Warners’ theatrical release of a new version of “The Exorcist,” including 11 minutes of footage that didn’t make it into the 121-minute 1973 release, proves to be more than a marketing gimmick for extending the life of one of the studio’s most successful projects. This edition of the seminal example of genre sensationalism refined by the cream of Hollywood craftsmanship is more complicated than a standard director’s cut, since added scenes and images (Augie Hess was the supervising editor) partly represent the preferences of director William Friedkin and partly those of author-producer William Peter Blatty. In a reversal of the cultural cliche, the Hollywood helmer’s grimmer conclusion is now superseded by the writer’s kinder, gentler ending, and not to the movie’s benefit. Those who kept their bedroom lights on after enduring the fright of their lives in packed movie houses will likely come back to catch what they didn’t see nearly 27 years ago, while curious younger crowds who know the demon movie in its tube version will be drawn in, if only because of the fact that there’s little competition out there at the moment.
The most immediately noticeable advance over the original version is the Oscar-winning sound work now greatly enhanced in digital process, care of sound designer Steve Boeddeker and mixers Michael Minkler and Gary Rizo. Chris Newman’s groundbreaking sound was the subliminal tool that devastated ’70s audiences, who had never before heard such a superbly edited and mixed amalgam of aural effects and noises suggesting the voice of the Devil itself coming through the mouth of possessed little girl Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, vocally combined with Mercedes McCambridge).
Though attentive ears can hear audible cuts between the “old” soundtrack and the “new” sounds employed in the added footage, the audio refinements of the simplest bits of presence (such as crowd and wind noises in the opening Iraqi sequence, or footsteps on old Georgetown sidewalks) help to amplify and never distort the great, original achievement.
After minor pre-credit additions, first significant unseen footage appears 33 minutes in, and alone justifies the re-release. In a revealing 4-1/2 minute scene, Regan — who has already introduced her movie star mom Chris (Ellen Burstyn) to her invisible friend, Captain Howdy, and can’t sleep due to her rattling bed — is put through a modest battery of tests in the offices of Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), and shows her first signs of nasty attitude.
Klein’s startling prescription of Ritalin for this overactive kid suggests that poor Regan is not only the victim of Pazuzu, but of malpractice.
This scene was evidently trimmed in the interest of pic not running too much over two hours, and Friedkin clearly felt that a subsequent scene sufficed to provide the needed information, in which Chris assures her daughter that all she has are “nerves” and reminds her to take her “pills.”
But, back where it belongs, inserted scene clearly reps the film’s most effective expository section regarding the medical establishment’s inability to deal with the girl’s condition, capped with a shocker as Dr. Klein informs Chris that Regan told the examining doc to “keep his fingers away from her goddamn cunt.”
At the one-hour point, when Chris returns home at night, the lights flicker in the kitchen and a demon’s head appears above her own. This first of a small handful of new, quite subtle digital effects shots (care of digital effects artist Jennifer Law-Stump) is followed by more demon sightings in Regan’s bedroom, including a noirish image of the stone figure viewed in Iraq by Mr. Exorcist himself, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).
This three-minute sequence is capped with the new edition’s special effects dazzler (previously shown in a different form in the DVD edition) in which Regan, for the only time in her possessed state, busts out of her room and scampers like a spider down the staircase. While the DVD version showed Regan attacking Chris, the theatrical version shows her stopping at the foot of the stairs and vomiting blood.
A more poignant scene, inexplicably cut by Friedkin, occurs 90 minutes in, where Father Karras (Jason Miller) plays reel-to-reel tape of a healthy, happy Regan recording some loving words for her Europe-based father.
Attempting to record what may be the Devil’s voice inside the girl, Karras clearly first needs to hear pre-demon Regan for comparison purposes. At this point in the film, sound of normal Regan is powerfully affecting, and Friedkin combines it with an exquisite shot of Karras’ somber face reflected in an endless corridor of cubicle reflections.
In a BBC docu on pic’s making, Friedkin compliments Blatty on a dialogue scene between Merrin and Karras, who are resting on the stairs between exorcism bouts. Initially trimmed to a short, wordless pause, the reinserted scene at the 113-minute mark has Merrin reply to Karras’ question, “Why this girl?” with an on-the-nose Catholic homily.
Though adding a touch of religious humanity to a notoriously sensational sequence, the original’s silence proves comparatively more powerful.
Friedkin’s initial instincts were also right to delete a finale in which Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) is reassured by and jokes with Father Dyer (Rev. William O’Malley), who has just bid farewell to the departing MacNeil family. The new, light tone actually deflates the pressure felt in the original’s darker, open ending.
The sheer presence of the film on the bigscreen serves up a clinic for a new generation of would-be horrormeisters on the virtues of deliberate pace and craft, but the new 11 minutes have decidedly mixed results.
Just as some of the footage deepens what is already there, additions in final reel, though closer to Blatty’s wishes, restate the obvious or add a feel-good patina which pushes the film closer to our own audience-pleasing period than the more daring early ’70s.