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The Exorcist   A

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 1973 (Version You've Never Seen: 2000)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Peter Blatty
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Wynn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair.

Review by Rob Vaux

I saw the "all new" version of The Exorcist with a Friday night date crowd: a lot of teenagers raised on Scream and The Blair Witch Project, presumably jaded to the ways of horror movies. They were there for shrieks and giggles, out to have a little fun with a scary roller coaster. As the lights dimmed, you could hear them laughing, see them goose their dates to try to get a scream, and settle down for an evening of spooky entertainment.

There is no greater testament to the strength of this film than the ashen faces of that happy go-lucky crowd following the screening. They staggered out of the theater like survivors at the Battle of Verdun. Their hands shook like old women. Their popcorn fell mutely to the floor. A woman sat on the lobby floor in near-hysterics, her boyfriend standing beside her with a haunted look in his eyes. Twenty-seven years later, and The Exorcist still has the power to affect people that much.

By now, everyone knows the film's particulars: the little girl slowly devoured by an evil spirit, the doubting priest who resolves to save her, the terrible confrontation between good and evil. We've all seen the innumerable riffs and parodies, and we all know what "vomiting pea soup" implies. What's surprising is how strong this material remains, even after all this time. Director William Friedkin holds the audience in the palm of his hand, ratcheting the shocks and suspense until they become almost unbearable. He creates characters of fully realized depth and humanity, then throws them up against a force they can scarcely comprehend. It's all the more appreciable in light of the feeble imitations which have been released in the past year: One look at this and you wonder how Bless the Child or End of Days ever had the nerve.

Beyond the knee-jerk shocks (which are enough to cause heart conditions), The Exorcist resonates far more deeply than most horror films because serious thought has been given to the theological implications of it all. Friedkin paints a very complex image of God, Satan, and man's place between them. He steers away from the cheesy trappings of pentagrams and black masses, instead focusing on the notion of evil as a force beyond our ability to mark or categorize. Regan MacNeil's (Linda Blair) demonic possession lands in the middle of a very grounded and rational world, where people struggle with mundane problems, and faith has taken a back seat to science. What happens to her challenges everything we think we know about the universe, even questions the supremacy of God. One of the most unsettling scenes in the film occurs when a room full of doctors -- the best in the world, we are told -- awkwardly suggest that the problem may defy their vaulted hypotheses. The thoughtfulness of these notions, and Friedkin's insistence on dealing with their core themes rather than their Halloween-ish trappings, makes the terrors of The Exorcist linger long after the movie is over.

As the ads promised, this version of the film contains all-new footage that "you've never seen before." Hype aside, this version was supposedly the work of producer/screenwriter William Peter Blatty, who felt that an early cut of the film was stronger than the one which eventually made it to screen. There's about 12 minutes of additional footage, some of which works better than others. The best parts are the quietest -- a few new scenes with Max von Sydow's title character, offering comfort to Chris MacNeil or quietly discussing the demon's motives with the conflicted Father Karras (Jason Miller). Other segments work solely for shock value -- a few nasty surprises to throw the cynics a curve. The worst do nothing more than clutter the scenery, adding nothing and sometimes detracting from the exquisitely crafted atmosphere. A much-ballyhooed "new ending" is particularly troublesome, replacing the original's quiet melancholy with an awkward feel good moment. They never actively derail the proceedings, but there's a sense that they aren't necessary. Friedkin and his editors really got it right the first time.

Regardless of those minor quibbles, this is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. A lot of us have grown up watching it on television, which can't entirely convey the total vision here. Warner Brothers has produced a gorgeous new print for its theatrical run, along with a restored soundtrack that's sure to cause some sleepless nights. Like all great movies, The Exorcist grows better with age, and it can never really be experienced from the relative safety of the living room couch. Is it better for the additional material? That's debatable. Is it still the scariest film of all time? Watch it for yourself and try to disagree.

(As a footnote, those interested in the difference between this version and the original may want to take a look at The Fear of God, a documentary on the making of The Exorcist. In it, Friedkin and Blatty candidly discuss their creative differences which lead to the new version. It's available on the 25th anniversary edition of the film, both on DVD and video.)

Review published 09.29.2000.

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