Back in 1973 a film was released that would change the moviegoer’s expectations of how a film should scare them. A simple story of a little girl possessed by evil would forever raise the bar on the horror genre. The Exorcist was this film. On the surface it was a pair of priests Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) fighting to drive out a demon from sweet little Reagan (Linda Blair). The themes of good versus evil run far deeper in this tale providing the film with far greater depth than any previous horror flick. Reagan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous actress, she has the world in her hand and is used to getting her own way. Separated from the father of her daughter she finds that her personal life is not as easy to control as her professional one. Still, that unfortunately normal personal set back was not able to prepare her for what was to come. Her daughter starts to act in an unusual manner. She urinates on the carpet during a cocktail party, speaks to a strange imaginary friend and in general acts as if she is completely not herself. Now they would probably just load the kid up with Prozac. Chris takes Reagan to every notable doctor possible and all they can consider is to seek out a priest for the ancient rite of exorcism. Of course by now the scenes of horror are indelible ingrained on our collective consciousness. The head spinning, the vomiting and the levitation of the bed all have become more than special effects, they are part of film history. With such a classic film one would have to ask the question ‘How could anyone dare to change it?’ With alternations that supersede any George Lucas has made in the Star Wars series the producers of the Exorcist have dared to tamper with history. Numerous additions have been added to the so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ makes additions that were originally left on the cutting room floor, left there for very good reasons. The infamous ‘Spider walk’ scene where Reagan descends the stairs upside-down, crab style does nothing to advance the plot and ruins the pacing of the film. The ending change to more focus on the medal the priest always wore and replaces a concise resolution to the film with ramblings. To be honest the additional material with the extensive medical tests does help to set up the scene between the doctors and the mother. Still, the additional material slows the wonderful pacing of the original with a film over burdened with unnecessary material.
The casting and acting of this film is what legends are made of. Young Linda Blair moves with ease between the innocent girl to a demon bent on destroying the lives around her. While not her first film this was the one that made her, at the tender age of 14, a household name. Burstyn displayed her usual professionalism in this film. She displays the arc of a mother going from loving to concerned and eventually to the brink of madness herself. Miller almost underplays his role as the younger priest. In this case that was the best possible decision. His Karras is a man burnt out, losing grip on not only his relationship with his terminal mother both also on his faith. Von Sydow was at the top of his game here. He portrays Merrin perfectly. He is a man devoted to his religion, having now shades of gray in his faith. It is only this determination that permits him to face such powerful evil even at the cost of his life.
William Friedkin as the director and William Peter Blatty, the writer has come to grips with a lot of disagreement over the presentation of this film. In the two separate commentaries presented in the original DVD release demonstrated the different viewpoints the two men had over this film that would cement their careers. The first cut Friedkin presented to the studio was 140 minutes long but Blatty preferred it but later deferred to the studio suites to trim it to about two hours. Friedkin preferred the shorter cut often stating the pacing of the film required a trimmed down script. I have to go with the director on this one. In the original the film moved along, sweeping the audience into the story. Now, you may find yourself saying, "That’s different", detracted from the intent of the story. This is not a film about the special effects; the original list of effects maintained the pace and expanded the understanding of the audience. Friedkin knows how to frame a scene. He has a natural eye for the correct balance between focus on the actors and detail to the set design without producing clutter. The color palette he uses reflects the emotional drive of the film. It is often dark and forbidding producing a strange twist on reality. Of course the Tubular Bells sound track was cutting edge for 1973. It still holds its own able to underscore the sinister themes with a soundtrack that still haunts us today.
Like many classic films this cinematic masterpiece has been re-mastered for presentation in high definition Blu-ray. The definitive box set in this format has been released and the bottom line is it makes the perfect horror film even better than ever. While a build in feature to DVD and Blu-ray was invented for this situation, seamless branching does extract a price. It takes up room on the disc to store the differences in the film. Although this is not a serious consideration considering the 50gig capacity of Blu-ray Warner Brothers did this release correctly devoting an entire disc for both the theatrical and director’s cuts. Each version of the film was re-mastered and presented with its own bonus features and extras. It come to this conclusion a lot when watching an old favorite on Blu-ray but it truly is like seeing the movie for the first time; even better than seeing it as a fresh release in the theater. What is most evident is the vastly increased level of detail. In the opening scene at the dig you can almost feel the dirt in the sir as you get to see the pebbles on the ground and the contrast between the deep blue sky and the browns and grays of the ground. You never could really appreciate the expertise of the costume creator until ever fold and texture of the fabric is visible. The colors are more vibrant than you would have thought possible. The DTS MA HD audio is spectacular. The DVD had a rather flat sound stage but here the audio opens up the film. You can hear the extras in the shot of them filming the movie as distinct voices. When Reagan is in her bed room the sound’s focus slides around the room making the result even more frightening and disorienting than ever.