Our reviews of The Exorcist (Blu-Ray) (published October 11th, 2010), The Exorcist (Blu-ray) 40th Anniversary Edition (published October 15th, 2013), The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology (published November 6th, 2006), and The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (published December 5th, 2003) are also available.
Perhaps the greatest horror film ever made.
The Exorcist is a compelling, intelligent horror film that sets a standard for the generally low-brow fare of the genre. This Special Edition DVD is the definitive version of the film, with a wealth of extras.
The day after Christmas in 1973 brought a movie that would both horrify and entrance the world. Many people lined up for hours to see the movie only to come running out in horror and shock before it was over. There was a running joke in New York that to see the film you had to get in line in New Jersey. The movie was so shocking that it was banned in England for 25 years, and is still banned in Finland. The film simply could not be made today; it would be picketed all over as child abuse and would certainly have gotten the rating of death: NC-17. Is it a perfect film, a masterpiece? No, not in my opinion. It could have been. I'll get into that later. But it still has the ability to shock and mesmerize even today with our now gore-disdaining filmgoers.
The history of the film wouldn't predict this huge outpouring of attention and revulsion. William Peter Blatty was broke. He was a comedy writer in a time where comedy wasn't selling. For no more reason than money and employment he decided to write a novel based on a true story he'd read about while in college at Georgetown University, of a young man who was given the rite of exorcism nearby in 1949. Even when the novel became a bestseller, studios were reluctant to do the film. Warner finally rose to the challenge, but even they were reluctant to sign on Blatty's choice of director, William Friedkin. He was really only known for The French Connection after all, and this was a very different film. Eventually the deal was done with Friedkin as director and Blatty as producer and screenwriter. Blatty, along with Friedkin, seemed to go on to do everything wrong. He hired priests to play themselves. He hired a 40-year-old to be an 80-year-old. The female lead went to a virtual unknown, and the male lead was given to a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who originally thought he was being hired to write the script. The professionally composed score was literally thrown out the window, and replaced by bits and pieces of obscure music. A maniacal director was allowed to torture and terrorize the cast. A barefoot illiterate peasant was hired to do the sound effects.
William Friedkin's treatment of the cast deserves dishonorable mention. In order to get the right look of frosty breath coming from the actors he put them in a refrigerated room at temperatures down to 30 below zero. When the lead actress complained she was being pulled too hard in a scene where she was to be thrown back he told her they wouldn't pull on her so hard then told the stunt coordinator to pull even harder. Some of the scenes where the cast appeared to be in great pain or disgust was because they really were, thanks to Friedkin's disregard for safety or injury.
The results were, however, unmistakable. The film, though it did take 15 months to produce, raked in 165 million dollars at the box office compared to its $10 million cost. It went on to do another $90 million in video, not counting the current DVD sales. That is $165 million dollars in 1974 terms let us not forget. The film garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Blatty) and Best Sound (Robert Knudson and Chris Newman). It won numerous Golden Globe awards including Best Picture that same year.
What made the film so engrossing and horrifying? Well, first off, the story is about a 12-year-old innocent girl being possessed by a demon and being forced to do and say unspeakable and shocking things. Seeing the degradation and degeneration of this lovely young girl still creates a chill down the spine today. Here is the before and after of Regan, played by Linda Blair (Born Innocent, Chained Heat, Red Heat):
The extreme realism of the settings and actors also contribute to the film, giving it an almost documentary feel at times and making unbelievable things believable. The dark and cold room where most of the horror takes place gives a very creepy feel to everything. In fairness to Friedkin, even though he abused everyone involved, he did get the shots and the feel he wanted to bring to the screen. Lastly, the Academy Award winning sound was the biggest player in getting the audience to believe what was happening and was the most horrifying of all, even more than the sometimes-gruesome visuals.
The cinematography by Owen Roizman in the US and Billy Williams III in Iraq are superb. The shots simply tell the tale, while being able to provide symbolism and foreshadowing. The shot in Iraq of Father Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Conan the Barbarian, Dreamscape, and many other films) in Iraq facing off against the statue of the demon Pazuzu, which he had faced before and would face again inside Regan, is one fine use of a camera.
Unlike many horror films, this story is given time to breathe and develop. Too long in some ways, not long enough in others, but I'll get into that later as well. But seeing things go from normal to horrible and giving the major players a past gives the audience a much bigger stake in what happens to these characters. Allowing buildup is a major part of what gives this film it's intellect, and makes the film as much a psychological mystery as horror vehicle. For many younger viewers weaned on films like Scream this may not be welcome, but I think having at least some of this approach is what separates the film from becoming a mere snowflake in the blizzard of horror films.
For those who do not know the story, Here it is. Ellen Burstyn (The Spitfire Grill, How to Make an American Quilt, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) plays Chris MacNeil, a popular actress happily shooting a film near Washington DC, with her daughter at home with several servants nearby. The first signs of trouble come when you see that Regan has been playing with a Ouija board, and has a spirit friend named Captain Howdy. Her mother sees nothing wrong in this, but we do. There are also strange rustlings in the attic, which are thought to be rats. Nothing yet seems to be truly amiss, but we can tell this is but the beginning. Radical behavior changes and physical changes begin, and Chris does what any mother would do; seek medical attention. The scenes where they do medical testing on Regan are nearly as horrifying as later scenes of demonic possession.
With all medical options exhausted, they move on to psychiatry. That doesn't last long, as the child/demon attacks her shrink, and some truly supernatural happenings come about, along with perhaps the most shocking scene ever put on film involving Regan with a crucifix.
Finally Ms. MacNeil is at the end of her rope, and decides to talk to a priest, after the doctors say that since Regan BELIEVES she is possessed, maybe the rite of exorcism will cure her. She sees Father Karras, played by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Jason Miller. There has been sufficient buildup on his character to know that he is also a psychiatrist, and is having problems with his faith in God, and has recently lost his mother and feels great guilt over it. He is skeptical about demonic possession, which is certainly the way most people would feel, but sees her anyway. Only after some harrowing scenes with the now bound and tube-fed girl who has some serious skin problems and a completely new voice does he bring the case for exorcism to his superiors.
When the Church finally agrees to allow the rite, they send for Father Merrin, the only priest they know of with experience in performing one. In a final confrontation the two priests; one old, one young, and one devout, the other doubting, perform the rite and battle the demon before it can kill the young girl.
One last note about the sound. The groaning, growling, hair-raising sound of the demon's voice comes from a mix of Regan's voice, various other elements, and the voice of Mercedes McCambridge (Giant, Cimarron, The Sacketts). Friedkin, in his tyrannical style, got her to produce those sounds by tying her to a chair and feeding her raw eggs while smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day and drinking straight whiskey. Then after all that, she didn't even get credit in the theatrical run of the film! Finally now she gets her just recognition.
Alright, now you're wondering about the disc itself. It looks very good indeed, though it has a few flaws. Some grain is evident in several places, color seems to bloom a bit in Chapter 22, and the image is often overly soft. Blacks are very black though, and most of the muted color palette remains clear. It is likely this is as good as the film will ever look, and it's good enough.
The extras are really the selling point though; there is a ton of supplements. The best of them is the over an hour long documentary called "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist." It contains interviews with the main players, including the extremely creative and talented make-up artist Dick Smith. Special effects and just about every aspect of the film are covered. The famous missing scenes are a high point, and the debate between Blatty and Friedkin over which of those scenes should have remained in the film. Personally I side squarely with Blatty on some of those scenes belonging in the picture. I feel the movie could have been the masterpiece it should have been but for some last-minute and arbitrary changes by Friedkin. This is the first time I've ever called out for a Writer's Cut. The menus are also very nice, with full motion video and sound. It's difficult to list the rest of the extras. The virtual cornucopia of supplements include cast and crew bios and filmographies, a slideshow of storyboards, production notes, the original ending cut from the film, some short additional interviews with Blatty and Friedkin, a list of awards for the film, the true story of the events that inspired the novel and film, 6 TV spots, and 8 theatrical trailers, including ones for Beetlejuice, Fallen, Interview with the Vampire, The Devil's Advocate, and the best-forgotten Exorcist II: The Heretic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I left the commentary tracks off the list of extras because they are part of the downside of the disc. There are two commentaries, one by Friedkin, the other by Blatty. Actually there is plenty of information in the Friedkin commentary; it's just dry and I've already decided I don't like him from the information in the documentary and other information I've gleaned on the film. The Blatty commentary does give his impression on what scenes should have been left in, and I agreed with him. But for the most part we've heard everything he had to say in the other supplements, he leaves off the track about an hour into the film, and we are treated to about another half hour of groans and screams from the sound effects tests, before it defaults back to the film soundtrack.
Speaking of the soundtrack, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is now where it belongs in the widescreen version of the film, and the former pan-and-scan side has been replaced with the special features (Yeah!). While most of the sound, especially the sound effects of the demon and the score, come off just fine, dialogue often falls below the threshold of the main speakers. This center channel dropout makes an otherwise great audio mix less than sterling. If you can boost your center channel though you can get past this.
I also have a few complaints about the film itself that I alluded to above. Mind you, I think The Exorcist is a very good film just as it is. But it could have been better. The pacing of the first 40 minutes of the film is too slow, especially for people accustomed to 1990s filmmaking. Some of the buildup was necessary, but some of it wasn't, and all of it could have been spaced out with elements to move things along a bit faster. Blatty himself tried to write it this way, but lost out to Friedkin. Despite all this long buildup, nagging holes in the plot remain, also because of Friedkin cuts. The first time the mother mentions a doctor and tells her daughter to keep taking her pills, she has seen no doctor and gotten no pills, and it just startles you right out of the plot. Two other scenes especially, one with Fathers Merrin and Karras on the stairs, and the ending, should have remained to do a better job of exposition and tying up the film. Too many people leave with the wrong impression of the film because of the taking away of these scenes. Blatty again to this day still argues those scenes belong in the film. Adding those scenes back, and changing the pacing and exposition of the first third of the film, would have made this a true masterpiece, instead of "merely" one of the best horror films ever made.
The Exorcist prods with a mixture of subtlety and power at your very perception of the lines of good and evil. It remains a seminal work and a gripping film with character depth and special effects that have not become too dated. Most of the special effects still hold up today quite well. The video and audio are not reference standard, but I dare say no film from 1973 will be. Both are as good as we are going to get, and far better than VHS. The extra content is worth a purchase alone, but the film is in great shape and is worth it to any person who isn't too faint of heart. I must warn my readers though that this film is NOT for viewing by young children, and teenagers may not appreciate it's subtlety. Some parents won't want even their teens to see it.
The film is acquitted and commended by this judge. William Friedkin is sentenced to being tied to a chair and subjected to the abuse he perpetuated upon his cast and crew. William Peter Blatty is also commended, and the court requests that he see about releasing The Exorcist: The Writer's Cut. Lastly Warner is commended for a fine special edition, with every extra we could have asked for. Perhaps they should have worked a bit harder on the 5.1 audio track and spiced up the commentaries, but otherwise a superb effort.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Two Commentary Tracks
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