The studio proudly promotes 'The Exorcist' as "the scariest film of all time." The movie's reputation over the years would seem to back that up. Unlike many so-called scary movies that quickly seem dated and cheesy, 'The Exorcist' continues to be regarded fondly, even more than three decades after its release. I don't know that I would personally call it the scariest film of all time. Familiarity and imitation over the years have unavoidably diluted its visceral impact, and we as a culture have perhaps grown too jaded to feel scared by any movie (or fiction in general) anymore. Nonetheless, it's clear why 'The Exorcist' stands out as an exemplary model of horror filmmaking. Scary or not, it's an excellent movie.
The film is based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, which is in turn allegedly based (in some very loose way) on a true incident of an exorcism that was performed in Maryland in 1949. Ellen Burstyn stars as Chris MacNeil, a Hollywood actress living in Georgetown to film a movie at the university there. Her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) begins behaving very oddly, such as urinating on a carpet in the middle of a crowded party and lashing out in violent outbursts that are far out of character for the normally sweet and good-natured girl. Doctors chalk this up to a case of "nerves" and subject her to a barrage of torturous psychological and medical tests, to no avail. When the problem eventually escalates to a shaking bed, speaking in tongues, and inexplicable physical transformations, the mother calls in a pair of priests, Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), to perform an exorcism. It's after this point that the iconic scenes of head spinning and pea soup vomiting come into play.
This is a very famous movie, and I hardly feel the need to spell out the plot more than that. Author Blatty (who also wrote the screenplay) and director William Friedkin have both long insisted that 'The Exorcist' isn't really a horror film, but rather a story about "the mystery of faith." That's at least somewhat supported by storylines in which the previously-agnostic Chris finds no help from modern medical science and must turn back to the church to save her daughter, and the young Father Karras has his faith in God tested by the demon named Pazuzu.
However, I find the claims that this isn't a horror film to be rather disingenuous. It clearly is, and relies heavily on horror movie tropes like gross-out special effects and blunt shock scares. The filmmakers gleefully throw in scenes of the little girl masturbating with a crucifix, puking on a priest and telling him that "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell," as if pleased with themselves for leaving the audience aghast at the crassness and blasphemy on display.
Nevertheless, 'The Exorcist' balances these elements with Friedkin's truly masterful control of atmosphere and tone. The first half of the movie is a very slow burn that builds to an intense frenzy when the exorcism itself finally begins. At this stage of his career, the director was most famous for the "gritty" realism of his police thriller 'The French Connection'. He used that background to likewise anchor 'The Exorcist' in a palpable sense of reality. This isn't a fantastical supernatural tale set on an overly art-directed studio soundstage. It could be taking place next door or just around the corner.
More than that, there's actually a great story at the heart of the film, with a tremendous amount of both psychological and theological depth. Ellen Burstyn delivers a remarkable performance as a mother dragged to the ragged edge of sanity by her desperation to save her daughter. Even young Linda Blair displays an impressive naturalness in her scenes before possession, and a frightening commitment afterwards. (Sadly, Blair would become another young Hollywood burn-out. Her career after 'The Exorcist' was marked by crummy exploitations movies and drug problems.)
I know at least one critic who has complained that, "The film is conservative propaganda: It insists that The Church is the only way, and everything secular, especially science, is heretical." I suppose that's a legitimate reading, from a certain perspective. It's clear that Blatty's own Catholic upbringing, beliefs, and guilt infuse every aspect of the story. He's indisputably arguing for faith over science (and was upset with Friedkin for decades when the director cut a few dialogue passages that spell out this theme even more overtly).
Personally, I think this view of the film misses the boat on what makes the picture so effective. Even if you don't have any particular religious convictions (Friedkin claims that he didn't at the time he made the movie), the story plays on very elemental fears that transcend religious dogma: the fear of forces beyond our control or comprehension, and the fear of loss of self to a mysterious "other." You can easily transplant these to a non-religious setting (as in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or 'The Thing') and still retain their power. Though Blatty may feel differently, the religious trappings of 'The Exorcist' are just set dressing when all is said and done.
'The Exorcist' was a sensation upon release. For a brief period, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time (until being surpassed by 'Jaws' two years later). Reverend Billy Graham denounced the film as a work of evil, which no doubt only inspired more people to flock to theaters to see it. It was nominated for ten Oscars, including most of the big ones – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jason Miller), Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair) – and won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound. These were all unprecedented achievements for a work of horror fiction.
Despite its success and acclaim, William Peter Blatty remained upset with the film for many years. In his editing, William Friedkin did what any good director is supposed to; he cut out parts that weren't working and those that weren't truly essential to tell the story. Unfortunately, Blatty is the type of author who is extremely protective of his precious words, and felt that the audience really needed some of the religious themes of the story unambiguously hammered home. The two men didn't speak for a number of years over this issue.
In 2000, Warner Bros. asked Friedkin to throw together an extended cut of the film so that the studio could re-release it to theaters. At the time, the director agreed primarily to appease Blatty. The longer cut of the movie (titled "The Version You've Never Seen") could have been called a "Writer's Cut." The changes include a new opening shot outside the house in Georgetown, a lengthy discussion between Fathers Karras and Merrin about the intentions of the demon (which are already perfectly clear without the characters having to talk about it), and an incredibly ridiculous epilogue in which two supporting characters chat about movies and walk off into the sunset together. Friedkin also took the opportunity to add in extremely cheesy CGI images of the demon's face to the background of random shots in the movie (in one scene, it appears hovering over a stove), and to digitally spruce up a goofy "spider walk" scene that was originally cut due to technical issues, but really had no place in the movie anyway.
For a while, Friedkin continued to assert that the 1973 theatrical cut was his preferred version of the movie. Sadly, in recent years, he has turned around on the issue and now claims that he sides with Blatty about the longer version being better. Consequently, "The Version You've Never Seen" (a silly title whose stupidity has exponentially increased as more and more people have seen that version) has now been renamed the "Extended Director's Cut." Other than William Peter Blatty and now William Friedkin, I don't know of anyone who would agree with them about preferring the long version of the movie over the vastly superior theatrical cut. Even if a few of the additions may seem worthwhile, it's quite laughable overall, and should only be viewed as a misguided curiosity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Although there had been some fear that Warner Home Video's Blu-ray edition of 'The Exorcist' might only contain the 2000 reworking of the film, the actual release includes both the original 1973 theatrical cut and the "Extended Director's Cut" (previously known as "The Version You've Never Seen") in a 2-disc set. Even though the number of changes between the two versions of the movie could have easily been seamlessly branched from one another on the same disc, the studio has opted to author each individually on separate discs. This suggests that we may see separate releases for each down the line.
With that said, the "Original Theatrical Version" on the disc contains at least one revisionist change in which a jump cut has been corrected with a noticeable CG transition. It's brief and not terribly distracting (no more so than the original jump cut, anyway), but still represents an alteration of the film. If other changes are also present, I'm not familiar enough with the movie to have spotted them.
The 2-disc set comes in an attractive Digibook package with a couple of superficial essays, some cast bios, trivia notes, and a lot of glossy photos on the booklet pages. Both discs prompt a main menu before movie playback. Neither has any ads or trailers before those menus, but the 1973 cut has been programmed to automatically play an annoying video introduction from William Friedkin at the start of the movie. The best way to avoid this is to jump right to Chapter 2 in the Scene Selections menu.
Consider this another crisis successfully averted. After William Friedkin desecrated the Blu-ray transfer of 'The French Connection' with a misguided attempt to recolor the movie into so-called "pastel" hues, the director gave an interview where he stated that he planned to do the same to all of his movies, and specifically cited 'The Exorcist' as next on his list. Fortunately, Owen Roizman, the cinematographer on both films, spoke out against this practice, and apparently got through to the often-stubborn Friedkin. A written note from Friedkin included in the Digibook package states that the 'Exorcist' Blu-ray was color-timed by both Roizman and himself in collaboration.
I'm very relieved to say that the Blu-ray's color transfer looks perfectly fine for the most part. The colors appear mostly realistic and natural, except when exaggerated for effect during some of the exorcism scenes. A few instances of teal and purple shadings leave me questioning whether there's been some digital revisionism of certain colors, but I can't claim to be familiar enough with the movie to know it on a frame-by-frame basis. Perhaps the scenes always looked like this? In any case, what's important here is that the disc has none of that goofy "pastel" nonsense that ruined 'The French Connection'.
The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is presented at a 16:9 aspect ratio, slightly (and negligibly) opened up from the 1.85:1 theatrical framing, as is Warner's policy. The movie has always had rather erratic and frequently rough-looking photography. This is emphasized perhaps more than ever in high definition. The opening sequence in the Iraq desert, for example, features some shots with stunning clarity and detail mixed with other very soft and heavily grainy shots in the same scene, alternating with seemingly no rhyme or reason. No artistic reason, at least. Undoubtedly, production logistics required compromises during certain times of shooting.
By and large, the Blu-ray has a strong representation of detail. Wood grain textures in the production design and the stitching of the wardrobe are nicely resolved. It's worth noting, however, that significant portions of the movie were shot with diffusion filters over the lens, as was the style of the day. Contrasts are crisp, and perhaps electronically boosted a little, judging by some crushed blacks. But this is supposed to be a dark movie, and the problem (if it's really a problem) isn't distracting.
As noted, this is often a very grainy film. The grain has been retained without any overt Digital Noise Reduction. Unfortunately, the digital compression is another of Warner's lazy one-automated-pass-without-supervision encodings. The grain sometimes comes across as noisy or blocky, and color banding intrudes in a few scenes (notably the opening sunrise). Fortunately, these issues aren't severe enough to detract from an overall favorable impression.
As far as I can tell, both versions of the movie look basically the same as one another.
'The Exorcist' originally played theatrically with a mono soundtrack. The film was remixed into 5.1 surround for the 25th Anniversary DVD and the "Version You've Never Seen" theatrical re-release in 2000. Both versions of the movie in the 2-disc Blu-ray set are presented in that 5.1 remix, encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. There is no mono option (in the original English) on either disc.
For a 5.1 remix of monaural sound design, this one is pretty tasteful. The music has a fair stereo dimensionality, and there aren't too many gimmicky directional effects. The mix remains primarily focused in the center channel.
As a film from 1973, the soundtrack can't help but show its age. While there's good auditory detail, fidelity is often a little strident. Even so, many sound effects are sharp and clear, and the mix has a few impressively bassy moments (surely goosed during the remix).
The Blu-ray is packed to the gills in dubs and subtitle options in almost every language known to man, short of Na'vi or Klingon.
Between the two discs in the set, the Blu-ray edition carries over all of the important video supplements from both of the original DVD releases for the theatrical cut and the "Version You've Never Seen" of 'The Exorcist'.
Theatrical Cut Disc
Director's Cut Disc
I don't think that I would personally call 'The Exorcist' the scariest film of all time, or even the best horror movie ever made. Even so, it's clearly a classic of the genre and remains pretty effective even three decades on. The Blu-ray edition thankfully includes both versions of the movie, with strong video, audio, and a lot of worthwhile supplements. This is definitely a keeper. Highly recommended.