Grab your copy of Tubular Bells, dig out your translation of the Roman Rituals, and sit back and experience some of the most masterful—and misguided—fright filmmaking ever brought to the silver screen, so says Judge Bill Gibron.
Our reviews of Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (published November 1st, 2005), The Exorcist: Special Edition (published January 23rd, 2000), Exorcist II: The Heretic (published September 7th, 2002), The Exorcist (Blu-Ray) (published October 11th, 2010), Exorcist: The Beginning (published February 21st, 2005), and The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (published December 5th, 2003) are also available.
It's the power of Christ that compels you!
The first time I saw it, I was 12 years old. I had to sneak into the theater that was showing it, and one of my most omnipresent memories remains the undeniable smell of vomit mixed with cleaning product that filled the aisles. Even on days during the run when I went to other movies playing in the building, the scent of sick was everywhere. The Exorcist had that kind of effect on people. As I recall, I couldn't sleep for three weeks afterward.
The second time I saw it, I was 18. It was playing in a local revival house and my high-school chums and I decided to brave it. I'll never forget the sense of dread that filled the theater. People were literally shivering during the movie's more infamous moments and cowering in anticipation at the next barrage of evil. Even we so-called sophisticated adolescents were deeply disturbed. The experience occupied our conversation for days to come.
The third time I saw the film (and frankly, each time I have seen it since), I was struck by one overwhelming opinion. In a career spanning several decades, more than a few flops, and a couple of genre-defining efforts, William Friedkin's The Exorcist is indeed a masterpiece. It does what few horror films can claim and, better yet, it stands out among the many minor macabre movies of the past and present to deliver a raw, serious, and intelligent look at both the spiritual and sociological aspects of faith. It is iconic and epic, easily maintaining its status as a viable work of art. All the sequels (and now prequels) deserved to be damned.
Proof of the power in the original film can be found in Warner Brothers' latest repackaging of the series. Gathering all six cinematic entities in one convenient package, The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology tells its own intriguing tale—one of a flawless film commercially dismantled by forces unable to fathom why the original was so special in the first place.
Facts of the Case
There are five Exorcist films in the franchise: two competing prequels, two official sequels and the original movie itself. There are those who also consider the 1999 revamp, inspired by the success of DVD, as a viable entry into of the group as well. Others view it as merely a well-meaning digital experiment. Plot-wise, these are the stories told in each of the cinematic stages:
The Exorcist II: The Heretic
Exorcist: The Beginning:
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist:
The story of The Exorcist on film is one of amazing moviemaking, underdeveloped ideas, blatant opportunism, and undeniable ineptitude. It is a tale filled with a couple of geniuses, a bunch of idiots, some of the usual Tinseltown sound and fury and, in the end, a legacy signifying nothing—at least nothing we hadn't already known before. When the histories are written and the celebratory lists are compiled, the first Exorcist film will still be a landmark in the meshing of cinematic classicism and the mythical realm of macabre. All other entries in the unnecessary franchise will be mere pretenders to the throne or, worse, silly shadows of the significant film at its foundation. Arguments can be made—albeit not very effective or empirical—that installments three and five (a.k.a. the Renny Harlin prequel) have some merit as crime thriller and sloppy B-movie terror, respectively, but in an arena which holds the first film in such amazingly high regard, such significance becomes its own dual-edged sword. On the one hand, such praise is faint, failing to take into consideration each movie's own internal flaws. Still, to be mentioned kindly alongside what is arguably one of the genre's most endearing and imaginative offerings is a solid badge of honor—even if it is nothing more than achievement via association.
No, The Exorcist saga is something completely unique in the realm of the fright franchise, a quandary that never darkened the door of other serialized scares. From the multiple Friday the 13th entries to the numerous Nightmare on Elm Street films, up and through the current annual arrival of another Saw sequel, no other collection of terror has tried so hard to balance the old with the new, the familiar with the fresh. Imagine the latest installment of the Halloween legacy without Michael Myers and the standard slasher ideal. Actually, you can, it's called Halloween III: Season of the Witch, considered by many to be one of the worst filmic follow-ups ever conceived. Again, the movie has its own merits, but when placed alongside the original Shatner-shaped slayer we all know and love, the narrative is a baffling, befuddled fallacy. A similar fate met each additional entry in The Exorcist mythology. Instead of merely mimicking the first film's premise—child becomes possessed, demon-purging priest shows up to show the evil imp who's who—the subsequent films all went for ideas both incredibly esoteric and more or less ancillary to the themes presented in the original.
Pragmatically speaking, the first sequel out of the box—the truly terrible Exorcist II: The Heretic—wanted to explore two relatively worthy ideas: the continued psychological effects that possession had on Regan MacNeil, and an official church inquest into Fr. Merrin's death. Part three then went about reintroducing us to Lt. Kinderman and following up on the spiritual plight of fallen priest Damien Karras. The final films in the series, the two competing prequels, use Fr. Merrin's supposed spiritual trials while an archeologist in post-War Africa to establish the religious and realistic basis for the entire tale's significance and import. Upon reflection, it's a pretty significant undertaking, one that wants to illustrate the ongoing battle between good and evil in ways that will both challenge and perhaps even change an audience. Prior to its release, '70s pop culture wasn't quite prepared for The Exorcist's realistic reenactment of the battle for Heaven, with God and Satan waging war for the soul of man. After a decade of peace and love, and a newfound fascination with Christianity (perhaps best highlighted by the sudden success of musicals based on The Bible, including Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell), the public wanted enlightenment, not the eternal struggle.
But the confrontation came anyway. It all began with the first film, a phenomenon in the still-young history of postmodern Hollywood. It was a troubled production that sucked almost a year out of the cast and crew, pushed the limits of both the art and the artisan aspects of filmmaking, and tormented those who, as stated before, were completely unprepared to have their faith tested by something as insignificant as a mainstream movie. Those who were not around at the time can't fully grasp what a cultural happening The Exorcist was. News reports fed the fascination by supplying audiences with an almost daily diet of religious leader condemnations, media critic polemics, and tawdry tabloid-like reports (sometimes with accompanying video footage) of theater patrons fainting, vomiting, and being carted off on stretchers. This wasn't merely a movie, the talking heads would infer, this was a multimedia affront on the very nature of human existence. Priests warned of the film's inherent wickedness, claiming it could cause the weak-minded to convert to Satanism, while many incidents both in and around the film's regional release schedule were blamed on the story's Devil-driven evil.
While it may seem laughable in today's irony-soaked social stratum to think that any current title could have such a potent pop-culture presence, people were literally frightened of The Exorcist before they entered the theaters, reputation always preceding reality. Unfortunately, they had every right to be apprehensive. While it has lost just a little of its power over the decades, The Exorcist is still a deeply disturbing experience. It's a movie that makes one of the strongest cases ever for the indescribable mystery of faith, a narrative that takes the mundane and the everyday and places it within a maelstrom of malevolence and iniquity. By using an allegorical subtext to the storytelling—some can see this as nothing more than the generation gap illustrated and exaggerated, or worse, a look at one parent's inability to deal with puberty and the growing sexualization of their child—and some fascinating state-of-the-art special effects, director William Friedkin transformed William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel into a timeless tale of terror. By removing almost all connection to a specific era and/or idealism (there are hints of '60s protests in the film within the film and some silly '70s fashions) and dealing with the issues involved seriously and substantively, a modern masterwork was born and bred.
While it's almost impossible to add anything new to the discussion regarding this seminal scare film, it is important to note something that is, perhaps, completely out of the control of any aspect of the production. In many ways, The Exorcist appears to be a kind of harmonic convergence of pre-destined designs. The original cast would have included Audrey Hepburn as mother Chris MacNeil, little Dark Shadows and Willy Wonka star Denise Nickerson as Regan, and Stacy Keach as Fr. Karras. Author Blatty would have still penned the screenplay, but with someone like Stanley Kubrick involved behind the camera (yes, Mr. 2001 was considered the prime candidate to direct the film), some fiddling with the narrative would and could be anticipated. Finally, the numerous possession sequences were a massive point of contention, with many feeling it was impossible to faithfully render them for viewers. The producers themselves were already preparing to find "alternative" means of realizing the film's most frightening moments. In essence, the entire tone and feel of the film would have been inexorably altered had the previously listed plans panned out. Oddly, fate stepped in and negated many of the choices. Hepburn wanted the production moved to Italy to accommodate her life. Nickerson's mother balked at the notorious crucifix scene, and Jason Miller's That Championship Season was so compelling that Keach's contract was bought out, and the newcomer given the pivotal priest role.
But it was the signing of William Friedkin—hot off his Oscar-winning hit The French Connection—that made all the difference. Quoted extensively as wanting his version of the movie to be as realistic and authentic as possible, it was he who found the proper balance between the scientific and the sacrosanct, the necessary links between humanity and horror that give The Exorcist its equilibrium and its effectiveness. Building up the narrative slowly, piece by piece, unafraid to allow unexplained or arcane elements (the opening archeological dig in Iraq) to infiltrate and fill out his approach, what audiences received with Friedkin's film is nothing short of cinematic perfection. It goes without saying that many consider The Exorcist to be the best horror film of all time, but such a labeling doesn't really go far enough. In truth, it is one of the best movies ever made, a stellar example of how the art form can utilize its inherent elements to create a whole so much greater than any part could ever hope to be. From the brilliant, ballsy acting to Dick Smith's dynamic visualization of the effects of possession (all via physical effects, remember), the drama and dread are heightened to levels where the corporeal reactions that the original audiences had are not only understandable, but still palpable 33 years later.
The key to understanding The Exorcist's success as a major motion picture derives directly by comparing the original 1973 release to the 2000 DVD "cut." Here some of the missing material fans had long heard was lying around just waiting to be reinserted was indeed discovered and incorporated. This new interpretation of the original film is frequently subtitled, The Version You've Never Seen, and it does present a somewhat radical reinterpretation of key components within the story. Regan is seen as struggling with some manner of psychological issue much sooner in the revamp, given a startling hospital sequence where the doctors view her curse-laden threats as kind of comical. Similar, the infamous "spider walk" confirms to Chris that the suggestions toward the supernatural that many of the medicos have discussed might actually have a point. Kinderman is given a final speech at the end to try and humanize the horrors we've seen before, and some of the sequences are aided by a small amount of computer polish to smooth out makeup and creature attributes that didn't completely come across the first time. Like those occasional "TV presentations" of films like Jaws and Halloween where edited scenes are reinserted into the storyline, what we see is definitely the original Exorcist, but with an almost unnecessary accessorizing that would come to describe, and ultimately defeat, the rest of the franchise's films.
Indeed, the problem between Exorcist Version 1.0 and 2.0 is the concept of control. Father Karras's consideration for the MacNeils doesn't have to be amplified by a scene showing the priest tearing up over a tape recording Regan made to her lost, distant father. The horrors of possession don't need "blink and you'll miss them" moments of demonic faces covering the child's own features. The glimpsed ghosts of Karras's dead mother or Pazuzu's iconic image don't really emphasize the spiritual or paranormal nature of the narrative. In fact, it frequently distracts from what Friedkin obviously felt was an already-well-fleshed-out story. The original Exorcist plays perfectly with its own components, each one building off of and into the other. The Version You've Never Seen feels like tweaks for the sake of salability, a decent-enough presentation with just a few too many detached threads that threaten to fray the film's fabric. Friedkin feels that many of the additions are warranted, since they expand on ideas he wanted to explore in the original cut. Sadly, such subtext fails to fully resonate today especially since the initial concepts created have been burned into our collective memory in a way that barely allows for disagreement, let along destruction and reassembly.
It is this problem that will plague every other installment of the series, none more so dramatically than the 1977 sequel The Exorcist II: The Heretic. John Boorman, who was another director considered for the original film (having, at the time, successfully sailed James Dickey's Deliverance to box-office victory) really wanted to claim his stake in the movie's already building legacy and he honestly believed that a bifurcated approach, exploring both Regan and Merrin, would be the path to scare-film superiority. Unfortunately, something strange happened along the way. Buried under massive misfires of both tone and treatment, what should have been an interesting internal drama became a full-blown farce involving good and bad locusts, an Africanized James Earl Jones, and more strobe-light silliness than in a month spent at Studio 54. It is easy to lay most of the blame at writer William Goodhart's psychobabble bungle of a screenplay. With only one other major film credit (an equally theological look at family called Generation), the Broadway scribe actually believed that the works of Teilhard de Chardin could be transcribed into compelling cinema. Sadly, he was so off-base that some substantial script doctoring was required.
The result, of course, is the worst horror film ever made, the pure polar opposite to everything its namesake got right. As stated before, a legitimate continuation of Regan MacNeil's story, along with an exploration of Merrin's "murder" could make for a compelling, creepy story—and, at first, The Heretic seems to be capable of fulfilling said promise. Hiring Richard Burton was a boon, since he brings with him the same amount of gravitas that an actor like Max Von Sydow or Jason Miller carried originally. Unfortunately, Boorman gave the performer a single snippet of direction ("look completely lost all the time") and Burton responded in zoned-out spades. Instead of the solid center to the events in the film, he's a veritable void, incapable of making us believe in his character, Fr. Lamont's, own spiritual struggle. Instead of looking deep in thoughtful contemplation, Burton appears to be battling a bout of alcohol-related constipation. Luckily, he spends many of his scenes with the equally apoplectic Louise Fletcher, who acts as if she is wondering how an Oscar for Best Actress (Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) could result in such a horrible piece of hackwork. Between the two, the adult dimension to the story is awash in a sea of gin blossoms and angry calls to about-to-be-fired agents.
It's left to Linda Blair to hold this nonsense together, and she's just not capable of doing it. Though nature blessed her with an attractive face and figure between film one and two, Boorman appears to be relying solely on her sexuality to provide her any critical characterization. The movie's main point—that the possession has rendered Regan into a vessel for both good and evil to flow through—never really jibes with the Merrin investigation (too many insect montages and too much meaningless dogmatic drivel), and the laughable sequences where characters mind-meld with each other to harken back to events that occurred in the first film are just ridiculous. Blair refused to go through the makeup process again, and an obvious double is used for the new Pazuzu moments. Aside from a few glimpses of Merrin as a younger man, and a farcical hospital set that resembles a retard's idea of a house of mirrors, everything here is bland and boring. Instead of sticking with the realistic and the serious, as Friedkin formulated when he made his movie, Boorman bought into the '70s concept of free thinking and consciousness expansion. Much of the movie feels like a bad trip one would take on tainted psychotropics, and the ending tends to invalidate everything that came before it, arguing that none of what occurred was really necessary to draw the entire possession problem to a conclusion.
Interestingly enough, it was the distance between the original and the failed follow up that gave legitimacy for yet another stab at a sequel. This time, author Blatty was the one proposing the next step in the story's evolution and his idea was, again, a good one. Using his serial-killer novel Legion as the basis for this third Exorcist installment, Blatty would bring back Kinderman, the notion of demonic interference with the regular routine of the world, and a popular character from the first film who everyone thought was dead. The result was an effort that came closer to the original film's spirit while still struggling with the issues that would come to pollute the entire mythology. It's no great surprise that Kinderman (now played by Scott with little of the humble humanity Lee J. Cobb brought to the role in 1973) meets up with the reanimated corpse of Damien Karras in the padded cell at the center of the story. We soon learn that, in pure Chucky/Child's Play style, murderer James Venamun—a.k.a. Gemini—managed to get his soul transferred into the dying body of the embattled priest, and it wasn't long before Pazuzu came along to allow the criminal to continue his cryptic crime spree.
Exorcist III is a little difficult to decipher at times. Within its fractured framework, we eventually learn that Gemini, via the reanimated body of a newly-possessed Karras, is using elderly people in the hospital to carry out his brutal acts. Kinderman's connection is made clear once we learn that many of the victims were involved with Karras, his church, or the MacNeil case. It's a strange idea, one that follows its own frequently surreal logic. A new exorcist (played by Nicol Williamson) sets forth to right the wrongs involved, but he appears so infrequently in the film that his one major moment in the storyline sun has absolutely no dramatic power. It's really not the flaw of Blatty as a filmmaker. For every sloppy sequence of narrative lapse, the writer-turned-director delivers moments of spinetingling suspense. One sequence, in particular, involving a night nurse, an empty corridor, and an unusual sensation of dread really manages to make the hairs stand up on the nape of the neck. Equally effective is a scene where Gemini's minion directly targets Kinderman's family. The ways in which Blatty stages the action underscore the "evil in the everyday" which became the calling card of the first Exorcist movie. From a purely visual standpoint, Blatty knows what he's doing.
Sadly, he can't overcome some of the film's other obvious flaws. Reintroducing Fr. Karras to the story should be cause for celebration. However, instead of letting Jason Miller handle all of Gemini's lines, we are treated to some certified scenery munching from none other than Brad Dourif. It's all in the delivery, some would say, but Dourif's many monologues, all fire-and-brimstone condemnations and commentary, are just way overdone. Blatty makes the decision to hold on the actor front and center, letting him speak more or less directly to the audience; the effect is engaging at first, noxious after a while. Maybe Miller would have moderated the ranting and raving, but it seems Blatty considers pure evil to be loud and boisterous. Otherwise, the epithet-laced speeches serve very little dramatic purpose. Similarly, the lack of a clear connection to the first film (sure, Karras and Kinderman are here, but we never learn why until very late in the story) makes for an inherent difficulty to get into the circumstances playing out. A dopey dream sequence in Grand Central Station doesn't help matters, and the finale is all goofy effects and false send-offs. While a mountain-sized improvement over the first sequel, Exorcist III more or less confirmed that the possession epic was dead and buried.
That is, until DVD came along. VHS had its value, but one of its most enduring legacies is the lack of clear prints and proper aspect ratios. For decades, film fans had to put up with cropped images, pan-and-scan scenarios, and muddy visuals with incorrect color and contrasts. The versatile digital disc changed all that, and when The Exorcist hit the medium in 1997, it was a revelation. Even better, the demand for the unseen footage helped create the notion of the director's cut and, in 2000, the Version You've Never Seen was given a theatrical and home video release. Again the sequel spark was lit, but with so many years having passed, and many of the original participants unwilling or undecided about venturing into hallowed ground once again, it was up to the studios to decide. John Frankenheimer was hired, and a plotline was hashed out. Since suggestions in both the original film and the stinky sequel made it clear that Fr. Merrin had previous experience with Pazuzu and possession, why not create a prequel dealing with those formative years? A weird combination story dealing with Nazis and African natives was cobbled together; when Frankenheimer left over creative differences (and his own failing health), Taxi Drive scribe Paul Schrader was hired to bring seriousness and sincerity to the series.
In some ways, his efforts were one of the biggest failures of all. Anyone whose seen his directorial handiwork in films like Hardcore, Cat People, Affliction or Auto Focus knows that Schrader understands film. He knows the deep-seated subtexts that must be established and worked out in order for the overall narrative to gain substance and conviction. Sadly, most of his successes have been with his own screenplays, and the somber slog that writers William Wisher Jr. (Judge Dredd, The 13th Warrior) and Caleb Carr delivered was all melodramatic mumbo jumbo and theological trash. Schrader supposedly softened the ragged edges and projected his own personal philosophy of good and evil into the story, but the results were still insignificant. Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist was considered so non-commercial by the suits that Schrader was fired. Then to everyone in the industry's shock, the film was given over for an immediate redux by former action maestro Renny Harlin. With a career in freefall after the Cutthroat Island calamity, the Finnish filmmaker had been stumbling around the outskirts of cinema, making the occasional genre effort (Deep Blue Sea, Driven) to sustain his credits.
Before getting to Harlin's involvement, it's worth noting that much of the criticism towards Schrader's effort is completely warranted. Forgetting almost everything that made Von Sydow's interpretation of the character memorable, he lets Stellan Skarsgård turn Merrin into a moralizing Indiana Jones. From the first frame, in which the wartime priest has his own veritable Sophie's Choice on his hands, to the final confrontation with a crippled villager possessed by Pazuzu, Skarsgård is simply in the wrong frame of mind. He sees his mission as one of power and purpose versus the reluctant calling of a man of the cloth whose faith has been shaken to its core. The entire prologue material is supposed to set up a parallel to similar incidents that will play out between the Africans and the British, but all effects of the Third Reich's repugnance seem gone from Merrin's mind. In their place are his desire to defeat the Devil and to promote Christianity to the silly savages. Any deep thoughts Schrader brings to the film are lost in a muddle of well meaning speeches, problematic pacing (the middle act drags unbearably) and the overall knowledge that this entire project is more or less unnecessary. Like Boorman's boorish version of the story, Schrader sends the same message to fans—you want esoteric bullspit? Here's a few dozen Gospels full, along with my own ideas. Hope this tides you over.
Not that Harlin revitalized the project to the point of purposefulness. Indeed, the only positive thing that can be said about The Exorcist: The Beginning (how Dominion was retitled once it was remade) is that it represents a very interesting idea in cinematic salvage, the kind of experimentation that major studios usually don't indulge in. Using most of the original cast (a couple of key actors were changed) and a totally different narrative (gone are all the archeological antics—here comes the CGI Satanism!),what we end up with here is the Deep Blue Sea version of the hallowed original. Harlin's hokey Hellspawn is to Friedkin's flawless scarefst what Harlin's silly sci-fi shark fest was to Spielberg's seminal Jaws. With an atmosphere that recalls some of the more exploitative rip-offs that hit the theaters following The Exorcist's success (Beyond the Door, Abby) and way too much modernized monster-movie hysteria to be taken seriously, Beginning still begs many of the meandering flaws the Schrader spread out over the storyline.
First, it has to be said that Harlin handles the prologue material in a much better fashion. Instead of offering the entire scene in one opening salvo, he spreads out the events, allowing them to infiltrate and support all aspects of the story. Secondly, Harlin tosses the saint-like villager with the wounded, mangled body and replaces him with the very element that made the first film so creepy—a child. The little boy here is far more effective than an actor wearing an obvious facial prosthetic and arm makeup. Finally, Harlin understands that a healthy dose of effects are what made the original movie so memorable. While most of the narrative was indeed a philosophical debate about the reality of God vs. Satan, Linda Blair was still having her head spun around and vomiting up Anderson's Pea Soup. Schrader left most of the spectacle to the very end, and even then it was a lame light show combined with some minor computer work. Harlin, to his credit (and his detriment), gives us lots of CGI stuff, from a full-on hyena attack to an overdone possessed person ready to give the newly invigorated Merrin a diabolical beat-down. It's a significant switch, since it allows our supposed hero a chance to overcome his initial doubts. It's far more reasonable to see Merrin leave his theological malaise and champion a small boy (as he did in Exorcist II, by the way) than to take up the cause for some misunderstood manchild.
This is the crucial contribution that Harlin's version makes. Unlike Schrader's approach, Merrin in Beginning is a man completely lost. The events of the war have wounded him to the core, and he cannot believe in a God who would allow the mass slaughter of his flock for no other reason than some manner of metaphysical political point. All throughout the first two acts, Skarsgård's Merrin is torn and troubled, unable to sleep at night as horrifying visions fill his head, and challenges to his choices are represented and repeated. It's a much better way of viewing the future demon hunter, and matches well with what we remember about Von Sydow in the original. Also, Harlin's film feels more like the prequel one would imagine for a film like The Exorcist. It plays exactly like Blatty's part III—uneven and flawed, but still much closer in conception to the original than anything that's come since. The Schrader situation unfortunately tainted both projects, and many critics considered Harlin's film to be the more misguided of the two. Frankly, both films fail in their original mandate to make the backstory of Fr. Merrin come alive in a way that would signal the situations to come. At least Harlin provides the showboating we'd expect from a cut-rate version of the original's style and cinematics.
And thus, this is where the story ends. Sure, there are some unanswered questions and considerable loose ends. After the successful release of the Version You've Never Seen, rumors started swirling around possible original director's cuts of Heretic and part III finally surfacing. Blatty, in particular, is known to be furious over the way his film was mangled by management once it failed to impress test audiences, and Boorman continues to defend his efforts, saying that cut material would make the movie more logical and legitimate. Even Schrader and Harlin feel cheated by a system that destined their films to failure the moment they were turned into competing visions of the same situation. In truth, there should never have been any sequels to the original Exorcist. There was no need for a bunch of reinserted scenes and a cash grab known as The Version You've Never Seen. On their own, without the need for further contexualizing or explanation, the two Williams—Peter Blatty and Friedkin—proved that post-modern horror had a place in the pantheon of legitimate mainstream fare. With inflation-adjusted estimates making its overall box-office take one of the most successful in the entire history of film and new generations discovering its many menacing joys, it's the kind of movie that doesn't need further fleshing out. Once you've seen the sequel results, you can't help but agree.
Now, just in time for the Halloween and holiday shopping season, Warner Brothers is bringing together all six films in what they call The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology. On the positive side, this provides fans with an opportunity to own all the films in the franchise in one cheap, easily-obtainable collection. On the downside, these discs represent nothing but repeats from previous DVD versions of the films, down to identical bonus features and tech specs. You can go to other reviews on the site (all the films mentioned have been discussed by other capable critics at the Verdict) and get more detail. In brief, here is the basic breakdown when it comes to audio and visual issues. The Exorcist (original and new version), along with the two sequels, are available here in clean, crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen images. Heretic does have far too much soft focus covering its visuals, leaving the print milky and indistinct at times, but for the most part, the four transfers are presentable and professional. The prequels, on the other hand, were filmed in a weird, 2.00:1 aspect ratio (apparently reconfigured as 2.35:1 for theatrical and DVD release) and the effect is kind of strange. It elongates some of the visuals (like Beginning's opening shot of a priest stumbling through a battlefield) and renders several of the compositions a tad cockeyed. Still, all six films are given solid treatment here. As for the audio, only Heretic is missing a full Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster. While part III's multichannel mix is the weakest of the rest, all five do provide wonderfully ambient aural attributes.
Extras, on the other hand, are kind of a mixed bag. We get commentaries on The Exorcist (director Friedkin and writer Blatty), The Version You've Never Seen (Friedkin), The Beginning (director Renny Harlin) and Dominion (director Paul Schrader). All of these discussions are excellent companion pieces to the films being offered. It's a shame that an alternate narrative was never created for either Heretic or part III. Both filmmakers—John Boorman and Blatty, respectively—have been critical of the way in which their films were treated during post-production; to hear them discuss the positives and negatives of their efforts would have been wonderful. Aside from a different opening sequence, Heretic's only other bonus is a trailer. Part III only has a rather lame teaser. Dominion has some unnecessary additional scenes and a still gallery, while an EPK style behind-the-scenes fleshes out Beginning's bonus features. The vast majority of the added content then can be found accompanying the two differing versions of the first film. The 2000 revamp only adds a trailer to Friedkin's comments, while the original Exorcist is overloaded with goodies.
In addition to the Blatty alternative narrative track discussion, we get to hear sound tests made for the film, providing a unique chance at hearing Linda Blair deliver the demon's lines without the benefit of effects of Mercedes McCambridge's guttural wail. There is also a collection of advertisements, TV spots, storyboards, and production sketches. Friedkin introduces the film and tries to give off a serious and sinister vibe. It doesn't work. What does, however, is the smashing full-length documentary on the fabled film. Entitled "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist," this BBC production is absolutely essential for any fan. Loaded with detail, featuring several seminal interviews, and lots of discussion of incidents both on and off the set, we get the full picture of The Exorcist's creation, from casting woes to Friedkin's infamous despotism. It's the final piece in a motion-picture puzzle that can occasionally seem as indecipherable as the motives behind many of the sequels or prequels.
Legacies are ably built on two things—longevity and influence. We tend to immortalize those works which linger and persuade even after the initial shock from their substance has worn off. With The Exorcist franchise, only one film has managed to make such a determined dent. Champion the rest or the redux, but William Friedkin's 1973 magnum opus stands as the material that made the myth as powerful and as piercing as it is today. Few horror films from the past can hold up to current cultural scrutiny. We see through the flaws and focus almost exclusively on the ways in which the modern moviemaker would present the subject matter. Still, entries in evil like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead can be updated, but never imitated or bettered. The same is essentially true here. No demonic possession film, before or since, has had the undeniable impact of The Exorcist. It, and its story of unsuccessful serialization, will remain a fixture in the history of motion pictures long after such scripture is forgotten.
In a combination decision. The Exorcist, The Version You've Never Seen, Exorcist III, and Exorcist: The Beginning are all found not guilty and are free to go. Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist is found guilty of being a far-too-flawed entry that strives for greatness but only produces confusion. Its sentence is suspended, however. Exorcist II: The Heretic, on the other hand, if found guilty of crimes against God, man, cinema, and innocent insects the world over. It's condemned to death by biofeedback and strobe light. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice, The Exorcist
Perp Profile, The Exorcist
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Exorcist
• "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist"
Scales of Justice, Exorcist II: The Heretic
Perp Profile, Exorcist II: The Heretic
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Exorcist II: The Heretic
• Alternate Opening Sequence
Scales of Justice, Exorcist III
Perp Profile, Exorcist III
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Exorcist III
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen
Perp Profile, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen
• Commentary by William Friedkin
Scales of Justice, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist
Perp Profile, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist
• Director Commentary by Paul Schrader
Scales of Justice, Exorcist: The Beginning
Perp Profile, Exorcist: The Beginning
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Exorcist: The Beginning
• Director Commentary by Renny Harlin
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