The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller
Extras: 2 Commentary Tracks, 75-minute Documentary, Trailers and TV Spots, Sketches, Storyboards, Interview Gallery, Alternate ending

The mother of all modern horror films is coming to DVD in a new 25th Anniversary Special Edition from Warner Home Video. A groundbreaking film that still defines the genre 25 years later, "The Exorcist" is probably one of the most unsettling films ever created. Warner Home Video have now gone to some lengths to make sure this release will satisfy every horror film aficionado with supplements that have never been available before. The result is a package that is chilling, spooky, and darker than ever, a package that will allow you to re-explore this film once again, with completely different eyes.

Regan (Linda Blair) is a 12-year old girl in Georgetown, Washington DC. Living with her nanny and her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a famous actress, she leads a life like most children her age, although the mother’s profession keeps the family travelling quite a bit. One night, Chris hears noises from the attic and instructs her servant to set up traps to catch the rats she believes she’s hearing. The noises grow worse and no rats can be found in the traps. At the same time, Regan is experiencing nightmares and has frightening, hellish visions. Then, one night Regan changes into a vile being spitting foul language and using telekinetic powers to hurt others. Countless doctors and psychiatrists examine the girl, who is seemingly getting weaker and weaker during the day, turning into an unspeakable creature at night. Her mother’s last resort is a local priest. She is of the firm belief her daughter is possessed by a demon and wants an exorcist to drive out the evil soul. Hesitant at first, Father Karras (Jason Miller) runs some tests until he, too, is convinced that an exorcism could actually save the girl. With the blessing of the church, he calls for Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), a wise, old priest to do the ritual of the exorcism. Together they try for hours to free the girl’s soul from the grip of the demon who claims to be the Devil himself in vain. The creature insults them and confronts them with their innermost fears, driving them to the brink of insanity with its taunting visions. When the feeble Father Merrin dies during the ceremony, it is up to Father Karras to bring this ritual to an end and free Regan’s innocent soul forever.

As with similar previous releases of Warner’s Special Editions, "The Exorcist" contains a number of special features, many of which can be found on the disc’s second side. Production issues seem to prevent Warner from making many of their discs <$RSDL,dual layer>ed. Since there is a clear separation between the film and the bonus material, this is absolutely fine with me.

The disc starts out with an introduction by director William Friedkin, who also speaks quite a bit in the disc’s supplements. He shares some thoughts on the film, how it came together, and what the filmmakers tried to achieve with it. It is an interesting commentary for the actual film, which starts immediately after with its stark red, dead-silent opening credits.

"The Exorcist" certainly ranks as one of the most memorable horror films in history. I still vividly remember the impact it had on my surroundings. I remember hearing and reading stories about presentations where people were practically scared to death by the film or fled the theater in horror. Others threw up in the theaters, while others yet wouldn’t even dare to go watch the film at all. The interesting thing about all this is that it is true and that it came to the filmmakers as a surprise. 1973 marked the end of the "Hammer" era, a time of stylish gothic horror films that weren’t explicit or violent, but scary enough to make you shudder, making the impact of this unprecedented dark and foreboding film far more shocking. The impact it would have on its viewers was impossible to fathom, and it took the filmmakers completely by surprise, although they knew they had crafted a solid horror film. No one could have foreseen the waves of outrage it caused and the attention it would get overnight from all media.

To a large extent this impact was caused by Linda Blair’s amazing performance as the possessed Regan. During the first minutes of the movie, no one could have foreseen that a sweet charming little girl would become the undisputed manifestation of the devil for decades to come. Her performance is hair raising, and the transformation from the innocent child to true Evil touches viewers deep inside. When the film closes after its 122-minutes running length, Evil might be defeated, but we all know it can appear again anytime, anywhere. It keeps you pondering the issue for a long time after the movie has finished, for it is one of the few films that takes the matter seriously and genuinely explores the possibility of evil manifesting itself in a person. Interestingly, there have been nine reported deaths of people associated with the project during its lengthy production. Cast and crew members alike had been affected by weird events and accidents that led few of them to question, whether there was actually a curse over the film’s shooting.

"The Exorcist" contains an insightful 75-minute documentary called "The Fear Of God", explaining many of the thoughts that went into the film’s production. Shorter versions of this documentary, originally created by the British BBC for television broadcast in the UK, are available on the Special Edition’s VHS counterparts, but the version on this DVD is the most complete and longest. It covers many aspects of the film in detail and contains a number of new interviews with the cast and the crew. I found it especially interesting how Linda Blair looks upon her role as Regan today and her anecdotes about how she survived the film shoot without any major pathological and psychological damages, despite the hostile conditions and gruesome content. Special effects veteran Dick Smith sheds some light on the special make-up he designed for the film, make-up that to this day still marks a milestone in its quality, look, and the associations it provokes. The film also covers some of the mechanical effects used in the film as well as information about how the music came together. Once the documentary reaches this point, it starts shedding more light on the people who created the film and the involvement of writer William Peter Blatty with the movie. My understanding is that Blatty and director Friedkin were not on the best of terms in the past and that this documentary was the first time to bring them back together. While watching them talk to each other you cannot help but notice the friction between the two and how they carefully avoid stepping on each other’s feet. Blatty is a thoughtful, soft-spoken writer who spent a long time creating and developing the story of "The Exorcist" for his novel and for the screenplay used for the film. Based on a true event that occured in Maryland in 1949 – which is extensively explained in the disc’s extras as well – , he created a haunting story based on the horror within each of us, the conflict, and direct collision of Good and Evil. Friedkin on the other hand is an inventive, visionary, and extremely irascible director who would do seemingly anything to get his vision realized – much to the dismay of the cast, the crew, and Blatty. While watching the documentary, it occurred to me that maybe the real, true Evil that oozes from the film is not only the Evil we see on screen, but also the ferocity that comes from behind the camera. Clearly it was Friedkin’s impulsive temper that made "The Exorcist" the strong traumatic film it is – one that leaves an imprint on every viewer and one that allows people to explore their own fears. The more I listened to him, the more I felt that it is this subliminal aggression that can be noticed in every shot, that grabs people’s attention and wouldn’t let go. The way he uses contrasts and clashes is indicative for director Friedkin’s mentality, with extremely bright sequences cut against near-black scenes and deafening cacophonies of omnipresent noise give way to instantaneous, total silence.

"The Fear Of God" also contains quite a bit of footage deleted from the film, as well as an extensive discussion and presentation of the infamous "spider-walk" scene in which Linda Blair walks down a stair bent all the way backwards, giving her an awkward, spider-like look. Unfortunately, this extraordinary scene did not work well within the context of the scene it was designed for, and was cut from the film as a result.

I loved the documentary and I was completely fascinated that, despite seeing behind the scenes, none of the film’s impact was lost. Often, when you have seen the featurettes and learned how certain portions of the movie were realized, the film loses some of its mystical quality. I did not find this true in this case – and I watched the documentary before re-visiting the actual film. For some odd reason "The Exorcist" is such a strong film, it doesn’t even let you think about what’s going on on-screen while it is going on. It captivates and immerses the viewer so deeply that the illusion seems to be indestructible.

This Special Edition of "The Exorcist" also contains two running-length <$commentary,commentary track>s, one with William Friedkin and another one with writer William Peter Blatty, and they give them the opportunity to share their views on certain aspects of the film and the story in even more detail. It shows how much thought and passion both put into the film and how it turned the movie from an average horror film into a classic icon of the genre as a result. Both of them have given each little detail of the film so much thought that it is almost frightening to imagine that the film could potentially have failed to find its audience.

The disc restores the film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio and is presented in a new <$16x9,anamorphic> enhanced transfer. The quality of the transfer varies a bit, but is generally very good throughout. I noticed slightly exaggerated film grain in a few scenes as a result of the compression, which could in part be attributed to our advance review copy however, especially in the light that this is a brand-new transfer of the film. Otherwise the image quality is very good and faithfully renders colors and fleshtones while maintaining plenty of shadow detail. There is no <$chroma,chroma noise> or <$pixelation,pixelation> to be found on the disc and although a little soft, the overall image quality is very good.

"The Exorcist" contains a rather Spartan music score and only a few sequences are actually underscored with music. Friedkin uses silence to great effect and otherwise uses sound effects to build an intense ambiance. These ambient sound effects are presented as a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix that has good spatial integration and puts you in the same room with the Devil. Sadly, the sound mix is missing some low end and sounds overall a bit thin and tinny, also exhibiting quite a bit of noise-floor. Again, this may be attributed to the early test disc we have received for review and is most likely to be corrected in the final release version of this disc. The film’s new soundtrack transfer and re-mix for this release has been completely supervised by director William Friedkin himself. The disc contains the English, as well as a French Dolby Digital mono soundtrack, as well as English and French subtitles.

To me, "The Exorcist" is still the scariest film ever made and it never fails to raise the hair on the back of my neck. The fact that film is still to this day banned from video in the UK, certainly speaks for itself. This 25th Anniversary Special Edition has given me the opportunity to see the film with different eyes without spoiling the film’s impact. After watching the material on the disc, I have certainly taken a new approach to viewing this movie, which is refreshing and surprising for a film I had seen so many times before. It made the whole experience even more worth the while. What Warner Home Video are delivering here is not only a Special Edition of one of your favorite films, they deliver a ride into the darkness of the soul, sparking thoughts and attitudes you might not have had before. Even if you already own the previous release of the film on DVD, make sure to get this one, too. The documentary alone is easily worth the $25. This is a must have disc for everyone without exception!