The Exorcist: an assessment of the 2000 re-release version

The Exorcist (1973) re-issued 2000In the year 2000, twenty-seven years after its initial release, William Peter Blatty finally gave his complete seal of approval to the film version of THE EXORCIST, which he scripted and produced, based upon his novel. Ever since the film came out in 1973, the author has expressed his disappointment with William Friedkin`s final cut, even going so far as to enumerate those flaws in his book The Exorcist: From Novel to Film. Basically, nearly twenty minutes of material was removed in order to get running time down to two hours and two minutes, and the result “to my mind at least,” Blatty once told me, “are some glaring construction flaws.” For the film’s re-release in 2000, eleven minutes were restored; plus, new shots were added, and some footage enhanced with brief, nearly subliminal special effects. The question for viewers, of course, is whether or not this new material makes a substantial difference to the viewing experience.
The answer is a definite yes: the revised cut is substantially enhanced by the restorations. Whether this is enough to convert those who never liked the film is another matter, but those sitting on the fence post might be swayed, and longtime fans should be pleased to see a fuller rendering of the material, containing some brief but crucial moments that lay a more solid foundation for the thematic underpinnings of the story.
That said, one must still acknowledge that, even with the enhancements, the film is not and never will be a replacement for the book. Blatty’s novel runs some four hundred pages and contains voluminous material that could (and probably should) never be filmed—much of it relating to mental illness and psychic phenomena, in an effort to establish possible alternate explanations for Regan’s “possession.” The truth of the matter is that the film never really diverged that much from the book, except in terms of omissions. Now some of those omissions have been reinstated. They don’t really change one’s interpretation of the film (especially if you were familiar with the source material to begin with), but they do make the interpretation much more clear to people who perhaps were too disturbed by the power of the shock effects to see past them and to the message of faith that was intended.
The changes fall into three categories: restorations, remixing, and additions. Taking the middle one first, the new soundtrack is rendered in wonderfully atmospheric multi-channel stereo that often seems to put the audio in the middle of the action. This works especially well not only in the shock sequences but more particularly in the quiet moments, when subtle audience cues seem to surround the viewer with a sense of omni-present evil. If there is a flaw here, it is that the remixed track may layer the sound on a bit too thick. The old version effectively juxtaposed loud outbursts with moments of near-dead silence. The new version sometimes seems to obliterate the silence, making the juxtaposition less effective. Instead of loud contrasted with silent, we now have loud contrasted with not-so-loud.
The impact of the restored scenes varies. Still missing is Regan and Chris MacNeil’s walking tour of Washington, D.C., and it’s probably just as well. Even Blatty, in The Exorcist: Novel to Film, admitted that the early omitted scenes were “boring”; his problem with their removal was that they left continuity gaps. One of those gaps is filled by the inclusion of an initial visit to the doctor, but a new gap is created. Whereas the old version contained dialogue references to a missing doctor scene, we now see the doctor’s office first; unfortunately, it is not altogether clear why Chris (Ellen Burstyn) thinks her daughter (Linda Blair) needs medical attention. Sure, there have been ever-so-slight hints of manic-depressive behavior, along with one dialogue reference to a shaking bed, but the film really relies on the dialogue in the doctor’s office to explain what’s been going wrong with Regan. If there is an upside to this sequence, it is that the examination scenes themselves have a slightly creepy, foreboding quality, showing us the first images of Regan displaying behavior that, while not Satanic, is certainly odd and upsetting coming from a previously innocent-looking young girl.
Later additions are more impressive. The spiderwalk, cut because the effects didn’t work in their day, has been rendered now (thanks to digital touching up) in completely convincing imagery. Brief but extremely effective, this scene will surely become the “must see” moment of this version, joining the crucifix scene as one of cinema’s most memorably horrifying moments (which is all the more impressive when you realize that we’re talking about just a few shots running maybe twenty seconds).
A few additional lines of dialogue with Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) allow the character to show a sense of humor that helps humanize him, instead of leaving him as the archetypal white-hated hero who rides in to save the day. Offered some brandy for his coffee, he jokes, “The doctors say I shouldn’t, but thank God, my will is weak.” Ellen Burstyn`s blank-faced reaction (she doesn`t get the joke) is priceless. It`s a nice moment of comic relief just before the intensity of the scenes that will follow.
Even more brief, but far more crucial, is the dialogue between Merrin and the confused Father Karras (Jason Miller). The lines, an attempt to give a possible explanation for the possession, are already being dismissed by some critics as pretentious exposition, but in truth they form the crux of a moving dramatic moment. You almost literally see the light go on in Karras’s eyes as the import of Merrin’s words sinks in: “I think the point is to make us despair… to see ourselves as animal and ugly… to reject the possibility that God could love us.” This is exactly Karras’ problem, and this realization makes his renewed strength five minutes later much more understandable. When a distraught Chris asks whether her daughter is going to die, there is a wonderful cut from a two shot to a reverse angle close-up of the priest, who much to his own surprise says, “No” with a kind of unexpected confidence that can only be attributed to faith. Now at last, we have some kind of clue as to the reason for the transition.
Of all the footage removed from the film, this is the bit that hurt the most, and its restoration is the most important reason returning to The Exorcist (the spiderwalk notwithstanding). The reason for the removal was supposedly to speed up the pace, but the scene itself remained in the previous cut (minus dialogue), with the priests sitting on the stairs in between bouts of the exorcism ritual. The inclusion of the actual dialogue adds only a few seconds—hardly enough to affect the film’s overall pace—and the dramatic impact is easily worth the extra running time.
The final addition is the inclusion of Blatty’s “Casablanca” ending, with Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) befriending Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley), the implication being that even after the horror and sacrifice that have occurred, there is still a chance for hope and happiness in the world. Back in 1973, leaving Dyer staring in seeming despair down the Hitchcock steps might have fit with the mood of the nation, but only the most cynical critic would insist that this was a more profound or powerful ending. The restored coda, presumably, will send viewers of the theatre realizing that the film was not intended to bombard them with a sense of hopeless despair.
So much for the restorations; what about the additions? As often is the case with new editions (be they books or films), the artists seem unable to resist the temptation to rethink the material instead of merely correcting past errors. In this case, a few new and/or enhanced shots have been added. Mostly they are effective, but some show definite signs of reappraisal. It’s rather like musicians playing an old hit twenty years later: they add a new lick here or there to refresh the material, but the new performance only makes sense in context of the original; it’s a variation on a theme, a new touch added to an old standard, but it’s not necessarily something that should have been there from the beginning.
Case in point: the new opening scene. A moody tracking shot from the Georgetown townhouse that dissolves to a statue of the Virgin Mary (one that will be desecrated later in the film), the scene makes no sense out of context. If you haven’t watched The Exorcist or at least seen stills from the film, you have no idea what the significance is supposed to be, whereas familiar viewers immediately recognize, “That’s the place where it all will happen,” while sensing a familiar nostalgic thrill of anticipation. It doesn’t exactly hurt the film, but it doesn’t help much, either. It’s most important impact, perhaps, is to state from the opening frame that you are indeed seeing a new version; otherwise, audiences might get worried waiting through that first half hour for a sign of something new.
Later additions consist not so much of new footage as of old footage that has been enhanced with new special effects to convey a stronger sense of a demonic presence. During the restored first doctor’s examination, there is an additional “subliminal” image of the demonic face previously glimpsed only twice in the film. The new cut is clearly in color, whereas the old ones looked like black-and-white.
This perhaps counts more as a “restoration” than an addition, but the image ties in with other later ones that clearly are additions: this face is seen again, like an afterimage of something briefly glimpsed, when Chris MacNeil returns to an apparently empty home and finds the lights flickering on and off for no apparent reason. The impact of this previously unseen image is truly remarkable, and the effect is pumped up even further by the gradual revelation of yet another near-subliminal image, a faintly discernable silhouette of the statue of the demon Pazuzu, glimpsed in the shadowy darkness of Regan’s room as her mother looks in the door. The effect is genuinely unnerving, provoking as much verbal reaction from the audience as any of the more overblown shocks that the film throws at them.
On top of this, just before Regan attacks the psychiatrist attempting to hypnotize her, there is also a brief morphing type effect that superimposes a demonic countenance over her features, clearly indicating that her actions are the result of the evil influence inside her. The image somewhat foreshadows the climax, wherein Father Karras’s face briefly assumes a similar look. In that case, the transition back to his normal countenance seems to have been smoothed over a bit with a digital enhancement; in the old version, it somewhat resembled a simple jump-cut. (This last enhancement may actually have been done for the DVD; either way, this is the first time it has reached the big screen.)
The end result of all this imagery is to increase the surreal quality of the film, the sense not only of physical shocks but also of spiritual evil lurking in the dark. The impact is impressive, but even more than before it emphasizes the supernatural explanation for the phenomenon of possession—an element that was left open to debate in the novel. At first, the new cut seems to be hewing closer to the book, with the initial doctor’s exam seeming to lay the groundwork for a psychological explanation, but the new imagery undercuts this interpretation completely.

Manifestation or hallucination?
Manifestation or hallucination?

Of course, the power of the special effects always had audiences convinced that the Devil was at work in the film, but previously much of the imagery was presented in a way that was at least somewhat open to another interpretation; for example, the infamous 360-degree head-spinning shot was bracketed by reaction shots of Jason Miller, implying that what we’re seeing is a hallucination in his mind. Likewise, when the statue of Pazuzu manifested itself in the old cut during the exorcism, the shot in no way matched with the objective shots surrounding it; again, we were left feeling that what we were being shown was a vision perceived by the characters, not an objective reality. These new images, however, are not directed at the characters; they are aimed straight out of the scene toward the viewing audience. With no possible subjective interpretation, the only way to read them is as evidence of an actual demonic presence. Not that anyone ever really doubted, but now even a tentative alternate interpretation is pretty much untenable.
So what’s the bottom line? From the day of its first release in 1973, The Exorcist was the greatest horror film ever made, and it remains so to this day. The restored version alters the classic in noticeable ways. Sometimes, the film is obviously better; in other cases, it is merely different. To some extent one might consider it closer to the perfect realization of what it was meant to be; on the other hand, it sometimes plays like an extended variation on a familiar theme. One way or the other, the film remains worth seeing, and it’s safe to say that, as it was in 1973, so also will The Exorcist be the best horror film released in the year 2000.
THE EXORCIST (originally released 1973; revised version released 2000). Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel. Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, William O’Malley, Barton Heyman, Peter Masterson, Rudolf Schundler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Thomas Bermingham.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Sense of Wonder: The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Fact or Fiction?

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) horizontal poster

This upcoming release of THE LAST EXORCISM on Friday has fans of cinefantastique thinking back, inevitably, to THE EXORCIST (1973), the Oscar-winning horror classic that really upped the ante in terms of mainstream movies willing to pull no punches when it came to shocking viewers. (THE LAST EXORCISM even contains a clever dialogue reference to the older film: the minister Cotton Marcus [Patrick Fabian] notes that, when it comes to exorcism, the Roman Catholic Church gets all the press, “because they have the movie.”) However, THE LAST EXORCISM actually bears a stronger similarity to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), in terms of setting, circumstances, and tone. In particular, both films strive to unnerve audiences by playing with the concept of “reality”: THE LAST EXORCISM is presented as a faux-documentary; THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE IS presented as “inspired” by a true story. This breaking down of fictional barriers adds an extra layer of tension, but in the end the makers of THE LAST EXORCISM do not seem intent on presenting their film, a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as if it were the genuine article. What about the makers of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE? Since the possibility that movies may be “real” seems to hold endless fascination for viewers (judging from the number of hits this website gets from visitors seeking to learn whether PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is a “true” story), I want to take this opportunity to delve into that question.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a serious, sincere effort to combine horror with the structure of a courtroom drama. The result is that the story is told with a level of conviction often missing from modern horror films, allowing viewers to become emotionally involved and thus far more vulenerable to the scares when they strike. Perhaps the film works so well on viewers because of the true story claim, as much as its own inherent qualities, and this is where I start to draw the line. The attempt to make a believable horror film is laudable; the fact that the horrific events have consequences for the characters (instead of serving simply as gratuitous set pieces) lends the story credibility. However, we should not let that fool us into thinking that what we see on screen really happened.
It didn’t. At least, not the way it is portrayed in the film.
I have no problem with filmmakers taking inspiration from real life and then fictionalizing it (that’s what William Peter Blatty did with THE EXORCIST), but there should be no pretense that the fictionalization is in any way authentic.

Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse
Tom Wilkinson as the priest on trial for the death of Emily ROse

My objection to the “true story” conceit of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is that the story is framed as a courtroom drama. We all know that Hollywood never lets reality get in the way of a good story, but generally speaking, you can usually depend on films about court cases to be a bit more accurate, because trials have official transcripts that can be used as a basis for a screenplay, providing an accurate account of what was actually said under oath. By presenting the story in flashbacks, based on what we hear from the witness stand, the filmmakes seems to imply that they are giving us an accurate account of what was said to have happened. The film then portrays many of these scenes in different ways, according to the interpretation of each witness. In a sense, the filmmakers seems to be saying: we are offering up the facts of the case and leaving you to be the jury who decides whether Emily was sick or possessed. Which would be okay if we were getting the actual facts. But we’re not.
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE EMILY ROSE has a credit at the beginning, telling us that the film is “based on a true story.” Before the closing credits, there are also a few title cards, telling us what happened to the characters next. One even informs us that one of the characters in the film cooperated with an author who wrote a book that served as the basis for the film. Yet the actual credits for the movie’s script reads “written by” rather than “screenplay by.” The Writers Guild of America makes a clear distinction between the two credits: “screenplay by” is used for adaptations of existing material; “written by” is used for original scripts. In other words, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is an original story, not an adaptation of a non-fiction book.
To their credit, Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (who also directed and produced, respectively) are honest and forthcoming when discussing the extent to which their film is fictionalized, making it clear that there was an actual case that gave them the idea of making a “courtroom horror film,” which they then developed, creating characters and using ideas derived from other research into the phenomenon of possession.
When asked at a recent preview screening about the misleading title cards (which seem to suggest that the film’s characters are real people), co-writer Paul Harris Boardman replied, “Many people have remarked on the epigraphs at the end of the film. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, the characters have been fictionalized. That [title card] only really says how [the defense attorney played by Laura Linney] facilitated getting case files to a person who wrote a book that inspired the film. Those were actually very true to the underlying [story]. Erin Bruner’s character was almost completely fictionalized. There was a female defense attorney in the case. She did help the author of the book get information—that’s about all we know about her, so she’s completely created. In terms of the others, there are a lot of instances in the film that parallel things that happened—a lot of the broad strokes of the exorcism things, the manifestations of the possession, the behavior she had. The structure of the story, the way it unfolds, is very much what we created. Through some other sources, we had researched some real exorcisms to pull some things about how these exorcisms unfold and what characteristics the people would have. It’s pretty close. We tried to be true to a lot of what [we researched].”
Curiously, Boardman did not mention the book’s title. When I asked him why, he explained that the book is actually titled The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, and although he and Derrickson did purchase the screen rights to the story, the people involved in the real case wanted to keep the connection to the film quiet. Although a doctor involved with the case is given a screen credit, the story of the film does not have much in common with the book, except for the general outline of events. (For example, only one rite of exorcism is performed in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE; in the Anneliese Michel, daily exorcism were performed over a series of months).
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose, the fictional stand-in for Analise Michele

You can read details about the real-life case here: “Was the real Emily Rose Truly Possessed?” and “The Real Emily Rose.” Both articles seem to be regugitating the same basic information; I’m not sure which was written first, but I recommend you read at least one to get a good idea of how different the film is from its source material. (Surely the more amusing of the two articles is the first one. The author, a self-proclaimed paranormal investigator, claims there is “no evidence whatsoever for the idea of demonic possession.” This would not be amusing in and of itself, but it becomes amusing when he immediately follows up by insisting that there is “good evidence” for ghosts,hauntings, Big Foot, and other psychic phenomena.)
In the end, what Boardman and Derrickson have done is not all that different from William Peter Blatty, who told me during an interview (as he has told many others, before and since) that he was inspired to write THE EXORCIST by an actual cases of possession he had read about in 1949. “I was a graduate at Georgetwon University at the time,” he recalled. “It stuck in my mind. I thought, ‘If I ever do go ahead and write, I’d like to write about this, non-fiction.’ But I never wrote a word.”
Blatty, despite what you may read on the Internet (including the usually reliable, never pretended that the novel he eventually wrote was a true story. And neither the book nor the film of THE EXORCIST made any such claims, either in the advertising or in the credits. (Director William Friedkin may have made a few careless statement to the effect that the novel was based on a true story, but he never pretended he was making a docudrama.)
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a good film that seeks to address the topic of faith in a manner somewhat similar to THE EXORCIST, presenting us with horrible events that may or may not be supernatural in origin and asking if the presence of the demonic, ironically, does not also suggest the existence of the angelic. Although the film cannot hope to match its historic predecessor (director Derrickson calls THE EXORCIST his favorite horror film of all time), THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE stands on its own feet as a worthwhile successor. Not only is it better than the ghastly rip-offs that followed THE EXORCIST (e.g., BEYOND THE DOOR), it is much truer to the spirit of THE EXORCIST than last year’s official sequel, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, which tried to turn the material into a typical special effects horror franchise. THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is not a true story, but it is a very believably-told story. That is an all-too-rare thing in the horror genre, and it makes EMILY ROSE perhaps the best horror film of this year.

This article is updated from an earlier article, copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski