Despite ritualistically crowning lists of the worst sequels ever made, in no way does The Heretic exemplify “sequelitis.” It’s neither a quick cash-in nor a rehash of the original. Its sin is less forgivable in the commercial American cinema: genuine artistry indifferent to economics. A libidinal investment in The Exorcist is menaced by Boorman’s vision, which in turn is treated as a personal effrontery by fans.
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The shock of a child defiling a crucifix in The Exorcist (1973) did nothing to prepare audiences for the horror John Boorman dreamed up for the sequel; a film “about goodness.” After refusing the opportunity to adapt William Blatty’s novel in 1972 because of moral qualms – citing the torture of a child for entertainment1 – he envisioned a critique in the guise of a sequel. The public, which made the original the most financially successful film of its time and were expecting bigger and worse evil for the sequel, were confused at best, apoplectic at worst, and, it must be said, largely remained unrepentant sinners (the ’80s slasher cycle was imminent). Critics were divided: some thought it was the worst film they ever reviewed2; others called it the worst film ever made3. When its undeniable formal exuberance is raised, it’s usually set aside as the self-indulgent romanticism of a snooty Englishman who detested the lowly material. Worst of all, The Heretic (1977) believes in angels, which is peak metaphysical naivete, whereas the demonic possession of a young woman is something we’re apparently readily convinced by.
During the 1970s, movies like The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Jaws (1975) distilled mise-en-scène into a reductio ad absurdum of suspense-filled payoffs, absorbing the lesson of Psycho (1960). Released shortly after The Heretic, Halloween (1978) turned the shot/reverse dyad of the shower attack into a full-length preoccupation. The Heretic, on the other hand, wading against the current, is neither suspenseful nor shocking, but arcane and anti-realistic. Backtracking to the historical fork in the road between Psycho and Val Lewton, it takes a scenic detour into the mysticism of the latter; the sleepwalking Regan in her white robes, brought to the ledge of a skyscraper by infernal visions as doves scatter, is reminiscent of images from I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Backtracking further, its greatest progenitor is the romanticism of the silent era, in which themes could be characters and analogical images were the norm, when films bore subtitles such as “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (Intolerance ), and in which Lillian Gish was credited as The Woman Who Rocks the Cradle of Civilization. In his autobiography Conclusions, Boorman writes “film was at its purest in the silent era. . . . The attempt to approximate life is futile.”4
To be exact, realism was the only futility not risked by The Heretic. Symbolism must account for a tale in which Father Lamont as Religion (Richard Burton), Regan as Innocence (Linda Blair), Dr. Tuskin as Psychoanalyst (Louise Fletcher), Kokumo as Scientist (James Earl Jones), and Edwards as Capitalist (Ned Beatty) overcome their differences to vanquish Evil. Amongst these archetypical human discourses, the psychoanalysis and science appear as preposterously supernatural as demonic possession itself, or rather as analogical – the common charge of stupidity is based on a misunderstanding. For Boorman, Good and Evil are untenable beyond an entirely allegorical framework. When many aghast critics claimed The Heretic made The Exorcist retroactively worse, the implication was that religion as mythology must be foreclosed in order to safeguard an unconscious secular Christian outlook. When evil is equated with nature, the arrival of good is an embarrassment that exposes the ideology of both. In order to cherish a phantasmatic attachment to the original, Boorman’s mythology was rejected.
What makes its mythology strident is its estrangement not only from the original and the genre, but from cinema itself. It treats images as signs – a locust swarm represents civilization – which is the source not only of its ridiculousness, but of its kinship with the silent era. Once upon an Eisenstein and a Jean Epstein, a faith in a utopian language of images was general before sound led to gradual disillusionment. The Heretic belongs squarely to a fallen cinema but perversely restages its innocence. Neither fish nor fowl, athwart history, with a climax involving a parallel montage between plane, train, and automobile.
Though the film divides its time between New York City and Africa, and though Africa is often presented in a dream, these locations are not demarcated as “real world” and fantasy but are equally expressionistic. New York City looks like a futurescape, with the psychoanalytic clinic a network of interlocking hexagons like a giant glass beehive, while Africa is composed of miniatures and matte paintings. The worlds meld in the Natural History Museum’s diorama exhibit where glass cells evocative of Dr. Tuskin’s clinic contain taxidermied animals from Africa, and where Father Lamont and Regan meet fortuitously – in mythology, narratives are fated and proceed deterministically. The exhibit, like cinema, unites the domains of science, religion, commerce, and dreaming under the sovereignty of mise-en- scène – the jaguar cell shares a painted Ethiopian cliffscape from Regan’s visions – and it becomes an impromptu war room in the fight against Evil.
The uncanniness of the taxidermied specimens’ glass eyes, the unflinching stares of antelope, and the painted backdrops parodying wide vistas are a mixture of lifelikeness and vacuity. The skins are real but are dispossessed of agency. Possession is a question of inhabiting a body, and thus of acting. Unless there is a gap in the functioning of a system, there is no room for the question. The Heretic, knowingly or not, raises possession to a formal inquiry. Linda Blair is herself uncanny, in a performance Tom Milne called “vacuous.”5 What is the feeling of emptiness we recognize in a bad performance, especially in a non-actor? Self-consciousness; possessing oneself from the outside; acting as before a mirror. When Boorman passed on The Exorcist, he feared a child could not pull off the role, but Blair was a revelation. The irony is that Blair was successful in The Exorcist because she was a child and unsuccessful in The Heretic because she wasn’t a child; the demon is convincing because it is innocent (Blair in ’73 is a Kuleshov experiment), and the angel is unconvincing because it is guilty, it has eaten from the tree of knowledge, and now thinks of itself as more than being – it thinks of itself as acting. Boorman’s deliberately anti-realist dialogue – often and flippantly categorized as on-the-nose – of course does nothing to aid a conventional performance.
Is it any surprise that the film’s most ridiculed device, a telepathy machine, is its most important allegorically? The Synchronizer enables the analyst to share an analysand’s memories as long as the two are able to synchronize a pair of strobing lights, representing their respective brainwaves, through hypnosis. The apparatus, enabling a collective, shared dream happening to subjects mesmerized by a flickering light, is rich in cinematic associations. As in the cinema, a double movement is at play; the projector interpolates the subject into the visual field, while the subject is also the source of a projection onto this field.
Its introduction is one of the most inimitable set pieces in all of cinema, beginning with a close-up of Father Lamont’s reflection on the door of Dr. Tuskin’s office. The automatic door slides open, wiping away his reflection and revealing Regan. Regan steps forward and the door closes behind her, restoring Father Lamont’s reflection: thanks to Richard Macdonald’s set and Boorman’s blocking, one static camera setup consolidates an entire decoupage; a close-up, a reverse, and a two-shot. The office containing the Synchronizer is a hexagonal space constructed of glass, which permits views into adjacent cells where analysts are working with other children. The glass is also semireflective, so that at any given time Dr. Tuskin, Regan, and Father Lamont’s reflections are superimposed on neighboring activities. From any given camera setup, the foreground action is mirrored in the midground, which is then superimposed over deep space where ghostly impressions of children assemble puzzles and make sketches. The architecture itself thereby contains reverse shots, dissolves, and superimpositions.
Inside Regan’s memory, with the help of the Synchronizer – the cinema itself – Dr. Tuskin watches scenes from The Exorcist. Within the famous bedroom, the demon Regan exhibits a mastery over space-time and endangers Dr. Tuskin; the assistant is unable to extract her from the dream, and her heart fibrillates. Father Lamont, in order to wrestle the woman away from Evil, disconnects Regan from the Synchronizer and enters the traumatic vision, which is now being projected from Dr. Tuskin; the analyst, discovering that there is no neutral position from which science speaks, becomes the analysand and is near death.
This shot of Dr. Tuskin is so dizzying it’s almost impossible to describe. An iris-dissolve peels open her chest to reveal a pounding heart gripped by a fist. Regan runs to Dr. Tuskin’s left side, grabs her shoulder, and implores Father Lamont to retrieve her from the dream; meanwhile, on Dr. Tuskin’s right side, the demon Regan fades into the negative space, but this quadrant of the frame is so busy with patients in deep space and glassy reflections that it takes a moment to register the apparition, which now possesses the fist contesting Dr. Tuskin’s heart. As the demon begins shouting obscenities, its face is superimposed on Regan’s face, who is also shouting, so that two voices, Demon and Angel, bark at Father Lamont from one body. Finally, these phantasms throb to and fro based on the cadence of the Synchronizer’s bulbs; as the bulbs brighten, they fade, as the bulbs dim, they harden.
Within this scene, formal questions are provoked. The diegetic and nondiegetic elements create a sort of Möbius strip. As in a structuralist film, the celluloid itself, which makes possible this series of dissolves, enters into the action in a manner that has real – that is, fictional – consequences. Where does the “real world” of the clinic end and the dream begin? And where does the narrative space end and the cinema begin? Do the superimpositions of the dream, which seem to enter the clinic, belong to Boorman’s editing or to the world of The Heretic? To the film’s expressionism and parallel montages, we must therefore add a third vein of the silent era; French impressionism, which created a sublime mise-en-scène of layering – the co-presence of superimpositions, dissolves, and iris effects exploding the screen into a teeming multiplicity.
Despite ritualistically crowning lists of the worst sequels ever made, in no way does The Heretic exemplify “sequelitis.” It’s neither a quick cash-in nor a rehash of the original. Its sin is less forgivable in the commercial American cinema: genuine artistry indifferent to economics. A libidinal investment in The Exorcist is menaced by Boorman’s vision, which in turn is treated as a personal effrontery by fans. Friedkin’s film is, above all, enjoyable. Regan’s obscene acting out, and her bodily torture by the demon, is a wellspring of unconscious jouissance, or transgressive enjoyment. The former is evident in readings of the film, notably Barbara Creed’s6 and Andrew Britton’s7, which view Regan’s cracked behavior as the return of what patriarchal society has repressed. The latter is at stake when Max von Sydow posits its popularity as a reaction to human overpopulation8.
These unconscious investments are compromised by The Heretic to such a degree that the sequel is incommensurate with its predecessor. All that is allegorical, naive, and dualistic in the theological background is elevated by Boorman, whereas Friedkin’s direction is prized insofar as this dimension is suppressed. Friedkin is interested in a Gothic realism that generates shocks in a girl’s bedroom (in the sequel Regan prefers the roof of her building to her bedroom, which can’t even confine her in sleep, for she sleepwalks). The pissing, contorting, puking, bleeding, and sadisms are a palatable way of excusing Friedkin’s real subject, which is the body. In Boorman’s mythological vision, Regan is disembodied and de-psychologized because she is an archetype. Regan is more and less than human; she’s an angel, a sign; because she is capable of miracles, able to elicit speech from a mute child, Evil pursues her. This shift denudes common criticisms of The Heretic: that it doesn’t take The Exorcist “seriously” means that it takes the material more seriously than The Exorcist, which is to say as allegory (it’s telling that despite its supposed stupidity, the film has never been prized as camp); and that it is “too literal” means, paradoxically, that it is not literal at all. It’s hardly surprising that William Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990), ignoring Boorman’s installment, is a literate and dryly empirical police procedural with scare gags.
The Heretic relies on silent cinema’s relationship with classicism in order to restore the theological dimension of The Exorcist and rediscover its allegorical import. In other words, it’s an anti-sequel so foolhardy and ill-judged Boorman resembled a knight errant from one of the medieval romances he admired, but less King Arthur (his next was 1981’s Excalibur), more Don Quixote de la Hollywood. Dr. Tuskin’s last line is, “I’m sorry. I understand now. The world won’t. Not yet.” Indeed. The camera revolves around her as the intrusion of red strobing lights signals the arrival of police. She stares into the lens, unblinking and oblivious to the commotion, and the light from the Synchronizer begins to pulse from her, though the device isn’t present and its diegetic status is once again ambiguous. With every pulse the light grows brighter. The red of the sirens is overcome by its splendor; the screen is overtaken in a fade to white (light). Boorman has invited us to share Dr. Tuskin’s character reversal as she interpolates us into her projection. But it’s safe to say audiences resisted this Synchronization, fearing it would result in the loss of their fetish object, The Exorcist. It’s hard to blame them. The film is poetry, not prose, and as poet Boorman was wrongly crucified. Instead of the common axiom that we must take the evil with the good, a minor but vital tweak: audiences were asked to take the good with the evil, a terrifying proposition.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Ciment, Michel. John Boorman. Faber & Faber, 1986. [↩]
- Siskel, Gene. “‘Exorcist II’ Haunted by Howlingly Awful Special Effects and Script.” Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1977, p. 2. [↩]
- Kermode, Mark, performer. “Kermode Uncut: John Boorman.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH_0dS1d3X8. [↩]
- Boorman, John. Conclusions. Faber & Faber, 2020. [↩]
- Milne, Tom, and Paul Willemen. The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. Edited by Tom Milne, et al. Harper & Row, 1986. [↩]
- Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1993. [↩]
- Britton, Andrew. Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, Wayne State University Press, 2009. [↩]
- Ciment. John Boorman. [↩]