One of my earliest childhood memories revolves around The Exorcist. It was late December, 1973, the year of its release, back in the days where multiplexes were in abundance (and still in their relative infancy), and each took out huge, half-page ads showcasing newer films by displaying their posters, stills from the film, or a combination of both. On this occasion, two of my older sisters – perhaps 13 or 14 at the time – were begging my mother for a ride to the theater to see something called “The Exorcist”. It was when my mother was frantically paging through the entertainment section, looking for showtimes, that I first lay eyes upon the film’s now-iconic poster, with the silhouette of a man standing in front of an eerily illuminated house. I had no idea what it was (at least until I put two and two together and figured out that this was the poster for this Exorcist movie my sisters were so excited about seeing), but the image was just creepy. It wasn’t enough to instill nightmares, however, but, when my mother closed the paper I saw something that would not only insure a sleepless night, I saw “the face” that would haunt me decades.
Apparently trumpeting the arrival of the film, our local rag dedicated a huge chunk of its front page to the horrifying visage of a possessed Regan (Linda Blair) tied to her bed, staring menacingly at the reader. Of course, at the time, I had no clue who Regan or Blair were; all I knew was that this black and white picture staring back at me filled me with a feeling of abject terror the likes of which I’d not experienced up to that point in my young existence. I remember thinking something along the lines of THIS is what they’re excited about seeing? I mean, if just a picture from this movie could have this effect on me, what would enduring the entire film do to THEM!?
I begged and pleaded for them not to go, and I’m pretty sure I balled my eyes out when the ultimately did leave. Later, however, they’d return, their faces ashen, their moods nowhere near as jubilant as in the moments before they left. My fears were not unfounded. This film had changed them; the same way that horrific image had changed me. Innocence was lost. Our lives would never again be the same.
Then a funny thing happened.
They started laughing. It was a nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless. Then they started to recount their experience to my folks (neither of whom seemed all that interested as my father was a sports nut and western buff who hated horror and sci-fi anything, while my mother, despite a penchant for Hitchcock and spooky Betty Davis films, was easily frightened by anything involving the supernatural). Instead of sounding terrified, however, they sounded positively elated, like a pair of frenzied teens just stepping off of a roller coaster ride. They’d faced fear and lived to tell about, and tell they would, to just about anyone who would listen. I remember being puzzled by this as, to me, there was nothing fun or funny about being scared, but maybe I was going about it all wrong?
I’m pretty certain that this was the point at which I began to consciously seek out scary things for myself, tuning into Creature Double Features, making Dracula and Frankenstein models, hanging glow-in-the-dark green and black velvet posters of The Creature from the Black Lagoon on my wall, and, basically, morphing into the horror-obsessed weirdo I’ve been ever since, but it would still be at least a few years before I’d bear witness to The Exorcist, myself, and, despite all of the years I spent “seasoning” myself for the occasion, I couldn’t make it through the first half of the flick. This film scared the living shit out of me. I’d revisit the film several times over the years, but, to this day, it’s still a film I find difficult to watch for myriad reasons, not the least of which being the fact that, despite my rather lax attitude towards organized religion, I’m still a scared little Catholic boy at heart.
Everyone knows the story of the film by now, so there’s not much need for me to go into a detailed synopsis, but, for our younger readers who may have been putting this one off because “old movies don’t scare them”, I’ll say this much; take all of the scares of Insidious, The Conjuring, and the entire Paranormal Activity series combined, and you still won’t even touch the sheer, primal level of terror that The Exorcist brings to the table.
This isn’t a film that relies on jump scares (although there are a few) or gore (of which it is virtually devoid); The Exorcist is a human drama that runs on pure, blood-curdling, thick-as-London fog atmosphere. Every scene in director William Friedkin’s film is masterfully shot in a manner that keeps the viewer on perpetual edge, accented by one of the most visceral and nerve rattling scores ever set to music, and expert sound design that, to this day, ranks among the most effective and jarring examples of the craft. Like good and evil, itself, cinematographer Owen Roizman’s light and shadow are at constant odds, with seemingly anything and everything capable of surfacing from the muddy black. The film’s craftsmanship, when paired with excellent, wholly believable performances by Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, the sadly departed Jason Miller, and the revelation that is Linda Blair, makes The Exorcist of the rare genre offerings to find near universal acclaim without sacrificing what it is that makes a horror film work in the first place. If anything, The Exorcist goes further than many films, even now, would even dare to, and despite the fact that it’s now fast approaching its 40th Anniversary, the film still serves as the benchmark for supernatural horror.
Warner Brothers celebrates The Exorcist’s 40th Anniversary with a new, deluxe edition 3 Blu-ray set that features both the original theatrical edition of the film, as well as the extended director’s cut (aka; 2000’s “The Version You’ve Never Seen”) which, in addition to reinstating the much talked-about “spider walk” scene, featured an updated audio mix, some extra digitally inserted frights, and a few extra minutes of character embellishment. Each film is presented on its own disc (w/ their respective previously released extras), with a third Blu-ray consisting solely of new bonus materials.
In terms of A/V quality, both versions of the film appear to be using the same transfers from Warner’s previous Blu-ray release, but that’s far from a bad thing as the transfers are both fantastic, each with a crisp, clean image that’s virtually devoid of artifacts. The lossless soundtracks options include a 6.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix as well as a 5.1 DTS HD mix, but, as with the previous release, there’s no original mono track provided (save for lossy Spanish and French versions). The films look and sound terrific, but the real star here are the new features that accompany this release, including two featurettes - Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (HD), in which the author recalls the process behind the creation of his best-selling tome, as well as revisiting the work for the novel’s 40th Anniversary Edition, and Talk of the Devil (HD) which focuses on the 1949 case that inspired the book, and features vintage interviews with Father Eugene Gallagher, who brought the case to Blatty’s attention, as well as sample correspondences between Blatty and the Georgetown case’s actual exorcist, Father William Bowdern. It’s a nice companion piece to the former featurette, and offers an even more detailed look at the sheer amount of work and research that went into writing The Exorcist.
Rounding out the new stuff is a very attractive, truncated hardcover edition of the excellent memoirs of director, William Friedkin. This miniature version of The Friedkin Connection is, obviously, Exorcist-centric, and features the director’s ruminations and reminisces of his time on the film, as well as plenty of great behind-the-scenes photographs, snippets of dialogue, and more. It’s a handsome little book, and a nice piece of kit for completists.
The Exorcist 40th Anniversary Edition may not feature enough by way of new stuff to win over those who’ve already purchased a copy of the excellent digibook presentation from a few years back, but for those who don’t already own that release, this is currently the definitive edition, featuring both versions of the film, all of the previously released extras, and a collection of new goodies that, while not abundant, are certainly compelling and well worth viewing.