In comparison to William Peter Blatty’s original, Exorcist II: The Heretic is not a horror film and isn’t all that scary. The issue of one’s own faith and the effects of their beliefs were told tremendously through the characters and so, for the sequel, there was no need to retread that holy ground. Instead, writer William Goodhart and Director John Boorman changed the aesthetics to a more visceral setting and the mind.
Before delving into this film further, let’s make it clear that there is no defending the poor visual effects of the opening sequence involving a possessed healer burning in flames. It is awful and why there were not better efforts made is beyond me. Otherwise, the only real problem with the film is that it doesn’t have the same atmosphere as its predecessor and asks too much of the viewer. Perhaps even a poor execution of what is a really cool story. So rather than dwell on the negatives that have earned it such hatred and rejection among fans, and scoring a 3.7/10 on IMDB, let’s instead explain the story, the positives and maybe offer some explanation.
Picking up four years after the original, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) now lives in a penthouse apartment in New York; attending school and practicing tap dance while honing her artistic skills at home. While her Mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), did not return (the character is said to be away on location in a new job), the MacNeil family’s aid Sharon (Kitty Wynn) is back and watching over Regan. While seemingly free of the horrors endured, Regan struggles and it’s up to Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) to use hypnosis and dream interpretation to evoke the memories inside her. Meanwhile, Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) is recruited by the Cardinal of the Church to conduct an investigation into Father Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) death. Merrin’s writings are in jeopardy of being discarded by the church completely as they find his premonitions that evil is growing and will eventually take over good are heresy (hence The Heretic subtitle).
Does the Exorcist II ask too much of the audience?
Seeking out Regan, and much to the objection of Tuskin, Lamont stands by during their first hypnotic session. Here is where we learn that by synchronizing their brainwaves (for those curious – normal sleep patterns range from Beta to Alpha waves, but it is the Theta wave tones that create much of the deeper imagery found in our slumber), they go to a next level of consciousness; could even say the astral plane. Tuskin is lost though during the session and Lamont attaches himself to the device to go after her. Once he is opened up to that world, he becomes in sync with Regan to discover that Father Merrin, in spirit, is protecting Regan while Pazuzu, the inhabiting demon, still tries to maintain a grasp on her soul. Through Pazuzu, Lamont is taken on a journey that shows one of Merrin’s earlier exorcism successes, young and later on, older, Kokumo (James Earl Jones), who has the power to control the Locusts. See the evil demon has chosen the locust because, as the audience learns later, inherits a natural evil once they brush their wings together in swarms thus changing their nature and not being the peaceful grasshopper that they can be.
Sound confusing yet? Told you it asks a lot of the viewer. It is not that thrilling for anyone who not interested in artistic expression of the dream world either. Understanding the battle raging inside Regan, Lamont goes against the Church to travel to Africa and seek out Kokumo. Meanwhile, now that Regan’s mind has become active to the evil inside her, she struggles and tries to guide Lamont in his quest, but Pazuzu also guides him as a minion that culminates in a final battle. Kokumo, now an adult, does meet with Lamont and explains that there is a good locust among the swarm and it is their hope that she alone can reverse the brushing of the wings; restoring harmony and good to the evil that resides in the world. The allegorical good locust is obviously a representation of Regan and what she is meant to become. Lamont isn’t the only one brushed with evil, as Sharon begins showing her dark side and she is recruited by Pazuzu to prevent Tuskin from stopping Pazuzu’s total inhabitancy of Regan’s soul.
This climax battle takes place at the famous Prospect Street home in Georgetown, Washington. Credit to the set designers who recreated the house as the original owners would not allow production there after the first film. Evil Regan seems to be in control, even sending swarms of locusts to attack Regan, to weaken her, so that Lamont can kill her. However, as Kokumo predicted, it is Regan who has the power of pure good; backed by the essence of Father Merrin. She overthrows Pazuzu’s hold on Lamont. Lamont is then able to rip out Evil Regan’s heart. Regan, performing the same controlling hand gestures as a young Kokumo once did, is able to reverse the Locust swarm and turn them back into peaceful grasshoppers. Tuskin witnesses the salvation of Lamont and the victory by Regan but at the price of Sharon’s life. Pazuza had Sharon self-sacrifice herself in a car fire that was meant to barricade any outside interference during the climactic battle. As the film closes, we see the hypnotic light shining in cycles over Tuskin as she watches Lamont and Regan walk off, through the destructed home, and into the sunrise.
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What does this all mean? It is an entire ethereal canvas of good overcoming evil. It’s a massive art film. Here is where the film deserves credit, because rather than still be a victim, Regan is now portrayed as a fighter, a savior to the world, and it is her story (her soul) that must be protected. This also shows exactly what went down in Father Merrin’s last moments with the possessed Regan in the original (something that was left to the imagination of the viewer). Are we to believe that all this stuff has really happened? That’s debatable. The Prospect Street property is still standing come Exorcist III (though they admittedly ignored events that occurred in Exorcist II) so why would anybody rebuild that house as it was? Nope, my theory is different: I feel the majority of this entire film is an adventure through various stages of the dream session; locking us all inside the theta waves connected to the subconscious. When Regan feels Lamont’s pain as he is rejected by the Africa natives, she collapses on the floor and we hear the safety bell of the hypnotic device therefore preventing the self-destruction of her psyche. Regan also lies in bed, connecting to Lamont, albeit through Pazuzu, with the light shining in its cycle over her face. Lastly, once Regan restores the grasshoppers, they disappear therefore confirming they were not actually there. Lamont and Regan walk off into the sunrise, rather than descend the famous staircase beside the house, and the cycling light and hypnotic sounds engulf Tuskin as she looks on. This tells us that Tuskin was never brought out of the dream state by Lamont during that session, and that all of them were entangled in the astral plan and spiritual realm to save Regan’s soul.
When looking at the film this way, it makes way more sense and would justify why there was such reliance on the exaggeration of reality. I had the opportunity to meet Linda Blair at a Horrorhound convention in 2010, and she signed my Exorcist II DVD with “Sweet Dreams”. To me, that confirms what this film is: a dream; or a set of dreams depicting an entire soul searching battle beyond our time and space.
Whatever version you watch, the original Theatrical version on VHS, or all subsequent releases of John Boorman’s full cut, spend that 117 minutes thinking beyond what is known in our reality and let your dreams carry you away on the wings of the locust.