[box cover]

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen

Warner Home Video

Starring Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow,
and Jason Miller

Written by and based on the novel
by William Peter Blatty

Directed by William Friedkin


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


One of the many supplements to Warner's excellent 1998 25th Anniversary DVD presentation of The Exorcist was the BBC documentary The Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist. This sharp retrospective featured several axed scenes and was practically hijacked by director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty arguing over their exclusion from the final cut. Friedkin, true to form, stubbornly insisted that the seminal horror classic was better for lack of them, and his reasoning in each case was substantive. Blatty's protests carried the whiff of a writer unable to "kill his babies," as they say.

Despite his strong defense at the time, Friedkin eventually relented and The Exorcist was theatrically re-released in 2000 with his enthusiastic approval, 27 years after its debut, and featuring 10 minutes of added footage and a few extra special effects. The considerable financial success of this project gave a hearty second to the hype over George Lucas' monkeyed-up rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy a few years prior (and expect more of the same down the road with other films).

Aside from injecting adrenaline into the Tinkering Movement, this Version You've Never Seen of The Exorcist adds little value to an already brilliant film, but fortunately neither detracts much from the experience. The Exorcist is a terrific, gripping, frightening studio horror film, unusual in many ways, but most specifically in the complex and unorthodox distribution of its crucial narrative elements through its supporting characters.

Ostensibly, the film appears to be the story of movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) living on location in Georgetown when her 12-year-old daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) is struck with a bizarre and elusive illness. The malady produces violent behavior and much green bile, and it baffles medical and psychiatric doctors alike.

But they are simply red herrings, helpless victims run through the ringer of emotion. Blatty skillfully places his two central characters as effective decoys in a much larger scheme; they are merely pawns within a larger battle between an evil force and an aging priest (Max Von Sydow), who once battled the demon in Africa and accepts the malevolent spirit's gruesome invitation for a rematch. However, Blatty rests the film's crucial dramatic arc on yet another character, brooding preist Damien Karras, a Church psychiatrist facing a crisis in faith spurred by the death of his neglected mother.

Friedkin's touch is electric, smartly playing the surrounding drama with a quiet desparation in contrast to the noisy spectacle of Reagan's possession, finding great tension in the resulting hush. The performances are impeccable around the table. Burstyn and Blair are charged with the difficult task of eliciting sympathy with what are essentially static, passive characters, and they do so by displaying a marvelous and underplayed humanness. Von Sydow uses his formidable presence to imbue his fleeting screen time with a solid and stoic spirituality strong enough to justify Merrin's integral influence on the plot as a whole. And what happened to Jason Miller, riveting as Karras in his first film, but rarely seen since?

As for the additional footage, only one scene — a brief mid-exorcism exchange between Merrin and Karras — might have warranted inclusion in the offical cut of the film, and any excuse to include Max Von Sydow in any film is fine with me. But some of the other material is negligible. Friedkin adds two opening shots to foreshadow upcoming events, but in doing so slightly diminishes the impact of the film's vivid and unexpected opening in northern Iraq. Also included is Reagan's first visit to the doctor, in which she exhibits behavior too strange perhaps for that early in the film, weakening her later, shocking interruption of the dinner party. Then there's the infamous "spider-walk" scene in which Reagan contortedly runs down a staircase on all fours, which is a bit silly, and undermines the effectiveness of the special effects elsewhere. In this same vein, some demonic images have been superimposed in places, but instead of making the film creepeir they evoke momories of John Boorman's best-forgotten, ludicrous 1978 sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic.

The worst of the changes, however, is the one Blatty most stridently campaigned for in the BBC interview: including at the very end of the film a brief moment of bad "cute" dialog between yet two more peripheral characters echoing a simliarly painful exchange ealier in the film. Blatty's affection for one of the characters, Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), is understandable to anyone who has read his novel of The Exorcist or its sequel Legion. His random mix of philosphical query and pop-culture criticism makes for an amusing literary character and narrator, but he comes off like a grating nancy on film, and his presence was wisely pared down in adapation for the screen. Blatty's argument for including this awful coda is that the film needs to end with a sense of hope. Unfortunately, this attempt is hopeless, and it carries nowhere near the emoitonally affirming impact of the moment minutes earlier bewtween Reagan and a priest.

Owners of Warner's definitive 25th Anniversary DVD of The Exorcist, which is still in print, have nothing to envy here, and only die-hard fanatics should consider shelling out another disc's worth of cash for a slightly inferior product. As well, if you're shopping for your very first Exorcist DVD, most of the newly incorporated material is availble within the supplemental section of the earlier disc, where it should be. The transfer here is strong, in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and audio is in both DD 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Also on board is a new commentary by Friedkin, which addresses the changes but also covers a lot of the same ground as his 1998 commentary.

— Gregory P. Dorr



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