Movie Review: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Out of the original trilogy of Exorcist movies, and the two that came out in 2004, bringing the total to five, Exorcist II: The Heretic is seen as the red-headed stepchild of the lot. This film, upon it’s 1977 release was torn apart by critics and moviegoers alike, and in some instances, was laughed off the screen.

The first time I saw it a few years ago, I thought it was alright–nothing special, but not terrible either. After watching it yesterday, I have elevated my opinion to that of actually enjoying this film. Granted, it is severely flawed but it is an interesting flick nonetheless. I am a very big Richard Burton fan, so maybe that has something to do with it, but what I saw in this film was a very unique, almost mystical piece of storytelling.

For a film that bombed, the cast is star-studded. Along with the above mentioned Burton, we have Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, and Kitty Winn reprising their roles from the original film, as well as Louise Fletcher who was a year removed from an Academy Award for her work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Paul Henreid, James Earl Jones, and Ned Beatty. The movie also features music from legendary film score composer Ennio Morricone.

When talks for a sequel to be made to The Exorcist began, William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty were wholeheartedly opposed, but still sat down to discuss plot ideas. When neither of them could come to an agreement, the project was scrapped. Producers than went after John Boorman, who was a candidate to direct the first film.  Though he turned down the first one, he wanted to spin his take of the Exorcist story, and agreed to direct the film.

Everyone in the cast agreed that the script they were presented with when they signed on was very good, and they all expected the film to be a success. But do to constant changes being made, and almost daily rewrites, the actors never got into any flow, and this is evident by watching it. The film’s special effects and storyline are actually very good, but it is all brought down by just plain bad acting. Burton, whose work I have always admired, is completely emotionless throughout the film as the priest. Maybe that was just how his character was supposed to be, but I just think he looked out of place.

What really made moviegoers cringe was when the used of a “synchronizer machine” was brought in. I thought this was a very clever idea by Boorman, one that was ahead of its time, but the way it was used made for a very corny scene. The purpose of this machine, was to hook up two people, with wires wrapped around their heads, sending pulses to one another so they can basically get into each others minds and see what the other person sees; they can also tap into their dreams and memories. But for what seemed like ten minutes, we just see close-ups of Burton and Blair staring at each other while this object lights up and blinks and we hear a hum coming from it. At the time, this was seen as rather stupid, but when you look at films from today, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, this was really the first film where characters actually got inside someone else’s mind. Perhaps Nolan was inspired by watching this film.

Linda Blair with Richard Burton, who Blair claims, got along very well with each other while filming.

As for the special effects, they are top-notch. The audience gets to fly on the wings of a locust to the distant land of Africa, where we see the first exorcism conducted by Father Merrin, one that is only briefly referenced to in the original. Von Sydow does not have a major role in the film, but he was decent from what I saw. We see him as both older, in flashback scenes to the original, and how old he was in real life at the time, when he played his younger self for the African exorcism.

The effects also made it look as if the crew was really filming in Africa. Massive sets had to be built for a church that was located so far up in the mountains, the only way to get to it was by climbing a rope. This looked very realistic, and really gave the effect that they were in a foreign land.

At the end of the film is where the audiences had a point. What we saw as a creative and original journey for the first hour and a half had to be ruined by a visual effects spectacle. Here we have the demon who possessed Regan four years earlier, confront with and battle Burton’s character of Father Philip Lamont. This entails the original and now famous Georgetown home from the first movie get torn apart and collapse when the power of Satan battles the power of God. We see a bed shaking and walls collapsing before finally it ends somewhat happily. Meanwhile, after this movie began to slump at the box office, Boorman pulled the film out of theaters and inserted a different ending, one where Lamont dies. This version is only available on the original VHS and I have not seen it, but I have to think it would serve as a much better film.

But what really bothered me about this film, was that while this was supposed to be an investigation conducted by the church, looking into how Merrin died, there is no mention of Damien Karras (played by Jason Miller) who was more central to the plot than Merrin was. There is not one word spoken about him, not even his name. There is also no mention of Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) either. Even though they planned on bringing Cobb’s character back, he died before the film started shooting, so rather than replace him, they removed his character all together. They could have at least referenced him, though.

All in all, I think this movie on its own is actually quite good if you can put aside its obvious flaws. As a sequel to The Exorcist, it fail miserably,  but because Blatty and Friedkin were not involved, it does not make me look any differently at the original. I will rate this movie a 7 out of 10, because I thought it was very creative, and combined science fiction (and fact, in some instances) with horror and psychological drama to make a decent B-level movie.

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