The Devil's Workshop
The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen is a misleading title, suggesting as it does that this is the film as it was originally intended and that somehow the audience was denied. This is not the case, in either concept or execution. This is The Version That Never Was or, more accurately, The Version You Couldn’t Have Seen Because We Didn’t Have CGI in 1973. William Peter Blatty, author of the novel and screenplay—and reportedly the film’s first director has stated that this re-editing and remastering job resolves creative differences that he and director William Friedkin had 27 years ago, and thus the new version is more in line with Blatty’s concept for the film. The problem here is that while some scenes that were expurgated from the original have been reinserted, Blatty is the only person with a reason to be happy about it.
There’s no real point in relating the plot of The Exorcist, as even people who’ve never seen it can tell you at least something about it: “Devil possesses little girl. Enter priests. Hijinks ensue.” It was the fifth highest-grossing picture of the Seventies. It consistently appears on film critics’ list of the ten scariest films ever made, and historians of the genre have declared it the turning point where horror films left the backlots and became official A-list pictures. Herschell Gordon Lewis, who invented the gore subgenre ten years earlier [Blood Feast, 1963], quit the movie business altogether after seeing it. References to The Exorcist are entrenched in our vernacular what parent of a child in the Terrible Twos and Threes has not invoked the image of Linda Blair’s head revolving on her neck and vomiting gouts of split-pea soup? There is no end to stories about the film’s supposedly cursed production, and Georgetown abounds with exterior locations that are reputed to be haunted. The Exorcist, under Friedkin’s direction, is a masterpiece, transcending the scary movie to become a chapter of American folklore how do you improve on that?
Not this way. The Version You’ve Never Seen contains five major pieces of added footage, four of which are creepy or horrific but don’t really contribute to plot or character development, and the fifth is just plain unwatchable. For example, a segment in which Regan MacNeil (Blair) is subjected to a pre-CATSCAN brain examination is sure to induce cringing, but is much too long and detailed. Two others, set in a psychiatrist’s office and an audio lab, respectively, are redundant and function merely to showcase a CGI effect and the film’s remastered sound. The fourth is the infamous “spider-walk” scene, in which Regan skitters down a flight of stairs on all fours, back arched and belly up, a torrent of blood flowing from her mouth. Back in 1973, the scene was considered too disturbing an effect even for this film, and disturbing it certainly is. You could call it the money shot, the re-release’s main selling point, the Grail of horror films the scene too freaky for The Exorcist. But it’s just not freaky enough to be worth sacrificing Friedkin’s carefully crafted timing, so vital to maintaining the sheer tension that permeates this film, for what is ultimately just a three-second gross-out scene.
Finally, Blatty’s original ending has been restored, and though it’s not a frightening scene, it is horrible. Police Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who has spent the film trading some recurring blather with Father Karras (Jason Miller) about nonexistent movies, walks into the sunset with Karras’ replacement. As great an actor as Cobb was, his presence in The Exorcist is wholly gratuitous to begin with Kinderman wanders around investigating the murders surrounding the MacNeil household, but plays no part in the main story and so having him close the picture is equally pointless, except that this is how Blatty closed the novel. There is an axiom among writers that says if you find yourself unusually attached to a particular scene, the scene is probably a distraction and should be cut another piece of wisdom that Friedkin heeded 27 years ago. His ending was unnerving. Blatty’s Casablanca ending is just dumb.
Also unnecessary are the added CGIs, which Blatty should have fought tooth and nail, as they undermine the true horror of Regan MacNeil’s possession, the corruption of an innocent. As Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) presses on with her frantic inquiries as to what’s gotten into her daughter, this twisted demonic face begins to appear in the house. It is, of course, the face of the Devil, and in the scene where a hypnotherapist tries to talk to “Captain Howdy,” thinking it simply Regan’s alternate personality, the face is suddenly superimposed over Linda Blair’s to frightening effect. Later on the face emerges and mixes with Dick Smith’s Oscar-winning makeup to ratchet up the truly horrible ravaging of Regan’s features while the Devil holds sway. But why does the face show up on a door? Hanging in the air? On a kitchen appliance was Satan getting a snack? The image of the Devil’s face works well when confined to Regan, but here the Devil is appearing all over the house, which elicits some startled gasps from the audience but is ultimately nothing but a gimmick reminiscent of old Night Gallery reruns.
The film is more than just a scary date movie and it deserves better than cheap thrills. What makes The Exorcist so incredibly frightening and enduring a film isn’t the makeup or the special effects or Mike Oldham’s creepy piano theme, but rather its statement on the nature of evil. Here the Devil is no Machiavellian figure, stroking his goatee and making crooked deals with the earthly rubes, nor is he the Miltonic Satan with ageless delusions of grandeur and the war with Heaven. Blatty and Friedkin’s Satan works in the media of bile and feces and oozing pus, foregoing all that rakish charm bullshit and instead reveling in what he can make the precious little virgin do and feeding on the sheer horror and revulsion he creates. This Satan terrifies because he picks his victim utterly at random and rapes her in every way possible, in full view of her mother and would-be protectors, laughing the entire time. This Satan is a terrorist, striking at the heart of our security and our faith, and on that level he resonates. He is Son of Sam and the Unabomber and the Jackal, and in our guts we fear his arbitrariness and his maniacal glee as he proves himself willing to take us out one at a time, starting with our daughters that is, while he’s inside Regan. The moment we see the Devil roaming, detached from the object of his terrorism and their ghastly symbiosis, he becomes little more than a stock Halloween ghostie.
Friedkin’s Exorcist holds up remarkably well. There is some cultural wear-and-tear that produces unintentional laughs Regan’s doctor prescribing Ritalin for her affliction drew howls at the test screening but the performances, particularly Max von Sydow’s, are timeless and the scares are as effective as ever. It was a real pleasure to see this film on the big screen again and that would have been justification enough for its re-release as-is.
But that’s not the point here, is it? Just as a lapse in copyright allowed writer John Russo to step in and “correct” the changes in Night of the Living Dead made by director George Romero, resulting in what is widely considered an inferior version of that film, William Peter Blatty has been looking for an opportunity to get back his own with The Exorcist and found it in the DVD Revolution. The advent of DVD has created a demand for supplementary content in order for distributors to justify it as a viable alternative to videotape, as something more than merely old wine in new bottles. While this may provide a prime opportunity for some creators to go back and repair what they consider their past mistakes, in the case of The Exorcist it appears that William Friedkin’s original film corrected many of Blatty’s mistakes. Thus The Version You’ve Never Seen is really The Version That We Would Never Have Let You See If We Didn’t Need New Material For DVD.
What is sad about this is that it’s going to sell. Like the cellular phone, the DVD, with all of its “limited” and “collector’s” editions, is just too shiny and futuristic for the trendy hordes to ignore. It’s a manufactured desire, a technology that creates its own demand simply by virtue of not being the thing we already have. Rumor has it that, like dishonest repairmen, the studios are now demanding a tithe of usable footage to keep out of theatrical releases, thus insuring a selling point for DVD versions by deliberately poking holes in new films then hawking the patches. Not that there’s anything technically wrong with this practice if it does exist it’s their product, after all but it does seem to have the same unsavoriness about it, much like the colorization of Frank Capra films, or the plundering of John Lennon’s failed experiments to produce new “Beatles” songs. It feels like a rule has been broken here, that perhaps Bigger-Better-Faster-More should be able to verify an actual demand for its services before it can go to work on Art, not simply do it because it can.