Exorcist II: The Heretic Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Bizarre nightmares plague Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) four years after her possession and exorcism. Has the demon returned? And, if so, can the combined faith and knowledge of a Vatican investigator (Richard Burton) and a research specialist (Louise Fletcher) free her from its grasp? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
As is the case with all artistic discourse, versions of and tolerance for bad art cannot be objectively measured. One person’s ‘curious failure’ can be another’s ‘absolute trash.’ But we’re all capable of respecting ambition and process, even when the resulting art is an unequivocal failure. For example, I’d like to submit John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Boorman’s film is an awful sequel to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and, by most metrics, a dopey, occasionally boring slog, but it’s also a wholly unique attempt at making a mainstream horror movie. This particular witch’s brew began boiling in 1977, before there was a set template for blockbusters sequels. At the time, sequels were still considered a B-movie phenomenon by major studios, but The Exorcist, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) helped change Hollywood’s perception of franchising. Each film spawned an unlikely sequel and each took a unique approach to the process. The most successful sequels, Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980) and Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), were both direct follow-ups that developed stories beyond their predecessors and challenged viewers with unexpectedly dark endings. They became templates that are still used to this day, while Jeannot Szwarc’s Jaws 2 (1978) made money, but failed to spark inspiration, because it tried too hard to recreate what made the original so popular.
Of these, Exorcist II is the one that seems to have completely misunderstood what people liked about Friedkin’s movie in the first place. Co-producer Richard Lederer claims that they were actually trying to take the Jaws 2 route and effectively remake The Exorcist. If you squint and break it down to its bare essentials, William Goodhart’s screenplay is sort of a rehash of William Peter Blatty’s novel, but then he hired capital-W weirdo John Boorman to direct and any chance of making the Jaws 2 of Exorcist sequels. Boorman had semi-recently directed the fairly straight-laced Deliverance (1973), but, the next year, he also directed Zardoz (1974), so it seems impossible that Lederer didn’t know what he was getting into. For what it’s worth, just about everything enjoyable about the movie, outside of maybe a couple of performances (all of which are consistently unnatural, likely on purpose), comes down to Boorman’s insane sensibilities. This mostly pertains to the wacky imagery, but also includes hiring Ennio Morricone to cut loose with a particularly Morricone-esque score and even some of the stranger plot elements, since long-time collaborator Rospo Pallenberg did an uncredited rewrite of Goodhart’s script.
Boorman floods the screen with a cornucopia of literal smoke and mirrors, layering special optical FX and in-camera tricks in a way that acknowledges the artifice of the filmmaking. This foggy, shiny style had evolved over the course of many films and was brought to the fore over the otherwise unconnected ‘trilogy’ of Zardoz, Exorcist II, and Excalibur (1981), before Boorman mostly abandoned it for The Emerald Forest (1985). What makes it particularly interesting in this context is the fact that the producers initially wanted to recreate the Exorcist, which was, rather famously, made to appear as naturalistic as possible. William Friedkin had been hired to make the film in part due to his success as a documentarian and ability to bring a faux-documentary style to The French Connection (1971). Boorman’s approach is the complete antithesis to almost everything stylistically notable about the original film. When Exorcist II was released, the majority of filmgoers hated the about-face, but enough time (and enough terrible official Exorcist prequels) have passed that we can at least try to respect Boorman’s choices on their own merits. And this is important, because these merits are just about the only thing that works in the film’s favor.
I suspect that even fans can agree that Boorman confused his idiosyncrasies for scariness, because, among Exorcist II’s many flaws, is the sad fact that it’s never frightening – not psychologically, not spiritually, not emotionally, not even physically, since violence and gore is minimized to basically nothing (aside from a heart-ripping and the poor, unnamed cab driver who somehow finds his head impaled on his steering wheel). The dream logic inherent in the film’s many, many hypnotism sequences is certainly provocative and can invoke a disturbing, disorienting quality, provided that Boorman doesn’t get lost in drawn-out, listless slow motion images. This is often asking too much, because, no matter which cut of the film you’re watching (see below), almost every single scene eventually grows tedious. Still, the sheer chaos of the African-set flashbacks and waking nightmares are difficult to entirely ignore. Between the soundtrack noise, the wild cross-cuts, and, again, those oddly layered FX, these sequences represent the eccentric director at his most comfortable and, assuming he wasn’t making the follow-up to the most popular horror movie of all time, they’d be the reason you’d hire him in the first place. While these scenes should be considered culturally insensitive at best, it is of note that Boorman followed up this weirdo-chic period in his career with a couple more ‘white westerners stumble into trouble in exotic lands’ movies, 1985’s The Emerald Forest and 2005’s Beyond Rangoon. He found greater critical success with dramedies, like The General (1998) and the Oscar-nominated Hope and Glory (1987).
Exorcist II has been released on barebones Blu-ray by Warner Bros. throughout the world since 2014. So, what does Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition bring to this very crowded marketplace. Firstly, the studio promises an uptick in image quality by utilizing a brand new 2K scan of original film elements (they don’t specify if it’s negative or interpositive in the advertising literature) and, second, they’re including both the complete 118-minute premiere cut and a drastically re-edited 102-minute international version (for the record, there is also a 110-minute theatrical cut, which is apparently Boorman’s preferred version). They’ve also added a bunch of extras, but I’ll get to those in a minute.
I am unable to supply comparison caps for this review, because I do not own the WB disc and can’t find a single acquaintance with one either, but this remaster is probably good enough to assume it is at least a minor improvement. That said, there are a lot of factors holding it back, most of which pertain to Boorman’s penchant for stacking FX layers, fog/smoke, and habit of shooting bright lights directly into cinematographer William A. Fraker’s lens. The footage is also particularly grainy, sometimes on purpose to further press the business of FX shots and sometimes due to the excessive use of slow motion photography. These issues are slightly magnified by the kind of iffy mastering that causes problems for a number of Scream Factory’s older discs. I find this disappointing, because the studio had been taking care to avoid noising-up their higher-profile releases over the last couple of years, but admit the raw 2K footage probably didn’t look all that much cleaner. In better news, there isn’t any major print damage or compression artifacts, which is especially nice, considering the importance of element separation throughout the grainy, dim, and (purposefully) softly focused compositions. Color quality seems to skew a bit cooler than I remember, but hues are consistent and not too muddy. Basically, some mistakes have been made, but Exorcist II is such a uniquely unattractive motion picture, that it’s hard to blame the restoration.
Because nobody liked it, Exorcist II did not get the same 5.1/7.1 digital overhaul(s) that Friedkin’s movie ‘enjoyed.’ It was mixed in mono and it has remained in mono for 40-plus years. This Blu-ray is no exception, though the uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio format constitutes an upgrade over the DVD. The lack of stereo elements is obvious if you’re really listening for them, but the layering is quite effective and there aren’t any cases of obvious overcrowding. The lossless nature of the track helps to keep things clean, even when the mix is at its busiest and volume is at its highest, though there are some level discrepancies between dialogue-driven and effects/music-driven sequences, which leaves the former a bit too quiet. In case I hadn’t made it clear in the Feature section, Ennio Morricone’s original score is probably the best thing about the movie. It’s unexpected and keyed-up, but also fronted by a perfect earworm of a main theme, which became the basis for the ad campaign. Again, despite the lack of multi-channel enhancement, the music rarely sounds compressed or compromised.
Disc one (118-minute cut):
Commentary with director John Boorman – The almost entirely new extras begin with a personable director’s commentary. Boorman doesn’t dig too far into the film’s many and varied problems, but is reasonably honest about the project’s shortcomings. He loses focus a few times and has a habit of narrating on-screen action, but he does a better job maintaining the discussion than most 85 year-olds.
Commentary with Scott Michael Bosco – The second track with Blu-ray production consultant and The Digital Cinema webmaster Bosco sticks closer to the complicated series of pre and post-production changes, audience reactions, and the film’s messy legacy.
What Does She Remember? (19:16, HD) – Actress Linda Blair talks about dealing with stardom as a child, resisting a sequel, really liking the original Heretic script, her castmates, learning to tap dance, and how ongoing script changes slowly unraveled the film into the mess we see today.
Interview with editor Tom Priestley (6:57, HD) – A shorter chat with the editor, who recalls being whisked away from editing Stuart Rosenberg’s Voyage of the Damned (1976) to fill in after original editor, John Merritt, reportedly had a nervous breakdown.
Disc two (102-minute cut):
Commentary with Mike White – The third and final new commentary features writer, critic, and host of the Projection Booth Blog. White takes a typical ‘expert critic’ approach by packing the track with cast & crew factoids, which helps avoid overlap with the Bosco track, while also taking time to offer up his opinion on the film’s quality.
Teaser and theatrical trailers
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.