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'The Exorcist': We Know What They Did 27 Years Ago

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2000


    'The Exorcist' Max von Sydow and Linda Blair in "The Version You've Never Seen." (by Warner Bros.)
When I saw "The Exorcist" in 1974, I gripped my seat for dear life. When I walked home, I stayed out of the shadows so Satan wouldn't drag me into the vile vortex of hell. Meanwhile, around the nation, theater owners reported bizarre incidents during screenings of the movie, including vomiting, fainting and freaking.

What a difference a quarter-century makes.

Watching the 2000 version, now re-released as "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen," with an additional 11 minutes and a redone soundtrack, I was more amused than scared. Jaded sensibilities of today will likely have the same reaction. They're just not going to get the willies the way many of us did in the 1970s. Not after all those years and years of slice 'em and dice 'em horror flicks starring Freddy, Michael and Jason – not to mention the latest round of "I Know What You Did Last Summers."

Based on the best-selling William Peter Blatty novel, the movie's about the trouble with Regan (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old girl living in Georgetown, while her actress-mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is working on a movie being filmed on the Georgetown University campus.

Regan suddenly develops disturbing behavior. Doctors think there's a lesion on her temporal lobe. They prescribe Ritalin, Thorazine, more tests. (For a short while, there, I thought I was back in the Prozac Nation present.) But they just don't get it. The gal's possessed. She's housing Old Nick, rent free. Mom persuades Father Karras (Jason Miller) to check out this girl whose bed shakes, who can rise into the air, who can turn her head 360 degrees and who has some pretty choice curses.

Karras, who concludes she's possessed by the devil (or a demon named Pazuzu), gets approval from the Catholic Church for an exorcism. They dispatch a veteran priest (Max von Sydow) to perform this procedure, since he's had experience with this kind of thing. And besides, only a Swedish actor who worked with Ingmar Bergman could get away with this kind of role.

With Karras at his side, the dignified, fragile priest begins the exorcism.

"The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!"

It's good stuff but, basically, "The Exorcist" is a museum piece, something to be enjoyed for its historical value, its datedness and its almost quaint shock value. It's so low-tech! Those once-vaunted special effects, in which Regan apparently levitates into the air, were done by hidden pulleys and cords. Nowadays, that would all be achieved by computer-generated effects.

Hey, people still have record players in this movie! Kids, ask your parents to explain. And instead of e-mail, Regan sends a hello message to her father on reel-to-reel tape. Kids, ask your – you know. It's almost hilarious to see a doctor lighting up a cigarette while he has an earnest consultation with Regan's mother. Back then, you see, a little puff never killed anyone. And these priests never say "no" to a stiff drink.

Compared to the nasty likes of Lil' Kim, Eminem or DMX, Regan is about as intimidating as Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music." Her profane obscenities (performed by Mercedes McCambridge, not Blair) are almost cute. As for that satanic vomit that regularly spews out of her mouth (for various technical reasons, actor Eileen Dietz actually did the upchuck honors), the most disturbing thing is the dry-cleaning bill that faces our men of the cloth. What a satanic all-time low: staining a cassock!

The movie's most cuttable element? The entire subplot featuring Lee J. Cobb as a sort of second-rate Lt. Columbo trying to investigate the mysterious death of Chris's British director (Jack MacGowran), it's almost embarrassingly cliched.

So, what's new in this movie? Why do they call it "The Version You've Never Seen Before"? The additional stuff is in bits and pieces, including a lot more footage depicting doctors' attempts to test and diagnose Regan. But the most obvious new scene is the so-called "spider walk" scene in which Regan scuttles down the stairs like an overturned athropod then, at the bottom of the stairs, pukes up a small bucketful of blood.

It's a good little moment, given the fact that it was done mechanically – check it out. But kids, please don't try this at home. As the ads said back then, "Remember, it's only a movie."

THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN (R, 132 minutes) - Contains profanity, obscenity, violence, foul language and really wide lapels.


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