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THE EXORCIST: The Restored Version
Or: Bring on the 'Spider-walk'!
By Paul Davis
September 14, 2000
What an excellent day for an extended exorcism! Come September 22nd over 800 theatres across America will exhibit the definitive edition of the 1973 classic THE EXORCIST that contains 13 minutes of restored footage!
When the movie initially opened on December 26th 1973, it opened the floodgates to a lot of material considered untouchable in the realm of movie magic. The contravention and destruction of all that is good in life was seen pragmatically for the first time on a theatre screen... the family... the church... and the child!
Busting the box-office wide open, THE EXORCIST became a phenomenon that had everybody's share of praise and criticism. Be it a power of evil embedded within the very celluloid or an overwhelming respite showing the power of faith in today's world, THE EXORCIST struck a very uncomforting tone in an entire generation of cinemagoers and unlike any other movie in contemporary cinema has continued to do so for over a quarter of a century.
So why on earth would director William Friedkin wish to refurbish the movie dubbed as 'the scariest of all-time'? It is no secret that the movie's producer-author William Peter Blatty was not completely thrilled with the released cut of THE EXORCIST. Friedkin's original cut of the movie was approximately 15 minutes longer than the final version, containing scenes much loved by Blatty, but Friedkin believed them to be excessive. These scenes include a birthday trip around the sites of Washington, an early medical assessment that preceded the MacNeil party, a theological exchange about the motivation for Regan's demonic possession and an optimistic epilogue anticipated to close the movie in an encouraging manner.
The only audience to observe this first rough cut of THE EXORCIST were director William Friedkin, producer William Peter Blatty, editors Evan Lottman and Norman Gay, and a small number of Warners executives. Screened in a moviola at the appropriately located 666 Fifth Avenue, the final result was 'astounding!' according to Blatty. 'I recall standing up in a moviola in this office, and I was just blown away. I was staggered by it. I thought it was so glorious.'
Friedkin was thankful that he had achieved his main aim: to please Blatty! The only drawback was that the cut he screened did not entirely please the executives from Warner Bros., who claimed that the audience's attention would not endure the 2-hour and15-minute running time. One executive in particular, John Calley, who was the head of production, made three suggestions after watching the film: a few of the early scenes should be reversed in order; lose one of the doctor meetings as the audience knew that Regan was possessed and not ill; and end the film with Father Dyer looking down the 'M' Street steps, dropping the coda between Kinderman and Dyer. At first Friedkin felt that Calley's suggestions were unjustified and impossible, but after a while what Calley had suggested started to make more sense. Friedkin later agreed that the audience would not sit still for that long and that his new aim was to cut the film down to a 2-hour maximum.
A lesser-known scene cut from THE EXORCIST was the first doctor examination in which Regan is diagnosed with adolescent hyperactivity. A conversation between Chris MacNeil & Dr. Klein followed the examination, in which they discuss how Regan is coping with the divorce of her parents. Friedkin cut this scene, as he understood what John Calley was saying. The audience knew that Regan wasn't sick! However, this results in a continuity gap that Blatty points out in his commentary on the DVD: in the scene in which Chris is tucking Regan into bed after the party, Regan asks, 'Mother, what's wrong with me?' Her mother replies, 'It's like the doctor said, its nerves...' Two questions: What doctor? When did Regan get sick? This has always bothered Blatty, although he admits that most viewers just seem to assume that there was an off-screen doctor's visit.
William Peter Blatty has always spoken of Friedkin's first cut as being glorious and true to his best selling novel, with Friedkin always responding, ' I didn't know it was going to be a hit! The first cut was too long, in my opinion, and with a story that dealt with supernatural elements, I felt the best thing to do would be to get the audience in and out as quickly as possible... Your mind may be going with it, but your ass tends to get tired after sitting for longer than two hours.'
So what has changed over 27-years? For the movie's 25th Anniversary, the BBC, lead by the movie's most dedicated fanMark Kermode, produced a 'making-of' documentary and unearthed boxes and boxes of outtakes and footage not seen since 1973among which were the scenes present in Friedkin's first cut, including the 'Spider-walk' sequence featured in Blatty's novel. Blatty immediately saw this as an opportunity for a restored version of William Friedkin's first cut. Primarily, he wanted the more theological and spiritual moments of the movie put backthe dialogue between Merrin and Karras during the break in the exorcism and the original 'Beautiful friendship' endingbut Blatty knew that the audience would want more! So finding the 'Spider-walk' was a blessing and a much welcome addition to what Blatty hoped would be the definitive exhibition of THE EXORCIST. Kermode discovered many of the scenes in a dark cutting room at the Warners Studio in Burbank, constantly calling Blatty with updates on what was found. While Kermode found that the entire negative recording was integral, the associated soundtrack was either incorrectly labelled or absent. However, several scenes such as the first discussion between Chris MacNeil and Dr. Klein and Merrin's explanation to Karras came complete with on-set sound.
The discovery of the footage would bring both Bills together after 15-years of telephone conversations. Blatty recalls, 'At the time of the 25th Anniversary Billy had no interest in restoring the movie. I showed him the footage, but Billy didn't share the interest that I did because some of the soundtrack was missing.' Having no interest in a partial refurbishment, Friedkin dismissed any talk of a restored cut, but consented the use of the omitted footage in the BBC documentary and the special edition DVD release.
Bitterly disappointed with Friedkin's decision to reject the newly found footage, Blatty was desperate to get 'his version' up on screen. In the last quarter of 1998 Blatty signed a television deal to remake the movie in a four-hour miniseries that would star Peter Fonda as Father Merrin. Come Spring 1999, and all that was about to change! More unearthed reels and a compromise saw the go-ahead for THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN. Friedkin agreed to review all of the omitted footage with Blatty, after which he would make a decision on whether to re-cut the film.
Blatty recalls the meeting that sealed the deal. 'Billy Friedkin finally agreed to sit in a darkened cutting room with me and review all of the recovered footage. As the images flickered across the screen, time and again Billy would murmur, 'God, that's great; I don't remember shooting that.' The epiphany was sealed when we exited the building onto the Warner Brothers lot and he smiled and told me, 'After 27 years I finally understand what you were trying to do with this picture.''
What Friedkin did not remember shooting was an alternate take of the 'Spider-walk'. First aired in the BBC documentary, this uncanny sequence with a little tinkering of computer technology would alarm the most hard-hearted of people! Another scene that excited Friedkin was the legendary make-up reel of Linda Blair's stunt double, Eileen Dietz, which became the infamous subliminal white-faced demon that invades Father Karras' dream. Only 45 seconds at the most in length, William Friedkin loved the idea of placing more of these demon faces throughout the movie in order to give the most die-hard fans of the movie an unexpected thrill.
With the deal finally sealed, the scene restoration commenced in December 1999, and Blatty immediately cancelled the 4-hour miniseries. Still haunting Blatty was the fact that two of his much-loved scenes were missing sound. A scene present in Friedkin's first cut was a sight seeing trip around the highlights of Washington D.C. with Chris and Regan, as mentioned in the movie. Shot entirely mute, this scene was to enhance the very normal 'mother-daughter' relationship between Chris and Regan and then, at the end, indicate to the audience that Regan was forlorn. Originally intended to follow Karras' heart-wrenching declaration of his loss of faith, the scene reads as follows in Blatty's screenplay:
EXTERIOR- WASHINGTON DC- CHRIS' CAR- DAY
Chris and Regan are driving through the streets of Washington. They are laughing and joking.
EXTERIOR- WASHINGTON DC- LEE MANSION- DAY
In a montage of shots, Chris is walking and Regan is running around the huge pillars. Chris takes pictures of Regan as she poses for the camera.
EXTERIOR- WASHINGTON DC- MEMORIAL DRIVE- DAY
Chris and Regan have stopped to watch a soldier march. They both look at a Tomb of an unknown soldier. They both stare.
REGAN: Mom, why do people have to die?
Chris looks at her. She doesn't know how to answer.
CHRIS: People get tired.
REGAN: Why does God let us get tired?
CHRIS: God gets lonesome for us, Rags. He wants us back.
William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin agreed that the scene was not needed in the restored cut of THE EXORCIST. They felt that the 'mother-daughter' relationship was luminously shown in the scene wherein Chris tucks Regan in to bed, and Regan's discontent was evident when she over hears her mother screaming obscene words about her father on the telephone.
However, there was still a major decision regarding the inclusion of Blatty's original 'Casablanca' ending between Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer. Mark Kermode had discovered sound reels labelled '127' and '150', which were indeed the on-set dialogue for this epilogue. The BBC was able to restore 90 percent of the sound, as the final exchange remained absent from the sound reels. Those familiar with the 25th Anniversary DVD of THE EXORCIST have seen this ending as a flip side supplement, but also have noticed that the final verbal exchange between the two characters was second best to the amplified surroundings of Georgetown. This final dialogue could not be located after a rigorous search through boxes of sound reels, but Blatty was determined to put it back into the movie. The lost dialogue was as follows:
Kinderman loops his arm around Dyer's. They start to walk off.
KINDERMAN: I'm reminded of a line in the film Casablanca. At the end Humphrey Bogart says to Claude Rains, ' Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'
DYER: You know you look a bit like Bogart.
KINDERMAN: You noticed.
As December 1999 crept closer, Blatty and Friedkin decided on the scenes that would be reinstated. And if you're giving the audience new visuals, why not give them new sound, too? One of the main attractions of the restoration to Friedkin was the chance to enhance the sound effects that won an Oscar in 1974. Friedkin has always felt that the sound in THE EXORCIST is just as important as any visual, and with new digital technology he wanted to augment the sound for today's audience. Friedkin told fans, 'If you didn't feel all the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end originally...you will now!' Friedkin then hired the services of original 'Exorcist' composer Jack Nitzsche to compose and record further additional music to add to THE EXORCIST's soundtrack. Before long the version we have never seen would also turn out to be a version we have never heard.Part two of this exclusive behind-the-scenes story will be revealing and discussing all the scenes that have been restoredscenes you never saw, the soundtrack you never heard!!