“Have you ever heard of exorcism? It’s a stylized ritual in which rabbis or priests try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It’s pretty much discarded these days, except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment. It has worked, in fact, although not for the reason they think, of course. It was purely the force of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession helped cause it. And just in the same way, this belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.”
By now we’ve all heard of The Exorcist. The film was based on a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty. Blatty himself based the story on a real exorcism of a young boy many years earlier. And that’s where the true power of the film begins. The monsters of horror movies often allow us a sense of unreality that protects our inner selves from being truly terrified. Yes, they may frighten us, but it’s fun to be frightened, isn’t it? It’s rare that a horror film touches on something inside of us and delivers an experience that is truly terrifying. It’s arguable that The Exorcist has done this in a way that has rarely, if ever, been repeated in horror movie history. Whatever your religious beliefs might be, there is that little voice deep in our minds that fears what we call evil and can’t deal with the possibility that we can be taken over by such evil. Devil. Demon. Mental illness. It doesn’t matter. We’re all afraid of losing control of who we are to some invading force within our minds. Within our very souls.
“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
Young Regan (Blair) is a typical young girl, even if she doesn’t live a typical young girl’s life. Her mother is Chris Mac Neil (Burstyn), a well-known actress who is in Georgetown to shoot a movie on the campus. At first everything is normal. Regan likes to draw and is a normal playful girl. She interacts well with her governess, Sharon (Wynn), and they live in a big house that appears perfect, except it appears they may have rats. At least Mom thinks so, because she’s hearing odd sounds coming from the attic. The problem has become almost an obsession for the actress and mother, but soon she’ll have something else to worry about. Regan begins to exhibit some rather unsocial tendencies like coming downstairs to Mom’s little cocktail party and taking a leak on the rug like an un-housebroken puppy. A few vulgar insults to the guests for good measure, and before long Mom has her at the hospital undergoing all sorts of tests. The condition continues to deteriorate until medical science throws up their collective hands and inquires if she happens to know an exorcist.
Enter young Jesuit priest Father Damen Karras (Miller). He has been struggling with his own faith. His mother’s health has been declining, and a priest’s salary doesn’t allow him to care for her the way he believes he should. He’s also a psychiatrist, sent to medical school by the Church. When his mother dies, he’s a bit broken, and that’s how Mom finds him. She asks him to evaluate Regan for an exorcism. Of course, he declines, but offers to see the girl. By now we see that Regan has descended into something much worse than any medical condition. Her features are deformed. Her voice takes on a demonic nature, and her room is as cold as Santa’s workshop. Slowly he’s convinced of the possession and seeks the bishop’s permission. It’s agreed and also decided to bring in one of the few priests who have ever had any experience in this sort of thing.
Enter Father Merrin (von Sydow). We met him briefly in the prologue. Like Karras, he’s a specialist priest. Merrin is an archaeologist who we met during a rather haunting dig in Iran where he encountered an idol and the presence of some demonic being. He comes in, and the two priests do battle with Regan’s demons. Doesn’t work out too well for the padres, but Regan appears to be free of her troubles and without memory of any of it.
The film has more going for it than Blatty’s compelling story. The performances are all top-rate. We later discovered that Linda Blair’s performance was helped by Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the voice-over work of Regan’s demon self. At first she went uncredited, as director Friedkin thought it best that the demon voice be left to the audience’s imagination. This was done in the original Frankenstein for the same reason. Karloff wasn’t given opening credit for the role because James Whale believed the audience must not think of the monster in terms of an actor. He got credit in the end credit roll, but McCambridge wasn’t given credit at all. This led to an Oscar nomination that ended up having legitimacy issues when word got out that Linda Blair wasn’t providing her character’s voice. McCambridge lobbied to get her credit, and all copies of the film today include her credit in the end. Whoever provided the voice, it was effective, and still creeps me out today.
It wasn’t the pea soup or the excellent makeup work that converted Blair into the demon that provided those terrifying chills. William Friedkin had a rather brilliant idea, and it worked. In the 1970’s there was a ton of controversy about theaters, particularly drive-ins, inserting single frames of enticing refreshments in the film to cause the audience to get hungry or thirsty. It’s called a subliminal message, and it received a bit of attention as people worried that if the messages could covertly cause us to visit the snack bar, what else could they compel us to do? Friedkin rationalized that it might just scare the hell out of you, and he was right. The film contains strategically placed satanic faces at certain moments in the film. They flash by too fast to notice except when you know that they are there, as we all do now. I’m sure I’m not the only one to go frame by frame to pause the demonic images. Trust me. They are there, and I believe they contributed massively to the horrifying atmosphere of the film.
Enough can’t be said of the theme music. A score was written by Lalo Schifrin, who was best known at the time, and likely still today, for writing the Mission Impossible theme. Friedkin hated the score and ditched it. He later heard Mike Oldfield’s student composition, Tubular Bells. It struck a chord that’s been tingling our spines now for 50 years. Like Jaws or Psycho, it’s a musical piece that is instantly identifiable today and adds immensely to the atmosphere. Friedkin also experimented with the “normal” sounds of the film using an oscilloscope to change slight frequencies in the audio presentation to give them just enough strange to make them unsettling. We were scared out of our seats, and we just couldn’t put our fingers on just why or how. Now you know. If you think knowing will make it any less effective… Well… you’ll see.
Did you also know that the film has among its cast a real serial killer? Paul Bateson plays that bearded lab technician when Regan is getting all of those tests. He ended up murdering a film critic, and later it was discovered that he killed several men between the years 1975 and 1977. Friedkin himself capitalized on Bateson’s crimes by using his story in the film Cruising.
So you see there are a ton of reasons why The Exorcist still scares audiences today. Adjusted for inflation, it’s Warner Brothers’ most profitable film to date and the highest grossing R-rated film of all time. I saw it when I was 12 years old on the big screen. I don’t remember my initial reaction, but I find the film as compelling now as I likely did then. It’s a classic, to be sure, and long overdue for a UHD/4K release. We can thank the upcoming film for getting us this disc now.
The Exorcist is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 90 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The movie is not new to controversy, but let’s address the image presentation controversy that’s been around since the film’s earliest releases on home video. There have been color corrections that gave us some unnatural light and colors even in the last Blu-ray version. I have to report that some of those issues still exist. But I can say I really stopped noticing this time, so I don’t believe it’s as bad as it had been. Friedkin has said little about the issue, so I’m not sure if he approves or not. I suspect he’s OK with it, because it also shows on his more recently assembled cut. So let’s put that aside for this review and talk about what we have here.
With all of that controversy aside, we have what I believe is a very sweet image presentation here. Grain remains to provide that organic look and atmosphere. The level of detail is far above anything you’ve seen absent a 35mm print. The environs get the most bang for the buck here. The Georgetown locations have fine texture now. Those granite stone buildings stand out. The opening prologue in Iran is outstanding. Here colors are spot on. There’s a wonderful warm collection of colors and light, and the atmosphere behind these scenes is impressive. That iconic shot of the sun behind the demon statue is flawlessly perfect now. The detail in Regan’s room captures the atmosphere of the exorcism itself as good as it has ever looked. The image presentation is beautiful. If only we could return this level of restoration to the original color palette. Now that would be heavenly.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 7.1. Anything more would ruin the atmosphere of the original film. It would be a mistake to try to expand the audio field more than has been done here. For some it’s already too much. I venture to say I rather liked those subtle surround moments. It’s very noticeable right from the desert scenes with chanting and wind coming in from behind us now. The subs add texture to everything from the demon voice to the human dialog. The score still sends goosebumps, and it’s all delivered with great clarity. If you prefer the original, it’s still available here.
You get two UHD discs here. One contains the theatrical cut, and the other the more recent one with scenes like the spider-walk back in the film. There’s an intro by William Friedkin.
Few films have had the impact of the original Exorcist. William Peter Blatty’s original book was a phenomenal hit. The film’s intense imagery and in-your-face brutality was all the more disturbing coming from a young teenage Linda Blair. What makes this film effective, however, is the subtle touches: the quick-flash demonic faces, the eeriest backward language of the demon, and the haunting moans that culminate in one of the truly scariest films ever made. This release includes the version that restores footage, long legendary, but not seen by a movie audience. I remember seeing pictures of Linda Blair’s “spider crawl” in Famous Monsters of Filmland in the 70’s. To call this film a classic would be stating the obvious. 50 years after the fact, The Exorcist is still a frightening film. Currently Hollywood is about to release a direct sequel. If ever a film should be left to stand on its own, The Exorcist certainly fits the bill. This is one of those older classics that greatly benefits from the use of newer technology. This battle between pure evil and good absolutely “compels you”.