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THE EXORCIST: The Version You've Never Seen

Not just an indulgence for the filmmakers, the new version offers plenty of pleasant (?) surprises for viewers as well. (Mild Spoilers)

By Steve Biodrowski     September 25, 2000

After twenty-eight years, William Peter Blatty is finally happy with the film version of The Exorcist that he scripted and produced. Ever since the initial release, the author has expressed his disappointment with William Friedkin's final cut, even going so far as to enumerate those flaws in his book The Exorcist: From Novel to Film. Basically, nearly twenty minutes of material was removed in order to get running time down to two hours and two minutes, and the result 'to my mind at least,' Blatty once told me, 'are some glaring construction flaws.' It's now the year 2000, and eleven minutes have been restored; plus, new shots have been added, and some footage has been enhanced with brief, nearly subliminal special effects. The question for viewers, of course, is whether or not this new material makes a substantial difference to the viewing experience.

The answer is a definite yes: the new cut is substantially enhanced by the restorations. Whether this is enough to convert those who never liked the film is another matter, but those sitting on the fence post might be swayed, and longtime fans should be pleased to see a fuller rendering of the material, containing some brief but crucial moments that lay a more solid foundation for the thematic underpinnings of the story.

That said, one must still acknowledge that, even with the enhancements, the film is not and never will be a replacement for the book. Blatty's novel runs some four hundred pages and contains voluminous material that could (and probably should) never be filmedmuch of it relating to mental illness and psychic phenomena, in an effort to establish possible alternate explanations for Regan's 'possession.' The truth of the matter is that the film never really diverged that much from the book, except in terms of omissions. Now some of those omissions have been reinstated. They don't really change one's interpretation of the film (especially if you were familiar with the source material to begin with), but they do make the interpretation much more clear to people who perhaps were too disturbed by the power of the shock effects to see past them and to the message of faith that was intended.

The changes fall into three categories: restorations, remixing, and additions. Taking the middle one first, the new soundtrack is rendered in wonderfully atmospheric multi-channel stereo that often seems to put the audience in the middle of the action. This works especially well not only in the shock sequences but more particularly in the quiet moments, when subtle audio cues seem to surround the viewer with a sense of omni-present evil. If there is a flaw here, it is that the remixed track may layer the sound on a bit too thick. The old version effectively juxtaposed loud outbursts with moments of near-dead silence. The new version sometimes seems to obliterate the silence, making the juxtaposition less effective. Instead of loud contrasted with silent, we now have loud contrasted with not-so-loud.

The impact of the restored scenes varies. Still missing is Regan and Chris MacNeil's walking tour of Washington, D.C., and it's probably just as well. Even Blatty, in Exorcist: Novel to Film, admitted that the early omitted scenes were 'boring'; his problem with their removal was that they left continuity gaps. One of those gaps is filled by the inclusion of an initial visit to the doctor, but a new gap is created. Whereas the old version contained dialogue references to a missing doctor scene, we now see the doctor's office first; unfortunately, it is not altogether clear why Chris (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter (Linda Blair) needs medical attention. Sure, there have been ever-so-slight hints of manic-depressive behavior, along with one dialogue reference to a shaking bed, but the film really relies on the dialogue in the doctor's office to explain what's been going wrong with Regan. If there is an upside to this sequence, it is that the examination scenes themselves have a slightly creepy, foreboding quality, showing us the first images of Regan displaying behavior that, while not Satanic, is certainly odd and upsetting coming from a previously innocent-looking young girl.

Later additions are more impressive. The spiderwalk, cut because the effects didn't work in their day, has been rendered now (thanks to digital touching up) in completely convincing imagery. Brief but extremely effective, this scene will surely become the 'must see' moment of this version, joining the crucifix scene as one of cinema's most memorably horrifying moments (which is all the more impressive when you realize that we're talking about just a few shots running maybe twenty seconds).

A few additional lines of dialogue with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) allow the character to show a sense of humor that helps humanize him, instead of leaving him as the archetypal white-hatted hero who rides in to save the day. Offered some brandy for his coffee, he jokes, 'The doctors say I shouldn't, but thank God, my will is weak.' Ellen Burstyn's blank-faced reaction (she doesn't get the joke) is priceless. It's a nice moment of comic relief just before the intensity of the scenes that will follow.

Even more brief, but far more crucial, is the dialogue between Merrin and the confused Father Karras (Jason Miller). The lines, an attempt to give a possible explanation for the possession, are already being dismissed by some critics as pretentious exposition, but in truth they form the crux of a moving dramatic moment. You almost literally see the light go on in Karras's eyes as the import of Merrin's words sinks in: 'I think the point is to make us despair... to see ourselves as animal and ugly... to reject the possibility that God could love us.' This is exactly Karras' problem, and this realization makes his renewed strength five minutes later much more understandable. When a distraught Chris asks whether her daughter is going to die, there is a wonderful cut from a two shot to a reverse angle close-up of the priest, who much to his own surprise says, 'No' with a kind of unexpected confidence that can only be attributed to faith. Now at last, we have some kind of clue as to the reason for the transition.

Of all the footage removed from the film, this is the bit that hurt the most, and its restoration is the most important reason returning to The Exorcist (the spiderwalk notwithstanding). The reason for the removal was supposedly to speed up the pace, but the scene itself remained in the previous cut (minus dialogue), with the priests sitting on the stairs in between bouts of the exorcism ritual. The inclusion of the actual dialogue adds only a few secondshardly enough to affect the film's overall paceand the dramatic impact is easily worth the extra running time.

The final addition is the inclusion of Blatty's 'Casablanca' ending, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) befriending Father Dyer (Reverend William O'Malley), the implication being that even after the horror and sacrifice that have occurred, there is still a chance for hope and happiness in the world. Back in 1973, leaving Dyer staring in seeming despair down the Hitchcock steps might have fit with the mood of the nation, but only the most cynical critic would insist that this was a more profound or powerful ending. The restored coda, presumably, will send viewers of the theatre realizing that the film was not intended to bombard them with a sense of hopeless despair.

So much for the restorations; what about the additions? As often is the case with new editions (be they books or films), the artists seem unable to resist the temptation to rethink the material instead of merely correcting past errors. In this case, a few new and/or enhanced shots have been added. Mostly they are effective, but some show definite signs of reappraisal. It's rather like musicians playing an old hit twenty years later: they add a new lick here or there to refresh the material, but the new performance only makes sense in context of the original; it's a variation on a theme, a new touch added to an old standard, but it's not necessarily something that should have been there from the beginning.

Case in point: the new opening scene. A moody tracking shot from the Georgetown townhouse that dissolves to a statue of the Virgin Mary (one that will be desecrated later in the film), the scene makes no sense out of context. If you haven't watched The Exorcist or at least seen stills from the film, you have no idea what the significance is supposed to be, whereas familiar viewers immediately recognize, 'That's the place where it all will happen,' while sensing a familiar nostalgic thrill of anticipation. It doesn't exactly hurt the film, but it doesn't help much, either. It's most important impact, perhaps, is to state from the opening frame that you are indeed seeing a new version; otherwise, audiences might get worried waiting through that first half hour for a sign of something new.

Later additions consist not so much of new footage as of old footage that has been enhanced with new special effects to convey a stronger sense of a demonic presence. During the restored first doctor's examination, there is an additional 'subliminal' image of the demonic face previously glimpsed only twice in the film. The new cut is clearly in color, whereas the old ones looked like black-and-white.

This perhaps counts more as a 'restoration' than an addition, but the image ties in with other later ones that clearly are additions: this face is seen again, like an afterimage of something briefly glimpsed, when Chris MacNeil returns to an apparently empty home and finds the lights flickering on and off for no apparent reason. The impact of this previously unseen image is truly remarkable, and the effect is pumped up even further by the gradual revelation of yet another near-subliminal image, a faintly discernable silhouette of the statue of the demon Pazuzu, glimpsed in the shadowy darkness of Regan's room as her mother looks in the door. The effect is genuinely unnerving, provoking as much verbal reaction from the audience as any of the more overblown shocks that the film throws at them.

On top of this, just before Regan attacks the psychiatrist attempting to hypnotize her, there is also a brief morphing type effect that superimposes a demonic countenance over her features, clearly indicating that her actions are the result of the evil influence inside her. The image somewhat foreshadows the climax, wherein Father Karras's face briefly assumes a similar look. In that case, the transition back to his normal countenance seems to have been smoothed over a bit with a digital enhancement; in the old version, it somewhat resembled a simple jump-cut. (This last enhancement may actually have been done for the DVD; either way, this is the first time it has reached the big screen.)

The end result of all this imagery is to increase the surreal quality of the film, the sense not only of physical shocks but also of spiritual evil lurking in the dark. The impact is impressive, but even more than before it emphasizes the supernatural explanation for the phenomenon of possessionan element that was left open to debate in the novel. At first, the new cut seems to be hewing closer to the book, with the initial doctor's exam seeming to lay the groundwork for a psychological explanation, but the new imagery undercuts this interpretation completely.

Of course, the power of the special effects always had audiences convinced that the Devil was at work in the film, but previously much of the imagery was presented in a way that was at least somewhat open to another interpretation; for example, the infamous 360-degree head-spinning shot was bracketed by reaction shots of Jason Miller, implying that what we're seeing is a hallucination in his mind. Likewise, when the statue of Pazuzu manifested itself in the old cut during the exorcism, the shot in no way matched with the objective shots surrounding it; again, we were left feeling that what we were being shown was a vision perceived by the characters, not an objective reality. These new images, however, are not directed at the characters; they are aimed straight out of the scene toward the viewing audience. With no possible subjective interpretation, the only way to read them is as evidence of an actual demonic presence. Not that anyone ever really doubted, but now even a tentative alternate interpretation is pretty much untenable.

So what's the bottom line? From the day of its first release in 1973, The Exorcist was the greatest horror film ever made, and it remains so to this day. The restored version alters the classic in noticeable ways. Sometimes, the film is obviously better; in other cases, it is merely different. To some extent one might consider it closer to the perfect realization of what it was meant to be; on the other hand, it sometimes plays like an extended variation on a familiar theme. One way or the other, the film remains worth seeing, and it's safe to say that, as it was in 1973, so also will The Exorcist be the best horror film released in the year 2000.

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