She swears. She levitates her bed. She spews green vomit. No, it's not Sarah Silverman or Sandra Bernhard or even Howard Stern in drag. It's little Regan, the twelve-year-old girl possessed by the Devil in the 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist."
A friend of mine had an office next to a movie theater in the early Seventies. He said when "The Exorcist" was playing there, he could set his watch by the audience screams that came in intervals through the walls.
Warner Bros. seem to be having a good time reissuing "The Exorcist" in new and different editions. To my knowledge, they've released it on disc four times now. First, there was the regular DVD edition in a bare-bones affair. Then came the Twenty-fifth Anniversary edition with its numerous extras. After that came "The Version You've Never Seen," with over ten minutes of additional footage the filmmakers initially deleted. And now we get the high-definition package of the theatrical version and the Director's Cut in a fancy, bonus-laden Blu-ray Book edition. Whether the added scenes make the film any better is a matter of opinion, but two things are clear: The Blu-ray transfers look and sound better than ever, and a good, scary movie remains a good, scary movie no matter what the edition. If you have to have justification for buying the HD release, you can always say the Devil made you do it.
William Peter Blatty based the screenplay on his own best-selling novel, which in turn found inspiration from a newspaper article about a real-life exorcism. Under the direction of William Friedkin, the movie account of young Regan's demonic possession is probably a lot scarier than the actual experience, as it should be in a work of largely imaginative fiction. But it's that element of "what if" that makes the movie all the more plausible, and, therefore, all the more alarming.
Linda Blair plays Regan, who at the beginning of the picture is a perfectly normal, well-adjusted kid. For reasons unknown she becomes the object of possession not just by subordinate demons but by the Devil himself. At first, she merely acts strangely; then she starts uttering weird noises and making her bed shake. Before long she is disgorging green slime and rotating her head 180 degrees. Her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, takes her to the best doctors in town, but to no avail. The doctors suggest an exorcism as a last resort. Understandably, what the mother considers witchcraft dismays her, but she is willing to go to any lengths to save her daughter.
The man she calls upon for help is a local Catholic priest at Georgetown University, Father Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller. He is a psychologist who frankly doesn't believe in exorcisms. The movie is as much about him as it is about the possessed girl, since Father Karras is going through his own crisis of faith at the time of the story. He soon becomes convinced of the Devil's power, however, when Regan spits green goo in his face, starts speaking in tongues, and materializes words on her stomach. To help out Father Karras, the Church brings in their big guns in the person of Father Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, apparently an old hand at exorcisms. As the exorcist, Sydow brings a note of calm reassurance to the proceedings, and together the two priests exorcise the demon, albeit at a terrible price.
The movie is spooky from start to finish, every shot shrouded in mystery and suspense, climaxed by a terrifying final scene. This is all the more startling because of the mundane quality of the people and setting involved. I mean, the main character is a little girl. How scary can a twelve-year-old be? Here, pretty scary. And the film confines the significant action mainly to a single room in a house, Regan's bedroom. How scary can a bedroom be? Again, pretty scary.
In his methodically deliberate way, director Friedkin slowly builds and releases tension that is not only thrilling but seems perfectly natural. Indeed, much of the acting seems improvisational to heighten the verisimilitude of the situations. It's true that the special effects sometimes draw attention to themselves, like the swiveling head, yet they always sustain the horror of the event. It's easy for an audience to suspend their disbelief when they don't have to keep saying to themselves, "Oh, that's silly" or "That couldn't really happen." The filmmakers made this stuff look and feel as though it could really happen.
So, what are the differences in the extended Director's Cut and the one that originally played in movie theaters? First, the filmmakers distribute the ten minutes-plus of added scenes a few minutes at a time here and there throughout the movie, and the scenes don't really change much. They do, however, provide a little more insight into the character of Father Karras, offer more on the "nervous disorder" diagnosis for Regan, and give the film a slightly different ending. Probably the most important addition, however, is the famous "spider-walking" scene, a five-second segment that has Regan walking down a flight of stairs upside-down. The scene was in Blatty's novel and in the initial screenplay, but director Friedkin had at first thought it came too early in the story and was just "too much," thus, excising it. You be the judge, since you get both versions of the movie (on separate discs). I found the "spider walk" a frightening moment and thought it worked just fine.
In "A Personal Message from William Friedkin" the director offers his "gratitude to Warner Home Video for presenting this high-definition Blu-ray, which was color-timed by the cinematographer Owen Roizman and myself and represents the very best print ever made of 'The Exorcist.'"
The WB video engineers use a pair of dual-layer BD50's and a VC-1 codec to reproduce both versions of the 1.85:1-ratio movie in high definition. The brighter scenes are brilliant and clear, with object delineation that varies from sharp and detailed to somewhat soft. Colors look lifelike, especially skin tones, and solid black levels help to set them off. The engineers left the film's natural print grain intact, which is sometimes hardly noticeable and sometimes imparts a rough, gritty appearance to the image.
A lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track renders the sound remixed in 6.1 surround. The first thing one notices is that there is a good deal of activity in the side and rear speakers, particularly in ambient musical bloom and crowd noises, but also in more subtle ways, like the creaking of the house and the wind through the windows. Dynamics are strong, too, as is the depth and airiness of the soundstage. The only things to suffer on occasion are voices, which can come across with a hollow nasality.
The Blu-ray Book edition comes with two discs, as I've said. On disc one we find the Extended Director's Cut (2000 version), 132 minutes. In addition, it contains an introduction and an audio commentary by director William Friedkin; a new, 2010, three-part documentary with sections called "Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist," thirty minutes; "The Exorcist: Locations Then and Now," about eight-and-a-half minutes; and "Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist," about ten minutes. Disc one concludes with two theatrical trailers, three TV spots, three radio spots, and forty-eight scene selections.
Disc two contains the original theatrical version of the movie. It also includes commentaries by director William Friedkin and producer-screenwriter Peter Blatty; the 1998 documentary "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist," seventy-seven minutes; sketches and storyboards; an interview gallery covering "The Original Cut," "The Final Reckoning," and "Stairway to Heaven"; an original ending; three theatrical trailers; four TV spots; and forty-seven scene selections.
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book edition, we get a forty-page hardbound book of text and pictures, with the two Blu-ray discs housed in Digipak spindles on the inside front and back covers, plus "A Personal Message from William Friedkin." Spoken languages for the films include English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and others; subtitles in Danish, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, and others; and captions for the hearing impaired in English, German, and Italian.
"The Exorcist" is keen on billing itself as "the scariest movie of all time." While I don't fully agree with that assessment, I do think the movie is right up there with the cinema's better chillers. It follows in the tradition of "The Haunting," "Rosemary's Baby," and "The Shining" in that it is at least a plausible, if farfetched, horror story. Yet "The Exorcist" goes beyond the others with its subplot of Father Karras. It is really his conversion to a belief in spirits that makes believers of us all. And this is what good filmmaking is all about--forcing us to believe in the unbelievable. "The Exorcist" is shocking, sometimes outrageous, and certainly profane, so I would forewarn you, it's not for children.