Exorcist eliminates any medical explanation for the grisly occurrences inside the MacNeil household, and it’s an important step to establish reality. Those without religious beliefs would otherwise be turned off, medical science proving worthless, and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) having nowhere left to go to help her daughter.
Chris also doesn’t share any religious beliefs, again helping those members of the audience along to better accept what is happening as a fully realized piece of horror fiction, made even more so when it’s happening to a little girl.
Much can be said for Linda Blair’s performance, her nasty, deplorably possessed body completely destroyed by the demon. So terrifying is her performance, it would typecast her for much of her career, from horror spoofs like Repossessed to small cameos in others like Scream. Unfortunate as some of them may be, Blair was a gift to this film, her energy and creepiness soaring well above the expectations of a 14-year old.
The film uses small tricks long before Regan (Blair) becomes completely taken over by the apparition, including the creepy Ouija board, it’s magnifying glass zipping across the table. It’s only creepy to the audience, knowing full well what is coming, while the characters make it logical.
Realism is certainly the driving force behind The Exorcist, dialogue developing these characters naturally, cleanly, and effectively. Nothing feels out of place or unnatural until Regan’s fits begin, further adding to the weight of the possession. It’s as if the film is drawing the viewer in with a sense of false security, helping them relate to these characters, before hammering them over the head with some of the most iconic scares in all of cinema
Not all of those scares made the final theatrical edition, hence the inclusion of another Director’s Cut on the second disc in this Blu-ray set. While not all of the additions made to “The Version You’ve Never Seen” were effective, two are. The sight of Regan crawling down the stairs bent over backwards is a horror classic, even though original theatrical attendees never saw it. The second is certainly the discussion between Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) on the stairs, detailing why a demon would take over such an innocent child.
The latter is crucial to explaining character motivations to follow and the ending, which while still understood, can still cause confusion. Unfortunately, the extended cut also takes the ending explanation too far, telling the events a little too boldly, and ruining the impact. It’s a tricky balance for this classic, the different versions in a struggle with each other. Still, if there’s any film worth watching twice for its various alterations, it might as well be The Exorcist. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Movie]
Since the different versions of the film are on their own discs, that gives plenty of room for these VC-1 encodes to breathe. However, despite being on a 50GB disc, the end result only takes up 31GB for the theatrical version (41.2 for the Extended), rather disappointing. The end result is not too evident, the film’s generally heavy grain structure fairly well resolved. The opening scenes in Iraq are quite brilliant, the color of the sand striking, the bright contrast impressive, and the detail immense. The barrage of kicked up dirt does cause of a bit of a digital breakdown in terms of the compression, the same issue evident not long after as Ellen Burnstyn goes into the kitchen for the first time. Noise beats grain. The worst comes at 1:30:54, a low light shot where the noise swallows everything else.
Many of the scenes with Father Karras carry a filtered look, by intent though. The light creates a blooming effect, notable as he visits his mother each time. The film otherwise appears natural, clean, and typically sharp. While the benefit of high-fidelity detail is minimal save for a few close-ups, environments and establishing views are impressive. A shot of Georgetown at 18:05 resolves plenty of texture deep into the frame. The scene as the doctors explain the idea of an exorcism medically at 1:03:29 is brimming with clarity for the same reasons, the camera paned back from the start.
Black levels are rich, definitely generating significant depth in the image that was never there before. Any crush seems to be more by design, shots at night or in the hallway during the break from the ritual taking away some shadow detail. The loss is minimal at best. The source itself is pristine, not a single speck, hair, or shred of dirt left on this source. The same goes for the Extended version’s added scenes.
Warner is typically tops when it comes to restorations of their classics, and for all of the benefits HD provides this film, the studio has produced better work. Exorcist does look great, and who knows what the source was like. A combination here of sloppily resolved grain and meager high-fidelity detail are a bit lackluster compared to the expectation Warner has built. In fact, their recent string of Bogart ’40s classics on Blu-ray are a step above, despite the age and lack of color. It takes a lot these days to impress when the grand examples keep piling up. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]
A DTS-HD 5.1 mix is a bit out of character for Warner, generally sticking with an uncompressed mono mix in recent months. Likely, the mix was prepared for DVD, and why not include it? There is little to nothing going on in the surrounds, keeping the audio naturally in the front channels, even in the center. None of the effects are unnatural or extravagant.
Most of the work is left to the stereo channels, where a seemingly natural split holds most of the score. Other effects, such as the bed being slammed around as the exorcism takes hold fire off from the middle, and again, there is nothing dubious about it. It creates a natural atmosphere, and the fidelity is clean enough not to appear strained. The same goes for the bar around 25:40 in, various chatter splitting free of the center.
Dialogue is well rendered, a bit hollow sure, but presented with care. There is no distortion to speak of, any anomalies either taken off the track in restoration, or cared for well enough that nothing needed to be tampered with for this release. The DVD was a big deal back around 2000, so much of the heavy lifting was probably handled there. What we are given is more than serviceable, and in many ways quite striking. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]
There are three commentaries here, spread across the two discs. Director William Friedkin discusses both the original and extended cuts on his own, while author William Peter Blatty takes on the theatrical version.
The rest of the theatrical disc contains an interview gallery where Friedkin and Blatty sit down to chat about the film and the book.The Fear of God is the main making-of, a great piece detailing the film’s construction and design. The original ending is included as a deleted scene, while some sketches and storyboards round of this first Blu-ray in the package.
The Extended disc contains Raising Hell, a 30-minute look at the shoot itself. An eight-minute featurette detailing of the Georgetown locations then and now reveal that little has changed since filming commenced. Faces of Evil shows off the changes to the versions, and why they were made. Both discs have a series of trailers as well. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Extras]