A visiting actress in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, a young priest at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother's terminal sickness. And, book-ending the story, a frail, elderly priest recognizes the necessity for a show-down with an old demonic enemy.
'The Exorcist' has garnered a reputation and is frequently promoted by its studio as "the scariest film of all time." The movie's staying power 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 four 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. After this point, 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 take 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's 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 too many people 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
Warner Bros. Entertainment previously released 'The Exorcist' on Blu-ray in a 2-disc set that contained both the original theatrical version and the Extended Director's Cut on separate discs packaged together in a nice Digibook. Later, the Director's Cut was issued on its own in a standard keepcase. Because the studio loves to repackage and re-release its catalog titles at any possible excuse, we now have a new 40th Anniversary Edition. (At least, that's what the press release calls it. That title is not reflected anywhere on the packaging.) This new set has three discs, all held in a keepcase, which is stored inside a sturdy cardboard box (much thicker than a standard flimsy slipcover). Also in the box resting next to the keepcase is a small hardcover Digibook with a printed excerpt from William Friedkin's memoir 'The Friedkin Connection'. This Digibook does not hold any discs, and the memoir essay is different than the text of the prior Blu-ray Digibook release.
The first two discs in the 40th Anniversary Edition are absolutely identical to those released in 2010. Neither version of the movie has been remastered or re-authored. The discs have the same menus, the same video and audio encodes, and the same selection of bonus features from the earlier Blu-ray edition. New and exclusive to the anniversary set is a third disc with additional supplements (detailed below). The package also includes a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Both movie discs prompt a main menu before 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.
As mentioned above, Discs 1 and 2 in the 40th Anniversary Edition (neither is actually numbered, so you can decide for yourself whether to put the theatrical cut or Director's Cut first) are identical to the Blu-rays released back in 2010. Nothing here has changed at all in the ensuing three years, not even my general feelings about the quality of the 1080p/VC-1 video transfer(s). For the most part, that's a good thing.
Both versions of the movie are 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 artistic reason. It's possible that production logistics required compromises during certain times of shooting.
As far as I can tell, both versions of the movie look basically the same as one another, aside from the obvious content changes, so I will lump my comments about both together. By and large, the Blu-ray video transfer has a strong representation of detail. Wood grain textures in the production design and the stitching of the wardrobe are nicely resolved. With that said, it's worth noting that significant portions of the movie were shot with diffusion filters over the lens, as was the style of the day.
Unfortunately, the discs' digital compression leaves something to be desired. While film grain has been retained without any overt Digital Noise Reduction, that grain sometimes comes across as noisy or blocky, and color banding intrudes in a few scenes. Fortunately, these issues aren't severe enough to detract from an overall favorable impression.
Colors appear mostly realistic and natural, except when exaggerated for effect during some of the exorcism scenes. 'The Exorcist' suffers none of the idiotic "pastel" revisionism that plagued the first Blu-ray release of Friedkin's 'The French Connection'. However, the "Original Theatrical Version" 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 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. The Blu-ray copies of both cuts are based on that remix. The Original Theatrical Version is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, while the Extended Director's Cut adds a matrixing metadata flag for 6.1. There is no mono option (in the original English) on either disc.
For a surround remix of monaural sound design, this one is pretty tasteful. The music has a fair stereo dimensionality, without too many gimmicky directional effects. The mix remains primarily focused in the center channel. Honestly, any practical differences between the 5.1 and 6.1 flagging are subtle and didn't stand out to me. (My A/V receiver is programmed to matrix rear channels in either case.)
As a film from 1973, the soundtrack can't help but show its age. While auditory detail is good, 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 two Blu-ray discs are packed to the gills in dubs and subtitle options in almost every language known to man, short of Na'vi or Klingon.
Because they're the same discs as before, it stands to reason that the first two discs in the 40th Anniversary Edition have all the same bonus features as the 2010 Blu-ray release.
Theatrical Cut Disc
Director's Cut Disc
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The following items are new to the 40th Anniversary Edition:
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The 40th Anniversary Edition drops the printed cast bios, production notes and trivia found in the prior Blu-ray's Digibook packaging. None of this is a significant loss.
Whether or not you actually consider 'The Exorcist' to be the scariest film of all time, it's clearly a classic of the horror genre and remains quite effective even four decades on. If you already own the 2010 Digibook Blu-ray release of the movie, this new 40th Anniversary Edition doesn't offer much of an upgrade. The video and audio on both versions of the movie are the same (which is to say pretty good), as are most of the supplements. Only a couple of new, yet inessential, features appear for the first time here. On the other hand, if you don't already own 'The Exorcist' on Blu-ray, this anniversary package offers a fine opportunity to do so.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.