I’m not here to claim that John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is a great movie that should be canonized, but I am here to try and help out a movie that undeservedly gets thrown on lists of “the worst films ever!” The movie definitely has its problems, but the biggest problem with it isn’t even intrinsic to this film itself: John Boorman created a sequel to The Exorcist that isn’t really a horror movie. It’s more like science-fantasy cum suspense, which I will get into later. Boorman had not been a fan of the first film; he turned down an offer to direct it on the grounds that he was raising two daughters and didn’t want to do a film focused around the sadistic torture of a young girl. As such, when he saw a script treatment for a proposed sequel that was more about internal spiritual conflict, Boorman was eager to make a film that was decidedly more positive. The end result was far from what audiences wanted, and Boorman himself became more of a heretic than any of the characters in his film.
So what, then, is it about this movie that makes it so different? The first film was essentially about a spiritual conflict as well. However, it is the approach of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty as compared to that of Boorman in which the key is found. Friedkin and Blatty relish in making the spiritual conflict as physical as possible with the demon and priest relentlessly duking it out through the body of Regan MacNeil. On the other hand, Boorman moves the spiritual conflict primarily inside the character of Father Philip Lamont.
Granted, the demon is found still to be lurking inside of Regan, waiting to wreak more havoc, but the conflict is never really racked upon her body. Instead, it is done telepathically and mentally amongst Father Lamont, Regan, and the demon. There is also an additional manner of spiritual conflict in this film, as Regan has been seeing a therapist who uses cutting edge technology to try and help her after what she dealt with all those years before (she’s in high school in this film). Whereas the priest is willing to incorporate a device that allows telepathic communication into his spiritual world, the therapist is highly reluctant to allow any spirituality into her science. Overall, I would say the greatest difference between the first and second Exorcist films is the maturity of the directors. Friedkin wanted to make his film as grotesque as he could (not that I have anything against gore in films whatsoever), whereas Boorman wanted to make his film more of a meditation on metaphysical spirituality. This huge gap in tone inevitably created the audience backlash that has it ranked as one of the worst films ever.
Of course, other problems in the film didn’t help its case at all. For one, the aforementioned device that allows telepathy between its two users is never really explained. Granted, in horror and fantasy films it is commonplace for weird things to work a particular way on the simple grounds that they are fantastic, but this device is introduced with a name that screams “science!” but is given no explanation whatsoever as to its scientific basis. Heck, it didn’t need to be good science in any way explaining how it works, but any explanation would have made it seem more like a device that was the result of research rather than magic. On top of this is Linda Blair’s acting, which isn’t particularly bad, but I would have to say she is the weakest among the main characters. I understand the desire to cast her again as Regan MacNeil, but the film could have been just that much better if a casting call had been put out to find someone of the same caliber as the other leads in the film, which includes Richard Burton (Lamont) and James Earl Jones. The other big sticking point for me in this film was why Sharon, Regan’s caretaker, lit herself on fire near the end of the film. I got it that she must be giving up on hope and this was meant to foil Lamont’s tenacity against the demon, but I still didn’t really understand why she was giving up. If there had been more set up towards her despair at possibly losing Regan again, I would have understood, but she seemed stable up until that scene.
That all said, I still stand by the fact that this is a good film, just not a great one, and if you can get past its weaker parts and the fact that it is incredibly unlike the first film, you should be able to find an interesting study of man’s spiritual relationship with good, evil, mankind, and science. I can understand why the film made fans of the first film so incredibly angry, as it is more of an anti-sequel due to Boorman’s reservations about the first. But when it comes to the worst films ever made, I find it impossible to include a film such as this, in which a talented director set out with specific, intelligent intentions of discourse. Such a list I could understand including, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which is nothing but a self-aggrandizing schlockfest and poor attempt by a self-righteous hack to make his own version of James Cameron’s seminal Titanic. But in no way is Exorcist II offensive to the cinematic palate as truly terrible films are, and as such people should perhaps reevaluate on what conditions they judge a film terrible, other than it not meeting expectations of a franchise or genre.