Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (1973)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - The scariest movie of all time has returned. In the version you've never seen before.

Brace yourself as one of the all-time spellbinders possesses you all over again. Director William Friedkin and producer/screenwriter William Peter Blatty have revisited The Exorcist to integrate 11 minutes of scenes and images deleted before the film's 1973 release and digitally restore the picture and audio elements. The result is an experience more gripping than ever.

Now seen are moments deepening the impact of the performances by Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb. They include a "nervous disorder" diagnosis, expansion of Father Merrin's arrival before the ritual, priestly doubts during the ritual, an epilogue with Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer and most notably, a shattering staircase descent by Regan. Winner of Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay (by Blatty) and Sound, The Exorcist astonishes time and again like no other movie.

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 Dolby Digital EX 5.1 & Dolby Surround Stereo; subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 48 chapters; Rated R; 132 min.; $24.95; street date 12/26/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Director William Friedkin; TV and Radio Spots; Theatrical Trailers; Production Notes; Cast and Crew.
Purchase: DVD | 25th Anniversary Edition | Companion book - Mark Kermode | Score soundtrack - Jack Nitzsche


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

One thing promoters of consumer products should have learned from the 1985 “new Coke” debacle: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, that lesson wasn’t learned sufficiently at that time, and continued tampering occurs when it isn’t necessary.

This doesn’t just affect soft drinks or laundry detergent; it also applies to movies, as we now find more and more re-releases of old films that have been altered. George Lucas was the pioneer in this field. He re-issued the Star Wars trilogy in 1997 complete with extra scenes and altered effects. To the surprise of many, the three films cleaned up at the box office, which then opened the flood gates for additional “updated” re-releases of older movies.

Actually, these altered flicks have been fairly few and far between, but that may change now that the Star Wars films have a companion. A new reworking of 1973’s The Exorcist hit screens in October 2000 and made a tidy $39 million during its theatrical re-release. While that pales in comparison to the takes of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back - $138 million for the former, $67 million for the latter - it comes close to the $45 million gross for Return of the Jedi and it still is a sizable sum for a 27-year-old movie. In comparison, the 1998 wide re-releases of Grease made $28 million and $14 million, respectively.

Those two might have raked in more money if they’d offered new material, as was the case for the three Star Wars films and The Exorcist. Frankly, I have no idea how many viewers were drawn to theaters this past fall to observe The Exorcist “You’ve Never Seen”. As I related in my review of the 25th anniversary edition DVD, I loved the film, but I had no interest whatsoever in the updated cut. This isn’t because I have any bias against reworked versions of movies; on the contrary, I eagerly flocked to the Star Wars films. In the case of The Exorcist, however, I knew what many of the changes consisted of - since some of the material appeared on the 25th anniversary package - and I didn’t think the footage would add to the experience.

Since my earlier review covers my feelings about The Exorcist, I won’t spend much time discussing them. Suffice it to say that I thought the movie retained its immense power after all these years and it deserves consideration as the scariest picture of all-time. The only point to the “Version You’ve Never Seen” would be if it could somehow enhance that experience. It doesn’t. However, it doesn’t greatly detract from the original edition either, though I prefer the 1973 cut for a variety of reasons.

Note: the following paragraphs may contain some spoilers. If you don’t want to know that information, skip ahead to “The DVD” section now!

The “VYNS” adds about 10 minutes of footage to the original cut. Much of this falls into the category of additional character embellishment, such as a scene between Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). There’s also more footage of Regan (Linda Blair) as she undergoes medical examinations, and we find out more about the doctors’ opinions and treatments.

More notable are the addition of the famed “spider walk” sequence - in which Regan does a bizarre over-end trot down some stairs - and the ending preferred by writer William Peter Blatty. In this conclusion, Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley) strike up a little friendship that sends the audience out on a happier and less ambiguous note.

A variety of other smaller changes occur as well, such as many “flash” shots of demonic faces that didn’t used to be there. For a full listing, take a look at the DVD File’s terrific compilation of differences. One nice touch: the DVD’s chapter listings indicate which sections include changes from the 1973 theatrical edition.

As for my feelings about the alterations, I continue to prefer the original. I must admit I thought the “spider-walk” worked effectively, but the other changes either seemed unnecessary or actively harmful. The additional information about Regan’s examinations really slows down the film and I didn’t think we needed to hear this extra detail; while some may feel the original version moved abruptly through her various states, I thought otherwise. The jarring shifts helped make the tone edgy and off-putting, which is appropriate for this film.

I intensely disliked the additional demon faces. These seemed forced and appeared to telegraph too much of the action. Speaking of which, we now come to the new ending, the one that Blatty has always endorsed. Since that scene appeared on the 25th anniversary DVD in the supplements, I discussed it in my earlier review. What I said then I continue to believe: “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 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.”

On the 25th anniversary DVD, Friedkin continued to disagree with Blatty. However, he clearly had a change of heart, and he now seems to indicate that he prefers the new ending. He might - I don’t.

And that’s why I’ll continue to stick with the original version of The Exorcist. None of the added material in “The Version You’ve Never Seen” enhanced the experience for me, and I felt much of it actively took away from the film’s incredible power. Some movies are improved when updated “director’s cuts” appear, but in this case - which is really a “writer’s cut” - the result is not as good. “The Version You’ve Never Seen” works fairly well on its own, but I don’t think it matches up positively with the original edition.

The DVD:

The Exorcist appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For the most part, I thought the picture of the new DVD largely resembled the one found on the 25th anniversary release; the extended version looked a wee bit crisper, but not significantly so.

Sharpness generally seemed very strong. A few scenes came across as slightly fuzzy - especially during the film’s last act, which features many low-light interiors - but the movie mainly appeared detailed and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented only a few modest concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 were minor. Print flaws seemed consistently insignificant for a film of this age. Some grain could be seen on occasion. That problem remained fairly insubstantial for the most part, but the grain sometimes became a bit heavier. Other than that, I couldn’t discern any real defects. I saw no speckles, scratches, tears, blotches, hairs, grit or other issues. Overall, it’s a nicely-clean image.

Colors came across as appropriately subdued throughout the film. The Exorcist isn’t exactly the kind of story that lends itself to vibrant Technicolor wonders, but the hues seemed accurate and solid. The brightest colors appeared in the early Iraqi scenes, and even those were dominated by the golden sand. Black levels appeared slightly drab at times but they generally were deep and rich, and contrast seemed good. Shadow detail could be a little hazy on occasion, but low-light situations were acceptably visible as a whole. Ultimately, the movie looked quite good for something so old, and I found it to be a satisfactory visual experience that was on a par with the 25th anniversary DVD.

While picture quality may result in a virtual draw, the audio on the new version clearly seems much stronger. One concern that some may express emanates from the origin of the sound. The 25th anniversary release remixed the track to Dolby Digital 5.1, but it appeared to use the original audio stems; I don’t think any of the sound was re-recorded for that version. That clearly is not the case for the Dolby Digital EX 5.1 soundtrack of the 2000 edition. While the original dialogue and music remains, many - most? all? of the effects have been redone for the new release.

How much of a controversy this generates for movie fans I don’t know. As was seen when Jaws hit DVD this past summer, a lot of people really want to have the original audio track on the disc in addition to any remixes. I can’t fault that attitude; I loved the sound of the DTS mix on Jaws and would never want to listen to any other version, but I fully understand the desire to hear the film as originally intended.

However, the comparison between the 25th anniversary Exorcist and “The Version You’ve Never Seen” becomes muddled because neither features the original soundtrack. As such, both present altered audio; the question becomes which one the viewer prefers.

Without question, I’d take the new remix over the 25th anniversary track. The latter provided some additional depth to the environment but suffered from jarring shifts between channels and some generally harsh and thin sound. Those concerns are much less prominent on the new DVD. As a whole, the DD EX track worked tremendously well. The soundfield appeared marvelously broad and engaging at all times, and a lot of discrete audio could be heard from all five channels. Sound blended together neatly and also panned well; for instance, when the subway train crosses the screen early in the film, the awkward jumps of the 25th anniversary DVD disappear as we hear a lifelike - and loud! - transition between the speakers.

Much of the 25th anniversary track sounded like glorified mono, but no one will offer the same accusation here. Not only do the forward channels provide a lot of stereo imaging, but the rears also kick in with a great deal of activity. From the early scenes in Iraq to crowd scenes in Georgetown, the atmosphere seemed vibrant and lively. The re-recording of audio stems allowed the sound designers to rebuild the effects from scratch, and this came through nicely in many scenes.

For the most part, audio quality seemed strong, though the original aspects of the mix paled in comparison with the new material. Dialogue clearly sounded worst. For the era, the speech appeared fairly clear and distinct, but the lines still came across as thin and slightly edgy when compared to newer recordings, and the relatively-poor quality was much more apparent against the background of the rest of the mix. As I already noted, effects were realistic and clean and packed a lot of punch at times - the audio generates more “shock” jolts due to this new soundtrack. Music seemed smooth and bright and provided adequate depth.

When I did a few “A-B” comparisons between this soundtrack and the one on the 25th anniversary DVD, most of the latter’s audio seemed significantly less well-defined and more harsh. However, some exceptions existed. For example, when we see the writing on Regan’s stomach - which appears at the 1:37:25 mark in “TVYNS” and at the 1:33:40 point during the original film - the music cue seemed very screechy and distorted during the new edition but was pretty clear in the old one. While that was a rare case, it should be noted that the new soundtrack doesn’t always outdo the old one. Nonetheless, the mix for “TVYNS” definitely seems much stronger as a whole.

Scorecard so far between the 25th anniversary DVD and “The Version You’ve Never Seen”: Picture results in a draw - with a minor edge to the new one - but “TVYNS” clearly trounces the older DVD’s audio quality. However, victory in one battle doesn’t decide the war, and the 25th anniversary disc scores a clear win in another category: supplements.

On its own, “TVYNS” doesn’t look too bad. The major extra is a new audio commentary from Friedkin; this is not the same track he recorded for the 25th anniversary DVD. Unfortunately, it’s a weak commentary that provided little stimulation. Although Friedkin very occasionally offers an interesting tidbit about the film, for the most part he simply describes the action that we see. He does so in a fairly engaging manner, but I got the feeling he thought he was recording a “books on tape” version of The Exorcist. Friedkin adds a little interpretation of the film, but not much, and I found this track to be quite dull as a whole.

Friedkin mined similar territory during his commentary for Rules of Engagement, but there he gave us insights and discussed some interesting topics related to the film. That doesn’t happen during “TVYNS”. He doesn’t even bother to say much about the controversial additions to the movie; if I didn’t know better, I’d think that he always wanted this version to be the “ultimate cut” and I wouldn’t be aware of the decades-long disagreement he had with Blatty. For the most part, this commentary is a dud.

After that, the extras are pretty minimal. “Cast and Crew” simply lists some actors, Friedkin and Blatty; no filmographies or biographies can be viewed here. “TV/Radio Spots” provides three 30 second TV ads, one 15 second piece, a 60 second radio bit and a 30 second radio spot. We also find two theatrical trailers for “The Version You’ve Never Seen”; no promotional materials for the original 1973 release appear on this DVD.

The DVD also contains some text information. “Behind the Screams” offers some basic details of how Blatty came to write the book, while “Blatty and Friedkin: Vision and Differences” discusses the two men’s alternate views of the story and how they affected the original production. “The Most Famous Scene NOT in the Movie” briefly comments on the “spider-walk”, while “Fast Facts” tosses out a few bits of trivia. Lastly, “Awards” shows the accolades accorded the movie.

In comparison, the 25th anniversary DVD included a (much better) audio commentary from Friedkin, a shorter track from Blatty, sound effects tests, a terrific BBC documentary about the film, and a slew of other materials. Even if I liked Friedkin’s commentary on the new DVD, it still would be a serious mismatch; the extras on the 25th anniversary disc blow away those found here.

Recommendation time, and this is where it gets complicated since I need to address a number of different audiences. Without question, The Exorcist is one of the greatest films ever made, and it belongs in every DVD collection. However, the question becomes which Exorcist to own.

Although the greatly-improved sound quality of “The Version You’ve Never Seen” makes it appealing, I have to go with the 25th anniversary DVD as the one to get. I prefer the original cut of the film, and while the audio doesn’t sound nearly as good, the picture seems comparable and it includes many more supplemental features.

Even if you don’t care about extras and only value to presentation of the film itself, I’d still recommend the 25th anniversary DVD just because I think the original cut is superior to the one found here. I’m tempted to keep “TVYNS” because it sounds so good, but I know I don’t want to watch the extended edition again; I simply don’t like it, and I would rather watch the 1973 theatrical cut.

As such, only Exorcist die-hards should pick up “The Version You’ve Never Seen”. If you only want one Exorcist, the 25th anniversary DVD is the way to go. If you love the film to death and want to own every piece of Exorcist material you can find, you’ll be happy to grab “TVYNS”. I’ll stick with the older DVD, however, and I don’t think anyone who’s already happy with it needs to make a change. “The Version You’ve Never Seen” is an interesting curiosity but nothing more than that.

Final note: the covers of the different DVDs are quite similar. The original 1997 “movie-only” disc offered nothing on the cover other than the usual “Father Merrin under the streetlight” picture and the movie’s title and some credits. The 1998 25th anniversary DVD used the same image but added “Special Edition” in a gold bar at the top, and “25th Anniversary” in white type at the bottom. 2000’s “The Version You’ve Never Seen” features that statement inside a red bar at the top of the cover, and “The Scariest Movie of All Time” in white print at the bottom. You’re not likely to see the 1997 disc on the shelves anymore, but in any case, this should help clarify the differences between the three and let you ensure you buy the one you want.

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