Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen (1973/2000)


Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Cast: Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil; Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin; Jason Miller as Father Damien Karras; Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil; Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice of the Demon; Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #Bonus 1

Concluding my travels through the Exorcist franchise, the following will be briefer than the others. The director's cut of The Exorcist was a special case, like Francis Ford Coppola's 2001 "Redux" of Apocalypse Now, of an extended cut of a culturally important film getting a theatrical release decades later from the original version and having success. There was also something symbolic with this version's theatrical release, whether it had been released in British cinemas or not, knowing that in 1999 the original version was unbanned from video finally in the United Kingdom. One of the many embarrassing moments of the James Ferman headed British Board of Film Classification, it feels almost symbolic, like when another of Ferman's personal targets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was also unbanned soon after his retirement, of a new age we still live in now that, for all the moments that still raise eyebrows, the BBFC became more clearheaded from censorship bans and illogical cuts for the better. At least a victory lap for the better.

I was however too young to see this version until now. My experience with The Exorcist has always been the original theatrical version, both in the story of my uncle on my mother's side seeing it back in the early seventies and finding the shocked reactions to the film (and the film itself) funny rather than scary, and my own viewing of the 1973 theatrical release. The director's cut has not really replaced the theatrical version in the slightest; unlike the many butchered original releases of films buried by the superior director's cuts, the one for The Exorcist is more subtle in its inclusions and not that significant to outright obscure the original from existence. In fact baring one major moment which became part of popular culture cut off by itself, I find the director's cut of this more of a new perspective of the original for a change of pace.

It's a version with a slightly different pace, slower but never feeling like b-roll has been pointlessly stuffed in. The inclusions are mostly new dialogue scenes which, admittedly, are not of worth in exposition as the theatrical version was exceptional enough trimming them out and still conveying information, but are worthy instead of re-inclusion as to adding new details on these richly woven characters of William Peter Blatty's script. Max von Sydow, though its only a few more lines, gets more screen time and with a cast like Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and George C. Scott, even pointless additional exposition still works as character building instead. One of the only major differences in tone is the "happier" ending sequence with Scott, which Blatty wanted in the film to affirm that the story did end with a victory for good in spite of the finale tragedy. Either way, both the theatrical and director's cut versions have memorable ending shots, so you have two good ones instead of just one. There's little need to say ones better as the other, as the first is a potent image of stairs with no dialogue, the other a sweet end to a melancholic finale with loved characters.

The scene which is also distinct and the one the film is still remembered for is the "spider walk" sequence, which split off into being part of pop culture lexicon of something the demonically possessed act in horror films. Even wrestling fans have seen the influence of this scene on their entertainment if you google "Bray Wyatt". It's however a terrible scene in context of the film and actually comparable to Renny Harlin's terrible 2004 prequel in terms of being a crass jump scare I'd expect from that film. It's not only at the end of a major plot event which lessens its impact, but the type of scare is out of place as well for both the tone and the context in the narrative, having yet to progress to the more extreme supernatural incidents which are far more fittingly depicted through the infamous crucifix masturbation sequence. The irony that it's this small moment, originally cut out of the film for tone, that's remember is actually sad as, when the rest of this version of the movie is still excellent, it's stands out badly.

Baring this, the director's cut is actually a nice tribute to what qualities The Exorcist in either version has, appreciating it more now than before seeing these films in order. It also emphasises how well the franchise has been in spite of two sequels, only one of them legitimately bad in Renny Harlin's whilst even Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) has a compelling weirdness to it. Most of the films on this viewing of the director's cut actually fit within the world of the original, enough within dialogue and moments in both the original theatrical cut and this version that evoke the potential for all the films that would come after. Particularly how even exposition dialogue has a distinct personal style to them evokes how good William Peter Blatty would be in his directed script for The Exorcist III (1990). The greater testament, as this can qualify as an epilogue for viewing all the films, is knowing that barring Harlin's all the films, even John Boorman's, have this air of higher quality than a lot of horror franchises. Fittingly for an original film that was directed as much as a drama as it was a horror film, most of the sequels would share the same care with its themes, the respect future creators had far better than other franchises with greater results1.

1 For anyone curious, I'll gladly watch The Exorcist TV series from 2016 if it was easier to acquire, (and baring in mind a second series is also on the way as of 2017). Blind buys for a digital download only show is a bit of a risk unless it's something immensely special for myself. When it is easier to see, I'll add a new chapter later on after completing this franchise touching on it.


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