Somewhere between science and superstition, there is another world. The world
“Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that — do not listen.”
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond) is a relatively well-known actress currently shooting a film in Washington, D.C. She’s brought her pre-teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair, Exorcist II: The Heretic) along with her, and is enjoying the opportunity to spend some time with her only child. As the days pass, Chris notices that Regan is engaging in increasingly strange behavior. It seems innocent at first (she claims to have an imaginary friend named “Captain Howdy”), but soon grows more sinister and bizarre. After subjecting her daughter to a series of psychological and medical exams that offer no conclusive results, Chris turns to a priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller, Rudy).
After examining Regan, Karras determines that the girl has been possessed by a demon. He feels the solution is to perform an exorcism; an ancient ritual so controversial that the Catholic Church is hesitant to publicly endorse it. Nonetheless, Karras is able to persuade the church to send a man with experience in the field: Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, Minority Report), who is returning to America after spending years on an archaeological expedition in Iraq. Are the priests capable of conquering the evil spirits which are slowly destroying Regan, or will evil prove too strong?
All cards on the table: I think The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made. Yes, there are plenty of other worthy candidates that come close, but no other film in the genre has managed to resonate with me quite the way this one has. Its tale of spiritual horror is not effective because of how disturbing or extreme the images presented by director William Friedkin are, but rather because it arrives at those images in a chillingly intelligent and methodical manner. As Friedkin indicates in his introduction, it’s a film that deals with wild supernatural material as realistically as possible.
William Peter Blatty’s screenplay (based on his novel) smartly makes Chris a skeptic who is hesitant to believe any supernatural hocus pocus. Even when things start getting really out of control, she’s searching for a logical conclusion. Every possible alternative to something supernatural is explored; the evidence is examined by thoughtful, attentive people who don’t accidentally overlook things staring them right in the face (as so many characters in horror flicks often do). As the options are eliminated, we are led quietly, persuasively but firmly to the unavoidable conclusion that something bigger is at work. Because the film is so convincing in the many little details along the carefully-plotted journey, the explosive theatrics of the film’s final act are unnervingly effective.
On a more subversive level, Blatty and Friedkin have made Chris precisely the sort of woman religious zealots would sneeringly accuse of inviting some sort of heavenly punishment. She allows her daughter to play with a Ouija board, she casually takes the Lord’s name in vain (“Jesus Christ!”) and she’s a member of the Liberal Hollywood Establishment. Friedkin has stated that his goal was to make a film that will allow people to take out of the film whatever the brought into it: if they believe the world is inherently good or bad, they will find enough evidence in the movie to back up that view. Likewise, while most reasonable viewers will find Chris and Regan sympathetic victims of an evil force, Friedkin has wickedly created a film that will allow members of the religious right to nod piously and declare, “That woman brought this on her daughter.”
The film requires a lot of its actors, and everyone delivers admirably. Linda Blair’s performance is fearlessly unnerving; that Friedkin was able to draw such raw work from her is perhaps his most impressive achievement in this film. Ellen Burstyn is also superb as Chris, turning a character that could have simply been a fretful bystander into a genuinely compelling human being. It’s devastating to watch her resolve crumble as she searches for answers and continues to come up empty. Jason Miller is effectively naturalistic in his first film role, proving to be mature and confident as a newcomer. Still, the show is just about stolen by Max Von Sydow, whose splendid third-act appearance gives the film an appropriate level of gravitas as it heads into territory that could have seemed silly if handled incorrectly. Von Sydow certainly engaged in his share of spiritual conflict in the films of Ingmar Bergman — after all, this is the man who played chess with death in The Seventh Seal. No one else could have so persuasively essayed a man who has spent his life battling the darkest forces of evil.
Anyway, the film itself has already been analyzed in great detail on multiple occasions on this site, so let’s dig into the specifics of this Blu-ray release. The Exorcist arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very impressive 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. While it has never been a dazzler on a visual level, I must say that this hi-def release looks vastly better than any of the previous DVD incarnations. Yes, the image is pretty soft and there’s a rather heavy level of grain throughout, but otherwise there’s almost nothing to complain about. Detail is excellent in spite of the softness, while blacks are rich and deep. There are faint traces of edge enhancement at times, but nothing genuinely bothersome. I couldn’t find any traces of DNR and there are almost no scratches and flecks present anymore. The audio is pretty sturdy, proving quietly effective early on and then unleashing with impressive fury during the film’s last act. Some sound design can be just a tad muffled at times, but dialogue is clean and the sequences with busy sound design are sublime. It’s worth nothing that the extended cut boasts a DTS-HD 6.1 Master Audio track, while the theatrical version offers a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Both are excellent and I couldn’t find any distinct differences between the two.
Now, on to the generous supplemental package. First up, you have the two different versions of the film offered on two Blu-ray discs. The extended “Version You’ve Never Seen” added a small handful of controversial additions, with some praising the film as improved and others suggesting it had been ruined. Personally, I don’t think they add much of value to the movie but I don’t think they do serious harm, either. I prefer the theatrical cut (and I would have been quite upset if they had only released the extended version), but the extended version is interesting enough to merit a look.
Disc one contains all of the new supplements. The best of them is a 30-minute piece entitled “Raising Hell: Filming the Exorcist.” It offers a surprisingly generous supply of never-before-released behind-the-scenes material and new interviews. There’s some overlap with the old supplements, but it’s a well-produced piece. “The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Now and Then” (9 minutes) examines the various locations of the film, while “Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of the Exorcist” (10 minutes) covers every incarnation of the film from the early workprint version to this very Blu-ray release.
Everything else has appeared on previous DVD releases, but it’s valuable material. First up, you get two Friedkin commentaries (one on each version of the film), plus a Blatty commentary on the theatrical version (which the writer prefers). “The Fear of God” (77 minutes) is a must-watch documentary detailing the entire story of the film’s creation, offering very candid comments from all involved. You also get a director’s introduction (2 minutes), some additional interviews with Friedkin and Blatty (9 minutes), the blah original ending (2 minutes), some sketches and storyboards (2 minutes) and some trailers and TV spots. The whole thing is presented in a slightly bulkier-than-usual version of Warner Bros. Blu-ray Book packaging, which offers the usual full-color pages containing production notes, photos and actor bios.
Every movie buff needs to have The Exorcist in their collection. This Blu-ray collection offers both versions of the movie, a very generous supplemental package and stellar audio and video. To date, it’s easily the most definitive release of this genuine classic.