Only two years ago, with the release of the 25th Anniversary Special Edition, we thought we had seen the ultimate version of the influential and utterly creepy "The Exorcist." Little did we know that the more-or-less-friendly controversy between writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin that was prominently featured in the supplemental materials on that disc would eventually lead to yet another version of the film, which, after a brief theatrical run, is now coming to DVD under the title "The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen."
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.
10 minutes longer, the new version of the film is the result of the two filmmakers freeing their minds and talking about the issues they had in the past. Every fan of the film knows by now that Blatty and Friedkin had a fallout over the movie after its theatrical release in 1973 and it took years for them to cross the rift that had opened between them. The reason lay in the final cut of the movie. William Peter Blatty had seen William Friedkin’s rough-cut of the film that he liked enormously. Clocking in at around 133 minutes, that cut of the film offered a narrative flow that was close to Blatty’s original intentions in both the book and the screenplay. Clean-cut without much ambiguity, Blatty’s approach to the material has always been a very analytical one where characters and events were clearly defined and explained. Director William Friedkin was not too happy with that rough-cut on the other end and decided to re-cut the entire film before it opened theatrically, without ever telling Blatty about it. Imagine Blatty’s surprise when he went to see the film he had been writing and working on for many years, only to see a completely different version than the one he had envisioned. Cut by over 10 minutes, Friedkin’s final cut introduced a constant element of uncertainty and ambiguity to the material, making it a very intelligent and imaginary challenging movie - something that was and still is extremely uncommon in genre movies. Motivations, symbolisms, rationales and events are often suggestive and implied, leaving their full interpretation to the viewer, in effect creating what still ranks as the scariest movie of all time - at the cost of seriously disgruntling his former collaborator William Peter Blatty.
Eventually, when Warner began showing the film in selected theaters again during its 25th Anniversary, it became obvious that there still is a large audience for it, and full theatrical re-release was planned. It was then that Blatty approached Friedkin once again, asking him to restore the original rough-cut. After screening the available material together, Friedkin then decided to indeed reinstate his original cut as good as possible. Now, with "The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen" director William Friedkin gives us a look at this original rough-cut of the film the way William Peter Blatty had seen - and come to love. Although this new version varies for the original rough-cut in a few details, mostly because certain shots could not to be found, the consensus is that the version is VERY close to what it was.
The new release of the film now offers plenty of additional scenes that help drawing a much clearer defined picture of the characters and events in the film. Sadly, the inclusion of these additional scenes, which consist of a lot of dialogue, results in a significantly slower pacing of the movie itself. In many instances where the original cut was pounding along at good pace, the story is now larded with more exposition and dialogues. In other places the editing has changed, creating a faster pace on purpose, where the slow creepiness of the original was the key to success. The largest difference is certainly the ending of the film, long a sore point between Blatty and Friedkin. While the original cut featured an ending that was considered bleak - unintentionally so I may add, as many viewers weren’t able to correctly interpret Friedkin’s final frames - the new cut of the movie now has a much clearer defined ending in which every viewers should understand where the basic roots of Christian belief come from and how belief is carried on from one person to another. And, as everyone certainly knows by now, the infamous Spider Walk scene has been reinserted in the film to good effect.
The transfer of "The Exorcist" on this DVD comes from a great looking film print that looks noticeably better than the print used for the 25th Anniversary Edition. Although the film still shows quite a bit of grain - a direct result of the film stock used - on this DVD, it is nonetheless visibly subdued. The new transfer also offer a better level of detail, which is mostly also a direct effect of the reduced graininess of the print. While the previous release of "The Exorcist" suffered from some edge-enhancement, these problems are practically gone in the new presentation. At the same time contrast is slightly improved, creating a much nicer definition without the inclusion of distracting ringing artifacts. The framing of both versions is absolutely identical and in terms of color reproduction, both films look equally strong. Red and blue tones are nicely saturated in the transfer, creating stark images, with often-vibrant hues. The compression of the new transfer is also noticeably improved and in a great many scenes the entire lack of compression artifacts that were evident on occasion in the previous release help further add definition to this new presentation.
With its 5.1 Dolby Digital remix, the 25th Anniversary Edition offered a surprisingly good multi-channel presentation for such an old film, and I am glad to report that in the newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, which adds an additional center channel to the surrounds, is even more impressive. While this improvement does not necessarily stem from the additional channel information, the entire track feels more dynamic and explosive. Overall, the audio track is very good with a wide frequency response and good clarity, making it hard to believe that the film is actually 27 years old by now.
Apart from a few textual supplements, mostly describing some background information on the film itself, you won’t find many extras on this release. I found it a bit strange that there is no segment dealing with the issues surrounding the film and the different cuts on this particular DVD. Certianly everyone would have loved to read - or hear - about the subject matter and the reasons exactly why William Friedkin went back to create a new cut of this movie. It seems like a serious oversight.
It is hard, if not impossible to dismiss either version of the film. As a matter of fact, as an object of study, having these two separate versions available is an exciting prospect. Both version have their strengths and weaknesses, and both are definitely worth seeing. I will admit however, that personally, I prefer the innate creepiness of the original cut over the somewhat lengthy new cut of the film. Maybe over the years I have just learned to interpret so much of the visual vocabulary Friedkin was using in his original version that the overt explanations offered in the new cut are somewhat redundant to me and become almost distracting. This is not to say the new cut is worse than the original, it is just different, creating a slightly different atmosphere that to me is slightly less horrific.
Due to the fact that this version doesn’t have many extras, fans of the film will no doubt want to own both DVDs - and rightfully so - so stop thinking about it and get this disc - if only as a good excuse to watch this grandiose film once again! It doesn’t matter which version you prefer personally. Either one is a fantastic masterpiece of horror that will creep you out, and I find it absolutely laudable that Warner is so interested in this particular film that they keep it alive even after 27 years instead of relegating it to the shelves as a relic.