Alternately known as Demoniac and The Sadist Of Notre Dame, Jess Franco's Exorcism may sound like one of the many countless knock offs of William Friedkin's The Exorcist that were coming out of both European and North American film markets in the mid-seventies, but the fact of the matter is that it really doesn't share any similarities with that picture.
When the movie begins in Paris, a crowd of people have gathered in an underground nightclub to watch a naked woman (Lina Romay) get strapped to a giant wooden cross where a tall blond sacrifices her to some dark, evil god - or at least that's what it looks like, it's all for show. The crowd seems to enjoy the show quite a bit, but there is at least one man - a defrocked priest who has recently come out of an insane asylum named Paul Vogel (Jess Franco) - who takes great offense to this. Mathis is more than just a little unhinged, he's unable to see the performance art for the staged rite that it is and instead believes that those participating in it are just a few of the many people in the area possessed by demons and in need of elimination.
In order to make ends meet, Vogel works as a freelance writer for a publisher who just so happens to employ poor Lina, who we soon learn likes to swing both ways but this is more of an odd side story than anything else. Vogel sets out on his quest to take out anyone he sees as impure while the local police team up with another writer (Pierre Taylou) to try and stop the manic loose on the streets before he can kill again!
Those familiar with Franco's work will find much to like about this film as pretty much all of his trademark idiosyncrasies are here in full force: soft focus (or sometimes no focus!), a jazzy soundtrack, some night club scenes, zooms into the nether regions of naked ladies and often times languid pacing. Those same traits could also very well put off newcomers, and they certainly won't change the minds of those predisposed to dislike the man's films. The picture is considerably more coherent than some of his others, however, and it has a fairly twisted sense of black comedy running through it that makes it a bit more enjoyable than the sordid plot details provided probably make it sound. With that said, there's still enough sleaze, sex, violence and sexualized violence included here to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those not intrigued by the seedier side of European genre films.
Given that the movie appears to have been shot without any live sound it's a bit tough to really gauge the performances here - sometimes the lips don't match the dialogue well and the voices don't always seem to suit the performers - but Franco is interesting as the film's central antagonist. He plays the reprobate priest well, skulking around Paris, his base of operations a room with a giant cross placed conveniently front and center in front of his bed. He has enough of a deranged look to him here that we can buy him in the part just as easily as we can see why he might (and in real life did) become obsessed with the late Lina Romay (the two were husband and wife). She's gorgeous here, as sexually uninhibited as ever and her performance leaves nothing to the imagination. It's also fun to see Pierre Taylou pop up in what is best described as somewhat of a supporting role as a protagonist, given that he's helping the cops out when he's not getting busy.
In the end this isn't Franco's most polished or most impressive work nor is it the film he'll be remembered for but it is a picture that those who appreciate his style will enjoy. It's got quite a bit of atmosphere, some striking shots, some memorable set pieces and an interesting plot that you can read as much or as little into as you want. Some will be entertained and amused, others no doubt repulsed but it's hard to imagine anyone not being, at the very least, intrigued.
Note: An alternate 'horror' cut of the film was also released under the alternate title of Demoniac. It cuts out almost all of the sex and most of the nudity and uses alternate clothed sequences throughout the film. It runs a good twenty minutes shorter than the original cut of the film and lacks much of its impact. For curiosity purposes, however, it's worth seeing and Kino has wisely chosen to include it along with the uncut version on this Blu-ray release. A third version, containing insert shots of explicit hardcore sex, also exists but is not included on this release.
Exorcism arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.66.1 transfer in 1080p high definition. Most Blu-ray enabled Eurocult fans that have seen previous transfers in the Redemption/Kino line will be able to tell you that they don't do any sort of restoration on the elements they have for these titles. While some of the Bava and Rollin discs have been in great shape, Exorcism is a bit worse for wear. Print damage in the form of horizontal and vertical scratches and specks is present throughout and there are some spots where the colors fade a bit. Some clean up would have probably made a certain segment of the public pretty happy, and that's understandable - but with that said, there is significantly more detail present here than on the past DVD release and a fair bit more depth and texture as well, though you have to keep in mind that as this is a Franco film it is not at all uncommon for some scenes to be in very soft focus or occasionally completely out of focus. You can't fault the disc for that, it's just the way he makes a lot of his movies. There are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there even a hint of noise reduction anywhere to be seen. The end result is something very much akin to watching a slightly tattered print play in a theater and it's not without its charm in that regard, but yeah, the picture here isn't pristine or super colorful. Some will appreciate this, some will take issue with it.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language LPCM Mono, no alternate language options or subtitles are provided. The audio fares a bit better than the audio does, though there is some mild hiss here and there. The levels are generally balanced well and the score doesn't sound bad. Dialogue was easy enough to follow and while it's a bit flat and occasionally hollow sounding that's likely got more to do with the original elements than anything else.
Aside from the alternate version of the movie, the disc includes trailers for Exorcism and Female Vampire, trailers for three Jean Rollin films, static menus and chapter selection. Completists will want to hold onto the older DVD release from Synapse Films as it contained a commentary track not carried over to this Blu-ray release.
Exorcism is an odd duck of a film, even by the admittedly very odd standards of director Jess Franco's filmography. It's periodically horrifying, occasionally sexy, and frequently very funny in a pitch black sort of way. Not a film for all tastes, certainly - but is anything Franco ever made really going to be? - but one that his fans will appreciate even more in high definition, even if the transfer is a bit rough around the edges at times. Recommended (more for established Franco enthusiasts than casual horror movie fans).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.