THE EXORCIST (THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN)
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starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Wynn
screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel
directed by William Friedkin
by Walter Chaw The most visible of a spate of evil-children movies littering the cinescape in the late-Sixties and early-Seventies (remembering that even Night of the Living Dead had a baby eating her mother), William Friedkin's blockbuster The Exorcist raked in the cash even as it offered up the goods--in spades. Its "happy" ending is filthy with melancholy and menace, suggesting that whatever's been exorcised from little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is actually free now (an idea itself exorcised by the extended version's ending)--that the solution presented in the book of Luke is as empty as its herd of pigs driven into the sea. For The Exorcist to make the money it did says a lot about what was in the water in the American '70s: partly the mainstream audience's desire to feel shitty when a movie was over that didn't reappear until The Dark Knight made a billion dollars, but mostly this idea, gaining currency in the cinema of the time (and again in ours), that individuals, confronted with a crossroads, are entirely incapable of affecting meaningful change. It's why author William Peter Blatty's choice of original ending--spliced onto the end of the 2000 re-release--is so cognitively dissonant. There's hope in The Exorcist, and it has nothing to do with the almost jovial reassurance that there's a better place after we die. Concluding this deeply spiritual film with a Christian platitude is, frankly, moronic, although the temptation to offer up succour is at least part of the picture's allure.
Regan is lonely. She spends time by herself in a Georgetown brownstone owned by her famous actress mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), playing with a Ouija board and wondering if her divorced-and-disappeared daddy will remember to call on her birthday. (He doesn't.) She exists in 1973 at a cultural crossroads exemplified by the stupid-looking film mommy's starring in called "Collision Course," which appears to be about some of the mass student protests at the end of the '60s and already reworking the fragmentation of the Dream into Norma Rae histrionics three years after Easy Rider and Altamont. Regan's parents' marriage is broken, her mother doesn't handle frustration well, and at a dinner party attended by the perfect set-up for a joke--an astronaut, a priest, a Jewish agent, and a German ("I'm Swiss!") manservant are all guests--screenwriter Blatty lays out the thesis that everything's turned from the spring of hopefulness to the autumn of real despair. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is himself having a crisis of faith, his glaring into the Communion cup as he mumbles the words that transfigure wine into the suffering blood of his saviour at odds with his training as a psychiatrist at fine institutions he's almost as embarrassed to name. So The Exorcist is about the tension between reason and faith as it comments directly on the United States and its own crises of faith about its identity, the institutions of church and state that had forever defined it, and the conflicts in which it found itself that were no longer clearly drawn in polarities of good and evil.
The Exorcist speaks, too, to the generational divide that separates Ozzie & Harriet from their kids, Janis Joplin, and Charlie Manson--hints of it in Karras's crippling guilt about the lonesome death of his mother (Vasiliki Maliaros) and a subtext so subtle as to leave virtually no trace concerning how Karras's choice to enter the priesthood resulted in his financial inability to put his mother in a better home. There is a war here as well, then, between a spiritual calling and pragmatism of a sort that defined "difficult" characters like war-profiteering Cal in East of Eden and oil-drillin' Hud in Hud--characters established in their respective films as agents sowing corruption in the fields of tradition complicated by these newly-ex Hippies metastasizing into the Yuppies they would inevitably soon thereafter become. At the fulcrum of each of these tensions is little Regan, who cracks, spurts, and pukes under the strain. Perhaps it's her own looming pubescence, her curiosity about her mommy's love life set against an infamous scene of her auto-deflowering/self-mutilation with a crucifix--as blunt a statement as there ever was on the extreme peril that organized religion presents a healthy sexual development. It's the church and the mother (we presume) most uncomfortable with Regan's graduation into a sexual world and another thread, though a shallow one, I'd argue, to possibly unravel. But, is it just me, or is Karras's the only story that's really compelling?
It all adds up to an indelible cultural flexpoint (was The Dark Knight the same thing?) that attempted to reconcile a collective loss of faith among Americans, yes, but more crucially to represent a feeling in the air that everything that hadn't already fallen apart was on the verge of falling apart. In a search for meaning, there's the response that succour is only attainable as a product of placebo. How else to interpret the semi-literal acid test of Karras's "false" holy water upon his first encounter with Regan? Truth is subjective in 1973, just as morality became subjective in 2008. More tellingly, in this film, spiritual truth is subjective. More than bleary, old-man philosophizing, the suggestion that one only takes from The Exorcist what one brings to it becomes in this sense a rather cogent analysis of the source and effectiveness of the picture's ultimate sense of...is it sweetness? The way that Regan, freshly liberated of her demon, reacts to a member of the flock that recently sacrificed two of its own to her resurrection is statement enough of the idea that it's appearances (Karras apologizes upon his first meeting with Chris for "not being in uniform;" Merrin (Max Von Sydow) asks for a clean cassock before commencing with the ritual) that matter--the outward expression trumping the inward faith. Appearances mean everything in this universe; Nixon, image-obsessed (in the active process then of a very public unravelling), was surely proud. At the end of this film about confluences of corrupting influence, its final shot is of absolute innocence restored through the sacrifice of men who represent an order founded on the idea that someone once made a sacrifice for them... Whatever your faith, the purity of her faith is rejuvenating. At the end of the day, a child's belief in salvation (by her mother, by "eighty" (!) doctors, by priests, by us) is what The Exorcist has going for it. Regan believes we can save her, as any child believes that an adult can draw from a repository of wisdom and courage in his or her defense. Naïve? Certainly. Powerful? Undeniably--all the more so for this knowledge that that faith is as fleeting as innocence. The dirty lesson of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil is that we're all as small and helpless and afraid as she is.
That's the "Original Theatrical Version" (OTV), and it's a masterpiece. After years of telling Blatty to stop complaining that The Exorcist didn't conform precisely to his specs because it's in "the fucking Louvre," Friedkin finally capitulated at the turn of the millennium to "restore" a film that was never missing any pieces. What this incarnation, rechristened the "Extended Director's Cut" (EDC) for Blu-ray (it played in theatres with the quickly-obsolete subtitle "The Version You've Never Seen"), does to Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman's duck's ass-tight editing is as criminal as Friedkin's fucking awful "retiming" of The French Connection for its Blu-ray debut. Lost are segments smash-cut into one another with the inexplicable sense of nightmare (like that flash of Karras in a crowd of extras, laughing in concert with Chris's sudden, scary capitulation of a script problem)--juxtapositions that remind very much of 1973's other brilliantly-, nightmarishly-edited evil-kid movie Don't Look Now. When we get to the moment when the phone rings--you know the one I'm talking about--it doesn't work nearly as well in the extended cut because we've been lulled half to sleep by the looseness of the edit.
Above and aside from the patronizing tone of the re-integrated scenes, the fugue state of the OTV is irreparably compromised by the decision to let out its seams at the joints to allow for all the flab that's accumulated in the quarter century since its release. The Exorcist didn't need the pretty-cool "Spider Walk" sequence, nor did it need more static exchanges in a doctor's office. The point isn't for us to fear diagnoses and freaky physical gewgaw, after all, and never was; the point is that when blood pumps out of Regan's neck during her arteriogram, it's this essential betrayal of her trust. That, that's the source of the absolute, miserable horror of The Exorcist. The film didn't need to lose Regan at play at the party before her return later to piss on the carpet literally and metaphorically because, again, we need to see Regan as the child who trusts and then, in her mother's humiliation and the incomprehension of her guests, that trust betrayed. And though extra footage of Karras and Merrin is not necessarily unwelcome, their halftime talk on the stairs in reflection of our stunned silence is not helped by Merrin gently informing Karras that the demon's aim is to cause despair in its witnesses. Mostly, the picture didn't need that damn appended coda, in which Father Dyer (William O'Malley)--maybe Karras's lover, maybe someone just that sad to see a friend smash his head open on the pavement--returns the pendant offered to him as a memento mori of his lost chum, the epilogue then transitioning inexcusably past Dyer's contemplative look down a long fall (an eloquent statement of Catholic fear and trembling) into congenial, useless Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) recognizing the spark of Karras in him. Arm in arm they go: straight, holy, happy-go-lucky bullshit.
The EDC is as harmful to the purity of the piece as any of George Lucas's revisions to his Star Wars trilogy, and similarly useful in charting exactly how it is that some of the most interesting voices of our most interesting decade in cinema have fallen to cannibalizing their glory days to ever-diminishing returns. There remains in it the things that make The Exorcist work, but it's told in a newly paternalistic way--the loving sermon of a stern but forgiving father instead of that heady mix of outrage, confusion, and terror that marked the films of this period in American sociopolitical history. If I want a fucking pat on the head, I'll go to a Ron Howard movie.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Proof of a higher power can be found in the film's remarkable 1.78:1, 1080p/VC-1-encoded Blu-ray transfer, co-supervised by none other than DP Owen Roizman--once royally screwed on The French Connection, now feted by (a contrite?) Friedkin in a two-minute introduction to the OTV as well as a looseleaf insert tucked inside the handsome DigiBook packaging. The result of one of the great under-sung DPs being given the keys to unlocking his vision for next-gen formats is genuinely stunning. Noise-reduction and edge-enhancement are minimal, both, while grain, though ever-present, isn't distracting so much as comforting. Take an early scene where Chris talks to her assistant Sharon (Kitty Winn) at her desk in the kitchen, and note the amazing clarity, the filmic lucidity, with which the crystal plates are presented, multi-faceted and reflecting, in the background. How beautiful is the crimson of Karras's blood on the ground? How startling is the whiteness of Karras's vision of mommy just before Merrin's last wrestle with Pazuzu? You can count the leaves on the ground when Merrin receives the letter summoning him to Georgetown. The best word to describe it is "faithful." It's also fucking grand. Matching it blow-by-blow is a DTS-HD MA track (5.1 on the OTV (presumably adapted from the deservedly-praised six-channel remix that accompanied 70mm prints in a late-'70s reissue of the film), 6.1 on the EDC) that ranges, as it should, from deafening silence to artful cacophany. Not for nothing did the film win Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman an Oscar for sound design. Brilliant, and Augie Hess's augmentation of their work for the EDC--he leans harder on the subwoofer--is probably the single most successful aspect of this revamp.
Each version of The Exorcist gets its own dedicated BD-50 in this two-disc set. The EDC features a film-length yakker by Friedkin that riffs, seemingly off the cuff, on the wisdom of additions/elisions with what sounds like genuine enthusiasm. It's hard for me to understand why Friedkin relented to the obviously-duller Blatty's desire for an "original cut" of the picture, but it doesn't seem like he begrudges the extra gold in his coffers overmuch. Old saws about how he and Blatty wanted Shirley MacLaine to play what Blatty will describe elsewhere as the "plain as a shopping cart" Chris MacNeil share time with such oft-told tales as Hanoi Jane's apocryphal dismissal of the project as "capitalistic crap." There are new nuggets herein, however, and if one must watch the EDC, one could do worse than do it in the company of Friedkin.
"Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist" (30 mins., HD) is cozy and unsurprising but satisfies with footage from the set, including a fun bit with Friedkin playing out Chris's terror at a sliding bureau. Meanwhile, a well-preserved Linda Blair proves the eternal good sport. The kitchen-sink nature of many of the effects reminds of how cheap the CGI additions to the recut truly are. The film is ingenious--why shit on its ingenuity with a few megapixels of mainframe magic? Hosted by Roizman and Friedkin, "The Exorcist Locations: Then and Now" (9 mins., HD) is one of those odd segments that compares what locations looked like on screen to their contemporary reality; and "Faces of Evil: The Different Versions" (10 mins., HD) takes inventory of every incarnation of the film from workprint to Blu-ray, though the lasting impression of the piece is of Friedkin and Blatty as the old-guy mafia that hangs out in every Jewish deli/Starbucks/roadside diner since time immemorial, going on about nothing and killing business. Two theatrical trailers (SD), three television spots (ditto), and two fun radio notices round out the platter.
The OTV disc ports over the main supplements from The Exorcist's 25th Anniversary DVD, starting with the BBC's great retrospective making-of Fear of God (76 mins., SD), in which Friedkin is remembered as a tyrant by most of the interviewed production team. Appearing therein is legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, shortly before his death in 1999. Also joining the theatrical cut are two commentaries, the first by an energetic Friedkin, who's not yet forced to address the film in the context of the EDC, the second by the loquacious Blatty, who ducks out halfway through. He's so monotone that you hardly notice when the isolated score's taken his place. Newer material includes "Filmmaker Interviews" (9 mins., SD), which opens with Friedkin telling Blatty that the movie was cut and screened at an address with 666 as its main identifier and goes downhill from there. This is coming from someone who really, really likes Blatty's Exorcist III, mind you, but Blatty's either a simp or a terrible actor. I'm interested in the fact that Friedkin repeatedly, correctly notes that the EDC is obvious and patronizing, yet defends it as somehow the more definitive version of the two.
"Sketches and Storyboards" (3 mins., SD) is, erm, a montage of production sketches and storyboards; the "Original Ending" (2 mins., SD) has more of Kinderman and Dyer walking around Georgetown like old Russian grandmothers; and three more trailers plus four TV spots (SD, all) wrap things up. I would've loved some mention of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" and Jack Nitzsche's evocative found score--of possible links between them and to Goblin's remarkable work on Argento's Suspiria, or, a closer analogue, Philip Glass's score for Candyman. There are a lot of ripples, deep and meaningful, springing from The Exorcist. It's an American classic bound with a 38-page booklet containing cast/crew bios, trivia, and one brief critical essay in what may be the definitive edition of this film for home viewing before streaming ends physical media for good. Originally published: February 15, 2011.