Exorcist, The (1973) (recut, 2000) ** 3/4
Directed by William Friedkin. Written and produced by William Peter Blatty, from his novel. Photography, Owen Roizman. Editing, Norman Gay, Jordan Leondopoulos, Evan Lottman, Bud Smith. Production design, Bill Malley. Music, Jack Nitzsche, Mike Oldfield ("Tubular Bells"). Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Chris McNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin), Linda Blair (Regan McNeil), Lee J. Cobb (Lt. Kinderman), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Jack MacGowran (Burke), Vasiliki Maliaros (Karras's mother), Mercedes McCambridge (Regan's satanic voice), et al. A Warners release. 132 minutes. R (obscenities, upsetting images.)
The film was a mega-hit in 1973, and is no doubt the best of the Exorcist films that followed. Now it is reissued with some extra 11-12 minutes taken from footage that was not included in the 1973 release. (The never-shown preliminary version ran about 139 minutes.) Primarily, restores some extremely coarse language by Regan (Blair) who was already plenty foulmouthed in the 1973 release. It also contains a gratuitous, wrong, mood-killing, "humorous" scene at the very end.
The mono soundtrack of this 27-year old work has been skillfully turned into stereo --which adds something to the movie. But the sounds of at least one scene (Burstyn and Miller talk while unseen kids make noises) come out of the side speakers artificially.
The film's admirers were and still are legion. I was not a big fan then, I am not now. Yet, though I realize that this "enhanced" reissue is caused by filthy lucre, I am glad to see revivals on the big screen finding a new public. There's another bonus too. Alongside awful movies for cable TV, the proliferation of multiplexes also encourages much junk to be shown in theaters. So, we may assume that whenever an oldie significant for any reasons is resuscitated on the big screen, it takes the place of some lamentable new item.
Except for older persons, too many vintage picturesare "terra incognita." For those titles, videos, laser disks or DVDs do fill a gap, but this is not as important as having "true" projection.
Most film-viewers know that "The Exorcist" is about 12-year old Regan, the daughter of divorced movie actress Chris. The girl becomes possessed by the (or a) devil, does horrible things and looks horrible too. Tentative medical diagnoses settle on a lesion of the temporal lobe. Surgeries (most graphic!) do not help. Matters go from bad to worse. Exorcism is suggested. It is performed by youngish Catholic priest Father Karras (Jason Miller in his film debut) and the experienced, older Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow).
The opening, set in Northern Iraq, is splendid. From a minaret, a muezzin calls the faithful to their hourly prayers. In a large archaeological dig, discoveries are made. Father Merrin ( in civvies), frail of health and serious of mien, is involved. Iraqi places and people are shown creatively, not as touristic sights but as atmospheric sites. This footage, shot on location in Iraq, sets a very special mood.
The story shifts to the USA where it becomes a novel type of horror movie. To this day, a great many spectators claim that it is the scariest film ever made. That's where I part ways with them --no doubt because I do not scare easily in most movies of that genre.
I am affected by well-made "horror" films that suggest rather than depict, where the horror is more implicit than explicit. Of course, sometimes a literal kind of horror does work but it leaves no residue as a general rule. Let me me put it this way, with some examples off the top of my head.
"The Cat People," "The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers" (both versions,),"The Night of the Hunter," "Rosemary's Baby," and such, are much more chilling than any "Alien" or "Aliens" or most special effects movies. "Psycho" and "Blade Runner, so different from each other, in spite of some explicitnessfactual get their main impact from powerful atmospheres. And so on.
Even more frightening are movies in other categories that are not specifically labeled as horror. These range from sociological works to political fictions, semi-fictions or documentaries. And they can show super-horror, as in the factual "Night and Fog" which deals with WWII deportations and extermination (genocide) camps. There are so many true horror works that fiction pales before reality. Man's inhumanity to man, the abomination of wars, terrorism, neglected or forgotten humans, injustices, inequities, and much else grip you in (at random) "The Grapes of Wrath," " I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," and many more.
Two recent examples I caught on TV. A new German documentary on how the Nazis brainwashed Hitler Youths, then turned them into kid-soldiers (as young as 12) whom they sacrificed in vain. That's true horror. I also saw for the fifth time "Memphis Belle," that heart-rending documentary about true heroes, young airmen of the 8th US Army Air Force who, in WWII, bombed Germany over and over, and had a horrendous rate of attrition.
Of course, there are exceptions to the exceptions, meaning literal scenes that horrify. In my own case, this goes back to the the very first feature I ever saw. It was a scene in a reissue of the old "Trader Horn," one of the first movies ever shot mostly in Darkest Africa. A native porter falls off a liana bridge to the river below and is killed by a crocodile. I had nightmares for months.
Back to "The Exorcist." I am tepid about it not only because every horror is spelled out but because the story is unconvincing, arbitrary and has weak connections between its component parts. I don't believe in devils either--other than human -- or in telekinesis, levitation, etc. But I do confess that after its 1973 screening I avoide green pea soup for weeks. And, to be fair, the special effects, while seeking sensationalism and cheap thrills, remain impressive.
In 1973, Pauline Kael, the then monarch of reviewers, wrote: "The demonic possession of a child is treated with shallow seriousness. The picture is designed to scare people and does so by mechanical means." I add to this that there seems to be no real pity for Regan's giga-predicament, while there was for King Kong, for the victims of Dr. Moreau or Count Dracula.
Lastly, there are too many unexplained matters and loose ends. A minor case occurs when Chris, hearing weird noises, explores her attic by the light of a candle. (This goes against my belief that everyone involved incertain situations should carry a lighter, a flashlight and a Swiss Army knife.) Or else the peculiar fact that movie actress Chris seems to be living permanently in Georgetown rather than in Los Angeles or New York. I may have missed something.
A major puzzle concerns Father Karras, this "sacerdote de la triste figura." He is very clearly of Greek descent. His mother speaks perfect Greek, with a genuine accent. She is played by Vasiliki Maliaros, a totally Greek name. (I have found no other credit for her). But then, how and why did Karras get into Roman Catholicism, since practically all Greeks are hard-core Orthodox Christians?
All things and flaws considered however, the film is worth seeing, but more for its sensationalism rather than its logic or feelings.