One of the films I’d intended to watch as part of the mini Halloween season that never quite happened was The Exorcist, perhaps one of the highest regarded and certainly most successful and notorious horror motion pictures of all time.
I’d watched the film for the first time only six or seven years ago, and frankly considered it a bit of a disappointment, finding it both dated and slow for the most part, the power of its most iconic moments diminished by endless ‘homages’ in lesser films over the intervening years. Despite that, I still felt motivated to go and take another look at the film mainly because it remains film critic Mark Kermode’s favourite film of all time. He’s written endless articles and a book on the subject, and made an 80 minute documentary on The Exorcist for the BBC back in 1998. As he’s the only film critic I pay any attention to these days (I’m currently part-way through his latest book The Hatchet Job) I felt I needed to spend a little more time with the film that had clearly held him so captivated over the years.
The film is an adaptation of the popular novel by William Peter Blatty (who produced and wrote the screenplay for the film.) He had set out to write an account of the Catholic rite of exorcism through the prism of a real-life case that took place in Seattle in 1949, but with the original family unwilling to be involved he was forced instead to use a fictionalised story at the core of his tale. The Exorcist centres on the character of Regan (Linda Blair), daughter of actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Initially a normal, happy 12-year-old, she undergoes a profound personality shift and becomes abusive and violent: tests by doctors and psychologists fail to reveal any physical cause even as Regan’s behaviour becomes increasingly inexplicable and outlandish. Finally – and despite her agnostic views – Chris turns for help to a local Jesuit priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) who is himself going through a crisis of faith following the recent death of his elderly mother. Together they determine that Regan has been possessed by demons (possibly the devil himself) and must undergo exorcism, which requires the skills and experience of the elderly Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) to perform.
Director William Friedkin (The French Connection) goes for a down-to-earth, naturalistic documentary tone for much of the film, especially potent during the sequences where Regan is subjected to a battery of tests which are almost as disturbing for the viewer to watch as many of the torments to which the child is subjected by her subsequent possession. And its just such an observation that is the key to much of Friedkin’s overall approach to the film as he seeks to contrast science with religion, night and day, light and dark, hope and despair, quiet normality and frantic shocks at every turn. In this way, Friedkin establishes an ordinary, even mundane modern world which proves one into which timeless horrors and physical evil are able to inject themselves shockingly and without warning at any moment. Even though there are quiet scenes that I had previously dismissed as ‘dull’ in my original viewing of the movie, it’s clear to me now that there is not a single scene or part thereof that hasn’t been poured over intently for months to ensure that its contribution to the overall result is thoroughly earned in the director’s eyes.
That laser-like focus on making the film ‘leaner and meaner’ (in Friedkin’s own words) together with the commercial imperative at the time to keep films to a two-hour running time to maximise the number of screenings per screen per day meant that a number of scenes dear to Blatty’s heart were cut for the original 1973 release. The director and producer were alternately at loggerheads with daggers drawn and then each other’s best cheerleaders, but it was only 25 years later when Friedkin finally consented to go back to the existing outtake material to see whether he could placate Blatty by reinstating those scenes for a new release. Most of the important elements were successfully recovered, but some were missing their soundtrack or hadn’t been finished off with ADR of usable dialogue, which meant that they would have to stay on the cutting room floor. But the rest was worked back into the film as per Blatty’s original script and this is what came to be released as The Version You’ve Never Seen in 2000 and is the version I myself have watched on both occasions.
It’s just as well I’m sticking with this one. Overall I find The Exorcist to be a surprisingly jerky, episodic experience, one with too many gaps and jumps in logic that leave key plot developments obtuse and hard to follow – and that’s despite Friedkin reworking things for this version with the new material to address such criticisms of the theatrical release in its pared down state. One of the problems with the original is that Regan goes from happy and smiling to seriously disturbed without warning in the course of a single house party that Chris is throwing for her colleagues. Friedkin believed at the time that all this is sufficiently prefigured in a scene in which Regan overhears her mother lambasting her absent father over a long-distance telephone call, but that’s far too vague and abstract to achieve the sort of narrative load-bearing that Friedkin expects of it (not the last time he’d make that misstep with the material in 1973.) In the new version, a key early scene of Chris consulting doctors and Regan being subjected to a first round of less intrusive testing is now reinstated to do this instead, which also adds the rationalist red herring that Regan is suffering from what we would these days call ADHD – she’s immediately placed on the new wonderdrug Ritalin. With this change, there is a more gradual and natural build up to Regan’s more overt symptoms.
Not that the 2000 changes can cure all ills with the film’s structure. I still struggled to follow key plot developments that felt unnecessarily obfuscated: Karras’ mother, for example, is a redoubtable figure nursing a leg wound in her first scene; then confined weeping in a mental ward in the next; and finally the next time we check in with Karras she is revealed as having died of some unmentioned final ailment. (Are we supposed to take this as the devil already hard at work?) At other times the film can appear messy and under-developed: Chris is ostensibly in town working on her new film but after an initial scene in which she’s reading a script and then a single sequence showing her filming on location, her profession is barely referenced again. Charitably you could say that by not following the usual narrative techniques, Friedkin is not only challenging us and flattering us by assuming we’ll keep up, he’s also keeping us off-balance and ill-at-ease from the start by not being able to rely on our usual sense of how a film is constructed to comfort ourselves with the idea that we know where it’s all going.
There is so much focus on the three characters of Chris, Regan and Karras that no one else really gets developed: there is the strange character of police detective Lt Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) who really serves no useful function to the narrative; another character played by Jack MacGowran whose shocking death in the middle of the film is a major moment somewhat undermined by the fact that you’re trying to remember who he is and why he was where he was in the first place since he’s had so little screen time. There’s a number of minor characters (Chris’ domestic staff, assorted priests and doctors) who feel as if they should be of importance but who instead ultimately simply come and go. Even the titular main character, the Exorcist himself, would be left a final act brief appearance from Von Sydow if not for the inclusion of a prologue set at an archaeological dig in Mozul, in pre-Saddam Hussain Iraq. That’s a scene that appears utterly disconnected from the rest of the film set in Washington D.C., and at one point Blatty himself deleted it from his screenplay; but it’s actually quite wonderful – beautifully and evocatively shot, subtly setting up many of the themes and sense of menace and unease that the rest of the film will go on to build on. It’s a sequence that for me is a genuine highlight of the film.
Later on it’s the horror elements of the demonic possession that become the focus of the film in all their bed-rocking, bile-spewing, head-turning glory. The film’s most notorious sequence involves a crucifix, and even now – 40 years on from its original filming – this is a truly shocking moment that is hard to believe they were allowed to keep in. Added to that is some quite astoundingly coarse vulgar language that would be bad enough even if it wasn’t coming from the mouth of a 12-year-old. Perhaps the fact that it was declared a video nasty and denied a home entertainment certificate by the British Board of Film Censors until 1999 shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as the fact that it was ever allowed an 18 rating for cinemas in 1973 in the first place.
The film caused a furore at the time, with US evangelist Billy Graham even declaring that “The Devil is in every frame of this film” and insisting that evil was embodied within the very celluloid of the reels. It’s hard to understand that sort of reaction now, partly because we’ve become so inured so such on-screen shockers over the year that it feels, if not tame, then at least no worse than so much inferior fare and consequently not worth making such a fuss over. But perhaps more significantly this leads on to an interesting point that Friedkin and Blatty both make in their riposte to this argument: to them, it’s a case of the viewer taking away from the film that which they bring to it, like a cinematic Rorschach ink blot test. If you’re inclined to see the world as basically a dark, evil and hopeless lost cause then you will see that darkness in The Exorcist; but if you are inclined to believe that there is also good in the world and that it can and will triumph, then The Exorcist will be an ultimately uplifting and encouraging experience.
It’s an intriguing aside to consider why it seems that viewers with strong religious beliefs such as Graham saw only the dark side – does it perhaps suggest that people who seek refuge in religion have already given up on the real world as irredeemably depraved and can no longer see the good in the world? Many people at the time were fearful of end-of-times dark undercurrents, as the end of the 60s (Kennedy, King, the Vietnam War) tuned into the 70s (Manson, Watergate, and still Vietnam). Society appeared to be collapsing all around, with family values at risk as divorce became prevalent, church attendances falling and the older generation increasingly bemused and frightened of the new phenomenon of ‘teenagers’ who in their eyes were dropping out and becoming drug-taking hippies. There is even an strong academic reading of The Exorcist which explains that the apparent demonic possession is really just a parable for a young girl’s puberty with her teenage rebellion and sexual awakening horrifying her mother who just wants her little girl back without all the acting out, sexual urges and swearing. It’s against this backdrop that the film was made, and while the director and writer insist that the movie was never intended to address any of these themes the fact remains that it couldn’t help but be perceived against that context then or now.
Suffice to say, Friedkin and Blatty underestimated how depressed and nihilistic the 70s audience would turn out to be, because the overwhelming reaction to the film was that it was a serious downer – but one that people wanted to see almost as a trial of strength to see whether they could get through the horror without recoiling, closing their eyes, fainting or leaving. This subsequently proved disquieting to Friedkin and Blatty who both wanted to make something more spiritually uplifting and positive, and was one of the reasons Friedkin finally rolled back other significant cuts he’d previously made to the film – a key stairwell discussion between Karras and Merrin, and an epilogue hinting at a happy ending, touches that the director had considered too obvious and crass to include back in 1973 but which he now realised their absence skewed the film too much in the other, darker direction in overall tone.
Does knowing all of this background appreciably change my view of a film that I originally saw as rather dull and old-fashioned, and which even now I find irritatingly flawed in its construction and execution? And that’s despite the reinstatement of those scenes that for what it’s worth I completely agree with Blatty were essentially from the get-go (with the exception of the unnecessary, for-shock-only but undoubtedly compelling spider walk sequence that drew the crowds in to the see the reissue in theatres). The short answer is: yes, it really does. Any film that can raise interesting questions and appear one thing to one group of people and quite another to a second group clearly has something going for it far above and beyond the usual box office production line output. The more I watch it the more intrigued I become, and that’s helped by a particularly splendid presentation on Blu-ray that comes with Kermode’s splendid 1998 making of documentary The Fear of God (almost worth the purchase price on its own) as well as a shorter more recent one and a number of short featurettes and interviews with Friedkin and Blatty, topped off with three different commentary tracks over the two different versions of the film included.
But it’s the audio/video presentation of the Blu-ray that takes this to a different level altogether, to the point where I’d say that even if I didn’t like the film at all I would still rate the Blu-ray a must-buy. The picture is wonderful throughout – especially so in the Iraq prologue, but sharp, clear and detailed and with wonderful colour balance even in the most difficult low-light scenes. What makes it even more impressive is seeing clips of the film in the Kermode documentary and realising how blurry and flat they are by comparison with the hugely impressive high-definition remastering and restoration. Sound too has always been important to the film and the use of modern DTS 5.1 technology means that the film has never felt scarier in a darkened room than it does here, with a least one ‘jump out of the seat’ moment and plenty of ‘was that on the soundtrack … or was it behind me in the room?’ moments.
Despite the excellent Blu-ray and all the improvements of the 2000 recut version, I’m still not sure that I’ll ever grow to love this film in the same way that so many others (Kermode foremost among them of course) clearly do, but without a doubt I no longer consider it dull or dated. I have at least started to see what it is that appeals about it, and attracts people to watch it time and again.
The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Current releases feature both the original 1973 theatrical cut and the subsequent 2000 a.k.a. ‘version you’ve never seen’ or extended edition – just don’t call it the director’s cut!