Released in 1973 to unsuspecting audiences worldwide, William Friedkin's The Exorcist has shocked, appalled, outraged, reassured and just plain terrified millions of people during the last 40 years. Based on William Peter Blatty's novel of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by a documented 1949 event), this jarring film professes the existence of demonic possession under seemingly random circumstances: any one of us could fall victim, even an innocent young girl. The victim is Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), who gradually shifts from a precocious pre-teen to a vomiting, hate-spewing representation of Satan himself. Her atheist mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) tries almost everything to save Regan---pills, medical procedures, psychiatry---before turning to religion, represented by Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a struggling Catholic priest who reluctantly takes the unusual case. Soon enough, he calls in the elderly Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and both men take part in an exorcism to wholly remove the evil spirit from Regan's body.
The Catholic Church infamously endorsed The Exorcist---even promoted it, to a certain extent---and why not? The movie makes Fathers Merrin and Kerris look like superheroes during the climactic exorcism, battling Satan for the soul of a helpless 12 year-old girl while staring death square in the eyes. All of this transpires after numerous medical procedures are attempted and doctors half-heartedly prescribe drugs to sedate the troubled young girl. "Science can't save us and religion comes to the rescue"...so if that falls in line with your belief system, you're more likely to be affected by what transpires here. Still, The Exorcist relies too heavily on gross-out gags, jump scares and its central "child in distress" to feel like anything more than an extended version of shock treatment. Well-made shock treatment, sure. Either way, The Exorcist carved itself a devout following during the last 40 years and even spawned two sequels. It also warranted the release of a director's cut in 2000, infamously advertised as "The Version You've Never Seen".
Having no long-standing ties to the theatrical cut (after all, I first saw The Exorcist just a few short years before the director's cut had come about), I don't emphatically prefer one over the other. The addition of a few scenes---medical procedures, the infamous "spider walk", a short scene of Father Karras listening to tapes of a younger Regan, and a conversation between Karras and Merrin during the exorcism---are either modest improvements or, at the very least, short enough to not overstay their welcome. Yet other additions (including a few subliminally-flashed demon faces and a longer ending) detract from the overall experience. Overall, it's a toss-up in my opinion, so the viewer is left to decide whether the Director's Cut is worth another ten minutes. What matters most is that both versions are available here.
Had Warner Bros. not released an excellent Blu-ray Digibook of The Exorcist just three years ago, this three-disc 40th Anniversary Edition would feel a lot more impressive overall. Arriving with basically the same A/V presentation and less than an hour's worth of new bonus features, it's an expensive and only mildly tempting upgrade for die-hard fans of the popular film. The deluxe packaging job also includes a condensed version of Friedkin's recent memoir. So this 40th Anniversary Edition certainly scores high on a technical level, but only from the perspective of a "new customer".
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Without having the Digibook on hand, I'm going to assume that Disc 1 (the director's cut) and Disc 2 (the original theatrical version) are identical to that previous release. Either way, there was little to complain about back in 2010 and there's little to complain about now. These 1.78:1 transfers (slightly opened up from their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios) look excellent from top to bottom, with the only nagging issues stemming directly from the source material. Image detail is strong, black levels don't disappoint and a natural layer of film grain is present. The only continued gripe is the infamous blue-heavy color timing present during the exorcism sequence, which was done at the director's insistence. Though not as flagrantly distracting as, say, the first Blu-ray release of Friedkin's The French Connection, it still takes a little time to get used to. Overall, though, this is a fantastic presentation that does almost everything else right.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
The default DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track occasionally shows its age...but then again, at other times it sounds better than it ought to. Channel separation can be strong at times, dialogue is clean and crisp, the iconic score feels well-balanced and there's even some rear channel activity when the situation demands it. The optional dubs and subtitles are too numerous to list, but they include English, French, Japanese, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese and more.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, this three-disc set arrives in a silly eco-friendly keepcase, along with a sturdy foil-enhanced outer slipcover and a Hardcover Book
covered in more detail below. I've really got to call Warner Bros. out on the eco-friendly keepcase this time, though, especially in light of the otherwise extraneous packaging. In any case, a Digital Copy
redemption code is also tucked inside and the discs are locked for Region "A" only. The menu interface loads quickly and it's easy to navigate: everything is organized nicely and the lack of flash is alleviated by spooky background music and effects.
The main attraction here is, of course, a Bonus Disc
with two new supplements. The first is "Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist"
(27:49), a recent collection of comments and memories from the acclaimed author. Topics include selected passages read by Blatty, a tour of the guest house he lived in while writing 90% of the novel, memories during the exhaustive writing and researching process, additions and revisions made for a special 40th anniversary edition of the book, and revisiting a handful of filming locations at Georgetown University (including the infamous steps, of course). It's a casual, informative and entertaining session that film and book fans will really enjoy.
The other new extra here is "Talk of the Devil" (19:50), which begins with a brief overview of the documented 1949 possession case that inspired the original book. The bulk of this feature is basically a 1974 interview with Father Eugene Gallagher, who first introduced the case to Blatty while he was an undergraduate at Georgetown. Highlights from this feature include a glimpse at several letters exchanged between Father William Bowdern (chief exorcist during the actual case), Blatty and Gallagher...and though it's a bit drier than the previous supplement, this interview is well worth a look. Just don't take a drink every time Father Gallagher says "You see?", or you'll never make it through the whole thing.
Also included in this package is a thin Hardcover Book that contains a few excerpts from The Friedkin Connection, the director's memoir released earlier this year. It's a nice little read and contains several passages and snippets relevant to The Exorcist, including "The Mystery of Faith" as well as notes on the casting, production, makeup, special effects, the soundtrack, shooting in northern Iraq, "The Version You've Never Seen" and more. Though I'd imagine that most of this information is repeated during other bonus features, it's nice to get a "trailer" for the director's well-received memoir.
Everything else has been directly ported from the 2010 Blu-ray Digibook, for better or for worse. Disc One (the director's cut) recycles an Audio Commentary with Friedkin, three Retrospective Featurettes ("Raising Hell", "Locations" and "Faces of Evil") and a collection of Trailers, TV and Radio Spots. Disc Two (the theatrical version) recycles a short Director's Introduction, two solo Audio Commentaries with Friedkin and William Peter Blatty, the feature-length "Fear of God" behind-the-scenes documentary, a collection of short Interviews with Friedkin and Blatty, the Original Ending of the film, a Storyboard Gallery and another collection of Trailers and TV Spots. Overall, a nice selection of extras; there's obviously some overlap, but all the bases are covered nicely. Subtitles are included for all applicable supplements.
The Exorcist has maintained a notorious reputation during the last 40 years. Reviled by some, tolerated by others and championed by most everyone else, this visceral barrage of disturbing imagery, blasphemous dialogue and shocking visual effects broke new ground in 1973 but has faded somewhat over time. Warner Bros.' 40th Anniversary Edition doesn't show us much we haven't seen already---two versions of the film, a terrific A/V presentation and plenty of supplements---but the addition of a short bonus disc and an abridged preview of Friedkin's recent memoir help to sweeten the pot a little. It's probably not worth the expense to those who already own the 2010 Blu-ray Digibook, but those who have yet to purchase The Exorcist in high definition may want to take the plunge. Mildly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.