The Exorcist Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

Max von Sydow in the most famous scene of The Exorcist
What an excellent day for an exorcism.
You would like that?
But wouldn't that drive you out of Regan?
It would bring us together.
You and Regan?
You and us.

It has been called 'the scariest movie of all time'. Indeed, when "The Exorcist" was originally released on Boxing Day in 1973, Warner Bros. was so concerned about the film's intensity that they only released it in a handful of theaters nationwide. However, as positive word-of-mouth spread about "The Exorcist", long lines began to form in front of theaters across the United States. Despite negative publicity generated by the film's controversial content, as well as statements made by the film's more vocal opponents (including the Reverend Billy Graham, who 'felt the power of evil buried within the celluloid of the film itself'), "The Exorcist" became the surprise hit of the 1973-1974 winter movie-going season.

The Exorcist logo

However, negative publicity was not the only controversy that has hounded "The Exorcist". Behind the scenes, there has been a long-running disagreement between director William Friedkin (who recently directed "Rules of Engagement") and producer William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay and the original novel on which it was based. Though Friedkin declared the 1973 theatrical cut as his definitive vision for the film, Blatty has spent the last quarter-century trying to convince the director and the studio to release an alternative cut of the film that would restore twelve minutes of excised footage. Now, twenty-seven years after its initial release, Blatty finally gets his wish with the release of a new version of "The Exorcist", dubbed 'the version you've never seen before' (actually, owners of the 25th Anniversary DVD have already seen all of the new footage). Unfortunately, it seems Friedkin was right all along-not only does the new footage add little to the film, but most of it is also detrimental to both the pacing and atmosphere.

Is there someone inside you?
Who is it?
I don't know.
Is it Captain Howdy?
I don't know.
If I ask him to tell me, will you let him answer?
Why not?
I'm afraid.
Linda Blair

For the uninitiated, "The Exorcist" is the fictionalized account of a Roman Catholic exorcism that was recounted in the pages of the Washington Post in August of 1949. Blatty, who heard of the account while attending a theology class while at Georgetown University, wrote the best-selling novel using details from the case-he was so faithful to actual events that the Roman Catholic Church gave their blessing to both the novel and the film.

I'm not Regan.
Well, then let's introduce ourselves. I'm Damien Karras.
And I'm the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!
If you're the Devil, why don't you make the straps disappear?
That's much too vulgar a display of power, Karras!

The subject of demonic possession in this case is 12-year old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, who now spends her days as a series regular on "S-Club 7 in L.A."). When the otherwise normal and happy Regan begins to act strangely, shouting obscenities and falling into violent tantrums, her exasperated mother, famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn of "The Spitfire Grill"), gets the best doctors and medical advice that money can buy.

There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment. As I said, it's a very outside chance. Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it's a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It's been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think. It's purely a force of suggestion. The victim's belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in the same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.
You're telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?! Is that it?!
Ellen Burstyn and von Sydow

Unfortunately, when conventional medicine fails to stop Regan's physical and mental deterioration, Chris turns to the unconventional to help her daughter. A young priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), and an old priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow of "What Dreams May Come"), are summoned to the MacNeil household to perform the rite of exorcism. However, the conflict between good and evil is not the only one being fought here-Father Karras is also struggling with his own faith, while Father Merrin labors against his ailing and aged body.

I need re-assignment, Tom. I want out of this job. It's wrong. It's no good.
You're the best we've got.
Yeah, not really. It's more than psychiatry, and you know that Tom. Some of their problems come down to faith, their vocation, and meaning of their lives, and I can't cut it anymore. I need out. I'm unfit. I think I've lost my faith, Tom.

Back in 1973, given the social climate, I'm sure "The Exorcist" had a profound effect on moviegoers. After all, seeing a young girl uttering a stream of obscenities or defiling a crucifix in a mainstream film was probably unheard of (as opposed to today, where it is sadly commonplace). However, when viewed in the context of the post-Pulp moviegoing generation, there is little about "The Exorcist" that is either shocking or scary.

"The Exorcist" is probably the strongest in its first half, excluding the extended and unnecessary back-story of Father Merrin at an archeological dig in Iraq. It is here that the audience witnesses the disquieting fall into madness of a young innocent girl, as well as the brutal battery of medical tests and procedures she is forced to undergo. It is here that the additional footage actually adds to the film, escalating the queasy atmosphere of the story and providing additional pathos to Regan's circumstances, as she is coldly poked, prodded, and injected in a futile attempt to identify what ails her.

I'm telling you that... that thing upstairs isn't my daughter. Now I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter except in her mind. You tell me you know for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good! You tell me that!

It is in the second-half where "The Exorcist" starts to lose its ground, as the changes in Regan become more dramatic, and unfortunately, a little too campy. In addition to the now-famous scenes of Regan spitting up green stuff and her head spinning around, the new version of the film throws in the long-rumored but never-seen 'spider walk', in which Regan runs down the stairs upside-down. Unfortunately, instead of adding to what is supposed to be a feeling of hopelessness and impending doom, the 'spider walk' ends up being an awkwardly-inserted bit of special effects that is completely inconsistent with the tone of the scenes around it, as well as being a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously. However, it could have been much worse, as Blatty decided to use some restraint in restoring this scene-the original version of the scene continues with the crab-like Regan chasing the babysitter around living room.

Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it!

Other additional snippets of footage added for the new version are not quite as bad, though they considerably add to the film's already laggard pacing without really providing the audience new information. For example, the new 'extended' ending lacks the tight closure offered in Friedkin's cut. Instead of fading out after the car carrying Chris and Regan pulls away, the camera lingers to catch pointless banter between a priest and a homicide detective about a "Wuthering Heights" movie starring Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball, ending the film on a somewhat emotionally-muted note.

After watching the 2000 version of "The Exorcist", I decided to pop by the local video store to watch the original Friedkin cut. Having seen both versions, the only benefit of the re-release is being able to watch the film on the big screen and experiencing the digitally-remastered soundtrack. The additional 12 minutes of footage is of questionable value, as it highlights the original film's already pedestrian pacing and lack of anything resembling a 'true' scare. The hard truth is that the re-release of "The Exorcist" is merely a marketing ploy like the 'Special Editions' of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", purely aimed at generating new revenue streams from aged film properties, as well as building audience anticipation for a third "Exorcist" film, due for release in 2001.

Is "The Exorcist" the scariest film of all time, the 'holy grail of horror films'? Unfortunately, the answer is probably 'no'. While the film certainly has its moments, the re-release makes its flaws that more apparent, and help to illustrate how truly dated it is.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

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