“...A supernatural detective story...” That's how author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty termed the hook for his 1971 groundbreaking novel The Exorcist. Pronounced unproduceable by Hollywood wags, the eventual 1973 celluloid result not only proved the naysaying party-poopers wrong, but ended up becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of all time.
As a fan of 1949's Alias Nick Beal (wherein Ray Milland essayed a film-noirish Satan), I was wholly (if not holy) on-board. The movie, as realized by then-wunderkind William Friedkin – okay, two paragraphs in, and I already can no longer avoid the cliche – certainly sent heads spinning, raking in dough, begatin' two official sequels (which, for different reasons, I both hold dear to my black little heart), and basically becoming responsible for an entire sub-genre in (where else?) Italy.
Originally THE EXORCIST didn't exactly wow me. It didn't take the five-deep lines queued around the blocks to inform me that I was in the minority. Damn, this pic even sent the older generation back to the movies (it was one of three post-1970 flicks that I remember my parents and their friends actively seeking out...the other two being the reasonable Airport and the dirty-old-pervert-friendly Basic Instinct nearly twenty years later). I thought it was missing something; furthermore, I wasn't thrilled with the look of the movie, thinking it way too grainy and washed-out...There was no reason, I reasoned, that the AIP blaxploitation rip-off Abby (can’t beat that Adolph Caesar trailer narration: “The DEVIL is her lover NOW!”) looked better than its fifty-times-the-budget sourcework.
Little did I know the crazed politics behind the making of THE EXORCIST – in part due to the crazed mind of Friedkin, the Warner Bros. suits and the decade's overall deteriorating lab work (the movie, unlike many contemporary WB titles, was not printed in the soon-to-be obsolete Technicolor process, but in, aptly, God-awful Metrocolor).
Much of this controversy is covered in the truly outstanding THE EXORCIST: THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT AND ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION (say that five times fast and add twelve Hail Marys), now on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.
Friedkin's Director's Cut, which adds approximately ten minutes to the 122-minute length, isn't exactly all his – he makes concessions to author/scenarist Blatty...and that's a major restoration point.
Scenes cut in 1973 comprised suggestions and decisions from WB exec John Calley and (later) Friedkin himself. Some are understandable – in fact, they even now aren't really necessary...but TWO totally helped change my take on the movie...and should never have been removed. One is a brief eye-popping moment of Linda Blair's character doing a back-flipped speeded-up spider crawl down a staircase whilst spewing blood. Although admittedly today this is not as outrageous a behavioral display when factoring in 2013 information superhighway technology (I can swear that I've seen House GOP Darrell Issa do the same thing on MSNBC), but back then it would have rivaled the 360-degree melon spin and the pea soup rendition of the Danny Thomas spit take (and I mean spit).
But that's all freak-show stuff; the key sequence is an amazing scene – beautifully shot – between exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and faith-questioning Father Karras (Jason Miller), also on a staircase (perhaps Friedkin had a nasty escalator experience in his youth). In this segment, the two discuss the nature of belief...how could God love us if He could allow such terrible things to happen to one of His flock? It really IS the purpose of the entire movie, including Von Sydow's simple “do you get it now?” explanation. I won't go into it – however, it makes it clear that the child is NOT the victim. Blatty went into a furor when he saw Friedkin's edit, screaming that the director “...cut the heart and soul out.” And he did. The two didn't speak for decades, finally reconciling during the movie's meticulous restoration. Friedkin, in a second audio commentary (and in one of the handful of supplemental documentaries), still maintains he was right...that by including that scene, the power of the movie is diluted. This stubborn exhibition of insanity was further highlighted in this year's entertaining feature-length Warners doc Tales from the Warner Bros. Lot where interviewed EXORCIST sound recordist Chris Newman deemed Friedkin “certifiable,” both then and now.
I do have to mention the refurbished look of THE EXORCIST. True, cinematographer Owen Roizman was going for a you-are-there-documentary feel, but I don't think he really aspired to infringe upon Crown-International territory or, worse, plummet into the Kroger Babb abyss.
Suffice to say that the Blu-Ray looks crystal-clear astonishing, like a real mega-buck movie should...with actual flesh tones and an accurate color spectrum. And way less grain (although some scenes DID need the available light rendering). At last THE EXORCIST doesn't look as if it had been Chemtoned to death.
Since 1973, the people who inhabit THE EXORCIST have pissed me off with their whiny compromised religious beliefs and disbeliefs. This was mostly relegated toward Ellen Burstyn's character. Hey, your daughter has Satan inside her. DEAL with it! Frankly, I figured that between the three-way battle for the girl (priests, birth mother and Mephistopheles), Beelzebub wins talons down since, after all, possession IS 9/10 of the law.
I was also confused by the hoopla surrounding Linda Blair...mainly that the moguls were concerned about her uttering some of the dialogue. So, let me get this straight, it's okay to have her masturbating with a crucifix, but let's get someone else to dub the four-letter epithets...Granted, if you are determined to go that way – you can't do better than Mercedes McCambridge...Nevertheless once you smash your mother's mouth into your bloodied vagina and (deservedly) play jai alai with a shrink's testicles, shouting “Fuck me!” doesn't seem that extreme. Then again, I haven’t understood the Hollywood mindset since they first signed Keefe Brasselle.
Admittedly, Linda Blair remains the one iconic human EXORCIST participant...and this, I'm convinced, was a Godsend. Exposing Blair to the most horrific, degenerate acts she could fathom was the best pre-Rick James prep the young actress could have received, prior to the advent Craig's List.
The only character I personally identified with was investigating cop Lt. Kinderman; the reasons are obvious: A), he's a classic movie fanatic and B), he's portrayed by (a toupee-less) Lee J. Cobb. Although let’s be brutally honest: every mortal soul on Earth needs to be concerned when Lee J. Cobb embodies the calmest and most rational member of any undertaking.
It's nice to know that I pretty much agree with Blatty on everything. As ferocious as the devil-made-me-do-it moments (flipiscus wilsonis) are, the most nightmarish memories in THE EXORCIST derive from the sequences depicting Blair undergoing excruciating medical procedures within the sterile confines of a modern hospital operating room. It's what freaked him out...and still does (ditto moi). I was amazed at how much suffering they put her through before wondering about the last resort possibility of an exorcism...Even more perplexing to me is whether or not demonic possession is a pre-existing condition. I'm sure this also greatly disturbed Miller's conflicted Father Karras, whose specific vocation is priest/psychiatrist – certainly the most contradictory job title after Celebrity Intellectual Property Law.
The aforementioned documentaries are almost as fetching as the Director's Cut (which, to me, is the only way to go; purists can still access the 1973 edition, which is, as the set's title indicates, also included). BEYOND COMPREHENSION, a half-hour look back with Blatty, is partially filmed in the cabin where he wrote the novel, interestingly an abode he rented from Angela Lansbury (for $70 a month!). Blatty effectively reads excerpts from his book, and recounts, with some mirth, the writing process – plus the dealings with publishers, Warner Bros., an ex-wife and other non-demonic tribulations.
TALK OF THE DEVIL presents a rare B&W Seventies interview with Father Eugene Gallagher, the priest who first told Blatty (during his student days at Georgetown University) of the 1949 case history which inspired the novel and movie. Filmed shortly after the movie took off, Gallagher proves a worthy subject, injecting sardonic humor into the unfunny events which ultimately changed the cultural landscape. Best (for me) is his skepticism – not at exorcism per se – but at cut-up Blatty's initial inquiries into the case. Gallagher thought his student, a notorious practical joker, was kidding. When the Father later on heard that Blatty was actually writing a book based on the '49 episode, he nervously believed it would be a send-up...along the lines of some of the writer's screen work, such as the Blake Edwards comedies or John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. That said, there are some chilling exorcism revelations – though none as frightening as interviewer Mike Siegel's period mutton chops.
Of the other EXORCIST extras, including trailers, TV/radio spots, a 40-page Friedkin account of the movie (adapted from his recent autobiography, The Friedkin Connection) and a featurette on location shooting, two mini-docs stand out: BEHIND-THE-SCENES OF THE EXORCIST and RAISING HELL: FILMING THE EXORCIST. While some of this has been discussed above, I can't underline enough their relevant value to SFX fans, due greatly to the filmmakers' foresight to have a special unit chronicling much of the movie's production. This footage is appended by interviews with Blatty, Roizman, Blair, Newman and Friedkin.
There are workprint clips from scenes that couldn't go into the 2010 Version You've Never Seen because of the disappearance of original picture and sound – most bizarrely a Casablanca ending between Cobb and actual Jesuit theologist William O’Malley.
Of course nothing could delight armchair Satanists more than seeing Linda Blair dummies rotating and floatating or Newman discussing how to find the proper sound a rosary cross makes when repeatedly pounded into a girl's vagina. Are you listening, North Carolina?
And while we're on the subject of sound, one must take note of the masterful remix into 6.1 surround (for the Director's Cut) and 5.1 for the theatrical version (released in mono, I believe). The jump-out-of-your-seat sound effects are pretty great while the audio nicely presents Jack Nitzsche's score, and, natch Mike Oldfield's now-seminal Tubular Bells tinkle (what I prefer to call “Love Theme from The Exorcist”).
I close with one personal reminiscence. I was at NYU when THE EXORCIST first premiered, ensconced in their highly-touted Film Department. One of my fellow students was Dave Smith, son of the picture's SFX artist extraordinaire Dick Smith. I vividly recall the day Dave brought in the life-sized Linda Blair devil-doll, and prominently propped it up in the Equipment Office. This deeply disturbed us all, primarily as “she” was way more animated than any of the usual vomiting/head-twisting employees currently working there.
THE EXORCIST 40TH ANNIVERSARY EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT AND ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION. Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 6.1 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround [Extended Director’s Cut]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround [Theatrical Version]. CAT # 3000052989. SRP: $49.99.