BY LIZ FONTAINE
When The Exorcist first opened in 1973, critics couldn’t say enough about how much they loved it or how much they hated it. The audiences, however, were at a loss for words. Instead, they screamed, fainted, vomited, and even went so far as to attack the screen; a few heart failures and miscarriages were also reported. Drawn by morbid curiosity and the innate desire to face their fears, audience after audience flocked to the theater to see the head spinning, pea-soup vomiting, and exorcising for themselves.
Between 1973 and 1974 The Exorcist grossed $160 million, was nominated for ten Academy Awards, won two Golden Globes, and scared the hell (pardon the pun) out of a generation. Now there is a new generation and a new-and-improved Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen.
If you’ve seen the original, there isn’t much of this version that you’ve never seen; only about 11 minutes of film have been added. The original story remains relatively unchanged: Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) contracts a nasty, foul-mouthed demon from a Ouiji board and requires the talents of a young priest (Jason Miller) and an old priest (Max Von Sydow) to perform her exorcism.
As for the new scenes, they should have remained on the cutting room floor, along with the subtitle The Version You’ve Never Seen. Scenes are usually scrapped in the editing process because they are superfluous, confusing, or contain conflicting information. Tampering with a successful film by reattaching these previously cut scenes can lead to problems with continuity and pace. Such is the case with the "new and improved" Exorcist.
For instance, although the much-talked-about "spider walk" scene is appropriately horrifying, its place in the film is ill-timed and its abrupt ending hinders the coherence of the film. In this scene, Regan scurries down the stairs upside-down and bent over like a crab, while blood pours unsettlingly out of her mouth. Very disturbing. But director William Friedkin had good reason to edit it out in the first place. "It was quite early in the story, and we hadn’t yet seen any of the massive manifestations [of the demon] that were to come. At that point in the narrative, I just thought it was too much." He was right. The scene appears wantonly out of nowhere and then disappears into a fade to black, making it seem forced and random. The three other additional scenes also do nothing but create a muddled and erratically paced "new and improved" plot.
Though these added scenes may have maimed the original’s solid plot, The Exorcist still retains much of the cinematic depth for which it was praised in 1974. The additional scenes do not affect the proficient character development, visual intensity, or striking sound design of The Exorcist.
What set The Exorcist apart from other films of its genre, and what still sets it apart even when pitted against modern horror films, is the audiences’ perception of the characters. People in this film do not exist so that terrible things can happen to them, as is the case in most horror films. Instead, these are individuals with personal lives and real anxieties on top of the supernatural horrors that creep into their world. Damien Karras, the young priest, is dealing with the death of his mother. Chris MacNeil is a single parent trying to juggle raising a daughter and acting full time. The characters of The Exorcist are believable because they live the lives of real people. This, in turn, successfully lends to the believability of the evil they face.
The Exorcist is the proverbial battle between good and evil. This is adroitly reflected in the constant visual shifting from light to dark and aural shifting between piercing, oppressive noises and dead silence. The darkness of the exorcism room cuts to the stabbing sunlight of the outside world. Harsh hospital lighting is replaced with the darkness of Regan’s head x-rays. All these extreme visual shifts are mirrored and counterpointed by the film’s soundtrack.
The now digitally enhanced soundtrack and surround-sound capabilities of the re-released film give some merit to sending it back to the theaters. With perfectionist Buzz Knudson in charge of the sound mix, The Exorcist’s original soundtrack is just as important and involved as its visual counterparts. An intense soundtrack with varying depths and levels of simultaneous sound come together to give the film a smooth, surreal atmosphere.
The digital enhancement makes it possible for each level of sound to exists without overlapping or overpowering other effects. This is especially important in the more visually complicated scenes where the overactive sound provides an aural compliment to what is seen. While Linda Blair is puking green stuff and howling in Latin, it’s now possible to hear the voices of both priests, as well as the subtle sounds of furniture flying about the room. The added surround-sound further engages the audience and makes it seem as though that furniture is flying around the theater, too.
Although The Exorcist has been slightly disfigured by Hollywood’s constant craving to resell its old material by slapping a "new-and-improved" sticker on it (or in this case, a Version You’ve Never Seen sticker), the film’s reappearance in theaters is not a total loss. Besides being a classic, well-decorated in its time, the film’s digitally enhanced soundtrack is every bit as crisp and disturbing as it was meant to be in 1973. In this case, Hollywood would have done better to save its Version You’ve Never Seen stickers for the straight-to-video director’s cuts and advertise The Exorcist re-release as The Version You’ve Never Heard.