The Exorcist (2000 re-release)

Those who’ve only seen The Exorcist on video — or, Satan forbid, on network television — may, like me, gain a greater appreciation for the film in its new beefed-up theatrical release, where its bigger-than-life horrors and chaotic sound design can envelop you. My mother was among the many moviegoers who, in 1973, took the Exorcist ride and never got over it; only recently was she able to brave it again (in diluted form, on TV). After years of my mother’s fearful build-up, The Exorcist struck me as more silly than scary when I was finally old enough to see it, and perhaps the film’s rep as “the scariest movie of all time” might lead to the same jaded reaction from younger audiences who see it now for the first time.

About halfway through this refurbished Exorcist — which I probably hadn’t seen in its entirety in well over a decade — I realized why I was appreciating it on a deeper level. The Exorcist, you see, is not a “horror movie” — at least not in the degraded sense that the term is often used today. It doesn’t belong in the same class as Cheez Whiz like The Omen or the more recent Stigmata, two other religious-dread flicks. No, these days I read it more as a drama with supernatural underpinnings, like a harsher, R-rated M. Night Shyamalan film. It unfolds slowly — perhaps, for today’s audience, too slowly — fleshing out the humans who will soon do battle with a demon. Director William Friedkin’s style is unhurried and decidedly unflashy except for the moments of terror; he establishes a glum, banal reality, then violates it, cruelly, in a way that makes us feel the pain and fear of everyone trying to deal with the madness.

Some bits remain cringe-inducing. I still think Friedkin and screenwriter-producer William Peter Blatty (adapting his own bestseller) overemphasized the cuddly-cute innocence of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair); the contrast between the normal girl and the possessed girl didn’t need to be that severe. Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil, delirious with frustration and powerless rage over what’s happening to her daughter, can get on your nerves after a while — but I came to see that as a form of integrity. Burstyn doesn’t care whether we like her; she stays in character as a flawed but decent woman cracking under the weight of the unspeakable.

Overall, the movie remains a superbly designed machine (though in form only; those who have called the film “impersonal” may not remember the painfully compassionate subplot dealing with Jason Miller’s depressed priest and his failing mother). But is this new Exorcist — with its added footage, its sweetened sound mix, and its handful of jarring new subliminal images — a travesty or an improvement? I wouldn’t call it a travesty — the film entire remains mostly intact, the 121-minute cut you know and love; nothing significant has been deleted — but it isn’t an improvement, either.

The newly dusted-off scenes — originally trimmed by Friedkin to whittle the film down to two hours — don’t amount to much: the two priests having a brief conference on the stairs outside Regan’s room; a bit showing Regan’s early visit to a doctor; the infamous “spider-walk” sequence, more freaky than scary. The most needless addition is a bit of chat at the end between a priest and a detective, which is meant to echo an earlier conversation. These new/old bits don’t trash the movie (though they overdid the new subliminals a bit), nor do they enhance it.

My biggest gripe with Exorcist Version 2.0 is, oddly, the way it sounds now. Yes, the sound effects have been intensified, often to the film’s benefit — an abruptly ringing phone sounds as if it’s sitting on your shoulder; the flying debris in Regan’s bedroom patters and smashes around your head. For those who’ve only seen the film in mono sound (as it was first released), it’s a real ear-opener. However, Friedkin has also seen fit to underline many scenes — even simple, non-shocking dialogue sequences — with ominously swelling, deep-chord music cues. This gravely alters the movie’s tone, in ways subtle and obvious. Part of what freaked people out about The Exorcist was its contrast between the naturalistic and the supernatural — between deceptively calm moments and loud, crashing horror. The movie’s eerie quietude is gone, replaced by a generic “This scene might be boring and talky, but scary stuff is coming up” horror-movie soundtrack.

The Exorcist is jolting and scarifying in either version. But the version hailed as a great achievement in supernatural cinema, or “the scariest movie of all time,” is available on DVD in its original form, with much of the deleted footage included as a supplement. I plan to buy that soon. I don’t plan to buy the new one.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, horror, one of the year's best

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