You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?
Horror is cyclical, perhaps more than any other film genre. Monster movies, slasher flicks, home invasion, zombies — they all come and go. Even found footage may one day enjoy the renaissance it doesn’t deserve. Back in 1973, William Friedkin’s film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist became a massive hit, ushering demonic possession into popular horror. As the ’70s became the ’80s, psychological and supernatural scares gave way to a more tangible threat from Michael, Jason, and Freddy. A few decades later and possession movies are back, for better and worse. What better to take the bad taste of movies like The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism Part II than the original, with a new Blu-ray set celebrating The Exorcist‘s 40th anniversary.
Strange events in a Georgetown house being rented by actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, The King of Marvin Gardens) are affecting her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair, Exorcist II: The Heretic), who begins exhibiting troubling symptoms. With science and medicine failing to diagnose the girl, Chris turns to the Church as a last resort, enlisting the help of the reluctant Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller, Rudy) and an experienced exorcist (Max von Sydow, Wild Strawberries) to save Regan’s soul.
Supernatural horror can be a sticking point for many fans. Letting the unseen creep you out requires either a suspension of disbelief or a real faith in things beyond this world. Most of the big slasher baddies are more than human, but there’s nothing intangible about a razor sharp butcher’s knife at your throat. Who hasn’t imagined a hulking killer hiding behind the closet door? Not so when it comes to ghosts and demons. Ask a hundred people what scares them most and I doubt any will say “demonic possession.” The problem with most modern possession movies is that they’re all levitating beds and bleeding eyeballs. True horror, not just cheap thrills, requires a connection to the characters. That’s what Blatty’s novel and screenplay adaptation gets right.
The Exorcist deserves a spot in the pantheon of horror by virtue of its final act, but like John Carpenter’s Halloween — another example of a genre pioneer that bests most of its imitators — the key is the set-up. The film comes down to a battle in the spiritual realm, but most of it takes place in the physical world. Three quarters of the film are spent getting to know the major players: an aging exorcist whose travels have brought him face to face with evil; a young priest suffering a crisis of faith after his mother’s death; and an actress with a sick daughter no doctor can diagnose. Blatty treats Regan’s possession as plausible, but it’s mainly a catalyst for the drama, which comes from watching characters at different places on the faith spectrum deal with the crisis.
Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil reacts like any helpless parent with a seriously ill child. After exhausting every medical option she turns to religion. Father Karras is a man of science and faith, using his psychological training to help his fellow priests. His complacence, mixed with the pain of losing his mother, causes him to doubt. It takes a demonic encounter to rekindle his faith, even if his ultimate sacrifice is as much a matter of the flesh as spirit. Max von Sydow’s title role is the least developed of the bunch. He comes in at the end as a fixer, helping Karras, MacNeil, and Regan make some kind of peace with the terrible situation. He represents the purest faith, as mysterious and detached as his counterpart the demon Pazuzu. They are fighting a larger war of good and evil and the young priest, mother, and child are casualties. Blatty and Friedkin focus on the characters we can relate to, and that makes all the difference.
Even with a sharp script and a great director, The Exorcist wouldn’t work as well without its killer cast. Von Sydow makes a huge impression with very little screentime, while Burstyn and Miller carry the film with compelling, conflicted performances. It would be easy to overlook Linda Blair, who spends so much time tied to a bed, buried beneath demonic makeup. For all the effects work, though, she’s the one who sells the duality. Blair is as sweet and natural playing pre-possession Regan as she is a terrifying monster at film’s end. Her transformation is all the more shocking because Friedkin, Blatty, and Blair show us every step of the process.
The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary edition isn’t the film’s first time on Blu-ray. It came out just three years ago in a well-reviewed set that includes both versions of the film — the theatrical cut and the extended “Version You’ve Never Seen” that hit theaters in 2000 — along with a large selection of bonus features. This latest box set is the same as the 2010 release at its core. The first two discs are identical to the previous Blu-ray, with one disc for each version and associated bonus features. This new set adds a third Blu-ray disc with two new bonus features, housed in a sturdy cardboard box along with a hardback excerpt from William Friedkin’s memoir. More on the new stuff in a bit.
These similarities mean that the transfers found on the first two discs are the same as the 2010 Blu-ray — despite comments Friedkin is supposed to have made about a new 4k transfer. That’s not an issue, as there’s very little to improve upon. The Exorcist looks extremely sharp for a four decade-old film, with excellent color and tonal range. The film has a natural appearance, with strong detail and rich blacks. The only possible bone of contention for some viewers is the at-times heavy layer of grain. If you’re the kind of person who sees grain as a flaw, you’ll be disappointed. Me, I like my films to look like film.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is more clear than immersive in the theatrical version — a strong mix that keeps most of the audio up front, save for a few boosts from the rear speakers. Dialogue isn’t as crisp as a modern film, but the occasional flatness doesn’t obscure what’s being said, shouted, or growled. The extended cut, meanwhile, isn’t just longer, it’s louder, with a full 6.1 surround soundscape that kicks in especially hard during the exorcism. I’m not sure whether the difference is rooted in the work done to prepare the extended cut in 2000 or if it comes from earlier DVD mixes, but it’s noticeable. Either way, you’ve never heard Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” sound better.
Reviews for the 2010 Blu-ray have more detailed analyses of the bonus features that appear on the first two discs, which include three audio commentaries (two with Friedkin, one with Blatty), deleted scenes, TV spots and theatrical trailers, interviews, sketches and storyboards, and several featurettes — one of which is a 77-minute making of documentary. For this 40th Anniversary release, I’ll highlight what’s new and let the reader decide whether that’s enough to upgrade:
* “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist” (27:49) — In this first of two featurettes on disc three, Blatty revisits locations important to the creation of his novel, including Angela Lansbury’s guest house and places in Georgetown. He also looks back on the writing process, reads excerpts from the book, and talks about updating and polishing the novel for its own 40th anniversary rerelease.
* “Talk of the Devil” (19:50) — An interview filmed shortly after the movie’s release with Father Eugene Gallagher, the Georgetown professor whose lecture about a 1949 possession case inspired Blatty to write the book. He talks about the author as a student, and reads from Blatty’s original letter requesting help to research real exorcisms. Gallagher offers a fascinating counterpoint to popular ideas of possession, combining a belief in the influence of demons with a genuine respect for psychology and science to treat most supposed cases.
* “The Mystery of Faith” excerpt from The Friedkin Connection — In April 2013, William Friedkin released his memoir. This 40-page hardcover reprints sections about The Exorcist, with archival photos. It’s a handsome book, but those who already own the 2010 set might prefer to buy the full memoir.
* An UltraViolet digital copy of the film’s extended cut.
There’s no denying The Exorcist is a horror classic in either its theatrical or extended forms. Whatever version you prefer, you’ve got two very good choices to watch them in hi-def with the two-disc 2010 Blu-ray, and this new 40th Anniversary box that adds a digital copy and a few new extras. Both are thorough examinations of a film worth examining. Whether this new set is worth the upcharge is up to you.