I hope that these days John Boorman is a good sport about Exorcist II: The Heretic. He's a great if oft uneven director, but this movie is junk.
I happen to recall dashing out to see the $14 million dollar film on the afternoon of its release, June 17th, 1977. I had to see it at a small mall theater near the river called the Jantzen Beach Cinemas, now razed. Warner Bros. had apparently "dumped it." Once Exorcist II started it was easy to see why. When I came emerged into the bright summer sun, I remember thinking that it was a beautifully photographed terrible film.
Today I've modified that opinion. Exorcist II: The Heretic was photographed by William Fraker, and it was one of the first films to use a Steadicam (another was Rocky). Some of the shots are still awe-inspiring, but Boorman also decided to use sets instead of actually going to Africa to accommodate the script, partially because of the risk of disease (it didn't matter: He still came down with an almost fatal illness, caused by a fungus in the African grass imported for the set).
The use of sets for the African exteriors is a cool idea, and I tend to like movies that experiment with that sort of filming (Absolute Beginners), but one of the key elements of The Exorcist is that Friedkin maintain a plausible reality into which the devil descends. He actually went to Africa for his prologue, and the dusty, cramped reality helps to define a dissipated world ravaged by Satan.
Boorman's sets, designed by Richard MacDonald, are beautiful in their way (that may be the problem), but also cartoony. It gave Boorman a chance to control the lighting and the tone of a scene, and a space for the camera to fly, but it must be said that these sets don't look real, and thus change the tone from the original.
That was probably the point. Boorman, who had been offered the project of the first Exorcist before it was handed to Friedkin, hated the book, and didn't seem to care for the finished film much. Both he and Von Sydow thought that the film exploited a form of child hatred, victimizing them for the pleasure of a perverse audience. Von Sydow only agreed to appear in the sequel because he thought that he and Boorman were on the same wavelength.
Sadly, they were. With a weird script credited to William Goodhart, a Teilhard de Chardin-obsessed playwright who died in 1999, II elects to engage in theological debate and take a pass on scaring its audience. True, simply scaring people is a crude enterprise. But it can be done with wit and depth. Dialogue such as a Cardinal ordering the hero on a retreat, sparking the response, "Retreat! Why not an advance!" do not help carry the theological ambitions of this project.
What Boorman and Co. attempt to do, and basically achieve, is try to explain ex post facto why the devil selected little movie star's daughter Regan (played again by Linda Blair) in the first place. Eventually, you learn that Satan had deputized a Mesopotamian demon named Pazuzu to go around and kill healers and exceptional good people. Exorcisms to free the body of the child of its inhabitant sometimes failed, but sometimes did not. One of them in Africa, ministered by Father Merrin (Von Sydow in flashbacks) grew up to be a scientist (James Earl Jones), who is interviewed by Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who has been given the task (by Paul Henreid) of explaining the activities of the late Father Merrin. It's a vague assignment, that the priest resists because of his own crisis of faith.
He ends up meeting Regan, and her Manhattan therapist, a child specialist (Louise Fletcher) who operates in a glass walled maze of zero privacy. After a foray with the good doctor's latest toy, a Synchronizer, which allows to hypnotized people to share the same trance (there is actual language designed to explain this bogus idea), Burton-as-Lamont is off to play Desert Rat again, searching for clues that might do something or other for Father Merrin's rep. Back in NY, Regan is still in touch with him, because Linda Blair, having graduated from broom handles to broomsticks, has a witch's telepathic cognizance, meant to be used for good. The whole thing ends with a locust-filled return to the house where it all began, with a dolled-up Blair, as the duplicate Regan who lives "within her," attempts to tempt Father Lamont (originally to be played by Jon Voight or Christopher Walken).
In the end, Exorcist II: The Heretic (and who is the heretic, by the way), is an awkward affair, with scenes that end abruptly, and truly bad acting by an overly cute Blair and a bored, if intense, Burton. Like most sequels, it merely tarnishes its predecessor, instead of enhancing it, though it tries nobly.
VIDEO: Warner Home Entertainment has done an adequate job packaging this film. The cinematography still holds up some, though it looks a little less lush and brilliantly colored than I remember. There are no scratches or other problems of note, just a general lessening of the lusciousness.
SOUND: The film comes in Dolby Digital mono, in both English and French, but doesn't sound particularly bad for all that. I would like to gripe about Ennio Morricone's score. It strikes me as utterly inappropriate to an Exorcist, (remember Tubular Bells?), ethereal when it should be tense, and with the inevitable kids chorus to create emotion, but fits in with the soft, passive, talky mood of this film. The disc also offers English, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Bahasa, Thai, Korean, and Spanish subtitles.
MENUS: From the base menu, which is static, but musical, you get to scene selection (31 chapters for the 117 minute movie), languages, and special features, all static, silent menus.
PACKAGING: A typical Warner snap case, the black box reprints the poster on the cover, and stills from the film on the back and inside, and the black and red label on the disc shows the head of a woman burning up, one of Father Lamont's early failures.
EXTRAS: Supplements are minimal, but interesting if you like the film. The only problem is that the disc could have been a lot more interesting. After the film flopped, Boorman re-cut it a little bit, and the American version is his secondary cut. The European version has a different, extended beginning and a slightly different end. Warner Bros. could have included both versions on a two sided disc, and let the viewer judge. Instead, without even acknowledging this complex history, the disc offers solely an "alternative opening," a two minute and twelve second sequence that leads into the start of the movie as we know it. Narrated by Burton, the very beginning summarizes both the previous film, and the one you're about to see. It's strange, but does transition into a very nice Steadicam shot of Burton walking up a stone staircase in perhaps Rio de Janeiro. That done, the movie begins. Also on hand are the theatrical and the teaser trailers, with awful accompanying music. Finally, there is a menu of minimal cast and crew filmographies.