The Exorcist — The Version You’ve Never Seen

"There isn't a day in my life when I haven't felt like a fraud. I mean priests, doctors, I've talked to them all. I don't know anyone who hasn't felt that."

Seen today, The Exorcist still seems shocking, daring and unmatchably terrifying. For someone who wasn’t there, it’s hard to imagine the impression it must have had on people when it was first released in 1973. Having previously seen the movie only on the small screen, I could kiss Warner Bros for putting it back in theaters with marvelous remastered sound and video and even some added scenes for good measure. I also respect them for having the chutzpah to put the time-tested classic against profitable teen horror schlock like Urban Legends: Final Cut. Long live the king.

The film opens with an archaelogical dig in a foreign country. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) unearths an ancient figurine depicting a demon named Pazuzu. He then sees some ominous mumbo-jumbo: two dogs ripping each other’s throats out, a howling wind swirling sand around Pazuzu’s statue and overall atmospheric creepiness.

Cut to New York City. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress wrapping up a movie and ready to spend some quality time with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). But Regan hasn’t been herself lately. Her increasingly frequent outbursts of angry profanity are starting to frighten around her. When she has a fit of violent seizures, neurologists start looking for a tumor in her brain. As the attacks become more and more intense and bizarre, Chris turns to the only remaining alternative: an exorcism.

She contacts Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a local priest and psychologist who is struggling with his faith following the death of his mother whom he thinks he abandoned in the final years of her life. Karras is extremely skeptical about the whole idea of an exorcism — they haven’t been routinely performed for centuries and there are few people with even a vague idea of how to go about one. After seeing Regan, however, he is convinced and enlists the help of Father Merrin to get the demon out of her body.

This decade’s horror films have it all wrong. A person suddenly jumping out of a closet with a knife is not scary. Here is where any film seeking to chill its audience should take its cue. The Exorcist is genuinely frightening. It works so well because a) the atmosphere director William Friedkin sets up is pitch-perfect and b) we believe that these are real people being ravaged by these horrors.

The special effects in this movie aren’t particularly impressive but it doesn’t matter. Regan’s transformation from angel-faced little girl to mutilated, violent devil incarnate is done so well that we don’t have time to notice any defect in the film’s technical aspects. Mercedes McCambridge, who provides Regan’s voice once she is completely inhabited is The Exorcist‘s unsung hero — her behind-the-scenes work provides some of the most chilling material found here.

But all of this would be nonsense if writer William Peter Blatty and director Friedkin didn’t take the time to develop their characters with care and affection. By the time disaster strikes, we can accept them as people. Everything that follows, therefore, isn’t cheap thrills but an account of human lives turned upside down.

Of course, much is being made of the fact that this new theatrical release is The Version You’ve Never Seen. Aside from the redone sound, which is marvelous in its own right, we are given some scenes that were absent from the original version. Among these is what has become known as the “spider walk”. It consists of Regan running down the stairs on all fours but upside down so that her back is completely arched. The scene seemingly comes out of nowhere, being both a blessing and a curse: it’s unexpected but it also disrupts the film’s rhythm.

A new ending has also been added. The 1973 version ends with the McNeil family somberly driving away, putting the events of the last few weeks behind them. Here the police inspector, who figures in somewhat prominently in the story, invites one of the priests to a movie — Wuthering Heights with Lucille Ball. Some have called this addition absurd, but I think it provides a more appropriate note of closure; not just for the movie but for the characters as well.

There’s something new to be discovered in every viewing of The Exorcist. Go see it.

-- Eugene Novikov

One Comment

  1. Bob says:

    It is Georgetown not New York. Other than that great review. Glad people out there still appreciate this meticulously put together horror classic. The flashing demon face that pops up randomly still gives me nightmares.

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