God, or at least the idea of a god, is an omniscient presence that’s also suspiciously absent in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The faith is kept alive in the film’s perpetual use of religious iconography, implying a worldly sense of spiritual belief, but the way in which the various priests conduct their pietism, most exemplified by Jason Miller’s brooding church psychologist Damien Karras, practically render their convictions as moot; at one point, Karras openly doubts his career choice after seeing firsthand the anxieties of his patients. Of course, the devil is another story: Very much a genuine entity, it manifests itself within poor 12-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), turning a figure of pure innocence into a bile- and vulgarity-spewing demon who goes unnoticed by divine intervention. Friedkin forgoes the easy psychological introspection that’s found in a crisis of faith, instead externalizing the conflict as a physically draining test of human will power and endurance. The filmmaker turns this aspect back on the audience as well, crafting a slow-burn exploitation picture built on his use of overpowering subjectivity—a uniquely uncomfortable spectrum of exaggerated lights, sounds, and colors that assaults our most primal fears on a purely visceral level. It’s telling that, when the protracted exorcism rolls around, it’s not a battle between God and devil, but devil and man.
Friedkin announces his impressionistic intentions with the abstractedly constructed Iraqi-set prologue. A striking image of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) walking by a row of praying Muslims conveys a universal belief of the world operating under a higher power, yet the forceful soundscapes, jarring cuts, and bizarre asides of fighting dogs suggest the vacancy of divinity where evil thrives. Von Sydow’s presence alone is an inspired decision on Friedkin’s part; his role in the film draws a direct association to his work with Ingmar Bergman and the filmmaker’s trademark wrestling matches with faith. This near-silent opening also establishes the film’s preference for tone and theme over story: The horror is mostly dictated through its masterful atmosphere and ellipses, which carefully eliminates exposition and character detail to subconsciously put the viewer in a state of unease and preparing us for the overt frights that occur later on.
With the exception of the multifaceted Karras, the characters are broadly drawn with minimal insight into their individual identities (Regan’s straightforward cherubic features are enough info to sell her purity). Although it may seem like Friedkin’s empathy is slight by using his cast as mere pawns in a game, this restraint on context also invites us to project our own emotions onto them. It’s hard not to feel for Regan’s actress mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), through the prolonged medical treatments when she begins to entertain the idea she’s incapable of helping her daughter’s ghastly ordeal, or conversely Karras’s ineffectual care when his mother falls ill and soon dies.
As the drama of The Exorcist is more or less a classically fashioned chamber piece, Friedkin infuses the film with his drastically stylized mise-en-scène and coarseness to heighten the atmosphere into a metaphysical state of mind, declaring a bold, yet ruthless, new mainstream artistry. Veteran character actor Lee J. Cobb’s appearance as the cinephilic Detective Kinderman even explicates this approach: Although he’s the closest we get to an actual audience surrogate, the actor’s presence as a cop who loves to “critique” film in this horror turning-point seems poignant at the twilight of his prolific career. One can’t help but wonder what Kinderman would ultimately think of The Exorcist itself.
The sense of spiritual abandonment felt through the film’s conflicted Catholic personalities is equated in a similar disappointment felt by Chris—a feeling, as Regan goes through test after test by a diverse mix of doctors, the idea that science as a cure-all may also lead someone down a discontented road. The treatments Regan becomes subjected to soon become just as horrifying as when she begins to speak in Mercedes McCambridge’s androgynous rasp, including the injecting of an IV line that produces grisly arterial spurts. After watching the torturous technological regimen, and after her seemingly vast amount of wealth and connections fail her, the agnostic Chris is confronted with a darkly acerbic proposition of a “radical course of treatment,” referring to the medieval exorcism process the titular Merrin practices. Therein lies the root of The Exorcist’s nature: In the absolute absence of scientific or spiritual comfort, it takes sheer human fortitude (from the film’s characters and audience) to overcome the most intrinsic of fears.
Both the 1973 theatrical and 2000 re-release versions of the film are included here, and both emanate off the screen in exceptional clarity and highlight the care and attention involved in the 1080p upgrade. The Iraqi sequence and final exorcism set piece, where every chilled breath is startlingly visible, particularly stand out in their immense detail. There’s an imbalance of color in some scenes, but as William Friedkin experimented wildly with his palette, that’s not a fault of the transfer. The film is also notable for its atmospheric and palpably dreadful soundscape, and the DTS surround mix is fittingly immersive, enhancing every small grunt or growl to rich effect.
Warner Home Video certainly pulls out the stops for the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, even if most of the extras are lifted from previous releases. As noted above, both versions of the film are included, with the 1973 theatrical version constituting Friedkin’s original vision and definitive cut. The 2000 "Director’s Cut" is more or less "Blatty’s Cut," as Friedkin wanted to appease screenwriter William Blatty by tacking on hokey expositional and mawkish sequences that reveal too much of what the 1973 version decidedly withheld. Friedkin is his traditionally candid and revealing self on two audio commentaries, overshadowing Blatty’s own track in the process. A host of featurettes are included, including the 70-minute BBC documentary "The Fear of God," which exhaustively recounts the making of the film. New for this release are "Beyond Comprehension," where Blatty somewhat blandly reflects on 40 years of The Exorcist, and "Talk of the Devil," a 20-minute doc featuring footage from 1973 of one Father Eugene Gallagher explaining the exorcism incident that ultimately became Blatty’s inspiration for his novel. Gallagher may be a droll speaker, but the short is nevertheless an interesting watch. Rounding out the package are more trailers, TV spots, and radio ads than you’ll ever need, sketches and storyboards, and a short interview with Friedkin and Blatty. Also includes is a a hardcover booklet featuring a lengthy excerpt about the making of The Exorcist from Friedkin’s memoir The Friedkin Connection.
The Exorcist still gets under the skin after 40 years, and, a lack of new extras notwithstanding, Warner Home Video celebrates the stalwart horror landmark’s anniversary with an impressive package.