As the 40th anniversary of the release of The Exorcist II: The Heretic arrives, it is tempting to remember the film only as a misguided sequel to a superior film that barely doubled its $14 million budget; not so impressive, compared to the over $400 million made by the original. However, the film can be a worthwhile, interesting, and possibly very fun one to the right viewer due to a few elements worthy of recognition.
First, it’s amazing that the film even exists.
Being the creative team that followed up the groundbreaking, award-winning, highly profitable original was an unenviable task. The brave soul who would take on that task had so many likely bad outcomes: being less profitable, retreading familiar ground, or even retroactively robbing the original of some of its power. It’s not a coincidence that it took 23 years to get a sequel to Psycho, and Rosemary’s Baby has never had a filmic sequel. Films of that era weren’t automatically franchised, and it was John Boorman who accepted this impossible challenge.
Second, while the film isn’t a great sequel to The Exorcist, it is a GREAT continuation of the daring career of director John Boorman. In a single decade, from 1972 to 1981, Boorman directed the backwoods terror of Deliverance, the trippy sci-fi of Zardoz, the New Age spirituality of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and the decidedly offbeat King Arthur film Excalibur. His dazzling visual style, insistence on unconventional stories, and narratives about men in spiritual and existential crises makes the second Exorcist film a perfect fit for his filmography.
Third, this movie is BONKERS (in an entertaining way)! Building off the possession in the first film, Boorman and the film’s writers somehow found a way to incorporate a complicated metaphysical plot about human evolution. He tied the Regan possession into a previous possession Father Merrin encountered in Africa, showed audiences a biofeedback machine that could put people’s brainwaves in sync.
The wacky follow-up also includes plagues of locusts, a very uncomfortable seduction sequence with Linda Blair as a succubus doppelganger, and…
… James Earl Jones, a serious and well-respected actor, dressed like this and somehow still keeping a straight face.
Fourth, The Exorcist II beat Alien by two years in changing a lead male role and recasting it for an actress. Alien cast Sigourney Weaver in a role originally written for a man in 1979; but in 1977, Boorman took the male role of Dr. Gene Tuskin and filled it with Louise Fletcher, still highly sought-after due to her Academy Award-winning turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As usual, horror and science fiction were well ahead of the curve on giving substantial lead roles to women.
And even if you hate The Exorcist II, you can probably appreciate that the excellent third film in the series, Exorcist III: Legion, only exists because novelist and screenwriter for the original film, William Peter Blatty saw Boorman’s film and thought it was laughable. Before the release of the second installment, he had no desire or concept for another entry in the series. However, he was unwilling to let the confusing and, in his eyes, unintentionally hilarious second film be the last thing movie-goers remembered about The Exorcist – so he created Legion as a book. He eventually directed the sequel film himself, which has brilliantly scary moments, the return of Jason Miller, and yet another great Brad Dourif performance.
It’s a better movie that wouldn’t exist without this one, for what it’s worth.
So in celebration of forty years of befuddlement and awkward laughs, let’s bring John Boorman’s gonzo work of art in from the cold and enjoy it for the few things it does right and the many things it does entertainingly, spectacularly wrong.
At the very least, you can’t accuse it of being conventional.