he hasn’t been corrupted by the “The Exorcist” legacy/mythology, which so many people have. And what a nice piece of writing, too.


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