Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Exorcist: 25th Anniversary Edition (1973)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

The belief in evil - and that evil can be cast out. From these two strands of faith, author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin wove The Exorcist, the frightening and realistic story of an innocent girl inhabited by a malevolent entity.

Academy Award-winner Friedkin, who introduces the film and supervised this new video transfer from restored picture and audio elements, gets effective performances from Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb. Winner of 1973 Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Sound, The Exorcist remains, 25 years later, one of the most shocking and gripping movies ever made.

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Reverend William O'Malley, Barton Heyman
Academy Awards: Won for Best Screenplay; Best Sound. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn; Best Supporting Actor-Jason Miller; Best Supporting Actress-Linda Blair; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Film Editing, 1974.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 47 chapters; Rated R; 122 min.; $24.95; street date 12/1/98.
Supplements: The Fear of God:The Making of The Exorcist 75-minute documentary (25 minutes of which are exclusive to DVD) featuring never-before-seen footage and all-new interviews with Friedkin, Blatty plus the film's stars and crew; Audio commentary by William Friedkin; Audio commentary by William Peter Blatty, including audio outtakes of the sound effects; Special introduction by William Friedkin; 4 theatrical trailers & 6 TV spots; DVD-exclusive documentary featurette of the film's storyboards and production.
Purchase: 25th Anniversary Edition | The Version You've Never Seen Edition | Novel - William Peter Blatty | Score soundtrack - Jack Nitzsche


Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/C/A-

Man, had it been a long time since I last watched The Exorcist! Actually, I'm not even sure that I've ever seen the film from beginning to end. I think I might have viewed it on tape in the mid-1980s, but don't hold me to that.

The last time I saw any of it took place in the fall of 1986 when I visited some friends at college. We all went to a showing of The Exorcist at their student union. As folks of that age group are wont to do, we had all imbibed rather generous portions of illicit (to us, at least, since we were all 19 at the time) beverages prior to the showing.

I guess I'd downed more than anyone else, because I was pretty far gone by the time we got to the theater. I remember the opening scenes in the Iraqi desert and then the closing credits. I slept through the rest, and I allegedly displayed the rather unsettling habit of letting out loud snores at the most suspenseful moments of the film.

(Let that be a lesson to you youngsters out there: booze it up and you'll annoy large groups of strangers! Hmm... I'm not sure if that's necessarily a negative...)

Anyway, the point of all this folderol is to establish that I lacked much familiarity with The Exorcist before I watched the DVD the other day. Of course, I wasn't ignorant of the film; it's much too famous for me not to have a certain amount of foreknowledge. Nonetheless, my memories of the story and the events remained fairly vague and superficial.

Surprisingly, I found that The Exorcist continues to possess (no pun intended) a tremendous vitality, originality and shock value. Actually, what shocked me most about the film was that it shocked me at all. I'm pretty damned cynical and blase; I'm not easily disturbed, especially not by 25 year old movies.

It's that latter aspect that got to me most; many segments of the film would be considered very questionable today. so I can't imagine the impact they had in 1973. Of course, some of the "scary" bits look a little quaint of inadvertently funny, but most of them continue to offer chills and scares. You know, I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world in which images of a twelve year old girl fucking herself with a crucifix and then attempting to make her mother lick her genitals isn't shocking.

In a movie that features many graphic scenes, that one still stands out to me. Think about all the movie scenes that stunned or disturbed you, and see if you can recall even one as shocking as that. I can't, and I doubt you can either (well, not as long as you stick to fairly mainstream movies - no snuff films allowed!).

Even without such unsettling depictions, The Exorcist does a damned good job of offering the viewer a serious case of the creeps. Director William Friedkin effectively maintains a somber and eerie atmosphere throughout the film. I continue to find the opening scenes in Iraq dull - no wonder I fell asleep - but I acknowledge that they help to draw the viewer into the proper mindset for the rest of the movie.

Friedkin also presents The Exorcist in such a vivid visual way that the film resembles no other but it avoids the pitfalls that would have made it look dated. Sure, it clearly takes place in the early 1970s; the fashions depicted make that plain, as does that distinct look given from 1970s film stock. Remove that from the equation and there's nothing that would make the movie's era obvious. Truly, this is a picture that could be released today and very few modifications would have to be made.

So in case you haven't figured it out yet, I really liked The Exorcist. I vaguely recalled all the hoopla about the film from my childhood, but I had few expectations that it would hold up after all this time. Boy was I wrong!

One of the best aspects about the movie was the fact that it never patronizes the viewer. I was quite surprised at the degree it left details unmentioned and simply expected the audience to figure it out for themselves. That's a good thing, although writer William Peter Blatty still thinks the ending should have been more explicit because he worries that too many viewers think evil wins. As noted in the supplements, he wanted the film to use the semi-happy ending from the book, but Friedkin wisely decided not to do so.

The only area that concerned me at all was the acting. I think it's generally pretty good but not exceptional. I found Ellen Burstyn to be fairly realistic but nonetheless too shrill in her role as Chris MacNeil, mother of demonically-possessed child Regan. In a lot of ways, it's not much of a role; she exists mainly as an expository tool to move the film along its path. Anyway, her shrieking and histrionics got on my nerves after a while. Admittedly, I'd be pretty hysterical too if my kid displayed these types of behaviors (especially since I don't have any kids, at least that I know of - HA!), but I simply didn't much care for her performance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum resides Jason Miller's bit as the doubting Father Karras. While he certainly looks the part, he usually seems too low key for the role. Plus, I simply didn't buy his readings of the religious pieces. Miller does okay with the role, but not terrifically.

Much better are Max von Sydow as the title character and especially Linda Blair as Regan. Von Sydow manages to impart quite a lot with the small amount of screen time he receives; we explicitly learn little about Father Merrin, but his acting tells us all we need to know. Blair simply stuns as the girl. The realism and intensity with which she plays Regan as she falls deeper and deeper into the grasp of the demon are nothing short of phenomenal. It would be hard to imagine an adult doing a more convincing job with the role, but from a very young and relatively inexperienced actor, the results are even more amazing. Hands down, it's her performance that makes the film work. Without it, The Exorcist would look silly or stupid instead of scary and shocking.

Much credit must continue to go to the makeup and special effects crews on the film. Those aspects of the production also continue to hold up remarkably well. By all rights, a lot of the film should have looked bad simply because we're now much more sophisticated when it comes to the art of movie illusions. Surprisingly, that's not the case, largely because Friedkin knew better than to rely too heavily on effects. For example, he uses the dummy that spins it head around in such a subtle and well edited way that it still looks pretty realistic.

As a whole, The Exorcist remains a very current and vibrant piece of work. It initially was released on DVD as a movie-only offering, but Warner Brothers corrected that error last fall with the release of this special edition. Overall, it's a very high quality effort.

The DVD:

Picture image looks pretty good throughout the film. I hate the look of that 1970s film stock, but The Exorcist mainly appears sharp and well-defined. Toward the end of the movie the image falters to a degree as most of it takes place in somewhat poorly-lit interior scenes, but I still found the picture to offer a very watchable and pleasing depiction of the material.

Less satisfactory is the film's sound mix. Warner sure does love their "remastered for 5.1 audio" mixes, even though most of them don't work very well, and that's definitely the case here. IMDB states that The Exorcist originally offered stereo sound, but I suspect that's not correct, as most of the film sounds mono. The remix occasionally shifts some sounds from speaker to speaker, usually in a rather jarring and unnatural manner. The audio offers some semblance of a surround environment, but not much of one. Honestly, I think they should have left well enough alone and just presented the film with its original mix; this one doesn't work. It probably doesn't help that the sound comes across as pretty tinny and harsh. Since the majority of films from its era boast poor sound, I gave The Exorcist a "C" in this area to reflect the fact that it seems neither better nor worse than its peers.

Beside the terrific movie itself, the nice batch of supplemental features packed in are the main selling point of this DVD. The package offers two separate audio commentaries, one from Friedkin and one from Blatty. In truth, only Friedkin's effort qualifies as a traditional commentary; Blatty's piece is more of an audio essay, and it only lasts for an hour. Still, it's pretty good, as is Friedkin's track; between the two of them, you get a very nice picture of the background behind the film.

Adding to that information is the very interesting and informative BBC documentary The Fear of God. Some information from the audio commentaries gets repeated here, but we learn many additional facts and we get a nice understanding of the full picture behind the movie. The documentary also includes some deleted scenes, only one of which appears separately on the DVD; that's the original ending, to which I already referred.

Between one and a half audio commentaries and a fairly lengthy documentary, I'm already a pretty happy pappy, but The Exorcist DVD doesn't stop there. The disc also contains a few a minutes of mildly entertaining sound effects tests (which appear after the end of Blatty's track), ten minutes or so of additional interviews with both Blatty and Friedkin, a few minutes of storyboards and sketches, some notes that discuss the real-life exorcism on which the story is based, cast and crew biographies, and a variety of trailers and TV spots. The DVD offers three Exorcist trailers (though two are really teasers) and six TV ads. In contrast to the remarkably lively and current film, these spots almost uniformly seem dated and campy; however, that's not a bad thing, as it makes them more entertaining than they otherwise might have been.

Finally, the DVD offers five trailers for other supernatural films, including the 1977 sequel to The Exorcist. Talk about campy fun - that's my favorite of the bunch for its tremendously lame and over the top "scary" rock soundtrack. The other trailers are for Beetlejuice, Fallen, Devil's Advocate and Interview with the Vampire.

All in all, The Exorcist stands out as a truly classic film that has finally received suitable home video treatment. At a list price of only $24.95, there's little reason not to add this jewel to your collection. Just don't get too drunk before you watch it - your friends might get mad.

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