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With: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, J. Lee Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran
Written by: William Peter Blatty, based on his own novel
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120
Date: 18/03/2013

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Regan Era

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: This is the review I wrote upon seeing the 2000 "version you've never seen." I've seen the original 1973 cut again since then and have come to appreciate it much more. I'll resist the temptation to edit this one, but will present a review of the 1973 version elsewhere.

I was too young to catch William Friedkin's The Exorcist when it first opened, but my parents owned a paperback copy of William Peter Blatty's novel. On the back cover was plastered a picture of the possessed Regan (played by Linda Blair) that gave me the chills. I used to sneak into my parents' bedroom to steal a look at that book and give myself a spine-tingle.

I think that's the secret of the huge success of The Exorcist, that little tingle. When Roger Ebert reviewed the film back in 1973, he asked, "are people so numb they need this movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?" I don't know if we were numb then; we hadn't seen anything quite like The Exorcist before. But we are certainly numb now. As I watched the new cut ("the Version You've Never Seen") of the film, I felt a few tingles, but I was amazed at how tame it has become in comparison to the last 27 years worth of horror films. (Or maybe it's because I'd seen it a few times before.)

The Exorcist tells the story of a little girl (Blair) who may or may not be possessed by the devil himself. Ellen Burstyn plays the little girl's mother (who has nothing to do but scream and fret). You might get the chills just thinking about the horrors little 12-year-old Blair must have gone through in real life playing this part. (Though the great Mercedes McCambridge from Johnny Guitar and Giant plays the voice of the possessed Regan.) Regan becomes covered in scars and abrasions, spins her head around, and vomits green muck. That stuff is not uninteresting, a little gory, but not particularly scary. What's REALLY scary is the other stuff, Regan undergoing all kinds of vicious medical testing with ancient, rusty machines whirring and groaning and snapping at her. And the one thing that made everyone jump at the screening I attended was the sudden ringing of a phone.

The new footage doesn't add anything in particular to the film. New opening and closing shots actually detract from the original effect of the film, and other scenes go nowhere. A great mistake is the insertion of "scary ghoul" faces randomly throughout various scenes. It gives the movie the feel of a cheap William Castle production (actually, maybe that's not so bad). One exception is a quick shot, lasting less than 10 seconds, called the "spider walk". It has Regan walking down the stairs on her hands and feet, backwards (with her head pointing downward). This happens quite suddenly, and the effect is incredibly shocking. That scene alone may be worth the price of admission for true horror fanatics. (NOTE: The DVD release also includes this footage, but doesn't incorporate it into the film.)

Overall, I found some of director Friedkin's techniques admirable. For one, his use of music is marvelously restrained. He uses the "Tubular Bells" theme only once, to punctuate Burstyn's walk home after a day's work. The demon possession scenes have no music at all, lending them a more potent feel and making them more documentary-like. The overall film has a well-developed sense of atmosphere that most films of today are missing. One scene showing Father Karras (Jason Miller) going to see his mother in a run-down neighborhood in New York feels like the real thing and not just a decorated set. The extras all look like real people too. In short, nothing is homogenized like movies today are.

The film also benefits from the presence of Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin who performs the exorcism. He's one of those actors capable of stealing a scene just by drinking a cup of coffee. Many of the extra scenes show more footage of Von Sydow, and though they're generally pointless, they still resonate.

But, even taking all this into account, The Exorcist is not a great film. It was a blockbuster of the moment, and one of the films that brought on the current front of filmmaking as business. It's a film about craftsmanship rather than art. If it had taken the time to explore the meaning of the possession, or the spiritual effects it had on people (besides just scaring the life out of them), it might have been something extra. But it's just a genre film, albeit a genre film presented in a highbrow and mainstream package.

Moreover, I don't know how well The Exorcist will be received in the year 2000. The new generations of filmgoers is liable to identify more with its own films. My generation had A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead II. The new generation has the Scream movies and The Blair Witch Project. I guess It all depends on what gives you that little tingle.

In 2010, Warner Home Video released a deluxe Blu-Ray edition that includes both the theatrical cut and the 2000 extended version. I was a bit confused because the materials make it sound like this includes a brand-new director's cut, but in fact it is the same extended cut that was released in 2000 under the title "The Version You've Never Seen." The Blu-Ray comes with some of the usual extras that have been released on previous versions, including two excellent commentary tracks by William Friedkin. The only new extra is three-part behind-the-scenes documentary.

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