The Exorcist Blu-ray review

William Friedkin’s possession horror The Exorcist arrives on Blu-ray. But has time been kind to this once controversial film? Dave finds out…

I’m not going to lie to you. Regardless of the laughter that the special effects may cause newcomers to experience, I think The Exorcist is fantastic. My appreciation of the film led me to use it as the basis for the first of my series of Courting Controversyarticles for this very website. It’s a film that is shocking, deep and powerful, a trio of things missing from many horror films.

Released in 1973, it’s a fine example of filmmaking that inspired a number of sequels and prequels (none of which achieved the high standards of the first), as well as inspiring many copycat films. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been remade yet, though it’ll probably happen and star the cast of Gossip Girl.

So, it’s a film with a legacy and a reputation to live up to, being a film that apparently caused audience members to run from the cinema in fear, pass out and declare it the work of Satan himself. (I’m not taking you too far from the truth there.) It might not have the same effect now, however, it is still a stirringly emotional experience.

Finally available on Blu-ray, we’re treated to two versions of the film, The Theatrical Version and an Extended Director’s Cut.

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The Theatrical Version

Starting with an introduction by the director as he welcomes us to this digitally remastered version of The Exorcist, William Friedkin comments that the film is based on a true story that took place in Washington. He reflects on the nature of the film, that it can be seen as a product of good or evil, depending on your outlook on life.

Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) takes part in an archaeological dig in Iraq where the stone head of a demonic looking statue is discovered. He’s shaken by the discovery and, despite his advancing years and ill health, finds himself drawn to a remote location where he finds a complete version of the statue representing the demon Pazazu.

Switching to Georgetown, USA, the main story starts with Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a popular actress, and her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), who begins to exhibit strange, erratic and disturbing behaviour. Looking for answers in science, Chris finds nothing, leading her to the spiritual, in the form of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychiatrist with a terminally ill mother whose affliction has caused him to question his faith.

As Regan’s symptoms become worse, Karras prepares to exorcise the girl, discovering that a demon has taken possession of her in the most violent and explicit way, leaving him with no choice but to fight the demon, face his lack of faith and bring peace to a loving mother and daughter.

For its entire run time of just under two hours and two minutes, the film is a grippingly powerful study of psychology, terror and fear. From the beautifully portrayed inner turmoil of Miller’s Father Karras to the distraught love displayed by Ellen Burstyn as Chris, every character is richly developed. The hardest role, and greatest kudos, should go to Linda Blair as the young Regan, who portrays the possessed and traumatised Regan with conviction beyond her years.

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Much has been written, including by me, on Friedkin’s direction and the use of shock tactics to achieve his ultimate goal. He’s unapologetic and dismissive of claims that he deliberately damaged, emotionally and physically, his cast, though he never sounds harsh or inhuman. He’s a true auteur, with his passion and belief in his project running throughout every minute of the film. As he says, he wanted to make the film feel as realistic as possible.

The Extended Director’s Cut

Finally dumping the ridiculous title “The Version You’ve Never Seen”, the extended director’s cut runs for 2 hours 12 minutes, adding roughly ten minutes to the overall runtime of the film.

Of course, the majority of the narrative stays the same, with the addition of a spider crawl sequence (now re-integrated as they were able to CGI out the offending wires), more dialogue between Karras and Merrin, a different opening shot and an ending based on the Alternate Ending seen on disc one.

Again, the picture is digitally remastered, appearing to be the same master as was used in the DVD release from 2000.

The Discs

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that, based on the opening sequence and despite Friedkin’s words, the film wasn’t digitally remastered, as grain and imperfections affect the majority of the Iraq footage. It’s not unwatchable by any stretch of the imagination. It just looks grainy. Things improve when we reach the United States, and what we get is a remarkably clean picture, far better than the original theatrical release on DVD.

From a technical standpoint, the film reaches 25Mbps and looks impressive, with the many dark scenes clear. As stated earlier, there’s some grain to the opening sequence of the film, but overall the picture quality borders on outstanding.

Sound is an impressive DTS or Dolby Digital transfer that keeps the low key conversations and whispers audibly clear, whilst the various jarring sounds from trains, furniture and other objects blare out to shake you at the least expected moment. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the sound tracks are clearer and crisper than the DVD release.

There are two commentaries by William Friedkin, each offering their own insight into the whole filmmaking process and phenomenon of The Exorcist. Clearly, Friedkin recognises what may be his career-defining film and he speaks with endless passion and enthusiasm, seeming to recall events from more than thirty years ago as if they happened last year. The second commentary offers even more recollections on the whole film and includes various sound tests.

Sketches and Storyboards show, as you would expect, a series of sketches and storyboards. Disappointingly, they lack any supporting narration or text.

Interview Gallery with William Friedkin & William Peter Blatty is broken into three parts: The Original Cut, Stairway to Heaven, and The Final Reckoning. Blatty and Friedkin share memories of the movie. They’re quite an amusing duo with plenty of insight (obviously) of both the film and the novel, but in nine minutes a lot of interesting points are steamrolled over. Having said that, they do spend a while taking pot shots at the audience over the notoriety that the film has experienced.

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Original Ending comes complete with sound from the filming and features Father Dyer and Lt. Kinderman meeting up post events and planning to go to the cinema, ending with “This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.”

Trailers and TV Spots are a collection of seven trailers and TV spots to promote the original release of the film.

The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist is the 1998 BBC-produced documentary presented by Mark Kermode and featuring interviews with principle cast and crew.

Running for 1 hour and 17 minutes (instead of the truncated version that previously featured on Region 2), Kermode’s passion for the film is clear as he talks about the making of the film, the media phenomenon, the “true story” that inspired the film and effect of that the film had upon those who would watch it. The cast and crew speak frankly about their experiences onset under the Friedkin’s direction and their approach to the topic, as well as the lasting legacy of the film.

On the Director’s Cut disc, William Friedkin gets another commentary, talking about the extended version of the film, the differences between the original and extended release and his recollections of the film. Again, as with all of Friedkin’s contributions, you can’t help but be compelled to listen to his indepth analysis and memories of the film.

Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist is a thirty minute documentary, featuring plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and featuring Friedkin talking about the making of the film. Using extensive behind footage shot by the Director of Photography, Owen Roizman, we get a really impressive documentary that reveals the special effects and filming techniques used during the making of the film.

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The Exorcist: Georgetown Then and Now looks at the filming locations as they were in 1973 and as they appear in 2010. Amazingly, it almost appears that little has changed and it looks like a beautiful place. Presented in high definition and running for just over eight minutes, it’s an interesting, though short feature helped by Friedkin’s and Roizman’s commentary and familiarity with the area.

Presented in high definition, Faces of Evil looks at the differences between the versions of the film and allows Friedkin to explore the decisions that led him to cut scenes from the film and how this led to the collapse of the friendship between Blatty and Friedkin. Thankfully, as can be seen from the many extras, they came back together.

Trailers, TV Spots and Radio Spots are a collection of eight adverts for the 2000 release of “The Version You’ve Never Seen”.

As a two-disc set, The Exorcist is definitely worth a purchase to anyone who appreciates horror with intelligence. The film isn’t a film about horror. It’s a film about redemption and belief. The special effects may be ‘low-tech’ compared to today’s over-the-top CGI strewn horror, but they’re still pretty effective and highly accomplished. (Of course, many first-time viewers may still laugh at the head-spinning scene, but it’s not that bad and an impressive technical achievement.)

The Raising Hell and Fear of God documentaries, along with the commentaries, are exceptional extras that you’ll probably find yourself watching more than once, even if you don’t often watch the extras on the disc.


5 stars

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The Exorcist is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.


5 out of 5