The Exorcist III has a great many champions and very few detractors. Even upon release, though not lauded as a classic (which Friedkin’s film indisputably is), it was warmly regarded as an unqualified success.
Exorcist II: The Heretic, on the other hand, saw very little love in 1977 and has seen very little love since. Mark Kermode of the BBC called John Boorman’s sequel “demonstrably the worst film ever made”. Michael Medved described it as “a thoroughly wretched piece of work”, while Vincent Canby called it a “desperate concoction” and Steven Scheuer opined that it was possibly “the worst sequel in the history of film.” William Friedkin himself thought it was “as bad as seeing a traffic accident” and recounted an incident in which enraged audience members chased the film’s terrified producers from a theatre ten minutes into a screening. He later referred to it as the product of a “demented mind”.
Given that John Boorman was the man who wrote and directed Zardoz, a film in which a bikini-clad Sean Connery hitches a ride on a megalithic flying head that spouts axioms like “The penis is evil!” while spitting up firearms to better facilitate errant war parties in their rape and murder campaigns, Friedkin may well have had a point. John Boorman did possess a demented mind, how else would we have Ned Beatty squealing like a pig under the duress of an uncongenial hillbilly? And how else would we have the grossly underrated Exorcist II?
Let me here add a caveat. I’ve only seen Exorcist II: The Heretic once, and a very long time ago at that. I may also have watched it during a Boorman-binge that I went on in the late noughties – a time at which I was particularly conducive to Boorman-barminess. So what follows is less a cleareyed review of Exorcist II than a run-through of my hazy recollections of the film – a hacky plot synopsis, in short – but this should in itself demonstrate why this movie is the absolute tits.
Half a decade after the events of the first film, Reagan MacNeil is a student at an elite dance academy. Or not. I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter. All is well, she has a special way with her students (perhaps she’s a teacher at an elite dance academy? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter) and she is making the most of her new life in New York City. Re-enter Pazuzu, flying on the teeth of the wind all the way from sand-swept, sunset-tinged North Africa, to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s ebullient tribal score, hellbent on setting up shop once more in poor, post-pubescent, post-possessed Reagan. But never fear! Child psychologist (?) Louise Fletcher and moody priest Richard Burton are on hand to do battle with the Mesopotamic entity, or at the very least to lend Reagan some snazzy para-psychometrical headgear and wander from continent to continent in a bug-eyed stupor as the shit hits the fan. No lesser an actor than James Earl Jones also pops up, as a feather-clad warrior-cum-parasitologist, to dispense some interesting facts on the lifecycle of the locust and guide our heroes to the precipitous cliffside temple of their demonic adversary… All of this may or may not be in the film.
John Boorman’s decision to take The Exorcist’s story in a completely different direction (or run it completely off the rails, depending on your point of view) was bold, at least. Rather than return Reagan to her pea soup-vomiting, head-twirling, invective-spewing best, he delivered a glittery-eyed, rouge-cheeked succubus casting come-hither glances from a big, pink bed… During an earthquake… To a catatonic Richard Burton. Who could fail, at the very least, to be interested by this film? Why all the hate? Why did Mark Kermode claim that it took the original and “trashed it in a way that was on one level farcically stupid and on another level absolutely unforgiveable”? Why did Friedkin call it “a stupid mess by a dumb guy”?
Perhaps the film was too different. Maybe it wasn’t as slavishly faithful a rehashing of the sweet-child-turns-ugly-needs-priest-gets-priest-kills-priest formula as the people wanted. Quite possibly Boorman had too many ideas and too few people shouting, “No, John! No!” There are far worse people to not shout no to, however (Paul Schrader comes to mind), and far worse sequels than Exorcist II.
Fuck you Mark Kermode! Watch Exorcist II everybody!