Four years after her bout of demonic possession, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) seems at peace as she enjoys a privileged but lonely adolescence. Her actress mother, absent on-location, leaves her in the care of her childhood nanny, Sharon (Kitty Winn), who feels inextricably bound to her young charge despite the terror she endured during the girl’s possession. Regan attends frequent counselling sessions with Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), an unorthodox psychologist who believes Regan remembers more of her ordeal than she admits. Meanwhile, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), a protégé of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), the priest who died exorcising Regan, is called to investigate the death of his mentor.
The Church is divided over the teachings of Father Merrin and wants to gather documentation of his views about demonic existence. Father Lamont himself is conflicted, haunted by images of a possessed woman he could not save. As he and Dr. Tuskin become convinced that the demon still exhibits a hold on Regan, the priest heads to Africa in search of Kokuma, who as a boy was possessed by the same demon and exorcised by Father Merrin. Learning the true name and ancient origins of his supernatural foe; a re-invigorated Lamont returns to America to stage a climactic battle for Regan’s soul.
The Exorcist set a high bar when it was released in 1973, a bar that still remains out of reach for most horror films to this day. Pity then all involved in this turgid sequel to the greatest horror film ever made. I saw this on the same bill as The Exorcist and the lasting impression hasn’t really changed that much over the last 30 or so years. Watching it again recently I really gave it a chance, and to be fair there are some decent moments and some great ideas, however as a whole, the film remains a let down.
It would have been an easy decision for Warner Bros.at the time: audiences must surely want to see more of Regan and her Mum after the exorcism, how they handled the fallout, Father Merrin’s backstory, and the investigation into the death of Father Karras. The decision then to get a director who hated the first film to work on the sequel beggars belief.
Despite the fact that most of the vitriol aimed at The Heretic, blames John Boorman for the whole mess, he’s not entirely to blame. Boorman must have initially seemed like a good choice, he’d made the Lee Marvin thriller Point Blank, and the backwoods classic Deliverance. However, it appears that Boorman wanted to make something completely different this time around. What he didn’t want to make was a horror film, as The Heretic is almost completely bereft of scares.
The cast are uniformly awful in the film, Burton delivers one of his worst performances ever, his delivery is stilted and hammy, he’s entirely unconvincing throughout. Even Louise Fletcher, who had won the Oscar previously for her incredible performance in One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, is poor but still much better than Linda Blair and a one-note Kitty Winn. On a positive note, the score by Ennio Morricone is beautiful, albeit out of place in some places.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is full of interesting ideas (the most interesting being the idea of pure goodness as a magnet for evil), however, they’re not followed through and in the end simply discarded in favour of a ridiculous climax. The best, wasted idea is outlined in the scene at the Natural History Museum (in the full 117-minute version) where Father Lamont tells Regan about Teilhard de Chardin and briefly explains the World Mind theory. William Peter Blatty based the character of Father Lankester Merrin on the Jesuit scholar Teilhard de Chardin who espoused a metaphysical concept he called the World Mind, an interpretation of Christian mysticism which sees all minds as joined and gradually evolving into a full awareness of Being as a single consciousness akin to the New Thought idea of Christ Consciousness–the “only begotten” extension of Universal Consciousness, or God. This idea, a synthesis of Christian and Asian religious concepts, is resonant with many unorthodox spiritual teachings. After de Chardin’s death his papers were suppressed by the Vatican and his work was investigated on charges of heresy (his ideas being heretical by the standards of the Catholic Church.)
This could have made for an interesting movie, it didn’t; the central idea that people who have been possessed and survived can then themselves heal others who are similarly afflicted is not explored with enough intelligence to work. It’s not the worst movie ever made, it’s not even the worst Exorcist movie, that would be Renny Harlin’s abysmal Exorcist: The Beginning. Blatty made a much better Exorcist sequel, Exorcist III from his Legion novel, that was also largely ignored, as were both ‘prequels’; it would appear that audiences don’t want more Exorcist movies, they just want The Exorcist, I know I do.
Quality: 1 out of 5 stars
Any Good: 1 out of 5 stars