I’m eternally grateful that I saw John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) on its opening weekend. By Monday morning, new last reels—cutting, reshaping and making nonsense of the ending—were being attached to prints around the country. Boorman was as much to blame for this as anyone, since both he and Warner Bros. were trying to salvage a box office disaster. This was later compounded by Boorman’s European cut of the film—a version with something in the neighborhood of 125 cuts made to his original. It was this seriously compromised version that ended up playing on cable TV, so for a very long time, if you hadn’t seen it on opening weekend, you simply hadn’t seen the movie Boorman intended. That’s changed now and Exorcist II can now be seen in its original—and, yes, somewhat screwy—form. What has to be understood to appreciate Boorman’s vision is that he positively hated the first Exorcist and considered his film a kind of anti-Exorcist. (This was also how he managed to get Max von Sydow to return for the sequel, since von Sydow hated the original as much as or more than Boorman.)
How all this came about is somewhat hard to fathom. Exorcist II‘s screenplay—even before Boorman—was always a departure from the first film. Warner Bros. apparently didn’t notice. On the other hand, they had to have noticed Boorman’s feelings because he flat-out told them he didn’t want to make the movie, that he would only make it if he had total artistic control, and that he’d deliver them a film that was nothing like The Exorcist. Amazingly, the studio said fine, here’s a million dollars for you and a bottomless budget, now make your movie. (They did virtually the same thing with Paul Schrader on Exorcist: The Beginning, but that time they pulled the results before it hit theaters and had uber-hack Renny Harlin remake the whole thing.) So what happened? Well, when it comes down to it, Boorman made them a $14.5 million (a gigantic budget in 1977) art movie and it tanked with audiences expecting scares and split-pea soup regurgitations.
Taken on its own merits as a film about the coming of the “universal mind” and the idea that great good attracts great evil, Exorcist II is a fascinating work. In terms of supernatural content, yes, it’s a horror picture, but it only rarely attempts to scare the viewer during its examination of the original exorcism by Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton, a last minute replacement for Jon Voight) of the original exorcism. It has undeniable problems. Burton was an actor with baggage—personal baggage that made things like Dr. Tuskin’s (Louise Fletcher) question, “Father, don’t you ever need a woman?” provoke unintentional laughs. Worse, it requires a performance of great nuance and subtlety from 18-year-old Linda Blair. But the ideas are still fascinating, and on the technical side of things the look of the film is stunning.
Boorman wanted to make the film as much as possible in the studio. He wanted a film that was wholly stylized and that would use techniques that hadn’t been seen since the 1940s. While that wasn’t entirely possible (partly due to the required location work), he did manage—with the help of technical staff (some of whom were called out of retirement)—to give the film that old look of studio-made artistry. Whatever else Exorcist II is or isn’t, it’s one of the most striking-looking of all horror pictures. On that level alone, it deserves to be better known.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Exorcist II: The Heretic Thursday, June 28 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.