Ominous wails meld with fragmented melodies and inane babble, swarming to audible prominence like an army of locusts as a blood-red font heralds “John Boorman’s Film Exorcist II: The Heretic.” At first glance, you might find this phrasing as nothing more than a declaration of creative ownership in the vast shadow of the film’s juggernaut older sibling. In another light, an unintentional underlying presumption materializes – that the tale you are about to witness is an attempt to put to screen something great, powerful, and altogether more beast than art, something well beyond the constraints of man or even the director.

Infamously coined the worst film ever made, the stigma around The Heretic is lasting, generating a dedicated cult following almost fifty years after its turbulent reception. But seek truth beneath the surface of this filmic curiosity, and you’ll find a brilliant fluke of experimental storytelling that defied fandom and studio in an attempt to reflect upon the complexities between spiritualism and the modern era.

William Friedkin’s magnum opus, The Exorcist, is undeniably burned in our collective memories. Adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, Friedkin’s legacy exploded onto the public in 1973 with its provocative rating, shocking depictions of Catholic possession, and innovative (if not morally gray) technical effects, securing its place as a piece of cultural iconography. Often doubly touted as the best horror film ever made, and the scariest movie ever, the sequel had a large legacy to live up to.

In the summer of 1977, Sir John Boorman brought forth the highly anticipated follow-up, Exorcist II: The Heretic. Picking up with a now teenage Regan MacNeil, the threat of a demonic resurgence is imminent as she copes with embedded trauma amidst an investigation around the death of Father Merrin…throwing in a locust king (played by James Earl Jones) or two.

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From a contemporary and retrospective standpoint, this hard-boiled quasi-procedural turned psychedelic fever dream seemingly has all the checkmarks to ensure a box office hit. But as film historians and members involved in the production have since noted, Heretic is fundamentally at odds with its much more mean-spirited predecessor, a fact that ultimately led to an uproar among fans and peripheral viewers who were anticipating more shock, gore, and everything hellish between.

“The film that I made, I saw as a kind of riposte to the ugliness and darkness of The Exorcist,” says Boorman in a 2005 interview. “I wanted a film about journeys that was positive, about good, essentially. And I think that audiences, in hindsight, were right. I denied them what they wanted and they were pissed off about it.” With the uninhibited resources of Warner Brothers behind him, Boorman set sights to stretch the pre-established narrative fabric as far out as possible in a personal response to Friedkin’s film but also the existential crisis of the time, changing the genre from horror to a sweeping fable in the process.

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“It’s not a horror movie and Boorman will tell you that,” says David Kittredge, a filmmaker and cinema historian currently behind the upcoming documentary on the making of Exorcist II. “I think it is the reason why it [Heretic] was so hated. He didn’t just change the situation or the world of the film, or even change the way the story was being told, he literally changed the genre. The only film I think of as coming close to that dynamic, that I’m aware of, is Aliens and that is still within the ballpark of Alien.”

Spawning decades of ridicule from a classic case of fandom toxicity, Heretic exemplifies the notion that experimentation in mainstream cinema is seldom rewarded for sheer endeavor. “It had one of the most disastrous openings ever – there were riots! And we recut the actual prints in the theaters, about six a day, but it didn’t help the course and I couldn’t bear to talk about it, or look at it, for years,” says Boorman.

But leaving a mark on a major motion picture franchise shouldn’t go unnoticed, and the angle of the creative team was truly unique. With the studio prepared to spare no expense for what they considered another case of lightning in a bottle, broadway playwright William Goodhart’s original script ambitiously highlighted a spiritual crossroads coming on the heels of the God Is Dead movement while loosely pulling inspiration from a belief known as the “Omega Point” – a theorized unification invented by French Jesuit Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that foretold humanity would one day come together and transcend to a god-like state of consciousness.

“I found It extremely compelling,” says Boorman when asked about Chardin’s teachings and their influence. “It [Heretic] was based on Chardin’s intoxicating idea that biological evolution was the first step in God’s plan, starting with inert rock, and culminating in humankind.” A truly bonkers premise to base a popular blockbuster on, Boorman convinced the powers behind the movie that the only way to follow up The Exorcist was by crafting a think piece on the reasons why Regan, and others like her, were being possessed, and the higher purpose puppeteering such events – in and of itself a heresy to the horror of the original film where evil could claim anyone.

“Boorman did not think that The Exorcist was a healthy film,” continues Kittredge. “He [Boorman] felt that The Exorcist was well made, but he didn’t leave feeling elevated the way you would with art. To him, The Exorcist was a digestible piece of intense horror entertainment without a lot of depth beyond that.”

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With the initial act led by newly minted Oscar winner Louise Fletcher as Regan MacNeil’s maternal care physician, Dr. Gene Tuskin, as she struggles to comprehend the existence of demonic forces beyond a person’s psyche, and quickly pivoting in the finale toward a bombastic unleashing of a Jesus-allegory “good locust” in Regan herself, it becomes clear to see where Exorcist II was honorably and intentionally trying to uplift the viewer with a parable of hope through the perseverance and godliness of the human spirit.

Conceptually, Boorman’s sentiments greatly align with the core themes of the source material. Why, then, the fall from grace for both the director and the film? An especially interesting point that Kittredge brings up in conversation with FANGORIA and in analysis of the sequel is the auteur wave and how that shaped the way people regard movies.

The ’60s ushered in the rise of prominent entertainment figures like François Truffaut, who sought to elevate creatives like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford and their work as visionaries. Before, movies were kind of the base-level of entertainment for the working class. Even the best movies were considered a nice night out or inferior to other artistic mediums,” continues Kittredge. “You saw this turn in the ’60s that was dovetailed by this Hollywood new wave where you had this group of filmmakers who were interested in making films as pieces of art, whereas before that, most movies were made to get reactions, to dramatize and create a realm of escapism.”

The Exorcist is very much a movie in the traditional sense that it’s great but its engine is to affect the audience and scare the hell out of them. The Heretic is not that at all. The Heretic was intended to linger in your mind the way that art does, it was made to be discussed and digested and mused over.”

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Of course, one cannot talk about the magical mystery tour that is The Heretic without acknowledging the components that don’t work within its DNA. Among convoluted rewrites from Boorman during production that rendered the final screenplay relatively incomprehensible and a grueling six-month shooting schedule (during which time Boorman himself almost died), a larger failing manifested in the studio-forced casting of co-star Richard Burton.

Several behind-the-scenes voices, including Linda Blair, have gone on record stating the complications of Burton’s work ethic during the making of Exorcist II: The Heretic. In the absence of Exorcist cast veterans, Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller, Burton was brought in to shepherd the story along as Father Philip Lamont, tasked with uncovering the mysterious demise of suspected heretic Father Merrin and ultimately turning heretical himself as he seeks out (and at one point flies on the wings of) the demon Pazuzu.

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Unfortunately, Burton’s tendency to abuse alcohol imposed itself during shooting, leading to high tensions among the cast and crew. But more prevalent in the final performance is Burton’s palpable lack of enthusiasm for the project he is leading. Later on, in various interviews, Burton openly remarked that he only took on the project because “I had a divorce coming up [from Elizabeth Taylor]. I needed money for that.”

This brief summary of production woes might only scratch the surface of what was going on behind the scenes on the Warner backlot, but it certainly paints a picture of chaos, making it more compelling as to how the film even came to fruition at all.

Looking back at what debuted in June of 1977, it is no mystery why society turned on this ambitious work of fantasy. Its wild metaphysical premise mixed with staunch opposition to horror is what others it, in the vast annals of blockbuster cinema, and at the same time, is what makes it a wonder today.

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Striving to provide deeper meditation on good triumphing over evil, Boorman’s film anticipated a rare type of arthouse movie, one that feels at home with the abstract releases coming out of studios like A24. But with the soon-to-debut documentary from David Kittredge, currently titled Heretics, Exorcist II is ripe for rediscovery.

As patrons of entertainment, we desire to be lifted by story and immaculate craftsmanship. Does Boorman’s vision fulfill that expectation? Ultimately, that depends on what you’re looking for in a cinematic experience. Whatever the case, cinephiles, horror hounds, and those simply curious about experimental art should be more than encouraged to give The Heretic another chance.

Watch Exorcist II: The Heretic on VOD.

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