“I feel like Merlin,” John Boorman wrote in a 1991 diary, “an old wizard who finds himself living in a materialistic world where there is no place for magic.” That might as well explain the troubling legacy of Boorman’s derided sequel to The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s horror novel of demon possession. Whereas Friedkin’s film is stylistically in tune with the gritty docudrama terrain of his prior The French Connection, thus making its supernatural interruptions more unsettling, Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is an exercise in stylized affectation, effectively betraying its predecessor’s legacy. The final product is a director’s film that fits right alongside Boorman’s bonkers post-apocalyptic adventure Zardoz from 1974 and his 1980 take on the King Arthur myth, Excalibur, eschewing The Exorcist‘s naturalistic sensibility for something far more otherworldly.
Exorcist II is a visually scrumptious mess, a film maudit whose ambitious reach in conception exceeds its grasp in execution. (The extras on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray more than confirm that this was a production plagued by real-world variables of recasting, rewrites, and re-edits.) The film centers around the question of the possibility of goodness resulting in great evil, as the story is full of healers and people of noble intentions finding themselves aggrieved by despair, almost as if they were magnets for evil. Among these characters is Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the possessed girl in the first film. While she’s ostensibly free from Pazuzu’s clutches, and shows a rare gift for communicating with children afflicted with mental problems, she’s plagued by bad dreams and suicidal tendencies that threaten to overwhelm her.
Exorcist II is set across a global canvas that spans from New York to South America to Africa to the Vatican, and yet the story’s central mystery still centers around what exactly happened in the first film’s Georgetown setting, specifically in the bedroom of young Regan, where Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) died while exorcising the demon. The Vatican has enlisted Merrin’s protégé, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), to investigate the circumstances surrounding Merrin’s death. Did the old man’s faith fail him? And if so, did this altruistic soldier of Christ in some way become a disciple of Satan? Lamont goes to New York to interview Regan, now a dance student, who has little recollection of what happened but is still plagued by bad dreams.
Collaborating with Lamont, and representing a more scientific perspective on Regan’s trauma, is Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), a psychologist who identifies the exorcism as the source of the girl’s problems. To get inside Regan’s head the film introduces a nifty sci-fi prop: a blinking synchronizer that places two people in a mutual state of hypnosis, enabling one person to enter the other’s buried memories. The hypnosis scenes epitomize the problems audiences had with Exorcist II in 1977, while also highlighting a certain audacity of vision that makes the film a unique genre exercise.
Much as Tuskin’s synchronizer hypnotizes the characters, Boorman draws us into Regan’s inner world using a number of aesthetic idiosyncrasies. One sequence, in which Merrin and the demon’s interaction in Regan’s room from four years earlier plays out for us alongside the glass confines of Tuskin’s office, is done with some rather ingenious in-camera special effects that precipitate a specific directorial conceit. In short, Exorcist II augments reality instead of documenting it, relishing illusions. For one, as the action moves to Africa, where Lamont searches for another person who was exorcised by Merrin, Kokumo (James Earl Jones), the lush Ethiopian landscape comes to suggest something out of an Old Hollywood film, made up as it is of miniatures, process shots, with tribal villages constructed on studio sets.
Boorman’s stylistic gestures are dreamlike, but in the shadow of The Exorcist, it’s easy to see why viewers saw much of the action as fake. Boorman may be conscious of this, doing everything to distance himself from the film’s predecessor (The Exorcist‘s iconic “Tubular Bells” music is traded out for some dramatic Ennio Morricone themes that have aged poorly). Exorcist II is less of a horror film than a metaphysical fantasy externalizing spiritual wonder as if to demonstrate the limitations of Friedkin’s more materialist film. The director’s ellipses, such as the way the inner world of Merrin is suggested but never quite articulated, are replaced with drawn-out theological speculations, as we learn Merrin espoused a kind of Hegalian-Christian ideal where the evolving human mind would achieve its own kind of telekinetic godliness bringing the world together. Such musings may be intriguing, but neither the actors nor the film’s overstuffed set pieces—such as the climax where the original Georgetown house becomes a tempestuous interdimensional gateway—reconcile the contemplative abstractions within the plotty thriller confines.
The Exorcist has its meta-dimensions as a quasi-realist horror film where the main characters are involved in a film production (Regan’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, is a successful actress starring in a social drama). Friedkin withholds ostentation while bidding us to wonder about the otherworldly way films can affect us within and outside the movie theater the same way religion does—the sacred silently hanging over our profane existences. Exorcist II, by contrast, showcases the expressionistic wizardry of a filmmaker’s book of spells. Boorman doesn’t care to walk the tightrope between reality and illusion but jumps right on through a portal leading to unfamiliar dimensions. By doing so, he makes a film with the countenance of a dream but bereft of anything memorably uncanny. His wonderment is unfortunately more rhetorical than visceral. If Boorman is Merlin, the spells he weaves are beautiful, yes, but his cauldron is lukewarm.
Whatever Exorcist II's failings, Shout! Factory has at least redeemed the troubled home-media history of what is otherwise a marvelous technical accomplishment. Both the original 117-minute theatrical cut and the compromised 102-minute home-video edit have received 2K scans. Celluloid grain has been beautifully preserved, and there's no noise or smearing effects to distract from one's appreciation of the film's detailed (and mirror-laden) set design. Exorcist II's color palette and the actors' skin tones come to life here in ways that they haven't in any prior home-video edition of the film. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack is sturdy, giving remarkable fullness to the crystal-clear dialogue, score, and sound effects, from the most screeching of horrors to the subtlest of ambient noises.
If Exorcist II is a mess, Shout! Factory's package proves how it's at least a fascinating one, perhaps demonstrating how the production of so many indulgent director-driven films in the late 1970s led to the fall of the New Hollywood. All the features here are new. The theatrical cut has two commentaries. The first sees director John Boorman discussing his ambitions for the film while disclosing his distaste for the first Exorcist. His commentary, however, is very straightforward. His anecdotes are scarcely juicy, and his research into the story's provocative theology comes across as as spotty. Stronger is the commentary by Shout's project consultant, Scott Bosco, an ardent defender of the film who digs deep into the production history, the re-edits, and the challenges of restoration. Bosco isn't only a scholar of Exorcist II, but he takes us into the front seat as a teenager seeing the film with his family in 1977 New York, recounting the hostility of the audience. Disc two's television cut meanwhile has the Projection Booth Blog's Mike White giving a more candid—if no less insightful—commentary full of behind-the-scenes stories and how the film's flimsy theatrical performance led to a shortened version for TV and home video. There are also interviews with Linda Blair, frank about how the film they photographed wasn't the one they set out to make, and Boorman's longtime editor, Tom Priestly, who remembers the many technical challenges the film presented.
The film may not be a neglected masterpiece, but this Blu-ray package certainly makes a case for it as a fascinating work by a visionary filmmaker.