The Exorcist

“The Exorcist” is my favorite film of all time, a jarring, seamless exercise in horror that still works its voodoo 27 years after its original release. Currently haunting theater screens is a new edition of the film, an expanded version championed by writer William Peter Blatty.

exorcistThe good news is that the film now benefits from digital mastering that brings out every detail in the print, plus a dazzling, intricately mastered soundtrack that literally creeps up on you in the most unexpected ways.

The bad news is that most of the additional footage is unnecessary. There are a couple of additions that actually flesh out the story, but the extended ending ruins a perfect moment. Instead of being left with a feeling of closure, the new ending leaves the door wide open. It lacks the power and impact of the original.

I have seen “The Exorcist” more times than anyone I know, and possibly more times than anyone else except the director and editor. I worked at a Drive-In theater during the film’s second engagement in 1974. We were hired to handle the crowds, but it seemed that no one wanted to see “The Exorcist” at a drive-in. They wanted to share the experience with a crowd.

So we sat around and watched the film three times a night, five days a week. I became entranced with the film, desperately wanting to know why the film had scared me when I first saw it the previous year. I went home from that screening feeling like I was possessed, that evil was indeed a part of our everyday lives. It was an experience that made me want to know more about the film.

After repeated showings, I finally discovered what it was about the film that got under my skin. It was simple. “The Exorcist” is seamless. It’s one of those rare films that is so perfect it manages to break down the third wall and engage the audience in its horror.

The new digital soundtrack allows you to hear every word of William Peter Blatty’s brilliant yet economical screenplay. Every word is vital and honest, allowing the actors playing the characters to realistically bring them to life. Director William Friedkin, coming off his Oscar win for “The French Connection,” controls the action behind and in front of the camera with such power and emotion that it becomes impossible to deny their impact.

Holding it all together is the amazing performance of Linda Blair as Reagan, the sweet, mannered 12-year-old who becomes possessed by a demon. Blair is so natural and believable as Reagan that her transformation into the demon is shocking. When she undergoes a series of medical tests that tax her spirit and will, we feel her pain. It’s as if we are there on the table with her, undergoing the sort of procedures that sent a lot of audience members running from the theater.

Ellen Burstyn displays incredible depth as Chris MacNeil, Reagan’s mother, an actress on location in Georgetown for a new film. Playing an actress is always a challenge, because the performer must make us believe she is playing a character and not herself. It’s difficult, yet Burstyn makes it look easy. Her performance is filled with perfect observations that can only come from someone totally in control of her craft.

Her concern is real, especially when Reagan begins her descent into hell. Watch her closely. Look into her eyes. That’s real fear and confusion. There’s also lots of soul in Jason Miller’s eyes, a connection to a complex character that he perfectly realizes. Miller is totally amazing in his first role as Father Damien Karras, showing us a man whose internal conflicts are no match for the spiritual ones he is about to encounter. There’s passion and pity in his performance, and eventually immense strength. His ultimate sacrifice comes from a deep, dark place which Miller painfully exposes.

Max Von Sydow is so powerful as Father Lancaster Merrin that when he disappears after the film’s haunting Iraqi prologue, his presence is always felt. When he eventually shows up at the MacNeil house for his final confrontation with the devil, the anticipation of his arrival is so intense that when he stands there in the light pouring from Regan’s room, he becomes God-like. No wonder they chose this image for the poster. It perfectly symbolizes what the film is really about.

Circling this group of characters are equally interesting characters, including Lee J. Cobb’s inquisitive Detective Kinderman, anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery so he can catch the latest classic film; Jack MacGowran as the film’s director, a saucy drunk not above accusing the help of being Nazis; and Kitty Winn as Chris’ personal secretary who makes standing on the sidelines and looking interested an art form.

This latest edition of “The Exorcist” is credited to Blatty, who felt that the additions were necessary to the plot and pacing. He was half right. Some of the material actually takes the film to new heights, including the infamous spider walk by Reagan, but others actually stop the film dead in its pace. We learn a little more about Karras and his mother, and a restored scene in the medical clinic explains some dialogue that follows.

It’s the tacked on ending that is at question. It’s as if Blatty can’t let go. Too bad, because the film’s central themes, dealing with faith, religion, divorce, and the actual presence of evil are still intact and just as potent. Aside from the additional footage, the film is still seamless. It is so easy to get lost in Friedkin’s nightmare. The trick is shaking the feeling once you leave the theater.


The Exorcist returns with added footage


Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran in a film directed by William Friedkin. Rated R. 132 Minutes


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