The Exorcist really belongs in the category of a theological thriller instead of horror fim because it’s a about faith, and characters as a whole who voluntarily or by brute force, believe in a higher power, and more specifically, the solutions provided by the Catholic church to halt the Devil’s possession of a little girl named Regan (Linda Blair).
The Omen (1976), the rival religious shocker from Fox, espoused to be a similarly literate theological thriller, but it’s no different than a Friday the 13th bodycount film; William Blatty’s movie is an original (and was based on his novel), and the film remains the most successful template for cinematic theological thrillers transgressing a bit into the realms of haunted house horror.
When released in 1973, Exorcist did massive business, and alongside Jaws (1975) and Omen, they collectively symbolize a shift in the kind of blockbuster films seventies audiences would see knowing the tension and violence was disturbingly graphic.
The epic romances, musicals, and historical dramas of the sixties were effectively replaced by horror and graphic doom-and-gloom sci-fi, and the most shocking aspect of Exorcist isn’t its pro-religious stance (which irks some reviewers) nor grotesque assaults on a child (a role played by a child, instead of a young-looking adult or late-teen), but the fact a major Hollywood studio gambled on a disturbing novel, and allowed so much intense imagery to be thrown up on the big screen.
Exorcist made Omen and all of its onscreen decapitations and pikings possible, but they are two very different animals. There is no classy, soft-focus cinematography in Exorcist because Blatty wanted realism, and he approached William Friedkin based on the director's fusion of documentary storytelling & big screen style, as was the case with The French Connection (1971).
The music score doesn’t chant evil; it’s an impressionistic sound design of what Friedkin termed “loud silence,” wherein sound effects and music are one organic soundscape that’s constantly active, and ready to snap loud at any moment, or creak with eerie simplicity. The family matriarch, Chris (Elen Burstyn), is spiritually empty, and she's forced to accept the rules of doctrine to save her child, unlike the religious parents in The Omen whose faith is challenged by a Devil stemming from the occult instead of the Bible. And the resolution in Exorcist is noble and sacrificial instead of evil persisting past the end credits and spawning a series of sequels where the Devil’s child is poised for the U.S. Presidency, as was the case with The Final Conflict (1981).
(Exorcist did spawn two sequels and a pair of garbage prequels, but with the exception of Exorcist III, none really add anything to Blatty and Friedkin’s perfect theological discourse.)
Few films have managed to grab audiences (and their dollars) willing to be scared through a drama where heavy theological arguments were discussed, weighed, and battled onscreen. Duds like Legion (2010) litter the horror & thriller realm, but Angels & Demons (2009) works because the threats aren’t reliant on elaborate CGI effects. (Angels & Demons, however, is more of a hybrid that marries the doctrine diallectics of Exorcist with the sense of societal doom from Omen, as well as the procedural serial killer plotting and gore of Silence of the Lambs.)
Within the original theatrical cut of Exorcist, the shocks are simple, and Regan physically transforms into a rotting child instead of some tentacled or bat-winged monster with rapid on-screen transformation. The generally unseen monster is accessible, believable, and more horrifying than a pair of good and bad angels wielding machine guns on the roof of a truck stop diner while spider-grannies crawl on ceilings, as was the case with Legion.
The Final Release
At this stage, Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray edition is the final say in special editions for The Exorcist, eclipsing the various DVD releases since the film was cleaned up and bolstered with salacious extras from the Warner Bros.’ vaults back in 1998, and expanded with previously deleted footage in 2000.
As screenwriter/producer Blatty recalls in the BR's 2010 interviews, it was he who approached Friedkin about giving footage excised prior to the film’s 1973 release another look for a ‘restored’ version.
According to Friedkin, the pair had a falling out over really simple stances: Friedkin felt the film said everything it should, whereas Blatty wanted the restatement of ‘nuances,’ such as a scene where Father Merrin and Father Karras contemplate why the devil would possess a child; shock scenes (namely the spider walk), and a finale that created a kind of new devil-hunting team/friendship between Father Dyer (William O'Malley) and detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), closing with the Casablanca dialogue riff, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The 1998 DVD basically showcased the theatrical cut with archival extras – audio tests for the devil’s voice, trailers and radio spots – plus the BBC’s superb documentary on the making of the film, “The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist,” which featured clips and discussions of the cut scenes. Also included on that DVD were outtakes of a table conversation between two cranky farts still defending their stances on what version should exist today.
In 1998, it was still moot, but Blatty’s protesting and cajoling seemed to work, because in 2000 a longer version was released to theatres, featuring about 10 mins. of extra footage. In 2000, it’s fair to assume that the longer version – ridiculously released under the branding “The Version You’ve Never Seen” instead of the more realistic ‘The Producer’s Cut’ – wasn’t created to spawn a DVD release.
The 2000 cut is the compromise between producer and director, and and Friedkin never said it was his definitive version… until now. At the end of the 2010 interview, Friedkin concedes that Blatty’s version is the better one, a decision he characterizes as the mellowing of his temperament from aging, hence the 2000 version’s rebranding as ‘the director’s cut,’ which is utter nonsense.
This is the same flip-flopping that pushed Ridley Scott to recut Alien (1979) into a ‘preferred version’ that runs slower, is filled with redundancies, and wrecks the beautiful pacing he and editor Terry Rawlings crafted in 1979. If artists re-examine a 20-year old work, most will find faults and will be compelled to do some tweaking, but putting everything from the cutting room floor back into a film is irrational. The 1973 Exorcist edit was and is the director cut, and the original editorial decisions were fully sound.
There are pros and cons to the respecrtive versions. The 1973 cut is perfectly paced, but the deleted stairwell scene between the two priests before they venture into the bedroom to perform the Big Exorcism is affecting, because it tries to explain the madness and theological arguments, and distills the priests’ ongoing actions into one big goal to restore faith humankind. Fair enough, in terms of a meretricious element within the 2000 edit.
Now, the much-talked about spider walk is terrifying, but it’s also dramatically ludicrous. Early in the film, Regan walks up to a party guest with a death threat (“You’re gonna die up there”) and urinates on the carpet, which is shocking because that foul missive comes from an innocent child.
In the 2000 edit, after a series of horrific medical tests, Regan is back home resting, and when her mother returns from a consultation, she’s told a close friend is dead. Before Chris (and the audience) can process that shock, she sees Regan trickling down the staircase, upside-down like an arachnid, frothing blood. Friedkin cuts to black, and the next scene has Regan being queried by a psychiatrist - a tonally bizarre choice, because it downplays the traumatic stress the mother should be experiencing after seeing her daughter foaming blood which in and of itself signals serious internal physical trauma, and would prompt anyone to whisk the child to the nearest hospital. The fact Friedkin follows up with a Q&A means mom probably sprayed some Bissell on the steps, and tucked her tyke back into bed, and treating herself to a double vodka.
The flash frames of the devil - like the evil mask in the kitchen - is interesting but gimmicky. We know the devil is present because Regan’s going through hell, and the docu-style camerawork and lighting act as a sobering contrast to the madness locked at the top of the stairwell. The flashing images pushthe film further towards being an effects movie, and they also feel like leftovers from the first teaser trailer, comprised of rippling, grainy flash frames of the Devil visage and Regan in various stages of possession, underscored by Lalo Schifrin’s chilling, screechy music. (The composer's score was subsequently dumped from the film production by the director.)
The original ending, as per Blatty’s intention, should’ve had the detective and the priest close the film with the 'beautiful friendship' reference from Casablanca, but it was fortunate for us that the dialogue from that key exchange was unusable, so as it stands, the footage used by Friedkin feels like an irrelevant coda that has the two crossing the street for a bite to eat prior to the End Credits.
The BBC doc does contain the full assembly edit of the unused ending, and it’s also archived in a separate gallery on the BR, and one sees the different (and better) angles Friedkin used in the final 2000 edit to make the transition (and abbreviated dialogue) less jarring.
Additionally, the doc also includes a different and longer edit of the spider walk. As written and filmed, Regan descends, but rather than cutting to a close-up of her bloodied mouth, there’s a wide shot that shows her flipping over, crawling to the floor on all fours, and with a snake’s tongue, chasing her mother’s friend Sharon to the door – a shock scene that degenerates into utter silliness. The 2000 compromise is a better, tighter edit, but it still has no place in the film.
The easy argument against the 2000 edit is Friedkin sold out, or was worn down by Blatty, and to an extent both are true, but at least from a film history stance, both parties are now happy campers because both versions are on the BR. One just wishes Friedkin hadn’t capitulated on camera, in the 2010 featurette.
In any event, all of the extras from the 1998 DVD are present – sketches, trailers, radio spots, commentaries, docs, Q&As, and the BBC doc – plus the extras on the 2000 cut.
The 2010 additions on the BR are the 3-part featurettes which avoid duplicating facts and content from the BBC doc and focus on contextualizing the newly found 16mm behind-the-scenes footage cinematographer Owen Roizman shot during production. By filming it silent, Roizman found the cast & crew would behave naturally, so we’re treated to candid glimpses of the production, with new interviews describing what they were feeling at the time.
Actress Linda Blair is particularly emphatic in stressing she was far too young to understand what she was saying or doing with Blatty’s purple dialogue, the jarring behaviour, and that nasty cross-stabbing scene between her thighs. Friedkin treated the filming of those touchy-feey scenes as a game, and it’s interesting to hear director and actress discussing the process of creating those horrific scenes within a major studio production.
Also unique are glimpses of how effects were achieved – virtually everything was practical, and still looks amazing – and the construction of the superb sets. The multi-part doc is a good coda to the film, and at this stage there’s nothing else to add, outside of theoretical blather from film theorists and critics (er, like this stuff).
To have been in a theatre and seen The Exorcist in 1973 must have been emotionally bowdlerizing, because it’s an assaultive audio-visual monster. It’s a tale of a child put through bizarre, disgusting experiences, and Blatty admits he was impressed by the way ugliness in his book was translated to the screen.
The Exorcist is steeped in rotating discourses and analysis by sressed-out characters because that’s part of Blatty’s writing: arguing points of view, whether they’re about moral or spiritual issues, and one sees that at the core of Exorcist, as well as the two films Blatty himself directed, Exorcist III (1990), and The Ninth Configuration (1980). The former has people arguing about God, the Devil, and the nature of achieving goals through violence; and the latter has spiritually lost characters (military inmates housed in a postwar commandeered castle) struck by violence, and seeking logic through arguments, rants, and obtuse, absurd behaviour.
Blatty makes an interesting self-observation in the 2010 doc: after the success of The Exorcist, his comedy writing career was dead, and that’s a fact because prior to 1973, he was a popular comedic screenwriter whose best-known work was co-scripting with Blake Edwards Inspector Clouseau’s cinematic debut, A Shot in the Dark (1964). The screenwriter would pen a handful of further scripts, but after 1973 he chose to focus more on writing novels, if not live quite comfortably from the revenues from his menacing little creation that spawned a floundering franchise.
With The Omen riding on The Exorcist’s success in 1976, Blatty’s Regan was repackaged in a grand apocalyptic thriller, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) with director John Boorman making a mess of things by making the Devil’s danger global, and nonsense involving bees and a teenage Regan doing a goofy bee dance of joy. Boorman reportedly attempted a recut twice, but the film is still deservedly regarded as one of the worst sequels on record.
There were also a spate of rip-offs. William Girdler’s Abby (1974) was suppressed after WB launched a successful copyright infringement suit, whereas Ovidio Assonitis’ Beyond the Door / Who Are You? (1974) weathered legal action and made millions it didn’t deserve, and Alberto De Martino’s The Antichrist / L’anticristo (1974) copied the same template, including the need to have the affected victim spew devilish Day-Glo-goo from her possessed maw.
Blatty’s 1990 sequel (based on his book Legion) was more novelistic, and the producers demanded reshoots to counter the heavy theological chatter in the final act – which is rather ironic, considering it’s one version the author can’t fix, considering he was its writer and director.)
The final irony occurred nearly 20 years later when Exorcist III’s original executive producer, James G. Robinson, commissioned a prequel from director Paul Schrader. The story and direction were so dull the film was virtually reshot, and director Renny Harlin’s new version, Exorcist: The Beginning was released after many delays in 2004. Perhaps taking a cue from Blatty, Schrader fought to have his edit finished and released, and the badly-titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was fleetingly released in 2004 with a glaringly incomplete sound mix and score. Neither prequel contained a convincing, affective story.
Within a 30-year period producers have tried to spin new life into a franchise that was a foolish pursuit because the 1973 version took a global, faith-heavy danger and focused on a mother, her daughter, and troubled priests in an unlikely American suburb. The battle involves no globe-trotting nor elaborate effects (nor bad acting from Richard Burton), and occurs in a small bedroom. Its people and the locale are ordinary, and the resolution is simple, leaving the door open for the battle to occur again, but left to the imagination of audiences.
That’s key to the film’s success in both 1973 and 2000 versions, and why it is pointless to mess with an original. In 2030, it’s a fair bet The Exorcist will still scare the crap out of audiences.
WHV Blu-ray includes both versions plus all of the extras from prior editions. The 2000 version plus commentaries, selected extras and the 2010 featurettes are available on a single-disc DVD, whereas the 1973 version is only available via the deleted 1998 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, or the The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology box which, also gathers 2000 version, the two sequels and two prequels.
The 1973 version was also released in a deluxe VHS boxed set in 1998 and DVD set in 2002, which included lobby card reproductions, a senitype, 48-page booklet with production notes, and a limited gold CD of the film soundtrack augmented with Lalo Schifrin’s rejected music. The film's rejected score as well as Friedkin's remarkable use of sound were extensively profiled by Jeff Bond in the February 1999 issue of Film Score Monthly (Vol. 4, Issue 2).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan