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Blu-ray Review: The Exorcist (Extended Director’s Cut & Original Theatrical Version)

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The 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist is now available on Blu-ray. The set contains both the original theatrical version the director’s cut released to theaters in 2000 as “the version you’ve never seen.”

In addition to the two versions of the film the DVD set includes a feature-length documentary (previously available on a DVD release), and many new special features as well as multiple commentary tracks. There is no question that The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror films (and really I think one of the greatest films) of all time. Even 37 years after its release, The Exorcist remains just as shocking and horrific as it ever did.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous actress shooting a movie on the campus of Georgetown University. MacNeil, a single mother, has moved to Georgetown with her almost 12- year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan is a cute pre-teen, seemingly unspoiled and unaffected by her mother’s Hollywood lifestyle. When she is asked what she wants to do for her birthday she is satisfied with the idea of sightseeing and being taken to a movie.

Soon after Regan’s birthday she begins to exhibit disturbing behavior. Her mom takes her to endless doctor’s appointments for invasive and painful tests. The doctors are unable to come to a conclusion though they speculate about mental illness and brain lesions. Regan’s behavior becomes out of control. She speaks in strange voices, she can’t control her movements, and the words that come out of her mouth are truly shocking. Finally the doctors make a casual suggestion that Chris seek the help of a priest. The doctors don’t actually believe in possession but they don’t think the power of suggestion may help Regan.

Chris also does not believe in possession, or religion for that matter. Nonetheless, Chris seeks the advice of Father Karras (Jason Miller) who is a priest who studies psychology. Karras is quite skeptical, but is eventually persuaded that an exorcism is the only thing that might help Regan. Karras persuades the church to bring in Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), who is an expert in the area of demonic possession. The two priests set out on a mission to rid Regan of her demon.

One of the most remarkable things about The Exorcist is that despite the supernatural aspects of possession, the film portrays a very realistic world. The characters move through their daily lives without regard to the supernatural circumstances hovering around them. They are only jolted out of their realities when they are slapped in the face by one of Regan’s outbursts. Father Karras himself is grounded in scientific theory. He even doubts his own faith. I have often thought Jason Miller has been somewhat overlooked for his role in the film. Miller does an excellent job of portraying Father Karras as both an authority figure in his role as a priest, and as a regular guy who seems quite miserable with his life. A good portion of the film is from Karras’ point of view. We see his relationship with his mother, his community, and the church. We see that the priests tell racy jokes, smoke, and get drunk at dinner parties. Everything in The Exorcist is quite secular except for the presence of Regan’s demon.

The Extended Director’s Cut of the film adds some supernatural elements to the film. They are very brief, and don’t really hurt the movie, but I think they are a mistake. Why add such a typical horror element to a film that metaphorically is attempting to deal with puberty, divorce, redemption, and atonement? The director’s cut should really be called the “Blatty Cut.” It was original author of the novel and screenwriter for the film, William Peter Blatty, who desired a new cut of the movie. In addition to the supernatural elements I mentioned above there are a few scene’s added back into the film. They are scene’s Blatty opposed being cut and has lamented their omission since the film’s release. His anger about the missing scenes was so great he did not speak to the director, William Friedkin, for several years.

The two scenes Blatty wanted added, are discussions between characters that are very well done and are not without poignancy, but in the end are not all that necessary. Friedkin believed the message the scenes were trying to convey were already inherent in the movie, and I agree with him. There is a pretty cool scene of Regan “spider walking” down the stairs that has been added back, but, again, it’s not like it makes the movie better. In the special features there are interviews with Blatty and Friedkin. Some of these interviews took place before the 2000 director’s cut, and some are new for the Blu-ray release. In the earlier interviews Friedkin tells a story about a post-impressionist painter who attempts to change one of his own paintings as it is hanging in the Louvre. The painter believes he should be able to do whatever he wants to his own painting, but the security guard tells him the painting is done; it is hanging in the Louvre for all to see.

I like this analogy because I do not like the idea of a new version supplanting the original. Yes, there are times when a director’s cut is better, but there are times (a lot of times) when it is not. The Exorcist is nearly a perfect movie. It is gripping, shocking, well written, acted, directed, shot, edited, and everything else that goes into producing a movie. It is a case where all the elements fell into place and ended up as they should. It can’t be made better. The interesting thing about Blatty’s desire to have the scenes added back into the film is his immense worry that someone might misinterpret his intentions with the story. Basically he doesn’t want anyone to interpret it wrong, or what he would deem wrong. I won’t tell you what he thinks would be the wrong interpretation because it would give too much away, but check out what Blatty has to say about it in the special features.

I found the Blu-ray picture to be quite spectacular. Both versions have been restored and remastered and have never looked better. They are presented in 1080p/VC-1 and are each on a separate disc. The picture allows for every detail to come through. Actually, I noted while I was watching it that the film looks new as though it had just been shot. The sound is also quite good. The Extended Director’s Cut is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 and the Original Theatrical Cut is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The surround speakers are well used particularly during Regan’s demonic scenes with the ominous noises of the demon surrounding the viewer on all sides. Some of the dialog is at times swallowed by all the sound effects, but that is likely by design.

The Extended Director’s Cut contains several new features for the Blu-ray release. The best one is the 30-minute “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist.” This featurette shows how certain effects and tricky shots were achieved and features interviews with Friedkin, Blatty, and Blair. Another cool feature is a picture-in-picture featurette called “Georgetown: Then and Now.” It shows clips from the movie coupled with similar shots of the same locations now. Remarkably, many of the shots looked the same. It looks as if the movie could be filmed today in the same locations and it would look basically the same. There is also a new commentary from Friedkin on the Director’s Cut. The Original Theatrical Cut contains features that were previously available on DVD. There is an excellent feature length documentary that provides a great overview about the making of the movie. There are also separate commentaries from Friedkin and Blatty.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.