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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Exorcist - The Complete Anthology
The Exorcist - The Complete Anthology
Warner Bros. // R // October 10, 2006
List Price: $42.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted October 29, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movies:

Spooky: Warner Brothers finds itself possessed with the insidious desire to cash in yet again on the ever-dependable Exorcist franchise. In this imposing anthology, the studio has packaged together the six films that spawned from William Peter Blatty's bestseller about an apple-cheeked young girl with a predilection for profanity, levitation and vomiting split-pea soup. If you happen to own most of these already (and God knows why anyone would really need more than the original flick, but whatever), move along; this is solely a collection of previously released DVDs.

The Exorcist:

Even more than 30 years after moviegoers packed theaters just to get the holy bejesus scared outta them, The Exorcist remains one of the most frightening films ever made. Released the day after Christmas in 1973, it catapulted from blockbuster to cultural phenomenon, especially amid reports of some moviegoers throwing up and even fainting as a result of the grotesqueries onscreen. When the hyperbole cleared, what remained was a meticulously crafted horror film about demonic possession, but a story malleable enough to serve as an all-purpose allegory.

Based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, who also penned the screenplay, The Exorcist poses a wickedly straightforward premise: A sweet 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by the Devil. Regan's behavior grows increasingly erratic, alarming her single mother, movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn); but the breaking point arrives when the girl masturbates with a crucifix and whacks mom across the room. After a battery of medical tests fails to find anything wrong with Regan, Chris wonders if her daughter is suffering from a psychotic delusion that she has been taken over by demons. Desperate, Chris enlists the help of a brooding neighborhood priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Karras, in turn, summons a veteran exorcist of the Catholic Church, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), to rid the evil spirit from the child's body.

From this scenario emerged a horror masterpiece. Much of the credit rests with director William Friedkin, one of the great moviemakers of the 1970s. He fashions a dark, relentlessly threatening atmosphere by treating the subject with documentary-styled seriousness. All the elements click beautifully. Cinematographer Owen Roizman captures truly iconic images amid the Georgetown, Washington, D.C., locale, while Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" is put to spellbinding musical use. The movie garnered 10 Oscar nominations, winning for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Sound. Friedkin took home the Golden Globe for Best Director.

While the movie spawned a deluge of imitators -- its gross-out aesthetic, for better or worse, is firmly entrenched in modern-day cinema -- The Exorcist transcended its genre. Character-driven and elegantly paced, the film builds tension with a scalpel-like precision. Granted, the wizardry of today's special effects has rendered a few scenes (particularly Regan's head-spinning trick) somewhat cheesy, but such moments of datedness hardly dilute the film's still-impressive creepiness.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Miller particularly haunting in a role that had attracted interest from the likes of Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson. Friedkin had insisted on an unknown actor, someone unfettered by audience expectations, and it was absolutely the right move. But Miller is not alone. The movie added considerably to Burstyn's rising star, made Linda Blair a household name (a celebrity she later squandered in exploitation flicks) and even provided a plum minor role for Lee J. Cobb as Detective Bill Kinderman.

Catholic dogma permeates the good vs. evil struggle at the core of The Exorcist, but you don't have to be Catholic to be genuinely spooked. The movie reaches past its theological underpinnings to scratch at any number of fears. Stephen King, in his 1981 treatise on horror, Danse Macabre, posited that the "foul-talking monster" that is Regan tapped into the generational divide that gripped the 1960s and early '70s. "Religious trappings aside, every adult American understood what the film's powerful subtext was saying; they understood that the demon in Regan MacNeil would have responded enthusiastically to the Fish Cheer at Woodstock."

That read certainly makes sense, but I think The Exorcist is even more compliant. In Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, for example, the author contends many women hated the movie because it depicted "a male nightmare of female puberty" that literally demonized female sexuality.

For this reviewer, The Exorcist's central concept turns on the notion of losing control of one's self -- physically, mentally and spiritually. What could be any more frightening than that?

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen

Despite The Exorcist's tremendous box-office success, Blatty continued to hold strong disagreements with a number of editing choices that Friedkin had made. The author finally had the last word n a 2000 theatrical re-release that restored 12 minutes of footage.

Much of the additional film is relatively minor -- an additional diagnostic test performed on Regan, some establishing shots, etc. Still, Exorcist buffs finally had an opportunity to see the "spider walk," a deleted scene in which Regan comes skittering down the second-floor stairs like a prepubescent tarantula. It's a disturbing image in a movie chock full of 'em.

Unfortunately, this version boasts a notable misstep with its ending. Blatty, who had felt that the 1973 film mistakenly left the impression that Evil triumphed over Good, successfully pushed for the inclusion of a coda that Friedkin had scrapped. In this restored ending, Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) jokes about movies with Karras' best friend, Father Dwyer (Revered William O'Malley).

Blatty contends the lighthearted banter brings the audience back to normalcy and the conviction that Good prevailed. Um, maybe. For this reviewer, it seems as if Mediocrity takes the win; the scene is a jarring shift in tone.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

The less said about this apocalyptically abysmal 1977 sequel, the better. John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) helmed this inexplicable yarn that finds Richard Burton gnawing on the scenery as Feather Phillip Lamont, who is dispatched by the Vatican to investigate Father Merrin's death four years earlier. There is some camp appeal in the murky hodgepodge of locusts, fire, globetrotting and a ridiculous contraption that allows people to probe inside the dreams of teen chipmunk Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) -- but not enough.

Despite William Fraker's slick cinematography and an impressive cast -- it also featured Louise Fletcher, James Earl Jones and Ned Beatty -- Exorcist II remains one of the worst big-budget flicks of all time.

The Exorcist III:

The man who invented the franchise, William Peter Blatty, took the reins as writer and director of this underrated 1990 sequel. Taking place 15 years after Father Damien Karras plummeted to his death in Georgetown, the jocular cop from the first film, Detective Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott taking over the role from Lee J. Cobb), finds himself tracking a serial killer whose gruesome modus operandi bears an eerie similarity to a man executed -- cue the creepy music -- 15 years earlier.

Think about the plot too hard and you might just find yourself stumbling into some mighty big holes, but Blatty cobbles a feeling of dread that carries along much of the picture. The director makes particularly effective use of sound and haunting imagery (a solitary rose, a headless statue) to build suspense. Blatty might have argued with Friedkin on some points, but the author certainly learned a thing or two from the guy.

Unfortunately, Exorcist III doesn't deliver on the promise of a tense first half. When Kinderman's investigation leads him to a mysterious mental patient, the movie grows talky and ponderous.

Exorcist: The Beginning

If the strange road to an Exorcist prequel gave the world of cinema nothing else, it inadvertently offered a demonstration of the auteur theory. The first director attached to the film project, John Frankenheimer, backed out after he became ill during pre-production. That led the movie's production company, Morgan Creek, to enlist the services of Paul Schrader, whose brooding and challenging oeuvre includes Auto Focus, Affliction and Mishima.

In the end, the marriage of Morgan Creek and Schrader pleased no one. Studio execs balked at Schrader's finished work. Convinced the movie lacked the action and gore needed to fill theater seats, Morgan Creek CEO James Robinson shelved the film in 2003 and brought in all-purpose hack Renny Harlin (Driven, Cutthroat Island) to enliven the proceedings with a brand new version.

Harlin delivered the goods, alright -- provided you like your films to have no more dexterity than a drunkard in corrective shoes. Exorcist: The Beginning is watchable schlock -- but schlock, nonetheless.

Stellan Skarsgård stars as the younger Father Merrin. It is shortly after World War II, and Merrin is involved in the archaeological excavation of a mysterious church in British-occupied Kenya. He is no longer wearing his priestly collar, having weathered a crisis of faith in Holland during the war. And no wonder. As we learn in flashbacks, a Nazi officer had forced Merrin to choose either letting an entire town be massacred or saving most of the inhabitants by selecting 10 citizens to be killed. Merrin chose the latter.

That's a horrifying premise, to be sure, but one that gets diluted amid The Beginning's overwrought gumbo. While Skarsgård gave a solid performance as Merrin in Schrader's Dominion -- Morgan Creek had coaxed him into doing the part in both films -- here he mainly does a lot of growling and muttering. Perhaps the actor was just irked that Harlin had reduced a juicy role to a Catholicized version of Indiana Jones.

No matter. Once evil spirits are released in the archaeological dig and the movie barrels toward its hammer and tongs climax, there is no room for anything but loud noises and special effects. Exorcist: The Beginning clubs viewers into submission.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

After Exorcist: The Beginning tanked at the box office in 2004, Morgan Creek, realizing that it might have dissed the wrong flick, released the Paul Schrader movie the following year.

Better late than never. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is a far superior film. Although it doesn't come close to the chills of the '73 classic -- or Exorcist III, for that matter - Schrader fashions a compelling psychological thriller about Father Merrin's journey through disillusionment and faith.

The storyline is roughly akin to Harlin's overstuffed product, but the differences in treatment are significant. While The Beginning just seems to kill time until its final act, Dominion doesn't lose steam until the inevitable climax involving demons and exorcism. Schrader clearly is interested in other things, allowing his characters room to breathe and his actors room to shine. The result is a brooding, cerebral and elegant film exploring the darker shadings of William Wisher and Caleb Carr's screenplay.

The DVD

Six DVDs are packed in four slimcases that, in turn, fit in a study cardboard sleeve. The Exorcist and The Version You've Never Seen are in one slimcase, with Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist sharing space in a single slimcase.

The Video:

The Exorcist
The picture quality is fine, but well short of pristine. There is minor grain and slight noise, particularly in the earlier scenes, as well as a few specks. Still, these are relatively insignificant distractions. The picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1.

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen
This print transfer in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 is a marked improvement over the original, with far fewer artifacts and generally improved colors.

Exorcist II: The Heretic
Slight grain and a soft picture quality drag down William Fraker's otherwise vivid cinematography. For the most part, however, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is just peachy.

The Exorcist III
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is slightly disappointing, hampered by a softness and minor grain.

Exorcist: The Beginning
This 2.35:1 anamoprhic widescreen transfer is of stellar quality, a fitting showcase of Vittorio Storaro's gorgeous cinematography

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
As with Exorcist: The Beginning, Storaro's cinematographic skills get superb treatment. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the only noticeable drawback is minor grain in a handful of scenes.

The Audio:

The Exorcist
In a film that makes magnificent use of sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is a stunner -- clear, sharp and aggressive. Audio tracks are available in English and French, with subtitles available in English, French and Spanish.

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen
A wonderful Dolby Digital 5.1 track showcases one of the most meticulously effective sound mixes of its era. This Exorcist version is worth celebrating alone for its clean, crisp audio.

Exorcist II: The Heretic
Dolby Digital 1.0 is about all Exorcist II deserves, and it's all that it gets. Audio is available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin-Taiwan, Thai, Korean and Bahasa Indonesia.

The Exorcist III
The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 is a knockout and makes good use of sound separation. Audio is available in English and French.

Exorcist: The Beginning
Viewers can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, both of which are impressive, plaster-shaking tracks that make solid use of rear speakers. A 5.1 track is available in French, while subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Despite a slight inconsistency in volume, Dominion boasts an otherwise first-rate Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Extras:

The Exorcist
The disc features previously released bonus material. The centerpiece is an excellent 1998 BBC documentary, The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist. The 77-minute piece, which includes interviews with most of the principals of the cast and crew, is fascinating and exhaustive and a real treat for Exorcist fans.

There are two commentary tracks included. The superior one is supplied by Friedkin, but it's not ideal; the director tends to simply restate the story events as they unfold onscreen. The second track boasts Blatty and lengthy excerpts of Blair's line readings being substituted by Mercedes McCambridge, who supplied the voice of demonic Regan. Once that audio runs its course, the film continues without commentary.

The one-minute, 42-second original ending is made redundant since it wound up restored on the revamped 2000 version. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the tonally awkward scene in which Kinderman and Dwyer riff on movies.

Interview Gallery contains a little more than nine minutes of Friedkin and Blatty chatting about the making of the film. It's interesting, but the BBC documentary covers much of the same ground.

Rounding out the supplemental materials are an introduction by Friedkin, three theatrical trailers (including one for The Exorcist III), six TV spots, sketches and storyboards, cast & crew notes and brief text explaining Exorcist: The True Story (Blatty was inspired by an actual 1949 incident in Silver Springs, Maryland).

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen A William Friedkin commentary is intermittently revealing, but, as with his audio track on the original Exorcist, he tends to state the obvious. Other bonus features include TV and radio spots, the theatrical trailer and cast & crew notes.

Exorcist II: The Heretic
Extras include a two-minute, 10-second alternative opening, cast & crew notes and two theatrical trailers.

The Exorcist III
Not a scrap of supplemental material, which is a bit of a bummer, since William Peter Blatty reportedly had a less than ideal experience making the film.

Exorcist: The Beginning
Renny Harlin offers an interesting and informative commentary, while an eight-minute Behind the Scenes featurette encompasses interviews with Harlin and the cast. Other supplemental material includes cast & crew notes and a theatrical trailer.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Schrader doesn't seem to have a high comfort level in his commentary, but his remarks are informative and insightful. It is worth noting that he avoids discussing the corporate shenanigans that led to the movie's shelving.

Six deleted scenes have an aggregate length of about six minutes. It isn't essential viewing, but of mild interest. A still gallery is also included.

Final Thoughts:

In the final analysis, it's difficult to label this set worthy of the DVD Talk Collector's Series. After all, the DVDs included here are previous releases, and there's really no good reason -- aside from sheer masochism -- to own Exorcist II or Exorcist: The Beginning. Nevertheless, the Friedkin flick alone is a must-have for any horror-movie fan, with the Blatty sequel and Schrader prequel also offering choice moments. For those who don't already have these films, the anthology is Highly Recommended.

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