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The legend of The Exorcist is almost as
well known and mythic as the movie itself. Fresh off an Oscar win,
director/wunderkind/arrogant genius William Friedkins methods of dealing with the
film's cast and crew would have broken Geneva convention laws for war prisoners. Nine
people died under mysterious circumstances during production, sparking rumors
of a cursed set. The original schedule for principal photography ended up unintentionally
doubling, as did the films budget. It was denounced as heresy by the Catholic
church. Screenings were filled with people vomiting, fainting and breaking into hysterics.
In the end, it became the second highest grossing film of its day, jump-starting the
adrenalized event movie blockbuster trend that would forever color how
Hollywood marketed and produced films.
Twenty-seven years and countless the-devil-made-me-do-it rip-offs
later, The Exorcist has been re-released into theaters amidst much fanfare as
the version youve never seen! For those who may have forgotten the
original: Twelve-year old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) begins showing some rather
anti-social tendencies that baffle both her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and local doctors. A
priest, Father Damien (Jason Miller), is consulted about the possibility of demonic
possession. He enlists the help of an experienced exorcist (Bergman regular Max Von Sydow)
and the two priests set about purging the girl of a very unclean spirit. Good triumphs
over evil, though not without some holy war casualties.
Its interesting to look at The Exorcist with fresh eyes
and see what has withstood the test of time. Some of the films elements, such as
Burstyns shrill symphony of histrionic performance tics and the devils
obscenity-laced rantings (courtesy of actress Mercedes McCambridge, now many years and
many packs of cigarettes past Johnny Guitar), have degenerated into laughable
camp. A few of the line readings are apt to make one cringe and William Peter
Blattys script, adapted from his novel, treads a fine line between religious
mumbo jumbo and outtakes from the TV cop programs of that era. The films moral
center - Father Damien's crisis of faith - seems half-baked.
Friedkin and Blatty subtly show a society in decline (homeless people
panhandling in subway stations, children scampering ferret-like over a partially
vandalized car) that seems just ripe for the entrance of evil. There's a feeling of things
falling apart and the center being unable to hold, yet a less ham-fisted approach might
have shaded the proceedings with a bit more depth.
Despite the out-of-date elements, much of the film still holds up
beautifully. The pre-digital era effects are crude yet undeniably effective; the jerky
thrashings of Regan under the demons hold, the sudden movements of furniture and
flying debris communicate the primitive, otherworldly violence of possession far better
than any slick FX house could today. Dick Smiths make-up gives Regan the grotesque
visage of a Bosch figure and the films most controversial scene, a possessed Regan
masturbating with a crucifix, seems blasphemously shocking even today.
In his less Wagneresque moments, Friedkin elicits surprisingly lyrical
moments. The prologue in Iraq, which always seemed a bit of a red herring before, now
takes on a poetic quality of atmospheric dread. The touchstone scene of Von Sydow arriving
at the McNeils residence, silhouetted by a shaft of light, amidst cuts of the
panting Regan in repose, perfectly frames the existential turmoil to come. Many of the
film's images are as terrifying today as they were three decades ago.
The extended footage totals close to twelve minutes and, save for a
scene of Regan crawling spider-like down a staircase (one of the creepiest throwaway
moments committed to celluloid), adds little to the proceedings. An extension of the
hospital scenes early in the film do make the doctors suggestion of an exorcism seem
less hasty but accomplish little else. An addendum to the original ending suggests a
brighter future but seems at odds with the rest of the film. A conversation between Miller
and Von Sydow in between exorcising sessions actually ruins one of the films
original grace moments of silence and space.
Whether these extras were put back in to flesh out the story, to eke
out fresh profits from a scare-starved public, or to serve solely as a valentine for the
films hardcore fans is debatable. What isnt up for argument is the necessity
of seeing this modern horror classic on the big screen with an audience once more. Under
those circumstances, The Exorcist becomes less a moviegoing experience than a
study in mass anxiety, all tension and delightful release. In an era when many films
compete to scare the hell out of you, The Exorcist remains one of the few able to
successfully scare the hell into you, a feat which assuredly deserves another go-round.
- David Fear