Green vomit. Unnatural head twisting. Unlikely use of a crucifix. These images from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist have become so memorable, so iconic, that they almost carry an air of humor (even spoofed by Linda Blair herself in 1990′s Repossessed). They’re no longer just parts of the movie, they are the movie. But now that Warner Bros. has given the film a Friedkin-enhanced re-release, it’s time to see The Exorcist again as a complete film, beginning to end, with the gory details intact and in context. The result is that 27 years after its controversial release, The Exorcist is nothing short of a taut, American classic.
People may forget that The Exorcist, recently screened at the Boston Film Festival and now hitting wide re-release, was a wildly independent movie when that particular movement was really getting in gear. Shocking and blasphemous-beyond-words in 1973, the story of a sweet little girl’s demonic possession still has a renegade feel today –- the introductory exposition takes nearly forty minutes, the use of profane language is disgusting and thrilling, even by today’s standards, and the long battle at the film’s end is relentless.
For the most part, Friedkin’s eleven minutes worth of added sequences work, and Exorcist fans (me included) are already familiar with most of them via its laserdisc release. First, there’s more time spent with young Regan in the medical offices, giving a broader evolution to her ‘sickness,’ though this isn’t really needed, especially when young Linda Blair’s acting is below par. (Some of the doctor talk gets some healthy chuckles when he discusses an unknown drug called Ritalin.) There’s also a fresh ending that gives a little more credence to William Peter Blatty’s outstanding screenplay, a signature Friedkin once publicly wished he had initially included.
Then, there’s the infamous ‘crabwalk.’ Known to most fans, and only previously seen in a rough cut, it is a physical stunt that Friedkin and Blatty originally planned to use to further illustrate Regan’s mind-jarring body sacrifice. In short, Regan ‘crabwalks,’ speeding backwards on just hands and feet, to the horror of a few witnesses. In the director’s ‘new’ version, it’s used to punctuate an already gripping scene with a huge, eye-popping exclamation point. If you think you’ve seen it, you haven’t really until this.
One of the biggest factors that really sets this movie apart from what we’ve come to know as ‘horror’ is the acting. Ellen Burstyn, who would go on to win an Oscar a year later for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is nearly perfect, setting the stage as the doting, atheist mother, having us shriek along with her at the terror that takes over her life. Lee J. Cobb is steady as the unknowing Detective Kinderman, and God only knows what little Linda Blair had to endure.
But if you asked me in 1973 (though I was only 5), I would’ve guessed that Jason Miller, in his film debut as the tortured Father Karras, would come away with the most successful career. With a movie star countenance and a gruff voice, he plays Karras as intense, eternally conflicted, and totally believable. He is the true center and morality of the movie. I wonder why his other notable roles have been so few, including the cult classic The Ninth Configuration and a reprisal of Father Karras in The Exorcist III.
The powerful acting stands up after all these years, and Friedkin has even supervised a new surround sound mix (as if the sound effects aren’t scary enough). I could do without some of the added music, and those new scenes can be hit and miss, but you find me another director that handles a movie with such gravity, suspense, and style, and I’ll see his pictures every time.