Combustible Celluloid
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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: 12/26/1973

The Exorcist (1973)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Regan Era

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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.

The Exorcist tells the story of a little girl (Blair) who may or may not be possessed by the devil himself. 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 perhaps, 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.

Friedkin's 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. I love the sense of autumn in the film, and 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.

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.

Ellen Burstyn gives an incredible performance as Regan's single, smoking, swearing mom, a film actress. The film seems to suggest that this "broken" family has caused Regan's "illness." Or perhaps it's her changing, pubescent body that has unleashed the demon. These are two of the many ways to read the film, although Friedkin would insist that it's a study of faith. In other words, he can present all these details to you as factually as possible, but in the end, nothing can ever be fully known or understood. It's up to faith.

Note: In 2000, a cut entitled The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen was released, adding about ten minutes of footage to the film. 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. Overall, I found that this version of the film less effective, and more on the level of an ordinary scare-flick, rather than anything penetrating.

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." (Friedkin later confirmed that this version is indeed his director's cut.) 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. There's also a great 2006 box set, containing all six Exorcist films to date.

In 2013, Warner released an official "40th anniversary edition" Blu-ray set. Friedkin told me last year that a new 4K scan was on its way, but this is not it. The theatrical cut and the director's cut are exactly the same as on the 2010 Blu-ray release. There are only two new extras, both short documentaries about Blatty and his writing and research of the novel. The set also includes a booklet, an excerpt of Friedkin's recently released biography (which is worth reading in its entirety). If you already own the Blu-ray Book, there's no reason to upgrade, unless you're a real die-hard fan.

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