Captain Howdy Still Terrifies in ‘The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition’

The Exorcist has been released and re-released over the past 40 years in two different versions so many times that, by now, everyone who ever wanted to has seen The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen. Therefore Warner Bros. officially changed the name of that edition to The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut. The releases have gone from bare-bones to limited edition deluxe boxed sets with a treasure trove of extras. Thus, we’ve certainly seen it all by now.

Why continue to release this movie and why do people keep buying every edition over and over again? Because after 40 years, The Exorcist is not only one of the most frightening films ever made, but it’s also one of the best films ever made. Under the skilled direction of William Friedkin (brought on board after the success of his film, The French Connection), the film became not only a box office success (one of the biggest grossing horror films in history) but also a critically acclaimed feature film. Sure, it’s not a film for everyone, and yes, there have been a few bad reviews out there but its two Academy Awards (out of a mind-blowing total of ten nominations) and four Golden Globes (out of a total of five nominations) have successfully shut the mouths of those blasphemers pretty quick.

How is such a feat possible for a horror film? Horror has traditionally been among the most successful, but least acclaimed genres of all film, with only The Silence of the Lambs truly breaking the mold and sweeping the Oscars. The answer to that question is that, like The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist was not approached as a horror film, but as a spiritual mystery and drama. The lack of jump-scares in Friedkin’s classic make the suspenseful, visceral terrors all the more real for the viewer. This is also a prime reason why many audience members can’t make it through to the closing credits without checking out early. To the engrossed viewer, The Exorcist isn’t a horror film, The Exorcist is horror.

Friedkin’s interpretation of William Peter Blatty’s script (based on his own 1971 novel) focuses not on disturbance and terror, but on reality and tangible issues of real people being torn apart by something they cannot fathom. By the time the blood, gore, vulgarity and nightmarish imagery begins (and brother, it does) the drama is already unfolding and we, the audience, are all the more disturbed by the fact that we’ve been engrossed by these realistic, well-established characters.

Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil is an affable actress and affectionate mother to her only child Regan (Linda Blair, of course), a pretty, well-adjusted kid, happy and fun, until she starts having seizures and exhibiting strange behavior including, but not limited to the kind of profanity that could make any Tourette’s sufferer blush.

Outside of the family is Father Damien Karras (well-played by the subdued Jason Miller), a very worldly priest who doubles as a psychiatrist and straddles the world between spirituality and psychology while getting out his frustrations by beating the hell out of a punching bag. The terror of The Exorcist is rooted in this very worldliness. We’re not talking about a group of Quakers, but people who would rarely if ever think of such things. In fact, it’s only the involvement of a local police Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) that brings the Catholic Church into things in the first place and even they have to call out for a ringer in the title character, an archaeologist named Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow in very convincing old-age makeup).

Merrin and Karras exorcise Regan

The Blu-Ray transfer here is pretty much excellent and makes Dick Smith’s makeup design look all the more incredible. Take a look at Regan’s deteriorating face from the first signs of oddity to the last moments on screen. As impressive as this is, it pales when compared to the impressive makeup on von Sydow, who was 44 at the time, but playing a man in his 70s. So convincing is Smith’s makeup job on the younger von Sydow that the title Exorcist closely resembles the von Sydow of the past ten years (the actor is currently 84).

Amping up the “reality” factor, Blair’s lips are perfectly synched with actress Mercedes McCambridge’s amazingly scary demon voice. The terrifying flashes of the demonic face of the possessor “Captain Howdy” (also known as Pazuzu) keeps the audience uncomfortable and susceptible to the biggest of frights, very few of which are ever cheap or startling.

Captain Howdy observes Chris MacNeil in a single frame flash

While the writing and the directing are both exceptional here and make The Exorcist a drama with deeply horrifying elements, rather than a horror film with dramatic undertones, the best successes can be seen in the acting. Burstyn is excellent as the concerned mother who is moved from atheism to some form of terrified belief (or, at least, acceptance of the unknown). Miller was a stage actor, never having had a part in a film and he does a remarkable job here as the tough but depressed man walking the line between science and faith (and even… doubt).

Of course, especially for a child actress, Blair was exceptional here as each aspect of her character: the happy Regan, the sad kid who doesn’t know what is happening to her and as the menacing demon who performs some horrible acts and says things that are even worse. It’s amazing how consistently good Blair is even when her character is anything but consistent.

Regan on her way…

Above all this and though he actually has a relatively small amount of screen time for such a pivotal part, Max von Sydow steals the show as the Exorcist himself. The man is brilliant in this role and anyone could believe that he is the age called for by the script. I might add, it’s real credit to Jason Miller that he shared so much screen time with von Sydow and still held his own for a great performance.

Although largely repeats from previous releases, this three-disc 40th Anniversary Blu-ray edition’s bonus features are nothing short of excellent. Both the original theatrical release of the film and the 2000 director’s cut (formerly known as “The Version You’ve Never Seen”). Each disc features at least one commentary track, documentaries, interviews, promotional materials (such as trailers, radio and TV spots) as well as alternate scenes.

The third disc focuses only on special features such as the two new documentaries, Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Talk of the Devil that explores Father Eugene Gallagher ‘s telling of true stories of possession to author William Peter Blatty. The package also contains a 40 page hardcover book (the size of a Blu-ray) that presents the Exorcist-centric parts of Friedkin’s memoir The Friedkin Connection.

While The Exorcist is a quality drama that has the nominations and acclaim to back up its excellence, by its very nature, this film is not for all tastes. Friedkin and company dare to ask a lot of the audience and their constitutions, because so very much is calculated to distress and cause discomposure. However, make no mistake, The Exorcist is an excellent dramatic film, worth every second of the effort it takes to watch! Catholic Horror has been given its finest hour, unsurpassed in the subgenre to this day. The Exorcist is what it purports to be, no less than one of the best horror films, one of the best films, of all time.

RATING 9 / 10