With the recent spate of exorcism/possession movies, it's funny that none are introspective, opting for cheap jump scares and rude demon behavior. They're just attempting to mimic the success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, the gold standard in horror films, and for good reason. But they're missing the point. What people remember as 90 minutes of bed shaking and child-belched blasphemy is actually two steady hours of slow burning motherly love. And this two disc set with the original film, director's cut and tons of commentary tracks, trailers, documentaries and behind-the-scenes material is a master class in what made Friedkin unimitable.
Foreshadowing a bleak climax, director William Friedkin opens the movie with a black-and-white sunset over an archaeological dig as Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) silently uncovers a harmless looking artifact. We then meet Father Karras (Jason Miller), looking after his ailing mother, and Chris Macneil (Ellen Burstyn), a responsible single mom who balances her successful acting career with basement craft and ouija board time with her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Chris is the quintessential single mother heroine: wealthy, grounded and with time for everyone. She crochets in doctor's waiting rooms! She cops, exasperatedly, to a doctor that she doesn't even "smoke grass!"
When Regan begins acting strangely cursing her party guests (cause for alarm to the upper-class) Friedkin ratchets his character drama to a horror film about the unknown. While Regan is carted to specialists, Friedkin wisely keeps his camera with Chris. Instincts and laziness would keep the focus on the physical and mental deterioration of the ill girl, but as frightened as Regan is, it's Chris we must connect with, wait with as she watches her daughter's medicinal torture through hospital glass.
Burstyn's subdued anxiety is gut-wrenching and she and Blair were rightfully nominated for Oscars. Blair's never precocious -- she's just an innocent kid, and you like her for that, especially when she puts on a stoic face while being lanced by doctors. Her commitment to being a child is far more impressive than her very mature possession sequence.
Friedkin gets the most out of his actors in these minor moments, and in his clever scene constructions, he shows his true understanding of "horror." The most frightening sequence of the film has nothing to do with the devil: Chris, in her third round at the hospital, elects Regan for an arteriogram, where watch her get prepped, stuck and scanned as she bravely tries to fend off tears.
But in the possession sequence, The Exorcist slips in to the unbelievable and the film's edges crack. Of course there should be a Devil in a film called The Exorcist. The foremost issue is his tortures are biologically and physiologically ridiculous. I'm sure the Devil, if he exists, is a powerful fellow, but can he really protect a young lady from being Christopher Reeved after her spinal column twists 360 degrees? How can he have made it so cold in that bedroom? And where is all that bile spouting from?!
Friedkin spends so much time building sympathetic characters and a legitimately dreadful premise only to spins it into spectacle. The Director's Cut extends the physical decomposition of Blair, and by expounding on her increasingly strange behavior throughout the film, actually fixes some of the issues in the original's transition from careful and curious melodramatic mystery to a claustrophobic religious war.
Yet what would The Exorcist be without an exorcism? What begins in the expansive Iraqi desert, where a Priest and a stone embodiment of evil stare each other down, should end in a closed quarters face-off between light and darkness. But does it have to be so puke-y?
Each version of the film has been given its own disc (BD-50), and both look spectacular, color-timed by both cinematographer Owen Roizman and Friedkin, the latter of whom assures us on a blu-ray insert that this is the best presentation of the film to date. The Exorcist is rich and soft in its imagery, and while there is noticeable grain and noise (especially in the opening Iraq scene and exterior shots), it looks fantastic. In fact, at times well-restored images are a slight shock. There's a point where HD video begins too look a bit three-dimensional, which works against films from The Exorcist's era.
This version comes with an all new three-part "documentary" (more akin to standard featurettes, all presented in HD). The first, "Raising Hell: The Filming of The Exorcist" gives us new interviews with Friedkin, Blatty, Roizman, and Blair. It's a lot of fun, showing archival footage of Dick Smith applying Blair's make-up, effects tests, and various makeshift rigs built by the grips, including the creativity involved in pre-Steadicam days.
The second part, "The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now" continues interviews with the above group discussing their memories, the rationale for filming outside of L.A., interspersed with then-and-now video clips.
The final new documentary, "The Different Versions of The Exorcist" explains just that, with Friedkin discussing his original feelings about the extra footage, his short falling out with Blatty over the original cut, and his change of heart when approached by Warner Bros. to revisit the film.
While the documentaries are certainly worth a look for fans, the first part is especially interesting for anyone curious about filmmaking and film history, as the on-set footage is priceless in its portrayal of pre-CGI Hollywood.