The legend of The Exorcist is almost as well known and mythic as the movie itself. Fresh off an Oscar win, director/wunderkind/arrogant genius William Friedkin’s methods of dealing with the film’s cast and crew would have broken Geneva convention laws for war prisoners. Nine people died under “mysterious circumstances” during production, sparking rumors of a cursed set. The original schedule for principal photography ended up unintentionally doubling, as did the film’s budget. It was denounced as heresy by the Catholic church. Screenings were filled with people vomiting, fainting and breaking into hysterics. In the end, it became the second highest grossing film of its day, jump-starting the adrenalized “event movie” blockbuster trend that would forever color how Hollywood marketed and produced films.
Twenty-seven years and countless the-devil-made-me-do-it rip-offs later, The Exorcist has been re-released into theaters amidst much fanfare as “the version you’ve never seen!” For those who may have forgotten the original: Twelve-year old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) begins showing some rather anti-social tendencies that baffle both her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and local doctors. A priest, Father Damien (Jason Miller), is consulted about the possibility of demonic possession. He enlists the help of an experienced exorcist (Bergman regular Max Von Sydow) and the two priests set about purging the girl of a very unclean spirit. Good triumphs over evil, though not without some holy war casualties.
It’s interesting to look at The Exorcist with fresh eyes and see what has withstood the test of time. Some of the film’s elements, such as Burstyn’s shrill symphony of histrionic performance tics and the devil’s obscenity-laced rantings (courtesy of actress Mercedes McCambridge, now many years and many packs of cigarettes past Johnny Guitar), have degenerated into laughable camp. A few of the line readings are apt to make one cringe and William Peter Blatty’s script, adapted from his novel,treads a fine line between religious mumbo jumbo and outtakes from the TV cop programs of that era. The film’s moral center – Father Damien’s crisis of faith – seems half-baked.
Friedkin and Blatty subtly show a society in decline (homeless people panhandling in subway stations, children scampering ferret-like over a partially vandalized car) that seems just ripe for the entrance of evil. There’s a feeling of things falling apart and the center being unable to hold, yet a less ham-fisted approach might have shaded the proceedings with a bit more depth.
Despite the out-of-date elements, much of the film still holds up beautifully. The pre-digital era effects are crude yet undeniably effective; the jerky thrashings of Regan under the demon’s hold, the sudden movements of furniture and flying debris communicate the primitive, otherworldly violence of possession far better than any slick FX house could today. Dick Smith’s make-up gives Regan the grotesque visage of a Bosch figure and the film’s most controversial scene, a possessed Regan masturbating with a crucifix, seems blasphemously shocking even today.
In his less Wagneresque moments, Friedkin elicits surprisingly lyrical moments. The prologue in Iraq, which always seemed a bit of a red herring before, now takes on a poetic quality of atmospheric dread. The touchstone scene of Von Sydow arriving at the McNeil’s residence, silhouetted by a shaft of light, amidst cuts of the panting Regan in repose, perfectly frames the existential turmoil to come. Many of the film’s images are as terrifying today as they were three decades ago.
The extended footage totals close to twelve minutes and, save for a scene of Regan crawling spider-like down a staircase (one of the creepiest throwaway moments committed to celluloid), adds little to the proceedings. An extension of the hospital scenes early in the film do make the doctor’s suggestion of an exorcism seem less hasty but accomplish little else. An addendum to the original ending suggests a brighter future but seems at odds with the rest of the film. A conversation between Miller and Von Sydow in between exorcising sessions actually ruins one of the film’s original grace moments of silence and space.
Whether these extras were put back in to flesh out the story, to eke out fresh profits from a scare-starved public, or to serve solely as a valentine for the film’s hardcore fans is debatable. What isn’t up for argument is the necessity of seeing this modern horror classic on the big screen with an audience once more. Under those circumstances, The Exorcist becomes less a moviegoing experience than a study in mass anxiety, all tension and delightful release. In an era when many films compete to scare the hell out of you, The Exorcist remains one of the few able to successfully scare the hell into you, a feat which assuredly deserves another go-round.
– David Fear