Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von
Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Director: William Friedkin
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes (original), 132 Minutes (extended)
Release Date: October 5, 2010
“Mother...what's wrong with me?”
The Exorcist looms like a large landmark in the realm of horror, and the people who made the film don't even think of it as belonging to that genre.
It was the first movie that really scared the living hell out of me, and one of the few that still manages to do so after countless viewings. It opened up a world of the supernatural never really explored before, and best of all, it was a film that took the theology behind it all very seriously. No winks or nods were offered to let you know it was all safe. This movie was definitely NOT safe.
It took the screenplay and novel by William Peter Blatty mixed with the almost documentary-like approach of Oscar winner William Friedkin to completely turn the world of movie scares around. The result was a phenomenon both controversial and powerful...the images shocked and terrified, but at the same time drew audiences in record numbers who sometimes stood in line for hours for a chance to experience it for themselves.
It tells the story of a young girl, Regan MacNeill (Blair) and her mother Chris (Burstyn) who lived not in some creepy expressionist castle, but in a nice suburban home in Georgetown. All is not right. Regan, a normal cute little girl, is about to go through something so terrifying that it brings to the forefront the question of the very nature and reality of evil.
As her mother despairs, Regan becomes increasingly victimized by a demonic possession that manifests itself in the most frightening ways possible. Even more disturbing is the way that modern science, which seemed to have long vanquished the notion of possession, is lost.
At the other end of the spectrum is Damian Karras (Miller), a Catholic priest and psychologist losing his faith. He's seen the worst in people and even in himself, blaming himself for his mother's sad demise, and feeling less and less able to help those entrusted to him with their spiritual burdens.
When Karras meets Regan, every scientific notion he carries is stressed trying to explain it all away. Exorcism still existed and exists in the Catholic Church, but rarely performed in the modern era. There is nobody left in the faith even considered an expert on the subject.
Nobody but one man...Father Lancaster Merrin (von Sydow), a priest and archaeologist who did battle with this particular demon once before. When he is called in, his challenge is not only the monster inside the little girl, but the despair inside Father Karras, who still has much to learn about God, Satan and everything in between. He even tries to analyze Regan to Father Merrin as he would a patient, discussing her various personalities. “There seems to be three,” he tells Merrin. “There is only ONE,” Merrin replies.
The final stretch of the movie is as intense as anything I've ever seen...it was all done realistically, in camera, without the aid of effects that today would be much easier to craft, but would have robbed the sense of realism and urgency Friedkin captures. And the intensity is made all the higher because the stakes are both high and real...this is a showdown between good and evil, where neither is some vague elusive concept. Regan's body is the battleground, but at stake is not just her life...it's Father Karras' own soul.
This movie exploded with a ferocity moviegoers weren't accustomed to. It crossed lines of decency in every way imaginable, but with a great purpose in mind. If the envelope was pushed, it wasn't just to shock or create controversy...it was to show the nature of evil for what it is. And evil respects no comfort zones.
At the time, many called the movie itself evil, but I've always disagreed. I think this is one of the most profound and theologically positive films ever produced by a Hollywood studio. Every aspect of faith is examined with integrity, and everything is taken with an absolute seriousness and certainty. The devil is real, and treated as such...but likewise, God.
Writer and producer William Peter Blatty always had reservations about certain parts of the film that William Friedkin excised, and those reservations were finally placated last decade with a cut that included several scenes never before viewed. For the most part, I think the director's ideas were right. The scenes included the now infamous “spider walk”, which is more of a curiosity than anything else...it's simply a weird effect that can take the audience briefly out of the moment.
The finale between Lt. Kinderman (Cobb) and Father Dyer is nice, but Blatty's feel-good ending lessened the impact of everything that went before. The new digital effects only served to prove that the original in-camera ones needed no embellishments. If there was one scene truly worthwhile, it was the quiet discussion between Fathers Karras and Merrin about why Regan was victimized. “I think the point is to make us despair,” Merrin muses, “to see ourselves as ugly, so that we can't believe that God could love us.” Very well written.
Still, you don't have to choose now that both versions are included in one Blu-ray set. Fans can compare and contrast to their hearts' contents, but for certain, they won't stop reacting to the movie with terror and awe, and their minds won't soon close to the spiritual world the film opens up.
This Blu-ray edition includes a note from William Freidkin expressing his joy over the high definition release as the best he's ever seen or heard...I couldn't agree more. Having seen this movie many, many times since the 1970s, I was floored by the brightness, clarity, and richness of detail offered with this new transfer. In fact, I'd seen the movie so frequently, I spent a lot of my time watching the details instead of the film, noticing things I'd never noticed before, whether it was crystal in the background or Regan's art pieces on the shelves and tables...for the first time ever, I even noticed the thin wires used during the levitation sequence. It was an exhilarating experience, and I'm willing to bet all fans of the movie are going to feel the same way.
Mr. Friedkin went so far as to say with the new DTS HD mix, he heard subtleties in the sound he had forgotten about because he hadn't heard them in so long. Again, he said it perfectly. This is one movie that really still stands above other horror movies as far as use of sound. The mix is incredible and powerful, and the small details like animal noises or bees used in almost subliminal ways have a distinct edge now that's almost overwhelming. I don't think it could possibly ever get better than this.
Where to begin? Disc One features the extended cut of the film and a new three part documentary with behind-the-scenes footage that has been unavailable before now. It's in depth and detailed, chronicling the making of the film, the Georgetown settings, and the comparison of the two versions. There is also a commentary from William Friedkin.
The second disc has the theatrical version, and features a commentary from Friedkin and one from William Peter Blatty, along with some cool sound tests including Mercedes McCambridge's intense vocalizing. There is an intro from Friedkin expressing more of his enthusiasm over the Blu-ray issue, plus the original incredible documentary “The Fear of God”, still an amazing experience. There are some interview clips with Friedkin and Blatty, the original ending (included in the new cut), and a terrific gallery of trailers and TV spots.
The set is packaged in a beautiful hardcover book with plenty of color photographs and extra information about the cast and film.
Horror film or not, The Exorcist frightens more than any other movie. It's terror is born from the deepest and most important explorations of the natures of good and evil and all of us who are struggling in between. This Blu-ray was a rapturous experience for me, and I believe it will be for all.