*. I should begin by saying that this won’t be a discussion of The Exorcist (1973) but The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen. A movie that, true to its title, no one in 1973, 1983, or 1993 ever saw. This raises the vexed questions of when a director’s cut (or extended cut or enhanced version) is actually a new movie, and if the changes are any improvement.
*. Here’s a quick breakdown. For the most part, the added material is unimportant. There are a couple of shots added to the opening, one of the house exterior and another the statue. Not a big deal. I like the addition of the spider-walk scene, as I find it genuinely scary and it’s a real signature moment and showstopper. Showing the face of the demon seems incoherent to me but kind of spooky. The doctor discussing putting Regan on Ritalin (“I think that’s the answer”) is necessary to explain some of what happens later. There’s a conversation between Karras and Merrin that was in and then out and then back in again. I don’t know why Friedkin thought it important, as it explains nothing. But it doesn’t hurt, I guess.
*. I hate the new ending though. Apparently author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty was concerned people didn’t understand what happened, and thought the movie ended on a “downer” so he wanted to give them a happy ending. He wanted the audience to be able to say “everything’s going to be OK. Everything’s alright. The good guys won.” Of course, they didn’t know about the mess of sequels on the way. Everything was not going to be OK.
*. William Friedkin. Talk about an explosive talent that exploded and then had nowhere else to go but down. But I guess he had a better post-Exorcist afterlife than Jason Miller or (certainly) Linda Blair. Blair really did go to hell. Or women-in-prison movies, which is kind of the same thing. Maybe the Exorcist curse was real.
*. In any event, Friedkin’s DVD commentary is one of the worst I’ve ever listened to (which puts it roughly on a par with his French Connection commentary). In fact, I couldn’t listen to all of it. It’s just play-by-play, describing what’s happening on screen. There’s no background on the filming or explanation of what he was doing or how he was doing it. Things like Blatty’s cameo and the whole spider-walk scene pass by without remmark. Most of the cast aren’t even named. “I love to talk film, critique, discuss,” he says at one point. So let’s! It shouldn’t, but a bad commentary like this always makes me doubt a little that the filmmaker entirely knew what he was doing and just got lucky.
*. David Thomson begins his essay on The Exorcist in Have You Seen . . . ? like this: “Nothing dates worse than horror.” That’s not true. Quite the opposite. I would say nothing dates worse than comedy. This movie has stood up remarkably well, given how much of its initial success and subsequent notoriety was grounded in its shock value. We can shake our heads at people having heart attacks and miscarriages in the audience, but at the time all that pea soup projectile vomit was insane. I don’t think it’s possible to have that kind of a reaction to a movie today. What would it take? I can’t even imagine.
*. What was really shocking though was the source of the horror’s strength. This movie works because it gives us the holy grail of horror: characters we really care about. They aren’t just meat. Drilling down a bit deeper, what it gives us is that most powerful, because archetypal, of all our embodiments of unease, which is a family under pressure and in particular a threatened child.
*. For all its otherworldliness, and the opening in an archaeological dig in Mosul, this is an intimate bit of American horror. As intimate as your bed, which we all know there are monsters just underneath. At its heart, and it has a heart that it wears on its sleeve, it’s a story of a woman trying to care for her bed-ridden daughter and a son trying to care for his bed-ridden mother. All the devil stuff is just window dressing. These are people who are on their own trying to look after their family.
*. I think it’s a very good movie, which falls short of Mark Kermode’s take. He’s defended his vote for it as The Greatest Movie Ever Made on numerous occasions: “I really do think The Exorcist is the very best thing produced by the first century of cinema, and it is an opinion I have been proudly espousing not just for years, but for decades. If you know anything about me at all, you’ll know that I’m the guy who’s seen The Exorcist over 200 times and won’t stop going on about how great it really is. . . . It’s something I believe to be true, and I would be happy for it to be carved on my tombstone.”
*. Why is it so good? I have my own reasons. I’ve already mentioned the domesticity of its chief concern, the way it brings the horror home. This is so well realized in terms of location shooting and set design that I didn’t even bother too much with the question of just what an obscure Mesopotamian demon would want with a girl in Georgetown. Friedkin calls it an example of “randomness” in his commentary. According to Blatty (and the bit of dialogue between Merrin and Karras), the demon’s point was to make us despair, and the his real target was Karras. But this sure seems like an odd way to go about it.
*. I also like the way no one freaks out. Everyone seems to take what’s happening seriously and with maturity and levelheadedness. Ellen Burstyn is particularly good as a single mom at the end of her tether. Karras, whose suffering has dragged his face already halfway to hell, sure looks like a man who is having a quiet breakdown, while a well-powdered Max von Sydow (only 44 when the movie was made!) gives the requisite gravitas to his part. Lee J. Cobb’s police detective I could have done without (Thomson: “I just feel he’s wrong”), but I guess he represents the uselessness of the forces of law and order in the face of such shenanigans. In the twenty-first century the exorcists would become useless in turn, even as demons started popping up everywhere. But that’s a subject I’ve addressed elsewhere.
*. The medical horror provides some of the scariest scenes in the movie. Not just the battery of tests (spinal tap, arteriogram, and a ginormous hypodermic) that Regan is subjected to, which I (along with Regan’s cringing mom) found hard to watch, but the grimy Bedlam that Karras’s mom winds up strapped to a bed in. Again, this is bringing horror home, making it real. We feel these scenes like a punch to the gut.
*. The pacing and structure are perfect. Burstyn slowly falls apart (though I think it’s odd she disappears entirely from the final third of the film), while the gradual transformation of Regan’s face makes a perfect depth gauge. Also, there are the percussive beats that slam home at the end of scenes: the desecrated statue, the spider-walk, or the head-turning. With regard to the latter, Blatty “argued strenuously against” it (since it really doesn’t make any sense), but “audiences loved it, proving me an idiot once again.” He might have taken heart from William Goldman’s famous rule: when it comes to what’s going to work in a movie, nobody knows anything. And Hitchcock’s corollary: if it works, you can throw plausibility to the wind.
*. I think the score maybe gets a bit too much credit. Especially Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” sampling. Carpenter’s Halloween score might have been influenced by this, but Carpenter is usually criticized for overusing the theme in that movie. Here the haunting notes only get payed once, very briefly, during the actual movie.
*. By now there’s so much that’s been said about this movie that there’s not much point going on. Just engaging with all that’s been written is too large a task for anyone today. Indeed, criticism has outgrown it. Take the matter of “Pazuzu,” which is the name of the demon. And we would know this because . . . ? He’s named in the novel, not in the film. Look, if it’s not in the movie, it’s not in the movie. I don’t care if it’s in the novel or the screenplay or it comes out in a sequel.
*. The “real” Pazuzu, by the way, apparently wasn’t all bad. He even protected mothers and their children from his nasty wife Lamashtu.
*. Filed in creative mis-hearing of dialogue: I thought Regan said “I’m going to die up there.” before she wets the floor. This makes sense to me, and is direct. What she really says though is “You’re going to die up there.” This is addressed to the astronaut. I find this line to be obscure in a couple of ways (1) it makes the audience remember that this walk-on guy is an astronaut; (2) why would Regan know this? and what’s it got to do with anything? Of course, we often misremember or mishear movies and books and (especially) song lyrics, but it’s always weird when our mistakes turn out to be something better than what was really there.
*. Not the greatest movie ever made, and probably not the greatest horror movie ever made. At least not my favourite. But it’s very well done in all departments and fifty years later still packs quite a wallop. Even the effects hold up well. There are half a dozen scenes that have become classics, and even at 132 minutes (for this version) it never flags. So while I’ll stop short of calling it the greatest, I have no problem listing it as one of the all-time greats.