Apart from the word in the title, the only thing the four Exorcist movies have in common is that they all have two versions available for fans to argue about for an eternity. The fourth film, of course, has the most drastic change from one to the other - it's so different it's basically a new film (and released as such: we have Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: A Prequel To The Exorcist), but as some footage is seen in both it still qualifies, technically, as two versions of one movie. The first film of course has the "Version You've Never Seen", which mostly functions as an extended cut, but loses a few moments as well. And the third film, sometimes simply referred to as Legion, underwent extensive reshoots and re-edits before its 1990 release, with director William Peter Blatty hoping to restore his original cut someday. Alas, the original footage was never found, but by using a VHS workprint Scream Factory was able to cobble together something fairly close to what he originally intended, released only a few months before the author's death in early 2017.
And then there's Exorcist II: The Heretic. If one didn't know any better, they'd assume that the two cuts of the film were the released version and a longer extended cut for video - nothing unusual, right? Well, here's the thing - director John Boorman cut that footage out himself, AFTER the film had already been released! It was his response to the audiences (including Blatty, who had no participation in the film) laughing and throwing things at the screen because it was such a trainwreck, but by the director's own admission it didn't help matters any. The complete version was unavailable for years, but once it was made available again, the shorter cut - which some fans prefer - was pretty much MIA. Thankfully, Scream Factory opted to put both cuts of the film in their new release, offering a Boorman commentary on the longer one (along with a film historian on a second track) and a fun track from Mike White of Something Awful on the shorter version. Along with a pair of interviews with Linda Blair and editor Tom Priestley (who says he worked on the 40-year-old film "50-60 years ago", and I'm not sure if he's cracking a joke or not), you get a full-ish picture of what went wrong with this wacky movie.
The biggest problem was that it was a sequel to The Exorcist, and not a stand-alone film about spirituality that Boorman clearly would have preferred. Much of the film's original cast did not want to return (including the ones who did anyway); the only exception seemed to be Lee J. Cobb, whose character of Kinderman was set to play a major role in the followup. Unfortunately, Cobb passed away weeks before shooting, prompting a big rewrite and losing even more of its already thin connective tissue to the first film. Blatty and William Friedkin wanted nothing to do with it, so an entirely new creative team had to be brought in, and while Linda Blair returned as Regan, she would not don the iconic makeup, limiting the sort of thing the sequel would probably want to market itself around (they used a double for a few shots, but it's clearly not her and too brief to make much of an impact anyway). Granted, this isn't exactly foreign to horror sequels, but given the original's incredible success and prestigious standing, it'd be akin to making Godfather Part II without Coppola or any of the actors besides Al Pacino.
Then there were some production issues, most notably Boorman falling ill for a month, delaying production and ramping the budget up as he could not be replaced due to being the only one that could make sense of the script's demands. Georgetown wouldn't allow them to shoot at the original house or even on the famous steps, so those things had to be rebuilt on the Warner Bros. stages, which were already housing a number of the film's other sets (including its African village), adding more headaches to the ambitious production and its schedule. And then there was the biggest thing of all: the fact that Boorman and co. were not making anything remotely like a horror movie, despite ostensibly being a sequel to the biggest horror film of all time. There were things that may have sounded somewhat scary on paper, such as the locust attacks and of course an exorcism scene or two, but Boorman shot them in a manner that couldn't possibly terrify anyone but the feeblest minds, who probably wouldn't have liked the first film anyway and thus wouldn't be around for the second.
To be fair, this didn't guarantee disaster - any number of films have encountered massive production problems and yet came out just fine. Hell, it was proven even in this series; Exorcist III shared a number of The Heretic's hurdles and yet even its theatrical version is quite good. But... well, I can't say I am one of the film's defenders, and even they seem to admire the film's batshit qualities more than genuinely enjoy it as they did the first film or any other traditional film. It certainly leaves an impression; unlike either version of the fourth film, it's never dull or anonymous, and on a strictly visual level it's actually quite impressive. The making of book by Barbara Pallenberg, released in 1977, spends lots of time detailing how Boorman and his crew were able to achieve certain shots - the mirrored images of Merrin in the Synchronizer scenes, the locusts attacking the village, etc. and as goofy as they might ultimately come across in the film, there's no denying that they are the result of creativity and old pros putting their heads together to figure out how to achieve the impossible, with zero aid from computers.
And despite how it may seem, the film wasn't drastically "changed" during filming or post-production, unlike other notoriously troubled sequels like Blair Witch 2 or Halloween 6. Pallenberg's book isn't particularly salacious, but it is fairly honest about the film's production headaches, such as the inability to secure locations (not just the ones they wanted to reuse from the first film - NO ONE wanted to house them) and Blair's frequent tardiness. So if there was anything drastic it seems like it'd be mentioned, but apart from a few revisions shepherded by Boorman himself (some due to a need to speed things up, others just to satisfy his whims) it seems like the film is more or less what he had in mind. Per the book, the only thing he never quite made peace with was Richard Burton being cast over younger actors like Chris Sarandon and Christopher Walken*, both of whom were rejected by the studio for not being big enough stars at the time. He got along well with Burton and had no problems with the performance, mind you - he just thought the character would work better if he was younger, and it seemed to bug him until the very end.
No, the movie wasn't ruined by anyone but Boorman and screenwriter William Goodhart, as the script is just a disaster. The core concept is fine: Burton plays a priest who is hired to check if Father Merrin's actions were just or if he should be accused of heresy, and Regan is trying to adjust to a post-possession life as a psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) attempts to restore Regan's memories of the ordeal, as she doesn't recall it at all. Normal sequel stuff, right? Well... take a look.
I mean, on one hand, I admire the marketing team and trailer editor for not trying to hide this movie's true nature, but on the other - this actually makes it look more fun than it is, too. The synchronizer scenes are dreadfully boring, and even the more insane scenes don't really come to life as much as you might expect, because they don't really escalate from anything enjoyable or even all that compelling. And it's difficult to invest yourself in anyone's plight: Burton is practically comatose for many of his scenes, Blair is forced to say things like "I was possessed by a demon" in the same manner one might tell someone they just got an A on their exam, and poor Max Von Sydow might as well be looking directly at the camera and saying "Yeah, I don't know why I'm here either." I am tempted to say the revised cut is better simply because it's shorter, but since the ending is largely truncated - it even removes Burton's final scenes, making it seem like he is killed when he clearly survives in the longer one - it manages to feel like a bigger waste of your time since you get a vague/confusing denouement instead of something with some semblance of closure.
The bonus features on the Blu don't dish much dirt, alas. Boorman goes long stretches without speaking on his commentary track (I'll cut him some slack, the dude's 85 years old) and White's track, while amusing, is from someone who was not part of the production, so they can only repeat what they've read online and in Pallenberg's book. The historian track by Scott Michael Bosco has some additional info, as he's an actual researcher (he wrote a book on the original film, in fact), but it's not particularly eyebrow raising, if you're looking for that sort of thing. He actually offers quite a bit of info about the film's religious imagery and references, which was surprising since those things tend to get glossed over on commentaries. I tune in to hear crazy behind the scenes stories and I find out that Christianity is losing favor in Egypt because they're all converting to Muslim! He also explains how the Merrin scenes tie into the plot of the two versions of the fourth film, so he's clearly an expert on this franchise and I wish he had been on hand for the third film's Blu-ray release. Neither Bosco or White make much of an effort to convert anyone to a fan, thankfully - but they make the film more endurable, by drowning out the often ridiculous dialogue.
But like its fans, I must say there IS something to admire about the goddamn thing. In addition to the aforementioned visuals (and Ennio Morricone's oft-terrific score), there's something kind of charming about a major studio letting something this insane get through the system, and on a big budget to boot (at the time, it was the most expensive film WB had ever made). It's not like Boorman made a film on his own that they decided to release; this was something that executives signed off on, and even continued to support rather than cut their losses when the filmmaker fell ill relatively early in the production. I ultimately watched the film five times over the past couple weeks (both cuts, and then all three commentaries) and while I never found myself exactly enraptured by it, I never stopped being impressed that it was a major studio release, not some outsider art or foreign film. They played it safer with the next two sequels, overruling their filmmakers and demanding changes with (III) or without (IV) them to make them more audience-friendly, but as we eventually learned, the original versions of those films were much closer in spirit and tone to the Friedkin original than The Heretic ever was. There's nothing else quite like it, but perhaps that is for the best.
*Both of whom ended up in The Sentinel, an Exorcist-like film which was released the same year as The Heretic and is, at least in my opinion, a hell of a lot better.