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Release Date(s)1973 (October 5, 2010)
Horror is an extremely subjective genre, perhaps the most subjective apart from comedy. What scares me won’t necessarily scare you and neither of them may faze someone halfway around the world. Our specific fears are rooted in our culture, our beliefs, and our personal histories. But if you look beyond the individual monsters, legends and phobias, fear becomes universal. We all experience it and we all understand it. On the most primal level, our fears are all the same for one simple reason.
All fear is based on loss.
We’re afraid of losing our lives, our sanity, our faith (whatever it may be), our friends, our family. These fears are real and they could strike at any time. Horror offers a release, a safe place to confront these fears. It’s often in a fairly simple, sometimes light-hearted way that may generate a jolt or a shiver but is virtually impossible to take too seriously. But the best horror, the scariest horror, operates on multiple levels, taps directly into these universal fears, and stays with us long after the credits have rolled and the lights have gone up. These movies are the best the genre has to offer and standing very close to the top of that list is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
On the surface, The Exorcist shouldn’t be as universally acclaimed as it is. Every Catholic I’ve ever met thinks it’s terrifying but its reach extends far beyond that. It works because William Peter Blatty knows his subject. Blatty’s research and Friedkin’s matter-of-fact delivery makes every detail feel exactly right. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or not. All that matters is that the film sells you the reality of what you’re seeing, so for two hours, you buy into the faith yourself. And the best way to do that is to present two main characters who need to be persuaded themselves.
Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil is a pragmatic atheist. Jason Miller’s Father Karras is in the midst of a spiritual crisis. We relate to both of these characters. Karras is wracked with guilt over the death of his mother, afraid that the faith he has based his entire life on isn’t enough. Chris is afraid for her daughter, frustrated, angry and terrified because no one can even explain what’s happening to Regan, much less help her. These are the fears at the heart of The Exorcist and they have nothing to do with demonic possession, pea soup vomit or spinning heads.
Of course, all of this high-minded subtext would have come across as a bit pretentious and stupid if the possession aspect didn’t work. But Friedkin and his team work wonders, making The Exorcist a case study in the effectiveness of practical effects. Everything you see is actually taking place in camera, giving the actors something to react to and making it easy for the audience to suspend any lingering disbelief. This is movie magic at its finest and a virtuoso display by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith. It wasn’t until years after I originally saw The Exorcist that I even realized Max von Sydow was wearing old-age makeup. Of course, special mention must be made of Linda Blair and her transformation from sweet 13-year-old girl to blasphemous devilchild. Smith’s makeup and the chilling vocal work of Mercedes McCambridge simply wouldn’t be as effective without Blair’s physicality.
Considering how much I love the film, I’m both relieved and thrilled that Warner has brought The Exorcist to Blu-ray in such high style. The two-disc set comes in a beautifully designed Book package with a message from William Friedkin and one of the better booklets Warner has produced to date. Disc one features the extended director’s cut (also known as The Version You’d Never Seen Until About 10 Years Ago), while the 1973 theatrical cut is on disc two. I’ve grown slightly fonder of the director’s cut since I first saw it. I don’t think the new material adds much but it feels like less of a distraction than it originally did. Fortunately, both versions have been treated with care. They look remarkable with intense color, deep, rich shadows, and tactile detail (check out Max von Sydow’s hands as he digs out the talisman in Iraq). Even more impressive is the sound, an amazingly immersive mix that brings out every nuance.
Disc one includes Friedkin’s commentary on the director’s cut, trailers, TV spots and radio spots for the 2000 theatrical re-release, and three newly produced featurettes exclusive to Blu-ray. The best of these, Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist, interviews Friedkin, Blatty, Blair, and cinematographer Owen Roizman and includes quite a bit of interesting set footage shot fly-on-the-wall style by Roizman’s small behind-the-scenes crew. The worst thing about Raising Hell is it ends with all the interviewees tying themselves in knots trying to explain how The Exorcist isn’t really a horror film. It suggests a deep disrespect for the genre that annoys me. The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now is a brief, self-explanatory look at where the film was shot. Faces of Evil looks at the differences between the ‘73 and ‘00 versions and is most interesting for outtakes that couldn’t be used for either release.
The second disc includes all of the extras from the 25th Anniversary DVD, including Mark Kermode’s excellent BBC documentary The Fear of God. You also get an introduction by Friedkin, commentary by Friedkin and Blatty featuring sound effects tests, additional interviews, sketches, storyboards, and 1973 trailers and TV spots.
The Exorcist isn’t just one of my favorite horror movies. It’s one of my favorite movies, full stop. It’s an impeccably crafted piece of filmmaking made by extraordinary talents at the peak of their abilities. It’s also one of maybe half a dozen movies that truly scared me the first time I saw it and still can all these years later. If Warner wants to call it the scariest movie of all time, they’ll get no argument from me.
On behalf of all of us here at The Bits, have a very happy Halloween.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke