One scarcely knows where to begin in evalutaing John Boorman’s sequel to The Exorcist. Suffice it to say that his film is laughable, incompetent, and insulting to viewers of intelligence and good taste. Some salient points among too many to be fully listed are:
1) Boorman is on public record as despising the original Exorcist film based on William Peter Blatty’s novel and screenplay and directed by William Friedkin.
2) Boorman seems to have aggressively manifested this contempt via his ludicrously idiosyncratic perspective on, and direction of, Heretic.
3) Boorman took Blatty’s tenderly conceived and thoughtfully developed characters and subjected them to Boorman’s own hack revisions.
4) For example: Delicate, vulnerable Sharon Spencer becomes Boorman’s mean-spirited, deeply dysfunctional Sharon The Witch Lady. He dresses her in a Witch Costume when she escorts Fr. Lamont (Richard Burton) to the MacNeil house. Then he incinerates her at the end of the film. That’s what we do to Witches (if we are Primitives or inept Film Directors).
One beloved Exorcist character down, three to go…
5) The Boorman version eliminates Chris MacNeil (mother of possession victim Regan, played in the original film by Ellen Burstyn), replacing her with brain-addled neuro-shaman Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), whose Rube Goldbergesque brain machine understandably elicited pained guffaws from intelligent theater viewers. (The leadwires springing from the helmet are particularly inept. Check out the ones used by Quatermass incarnation Andrew Keir in Five Million Years to Earth for a respectable and believably “futuristic” headset.)
6) Boorman/screenwriters violate the dignity of Blatty’s character, Fr. Lankester Merrin. In the Blatty book and the Blatty-Friedkin film, Merrin is a towering intellect resisting the sin of pride, as well as being a world-renowned archaeologist and an experienced exorcist-theologian.
In Heretic, however, Merrin has become a spooky question mark, who may or may not believe in ESP, may or may not approve of Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary theories, and may or may not continue to exist posthumously in some virtual paramental-spiritual realm. No longer an exorcist-paleontologist, Heretic’s Merrin is now a loopy promoter of Boorman’s parapsychological speculations, having discarded his original role of presenting Blatty’s interesting theological ideas. Not only this, but, in a scene worthy of Woody Allen, Boorman’s Fool-Merrin gets his heart literally ripped out by a surrogate Linda Blair, who…
7) … refused to immerse herself completely into her reprised role and declined demon-make-up, forcing the studio to rely on hiring a not-believable body double for the flashback possession scenes.
Not that this matters a whole lot, since Heretic violates Regan’s character as viciously and arbitrarily as it does all the others.
Not only is Regan MacNeil no longer an unfortunate victim of a previous possession: Boorman transforms her into a shamanic evil-fighter, The Good Grasshopper (perhaps even the Best Little Bug in the World) – albeit with a Terrible Dark Side (ever so sensitively symbolized by draping her in a flimsy negligee) with whom Burton/Lamont bed-grapples, to his credit, without gaining an erection.
(Also, in an extremelypointless subplot, it turns out that Regan has become a sensationally inept tap dancer.)
8) Heretic literalizes the demonic, insisting on a literal Pazuzu (the demonic symbol in The Exorcist: a Middle Eastern g0d turned demon for novelistic purposes).
9) Merrin confronts Pazuzu, an ordeal referenced in the original novel and film as supposedly taking months to complete, but in Heretic taking only long enough for Merrin to rope-jockey the possessed lad Kokumo up a cliff to an Ethiopian rock church.
Merrin’s chief struggle in Friedkin’s Exorcist was to subdue the demon who was, to say the least, extremely uncooperative. But not in Heretic: No sooner does Pazuzu possess Kokumo than he immediatly – seemingly even with some pride – gives away his identity to Merrin (hint!): “I …am …PAZUZUUUU…!!”
A prime point of exorcism is to force or to trick the demon into giving away its identity, since according to ancient tradition, to gain the Enemy’s name is to gain power over him. Heretic’s Pazuzu simply wimps out and hands Merrin this coveted morsel on a platter.
8) “Ecumenical Edwards,” played by Ned Beatty, who is obviously introduced as comic relief from all the surrounding incredible suspense and horror, is about as funny as Richard Burton’s excessive sweat. “This is the traditional route of the plague!” Edwards warns Burton, who by now must be wondering if the plague consists of locusts or of a leprous script.
9) Gratuitous female breasts – ah, yes – the breasts! Sharon’s are visible (through a moist robe)… as are those of the black girl who is offered to Lamont, as are those of the clothed-but-still-showcased and under-aged Linda Blair. Apparently the idea here was to make the film more engaging for the teenage mentalities who presumably would be its chief marketing base.
10) Burton obviously hates the role and the movie. Maybe he was also bright enough to despise Boorman. His unconvincing and hysterically lethargic performance is a huge drag on a movie that is already leaden. In fact, it sinks the film from the first frame. Perhaps this constitutes Dick’s Revenge.
11) The Friedkin film communicates Catholicism accurately and humanely. Heretic makes a joke of the whole thing, including a colossally inaccurate description of Teilhard’s philosophy and an embarrassingly trite depiction of internal Church politics and clergy.
12) Veteran film composer Ennio Morricone’s score, to borrow a demonic line from Blatty’s novel, “sucks to the roots… to the bristles”. Morricone and Burton may have gotten together and commiserated – over multiple bottles of Chivas Regal – about the bum deal in which they were mired. Morricone’s contempt for the material is obvious from the ear-killing music he wrote for Heretic.
From the first note, Morricone’s score screams at the audience, This Flick Is A Terrible Joke and I Am Parodying it Musically Every Chance I Get! His faux-African “sound” is a truly grating listen. Morricone’s past career is triumphant, having grandly achieved an African “sound” in the Brando film Burn/Qaemada, so it’s proven he can do great African-surrogate music. His apparent sonic trashing of Heretic could of course be seen as fair play, based on Boorman’s own trashing of the franchise. How sad that Morricone’s sweet-melancholy Regan’s Theme (an exception among the other poorly scored tracks) turned out to be so lovely – it is completely too poignant, sophisticated and sensitive for this mucoid glob of a film.
This list could be expanded, at the price of monotony. At least there is solace in knowing that Exorcist II: The Heretic has been “honored” by inclusion in The Golden Turkey Awards. Fortunately, Blatty came out with his own sequel to The Exorcist, namely, the novel Legion. A revised version of the novel was released by Morgan Creek studios under the title, Exorcist III: Legion, with Blatty directing and providing the screenplay. Happily, Exorcist afficianados have this little gem to covet, and to make up for Boorman’s misconceived freak show.