Non Canon Review: The Exorcist (1973/2000)

JUNE 10, 2008


Don’t mock me (at least not just yet), it’s non canon! Trust me - I’ve seen The Exorcist before (both versions). Granted, I saw it rather late in my horror fandom life (when the new cut came out I was 20, and had only seen the original about a year or so before - NOW mock me), but that’s better than my late-to-the-game ages for other landmark horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby (27) and Cathy’s Curse (also 27). BUT, I have never seen any of the sequels, and since I finally got the box set recently, I figured I’d go through the mammoth collection for the first film (2 versions of the film, a total of 3 commentaries between them, a full length documentary, and some other junk) before diving into them. My friend Joe urged me to watch Exorcist III ASAP, but I learned my lesson long ago about watching a series out of order (Halloween) and avoid doing so as much as possible. Sorry Joe, II comes first.

So what do I think about the film? Well, it’s great. It’s not in my top 10, but that is because I prefer slasher and zombie movies for my horror viewing. However, as far as supernatural/possession horror films, it is pretty hard to beat (2nd only to Shocker). And the reason why it works so well is because it’s not about how cool a full body makeup effect they can get for the monster, or how nastily they can kill people. There is so little blood in this film it’s almost shocking; there is more explicit gore in the PG rated Indiana Jones films (the first 2 anyway) than this film contains. And it’s also paced rather slowly – I think our first real sign of horror comes around the 45 minute mark or so, and it’s another 10 or so before the “possession” makeup effects are seen. But all of that is WHY it works (and works even better in repeated viewings). It draws you in slowly, and builds steadily. Sure, there are highlights – pea soup, crucifix, etc. - but they flow naturally with the film, and the film’s ensemble cast (something often ignored – you got Regan, the mother, 3 priests, the cop, the doctor) keeps you on edge, because without a traditional main character you truly fear for someone’s life whenever they are in danger.

I also love how spare the music is. As much as I love Halloween and its score, Carpenter almost never let the damn score go silent. But here there is very little score, and even the famous “Tubular Bells” piece (even though it wasn’t written for the film, it’s still pretty much the most famous horror movie music ever next to Halloween, which I am guessing half of you have as a ringtone) is only used two or three times in the film. Incidentally, the first time we hear it is during a scene where Ellen Burstyn walks home on... Halloween.

And it’s easily one of the classiest horror films ever made. The acting is top notch across the board; there isn’t a single weak performance in the film, even among the minor characters. The direction is also above average, and I wish Friedkin had done more horror films, because he doesn’t FILM it like a horror film. Friedkin had a documentary background, and it shows; even in the more traditional horror scenes, there is a sense of loose detachment in the direction that makes the film stick out from all of the wannabes that followed.

At times it may be a bit too loose. One thing that always bugged me about the film (either version) was how abrupt some of the scenes cut to the next. For example, when Karras says that he is losing his faith, they cut to the next scene so quickly that this important fact isn’t given a chance to really resonate before we are being presented with new information. This was something I expected to be corrected in the “Version You Have Never Seen” (a title that only makes sense once), but no, that particular scene wasn’t touched at all.

In fact almost nothing they added to the 2000 version was really for the better. Things are screwed up right from the start, as they randomly insert shots of Regan’s house before the Iraq sequence. What the hell is the point of that? Not only is it a jarring edit, it’s simply baffling in the grand scheme of things; the only real reason I can see for its inclusion is foreshadowing, but people who had seen the film know damn well what’s going to happen, and people who HADN’T would be utterly confused as to why we are seeing a suburban home for 30 seconds in the nighttime before cutting to the hot Iraq desert.

Another big change was the “Spider-Walk” scene. On the original release of the DVD, this scene is shown in the documentary, but it’s longer there than in the new cut of the film. Again, the editing in of the scene is completely jarring; not only does it end abruptly (followed by like 20 seconds of black – huh?) but since the incident is never mentioned again, you gotta wonder why they bothered putting it back in at all. Granted it’s a freak visual, but cutting it into a dream sequence or something would have made a lot more sense, in my opinion. It’s also a bit odd that the sequence ran on much longer in the doc (Regan gets down the stairs and attacks Chris and Sharon), whereas in the new cut she reaches the bottom of the stairs and that’s it.

In the end only two of the changes were for the better. One is an early scene of Regan going for tests, coupled with the removal of the shot of her partying with the guests (before she pees on the floor). Not only does this make Chris’ line about her not feeling well make a bit more sense, but it’s also a good extension. You lose a bit of the ‘sudden impact’ of Regan’s possession, but you gain some foreboding information about her possible dementia. I have never read the book, but apparently the supernatural elements were largely left to interpretation; William Peter Blatty said it could be construed as simply a psychological episode in Regan’s mind (something Emily Rose went for, and successfully for the most part). Scenes like this play along those “crazy or not” themes, and since that’s also what I find interesting about these types of movies, I was happy to see it in the film. The other change I liked was the ending with Dyer and Kinderman. Dyer is a character I wish was in the film more anyway, and the uplifting ending is a nice touch. Plus it has more of the film’s odd idea that famous stories would be filmed with comedians in the roles (Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball in Wuthering Heights? Groucho Marx in Othello?).

Between the two versions of the film there is a wealth of extras, but watching/listening to them all is not necessary, as information is repeated. Friedkin offers a commentary for both versions, but it seems he’s mostly out things to say for the 2000 version; other than pointing out the new scenes with little explanation for their inclusion here (or why they were removed), he merely narrates the entire film for the most part (I am not exaggerating, he even says the dialogue sometimes). Don’t bother with it. His commentary for the original version is far superior, and actually, if you don’t have time to watch the documentary (1:20 long!), his commentary and the IMDb’s trivia page for the film will tell you pretty much everything they offer anyway. Also on the original cut is a ‘commentary’ by Blatty, which is actually just a 40 minute interview with him, playing over the film without any real connection to what’s on screen. After that, we are treated to a truly strange extra – a half hour of sound effects and original recordings. So we hear Mercedes McCambridge saying the lines, and then Linda Blair’s original readings. After that, we just hear McCambridge make sounds like “RAWR!” for about 10 minutes. Again, it has nothing to do with what is on screen. Then it just stops, and the film’s original soundtrack plays as normal for the rest of the running time. Whatever. Blatty’s thoughts are interesting, but again, it’s just repeating stuff we heard elsewhere. And one extra is cut into the film itself – an intro with Friedkin (on the original cut). You can chapter skip over it, but there’s no way to avoid it entirely (and it makes the movie 2 minutes longer), which I have never seen before in all my years of nitpicking about the placement of extra features on special edition DVDs.

There are also a few deleted scenes (a couple aren’t in the new cut), some text based info about certain elements, such as the real story it’s based on and why they put together a new cut, and the usual trailers/storyboards/cast information (for some reason on the new cut the cast is merely listed; the actual information/filmographies are not accessible). Some of the trailers are pretty interesting – in addition to the amazingly schlocky tagline (“The movie you’ve been waiting for, without the wait!”), it’s nice to see how little the spots give away, compared to other horror films of the 70s (Halloween’s trailer, for example, gives away just about every single scare in the film). Some don’t even feature Regan at all.

Overall, the extras are fairly generic, but keep in mind both editions came relatively early in the life of DVDs, before studios began to get really creative with their special features, and also the film itself came along long before behind the scenes footage became standard. One thing that DOES exist that I wish was included was Blatty’s original script, which Friedkin hated. Should be interesting.

The Exorcist is one of those movies that every A-lister namechecks whenever they make a horror film. You know, “I don’t watch a lot of horror. I DO like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Silence of the Lambs though.” But it’s also listed as a favorite among most hardcore horror fans. Which just proves the old theory – “No one can dislike a movie where a girl forces her mother’s face into her vagina after masturbating with a crucifix.”

One final note – Jason Miller/Karras does not look anything like Sal Mineo.

What say you?


  1. The image that always creeps me out the most in this film is Regan getting stuck with the needle; god, I hate needles. Enjoy II; you seem to love the batshit insane stuff though, so you might actually get a kick out of it.

  2. The outside stairwell in that movie is still one of the creepiest things to me.
    Father Merrin under the streetlight is a great shot. I think that added a lot to the film.

  3. I've never seen the film. My mom told me (probably an urban legend) a story about how her friend saw it and ended up in a mental institution. So I never saw it. I did see part 3 though, and liked it. But then, I rented it again hen I was 18, with two friends. The brand new VCR wouldn't play the thing, and it kept ejecting the tape. When I tried to put in in the third time, I asked my friend to turn on the light in the livingroom, and the bulb blew out. We got scared and went to one of the guy's houses. when we got there, all of the power in his entire house went out. We were scared shitless. I've never seen any Excorcist movies since then, and I rarely watch possesion movies since then. Also, I'm a big pussy, and a loser.

  4. If you like the weird humor of the "Famous Movies with Comedians" dialogue you'll probably really enjoy Blatty's "The Ninth Configuration" which an incredibly cool, weird and psychedelic movie. BTW, I'm of the opinion that Exorcist III is actually more of a sequel to "Configuration" than to "Exorcist I".


  5. III is excellent and is actually the true sequel to Excorcist 1. Its actually written and directed by Blatty based on his book Legion. III features Gerge C Scott in a brilliant performance.

  6. You must watch Part 3!!! There's one bit in there that still scares the crap out of me to this day!

  7. Now I know how I'm going to spend the weekend. It's Exorcist time again! Especially since I failed to actually watch the whole DVD box the last time I tried...

  8. I loved seeing the exocist in the cinema this year. And find the othello references very interesting. Theres a great quote about lies and truth in exocist that suggest iago is a demon or the devil. the camera in art is seen as a brutal truth. and it works well in the exocist as we see new york? with suggestion of the devil. dogs barking subway trains mental hopsitals are all desgined in the frame of evil is a supernatural force, which manifests through mental illness. thanks.


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