(Warning: story of this and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby discussed in detail).
When The Exorcist--that sensational horror flick about a girl possessed by a demon--first screened in the early '70s it was touted as the most frightening film ever made; for almost thirty years that reputation has held--has, if anything, grown.
Now the film comes to us digitally spiffed up and cleansed and with an extra 16 minutes added, but don't be fooled--this is not strictly speaking 'the director's cut.' William Peter Blatty, who wrote both novel and screenplay and who produced, once made up a list of scenes he wished weren't cut out of the film, and every one of them are up there (the doctor's exam, the talk between the two priests, the ending). Whether or not the director (William Friedkin) truly approves is a matter of speculation*; whether or not the additions actually improve the movie…well, that's what we're here to talk about.
Right off, I disliked the digital effects; it's coming to the point that I dislike practically any kind of digital effects--for me they're a form of cheating, of pushbutton magic. The superimposition of demonic faces on some of the quieter scenes is distracting, and so is the low, almost subsonic tone you hear at certain points (to add, I suppose, an "ominous atmosphere" to the scene). The film worked perfectly fine without them, and seeing and hearing these additions pointedly remind you that this is a film you're watching, one that has been 'new' and 'improved.'
Early on there's a never-before-seen scene of the girl Regan (Linda Blair) being given a medical exam. Blatty in an interview tells us this helps establish that Regan already has health and psychological problems, but all it actually establishes is just how inadequate an actress Linda Blair was at that time. When she snarls at the clinic staff her delivery is wooden, not startling--as if she was saying things the meaning of which she had no idea (which was probably the case, Blair being fourteen at that time).
Then there's the spider-walking scene, which is startling to look at but at odds with all the other scenes involving supernatural forces. One of the few things Friedkin does right in The Exorcist is the floor effects--levitating bodies, shaking beds--things that happen 'right before your eyes,' so to speak, without the benefit of special photographic techniques; this helps make what's happening more persuasive, more 'real.' At the end of the walk Blair spouts blood, a climactic act that I felt was totally unnecessary. The spilling of blood in The Exorcist hardly felt gratuitous before, and there was a neat escalation in the scale of horror--from the MRI sequence, where a needle is inserted in Regan's neck and arterial blood spurts the length of Regan's body, to the deflowering-by-crucifix scene, with vaginal blood smeared liberally all over Regan's face. In both scenes the blood is explained (arterial spurt, deflowering) and in both scenes the moment is utterly convincing (well, okay, her vaginal blood looks a touch too pinkish). Having this 'spider-walk' sequence with its bloody-vomit climax inserted in between disturbs that escalation and violates the realistic tone of the film.
Two later additions aren't so bad. Father Karras (Jason Miller) listening to the unpossessed Regan is actually touching--the priest wants to get to know the girl as she once was; later you realize that this was his one and only chance to do so. Then there is a short exchange between Karras and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), in which Karras essentially asks: "Why?" and Merrin replies "to make us despair." Bald expository theology, perhaps, but the two actors deliver their lines with such weary understatement (the word "despair" rolls elegantly off Von Sydow's mouth) that it's actually a lovely moment.
The ending has been knocked by critics for turning what was once a moody and atmospheric conclusion into a sentimental lovefest, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) taking Father Dyer (Father William O'Malley) to the movies**. Here's what I think about it: first, the new ending adds a certain symmetry (Kinderman talks movies to Karras, now he's talking movies to Dyer) and closure (Kinderman is passed on, from Karras to Dyer). Second, people tend to forget that Blatty is really a comedy writer--he helped write the screenplays of A Shot in the Dark, an early Pink Panther movie, and Gunn, based on Blake Edward's sophisticated and witty Peter Gunn TV series. The best dialogue in The Exorcist is comic dialogue:
"There's an alien pubic hair in my gin. Never seen it before, have you?"
"I've got tickets to The Crest."
"Who's in it?"
"I've seen it."
If Blatty wants to end a horror film with a parody straight out of Casablanca, with Kinderman as Humphrey Bogart and Dyer as Claude Rains, he's perfectly within his rights to do so and acting totally according to his nature. Personally, I find Kinderman and Dyer's gentle banter to be more amusing than the original ending's quiet portentousness.
Third and final point: after all is said and done, The Exorcist isn't exactly the great horror classic it's all pumped up to be--certainly not one that can't stand a little revision, and I'll tell you why:
It just isn't evil enough.
Think about it: who does all the really nasty stuff in the film? The girl? No, the demon inside her (which completely absolves the girl). What do we know about this demon? Nothing much, except that he has the voice of Mercedes McCambridge (the gloriously butch gang leader in Touch of Evil) and that he sounds like he could be witty (That's why I wanted more dialogue between Karras and Pazuzu, which is the demon's name in the novel. Besides our learning more about his motivations and his eventually showing evidence of those "massive psychological attacks" Blatty keeps hinting at but never really delivers on, the demon could reveal himself to be a really accomplished stand-up).
Back to the topic--aside from the demon, who remains a cipher, The Exorcist isn't exactly full of voluntary and conscious evil. Von Sydow does warn of despair, but the characters don't demonstrate much; after all, they've been at this for only three days. Blatty notes that real exorcisms last for months, and admits that he kept his short so it wouldn't put too much of a strain on audience's attention spans. If Blatty had been less considerate to attention spans (the artist's bane!), and truer to his artist's instincts (the audience's bane!), then maybe we would have seen something--either the mother or the priest thinking of killing Regan to put her out of her misery, or the mother thinking of killing Kinderman, to keep him from arresting Regan. Maybe Father Karras and the mother could have an affair. Who knows?
And despair--isn't that an easy sin to bring about (just waking up in the morning is often enough to induce a bad case)? I keep thinking that if Regan was an alcohol or drug addict that for one reason or another the mother couldn't hand over to a rehab clinic, the effect would have been the same--the bedpans, the nasal drip, the vomiting, even the tying down and manipulative conversation ("you could loosen the straps son…" how like an alcoholic to talk about them!). This is less a horror film than it is an alcohol-or-drug-withdrawal film--it actually makes more sense to think of it that way.
By way of comparison, think of Rosemary's Baby…where a band of powerful men and women conspire to bring about the birth of Satan's son in the womb of an innocent woman…and with her own husband is involved. Voluntary, conscious evil, an entire department store catalogue of it--from greed to cynicism to envy to sheer, unadulterated malice--it's all there. The film takes its time to develop--roughly nine months--and during those nine months, you can see Rosemary's spirit crumpling, the forces of darkness closing in. And to top it all, the single, authentic act of love in the film--one that is totally in accord with Rosemary's nature as a woman and mother--is the single most evil act in the film.
Stephen King of all people once gave an excellent definition of the different kinds of horror. The best and finest is the thrill at the base of the spine (the suspenseful or haunting image); the lowest and most common is the gross-out (splashed blood, pulled-out intestines, etc). If you want the best, finest kind of horror, you want Rosemary's Baby. If you want the gross-out (a lot of it of the "pop-up" kind--watch once and it'll startle you; watch a second time and it's dull) you want The Exorcist.
* In a hilariously grotesque recent interview on the making of the "Director's" Cut, Friedkin sits opposite to Blatty and attempts to outline his objections tactfully…which Blatty promptly brushes aside. Then he fawns shamelessly over Blatty, calling him a greater writer than Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, etc (Blatty's the producer, after all).
** "I want to make sure you know that the Devil loses," Blatty said about this scene, while Friedkin looked distinctly uncomfortable sitting in his chair.
(First published in Businessworld, 10/27/00)
(Reprinted as part of my book Critic After Dark, in a section on Catholic films)
This post reprinted as part of Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blogathon