Boorman: Exorcist II – The Heretic (1977)

Making a sequel to The Exorcist was always going to be a tough ask. The images in William Friedkin’s original film were so stark and singular, and yet so close to being totally ridiculous, that it must have seemed almost impossible to repeat the formula when John Boorman took the reins in 1977, working off a screenplay by William Goodhart. From that perspective, it’s a  valiant effort, especially since Boorman genuinely puts a new spin on the franchise. Yet Exorcist II doesn’t work all that well moment to moment, often feeling like less – much less – than the sum of its parts, which are all too often pretty ludicrous on their own terms as well.

Up to a point, Exorcist II follows the parallel plots of the first film. Once again, we have a narrative about a priest – in this case Father Philip Lamont, played by Richard Burton, who is charged with investigating the events of the original exorcism, at the behest of a Cardinal, played by Paul Henreid, in a kind of Catholic procedural. On the other hand, we have the story of Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair, who has moved to New York after surviving the exorcism, and murdering Father Lankester Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, while possessed by Pazuzu the demon. We never see Regan’s mother, Chris – instead, Regan lives with her aunt Sharon, played by Kitty Winn, while receiving therapy at a cutting-edge psychiatric centre for troubled children, headed by Dr. Gene Tuskin, played by Louise Fletcher.

While Regan doesn’t remember any of the events of the original film, she is inchoately plagued by them, revisiting the exorcism in dreams, or in the hypnotic sessions that Gene runs at her institute. She first meets Father Philip Lamont during one of these sessions, communing with him across a hypnotic device that emits strobes of light at gradually decelerating intervals. This is a very slow scene, especially so early in the film, and it sets the stage for a sequel that continually invokes Friedkin’s original, but is often not sure what to do with it. Friedkin specialised in a kind of solemn sombience, but that settles into a more turgid tedium here, while Lamont is pure exposition, lacking any of the dynamism of the original two priests.

Boorman also shoots for the same iconographic – or iconoclastic – style as the original. Friedkin had a real gift for metonymic chains of evocative or resonant images, producing a visual logic that overrode basic narrative continuity. That worked brilliantly for a film like The Exorcist, and yet the balance and rhythm of those images, which was so finely-wrought and carefully poised, doesn’t really translate here. Instead, we start with a series of montage sequences that are alternatively ridiculous or incomprehensible – arcane juxtapositions that are usually mediated by Lamon, or the Catholic Church, in some way. You can tell Boorman’s going for serene eeriness of the first film, but it just comes off as wooden, staid and atonal.

For all those reasons, Exorcist II works best as a prequel, as an origin story for Pazuzu, which explains why there’s almost nothing in the way of actual exorcism scenes. Perhaps that’s why the two actual prequels proved to be so fraught when they were released in the early 2000s – the backstory had already been done, but done badly, which made the studios particularly anxious about quality control. All things considered, Exorcist II should have been a straight prequel, since it doesn’t really know how to handle the ongoing story. Where the original was boldly iconoclastic, Boorman is quite reserved and even sheepish about taking it up a notch, cautious not to encroach upon Blair’s personal space again – or offend the Catholic Church.

Yet if the events of Exorcist II make it a prequel, then the spatial scheme and style of Boorman’s film is resolutely a sequel. The Exorcist specialised in claustrophobic horror that played out in traditional spaces – Georgetown University, and the surrounding historic neighbourhood. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more claustrophobic film, at its scariest moments, than The Exorcist. With that in mind, Boorman goes in the opposite direction, generating horror out of futuristic, agoraphobic spaces – spaces that are recursive and fractured, stretching off in all directions. We first see this in the psychiatric institute, which consists of a series of honeycombed pods separated by mirrors and windows that make it difficult to figure out the dimensions of the space, or even discern any realistic sense of space.

This agoraphobic horror quickly gives way to a fear of the open air. We first see this in the next futuristic space in the film – Sharon’s apartment, where Regan has been living during her time in New York. This apartment couldn’t be further away from Regan’s house in Georgetown – it’s all open spaces, bright light, and refractive metallic surfaces. In an eaely scene, Regan dreams of Pazuzu, and seems to wake up to voices drifting up from a church deep in the street below. She glides out of bed and onto the balcony, which is clad with futuristic sculptures and a wall feature composed of broken shards of glass. From there, she becomes a part of this glassy aerial world, melding with the glass of the balcony, and only awakening from her trance as she pivots precipitously thirty storeys above the world below.

Yet this agoraphobic horror is clearest in Lamont’s investigation into Pazuzu, which takes him to Africa in an attempt to figure out Father Merrin’s backstory. We catch our first glimpse of this in Regan’s balcony experience, which ends with her envisaging a plague of locusts emerging from deep within the African continent. This gives way to an extreme low shot of a plane rising (Lamont’s plane, as it turns out), then a high angle shot of the Georgetown steps. To return to Georgetown, and meet up with the spatial scheme of the original, Boorman suggests, we must deal with the import of this new agoraphobic space – and its link to Africa.

This leads onto the scenes in Africa, which is where most of the sequel’s world-building takes place. Lamont traces Merrin to the Ethopian rock churches – a loosely fictionalised version of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Lalibela. In Boorman’s version, these churches are cut out of enormous mesas, and separated by vast chasms. When Lamont arrives, he learns that Merrin first exorcised Pazuzu from an African man named Kokumo. He also learns that Merrin had unusual beliefs, which were considered heterodox by the Catholic Church – and that this is one of the reasons why he himself has been called upon to investigate Merrin so closely.

In short, Merrin believed that priests weren’t enough when it came to exorcism. Instead, he predicted the emergence of a new race of psychic people who would be able to preclude exorcism before it even happened. In effect, these psychics were the antibodies for exorcism. Merrin believed that Kokumo was the first of these psychics and that Regan was another. He believed that, over time, these psychic powers would spread across the entire human race, making them immune to exorcism, thereby diminishing the institutional power of the Catholic Church. As Lamont becomes more involved in the investigation, he starts to sympathise with Merrin’s perspective, and decides to track down Kokumo himself to understand Regan better.

The final part of this puzzle is the locusts. Just as Kokumo first emerged from Africa, so did Pazuzu, where his primary form was as a herd of locusts. These locusts embody the film’s horror of the air – they are referred to as “spirits of the air,” making Kokumo the “king of the spirits of the air.” Moreover, it seems that Pazuzu only infects locusts once they take to the air, “evil breeding evil by contact.” Lamont’s investigation thus turns into a race against time – he has to find Kokumo in Africa, before Pazuzu can escape from Africa, in the form of a locust plague, to the United States. The timeline is a little muddled here, since Pazuzu has technically already reached Georgetown, but past and present start to collapse now anyway.

We now learn that this primal encounter between Pazuzu and Kokumo took place in a space that functions as a pivot for the entire spatial scheme of the film. In a flashback, we see Merrin exorcising Pazuzu from Kokumo, and then dying himself, in one of the great chasms cut into the mesa, in the midst of one of the “devil-winds” of locusts with which Pazuzu manifests himself. These chasms are the African cognate for the Georgetown steps, both of which turn into pivots around which the original spatial scheme of the franchise involutes, twists inside out. Both the chasms and the steps are technically claustrophobic spaces, yet they’re also just porous enough that their claustrophobia can’t hold in Boorman’s revised agoraphobic scheme. Rather than hemming space in, the stairs-chasm become a vehicle for vivid gusts of air that evoke some other space, a world that we can’t quite visualise at this stage in the film.

In other words, the horror of Exorcist II stems from a space that is somehow agoraphobically “outside” the spaces of the original film – a space that can’t be fully visualised, and that can’t even be properly conceptualised beyond the demonic agency of Pazuzu. Boorman has a couple of ways of understanding this space, and it’s here that his ingenuity as a director comes into the picture. First and foremost, he evokes it through sound, using the first couple of scenes in the film to centre our attention on sound as a medium that moves through open air. We start with a series of manic noises and prayer, a cacophonous speaking in tongues, and we hear them before we see them, over the credits. These turn out to stem from the only exorcism in the film, suggesting that even the spectacle of exorcism is not enough to represent, or exorcise, the spatial anxiety that lurks around the fringes of Boorman’s vision.

From there, we move to our first encounter with Regan, who is supplementing her therapy by trying to get a career in Broadway, in one of the weirdest plot twists of the film. We don’t hear her speak yet though – instead, she converses with another performer entirely through music and dance, a medley of tap and saxophone. I was struck by how uncannily Blair resembles Stevie Nicks here, but that may have simply been because sound was so front and centre in this second scene, which draws heavily on the glam extravagance of 70s concert films. Finally, we shift to the first depiction of the psychiatric institute – a child grimacing as they receive a therapeutic noise through a hypnosis machine that looks a bit like an early Walkman. When Dr. Gene Tuskin explains hypnosis to Regan and Lamont a few minutes later, she also does so sonically, by explaining that the mind has its own tone: “Listen to your tone.”

While Exorcist II doesn’t live up to the original film, this sense of an alterior space, a space that is heard before it is seen, represents a really acute read on Friedkin’s broader project in the 1970s. You might say that Exorcist II is a sequel to his great 70s trilogy, rather than to The Exorcist in particular – Boorman’s answer to a trio of films that were all acutely interested in embedding American narratives within arcane patterns of global exchange. That’s clear at the start of The Exorcist itself, which opens in Iraq, and draws heavily on the continuity between Christianity and the Middle East for much of its horror. But we also see it in The French Connection, which never completely articulates the shadowy connections between its American and French scenes, leaving it to John Frankenheimer’s sequel to cement the links.

This tendency climaxes with Sorcerer, the third film in Friedkin’s unofficial trilogy. Based on The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer follows a group of four men who have to transport a truck of highly unstable nitoglycerine through Latin America. Unlike Henri-Georges Clouzot’s original, which opens in medias res, in Latin America, Friedkin devotes the first act to these men, as their actions in Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey lead to the main part of the story. Yet these early scenes are curiously redundant in Sorcerer, since the narratives they establish quickly fade away once we get to Latin America, while they never establish enough character to justify the length of the opening act either. Instead, this first act obscures more than it reveals, evoking a globalised world that makes the central journey eerier and more resonant, while refusing to characterise that globalised world except as an undifferentiated “outside”.

In other words, The Exorcist was the pivotal film in a trilogy about emergent globalisation – and the dangers (and thrills) of a globalised world. That’s the vision that Boorman continues in Exorcist II, rather than the specific mythology of the Exorcist franchise itself, and, like Friedkin, Boorman is ambivalent about globalisation. Pazuzu is scary because he is a global force, capable of infecting the United States from Africa. Yet Kokumo is a globalising force for good, since he represent a new psychic connectivity that could rid the world of demonic possession once and for all. The film wavers between those two figurative conceits, eventually compromising with a critique of rapid globalisation, which is tantamount to a critique of globalisation more generally, since by definition globalisation tend to feel rapid. Merrin predicts that “everyone is coming together in a kind of world-mind” but that “if it happens before people are ready, we may find ourselves pointing the wrong direction, towards Satan.”

This globalised world is the real subject of Friedkin’s trilogy – and the real subject of the space “outside” the original film that Boorman tries to articulate and evoke. In Merrin’s odd conceit, globalisation doesn’t arise as a result of Western (especially American) control of the third world, but is instead a demonic force of connectivity that emerges from the heart of the third world itself. By returning to Africa, Merrin is trying to reverse, or at least forestall, this demonic connectivity, explaining why Africa is so exoticised here. Even as the film draws on the same visual lexicon as Roots, it makes Roots seem like docudrama by comparison, since most of the African scene are pitched closer to Star Wars – Blair looks like Carrie Fisher, Ethiopia looks like Tattooine, and James Earl Jones makes a late cameo as an adult Kokumo.

As we start to shift into the second part of the film, Boorman seems to get a clearer handle on this space he’s trying to articulate, and changes his approach accordingly. Whereas the earlier scenes bypassed sight altogether to focus on sound, the later scenes aim for a kind of intensified, sped-up sight that turns the entire film into a sustained montage sequence. This is especially clear in the POV locust shots, which distort the frame and manipulate motion to fuse time and space into an emergent global continuum. These airborne scenes often play like forerunner of the the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, or clarify that the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy is the natural sequel to Friedkin’s trilogy. Both trilogies evoke a vertiginous new connectivity, along with a disruption of planetary rhythms – and Exorcist II is the pivot between these trilogies, the point where the visual vocabulary shifts from genre cinema to a broader experimentalism.

By the end of the film, Boorman seems restless to test this new spatial scheme against the more claustrophobic style of the first film. We get a glimpse of this when Regan and Lamont visit the Museum of Natural History. There, behind one of the glass panes, she inchoately recognises the rock churches of Ethopia. Yet this is the closest that the sequel can come to the statelier and more static scenes of Friedkin’s film – a museum tableau, behind glass, dated, historicised and almost quaint compared to Boorman’s new sense of global porosity.

The final test comes in the third act, with two trajectories that converge on the Georgetown house. Both of these trajectories attempt to reclaim the claustrophobic coordinates of Friedkin’s original, even as Boorman’s sense of space grows more dispersed and porous as well, as if the sequel were directly working against itself now. Boorman prepares us for this final trajectory in two ways. First, he starts to shoot airplanes like locusts, especially airplanes between the United States and Africa, preparing us to see mass transit more generally as a (literal) vehicle for Pazuzu’s mobility. Second, he spends much of the film focusing on glass walls and windows that display the inside world and reflect the outside world in equal measure, to the point where no space or place in the narrative feels entirely self-contained.

These two tendencies climax with the peak porosity of the two closing trajectories. On the one hand, Lamont and Regan travel to Georgetown by train, but there’s no clear sense that the train is separated from the outside world in any way, as Boorman lingers over shots of the train windows that fuse the world inside with the world outside in increadingly baroque and flamboyant ways. On the other hand, Gene and Sharon travel to Georgetown by a plane that is buffeted and shaken by a massive electrical storm, removing any clear sequestration from the outside world in turn. These two trajectories also become more porous with each other. At one point, Boorman includes a match cut between the train window and the windscreen of a cab that Gene and Sharon are taking to the airport – a windscreen that itself fails to cordon off the outside world, as a madman jumps on it, forcing them to scramble out of the car and onto a highway overpass as a plane soars into the air overhead. By this point, it might as well be their plane, even though they’re not on it, since all spaces have started to fuse, allowing Lamont to glance up out of the train window and somehow see the plane too.

As these two trajectories finally arrive at the Georgetown house, the epicentre of claustrophobia, this agoraphobic porosity also peaks, producing a total spatial schism. “Inside” the house, locusts swarm out of Regan’s room and immediately drown all spatial coordinates, while “outside” the house, Gene and Sharon’s taxi smashes into the front garden, collapsing the threshold between house and world into a miasma of car parts and shattered windows. Just before this crash, the windscreen torques, carrying the taxi into a whirl of disrupted visuality, severing the house’s suspenseful sequestration from the street as a sea of flames consume the tableau, dismantling any residual notion of inside or outside.

Yet the schism continues, as the house now ruptures internally, due to a blue light that emerges from its depths and rips the rooms and walls apart. This is the peak of Boorman’s efforts to envisage a truly globalised “outside” – a dissonant spatial field comprised of fire, blue light, and a locust swarm, as Regan’s bedroom, the claustrophobic kernel of the original, hangs suspended in mid-air. Even when the house collapses in on itself, it doesn’t give way to a discernible “exterior” space, but a maelstrom that flickers fleetingly back into the African plains, and the rock churches, progenitors of this globalised dispersal of bourgeois spacetime.

Even when the maelstrom settles, we don’t quite return to a regular or realistic space. Washington now seems much further away than before, a twinkle on the horizon, beneath a Turneresque sky that seems to be taking on the full brunt of the locust swarm as it moves into the distance. We’re now palpably on a set, a sound stage, poised in the midst of hypothetical, notional, non-referential space. Of course, this traumatic outside was always the kernel of horror in the original film, which was as obsessed with people being violently propelled out of claustrophobic spaces as it was with those spaces themselves. In the last resort, Exorcist II reveals that the claustrophobia of the original was a balm to horror more than a source of horror, a way to keep this horrific new non-space at bay – a way of temporarily exorcising it.

To his credit, then, Boorman manages to remain true to the project of Friedkin’s trilogy, parlaying it into the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy even if the actual plot and world of the original Exorcist film takes on some of the collateral damage. Part of the supreme strangeness of Exorcist II is that it is profoundly ahead of its time, and often feels more attuned to the present, since its affects are quite familiar from the vantage point of a globalised, fully digitised, fully connected world. Gene admits as much in the closing scene, confiding to Regan that “I understand” while advising her (and the film’s critics) that “the world won’t, not yet.”

Yet if Exorcist II is the start of something it’s the end of something too. This would turn out to be the last film role for Paul Henreid, which makes Boorman’s break with classical Hollywood even more emphatic. The regular language of film no longer suffices, Boorman seems to suggest, for envisaging a globalised world, turning Exorcist II into a kind of post-cinematic sequel to Casablanca. As the Cardinal, Henreid reprises his role as Victor Laszlo, trying to discern the exact boundaries between Europe and Africa, but from a greater distance, and with Lamont (and Burton) as his proxy. And he feels very distant here, especially in the African scenes, which evoke and echo Casablanca as a language that no longer applies, even as it provides a point of inspiration, an example of how cinema can renew and transform.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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