Both Versions: The Exorcist

the-exorcist-1On the all-time box office top 100 list (adjusted for inflation), The Exorcist, ranked at number nine, is the only straight horror film (with Jaws and The Sixth Sense being arguably borderline, and 1953’s House of Wax, oddly enough, clocking in at #101). The adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel was a phenomenon in 1973/74 and has remained legendary since. Not only did it bring in the crowds and score ten nominations at the Oscars, but stories of audience members fainting, vomiting, and fleeing theaters gave it the kind of notoriety that advertisers can only dream of. Its place in history is secure, marking a turning point for the horror genre as well as the zenith of that genre’s cachet. Twenty-seven years after the film’s release, it was back in theaters in a new extended cut, restoring a few scenes and adding stereo sound, all in an attempt to woo a new generation of horror movie fans — kids who, at the time, were being fed a steady diet of ironic slasher movies.

The new cut was given the provocative subtitle The Version You’ve Never Seen, which is true only in the most literal sense. The extended version is about ten and a half minutes longer, with some of the “new” scenes already having been made available as “deleted scenes” in DVD releases. In subsequent home video releases, this version has been re-dubbed the “Extended Director’s Cut,” which is an even more questionable name. In fact, it’s bald-faced auteurist propaganda. Director William Friedkin has claimed that this version is now definitive, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that he wasn’t happy with the film in 1973. Blatty, on the other hand, objected to a number of the cuts that were originally made, so in effect, the new version is closer to his wishes. Furthermore, it seems to be the case that this was a studio-mandated project. Warner Bros. saw 20th Century Fox raking in profits off of the digitally enhanced Star Wars trilogy in 1997, so doing the same for the studio’s biggest hit was a no-brainer.

I’ve seen this film a few times and in a few different formats. The first was almost surely in an edited-for-TV version. I can’t say for certain whether I’d seen the extended cut in its entirety before this week. After watching the theatrical cut on Monday, I was primed to root for the newer version, but I think my memory was playing tricks on me. There were certain moments that had played out differently in my head, but it turns out that the extended cut isn’t any closer to those false impressions. The ten and a half minutes of added footage are scattered throughout the film, some moments to much better effect than others.

the-exorcist-2Originally, The Exorcist opened with credits over a black screen before the “Northern Iraq” prologue. A couple shots are inserted before the credits in the new version. First, a shot of the MacNeil home at night, the camera panning left to right. The scene dissolves into a close-up of the statue of the Virgin Mary that is later shown desecrated. These images are effective teases for people who are familiar with the film, but they don’t make any sense as establishing shots. I absolutely do not believe that either Friedkin or Blatty viewed them as essential, not even in 2000, let alone 1973.

Next comes what is probably the most significant change, and the one that is generally thought of as the best. Right after the scene showing the desecration in the church, there’s a sequence showing what at first appears to be a routine medical examination for the twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). As it proceeds, she grows angry, impatient, and erratic, showing the first symptoms of demonic possession. A flash cut of the demon’s face, which by the rules of shot/reverse shot appears to make eye contact with Regan, precedes the famous “subliminal” image during Father Karras’ (Jason Miller) nightmare about his dead mother. This medical sequence is useful for the film’s structure, further emphasizing the fact that all physical remedies are exhausted before the supernatural is invoked, but I find Blair’s performance rather unconvincing, which is strange since she’s so perfect in the rest of the film. Without this sequence, her first abnormal behavior comes during the party scene, when she suddenly walks into the living room, tells the astronaut that he’s going to die in space, and urinates on the carpet. It’s more shocking to have that moment come out of nowhere, with the only hints being the strange banging in the attic and a quick shot of Regan staring while lying on her mother’s bed.

As for those subliminal inserts, the new ones are the most roundly mocked additions, and rightly so. The scene in which Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) walks through her kitchen while the lights flicker on and off was already hokey enough without a demonic face suddenly appearing on the hood of her stove for no reason. The face of Father Karras’ mother suddenly appearing on a window at the climax doesn’t add any coherent symbolism to the sacrifice that follows. Still, at least one superimposition is a net positive. When Regan, under hypnosis, allows the demon to speak through her, what looks like a superimposed skull, à la the end of Psycho, appears on her face. To say that this is effective is not, however, to say that the scene was somehow lacking without it.

the-exorcist-3Now we come to the one added moment that I can definitely say I’d seen before, thanks to YouTube. It’s the spider-walk scene, which over the years had become part of Exorcist lore. Contortionist Linda R. Hager, standing in for Blair, crawls down a staircase backwards and face-up. In the following shot from the foot of the stairs, blood drips from Regan’s mouth. This scene was cut in 1973 because Friedkin felt the wires that assisted Hager were too visible. But by the year 2000, technology was more than capable of masking those wires. The end result is a bit underwhelming. The scene only lasts a few seconds, ends abruptly, and is never even mentioned again for obvious reasons. Then again, it’s as influential a moment as anything in the movie. Contortions have since become a staple of the demon-possession film. Paradoxically, then, the insertion of this scene makes the film look a little more ordinary today.

The very end of the extended cut is also controversial. Whereas The Exorcist originally ended with Father Dyer (William O’Malley) looking down the outer staircase where Father Karras met his death, then turning away in silence, the closing scene continues in the 2000 version. Dyer comes across Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), the cinephile homicide detective who failed to get to the bottom of the Regan MacNeil case just as surely as the doctors and psychiatrists did. The two men have a genial conversation that offers a callback to one between Kinderman and Karras, and then they decide to have lunch together. This is how the original novel ends. Blatty’s intention was to show Church and State coming together in harmony, and maybe that’s an effective message in the book. But as it plays out, it just looks like two ancillary characters sharing a laugh at the end of a horror movie.

the-exorcist-4Inasmuch as the theme of The Exorcist concerns the forces of good growing weary in the face of implacable evil, the decision to make the film longer makes perfect sense. However, very little of the additional footage is beneficial, or even all that good in isolation. There’s a reason this stuff got cut in the first place. Of course, it would never make sense to finance a big re-release of the film with only, say, the spider-walk scene added. The rest, and maybe that scene too, is just padding. The cumulative effect is to add too much extra dialogue to a film that works best when treating the unexplained and the unidentifiable. Ten minutes added to a two-hour film won’t make or break anything, to be sure. But “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is becoming something of an unofficial motto of this blog series. Looking ahead at some of the movies I’ve scheduled, that seems unlikely to change.

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