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The New 'Exorcist': It's a Sin

By Stephen Hunter
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.)
One can only suppose the Devil made them do it.

That is, re-release "The Exorcist" in "A Version You've Never Seen," which is 11 minutes longer than the original, and 11 minutes worse.

Oh, the vanity of artists. Producer-writer (and original novelist) William Peter Blatty is all over the place praising this new edition while the director William Friedkin is yapping excessively on how it took 26 years to get the right version out.

Except it's the wrong version, unless you've got an insatiable curiosity to see a 12-year-old girl do an inverted spider walk down the stairway of a Georgetown mansion while spitting blood.

File this under the Sad Truth label: everybody, including geniuses like Faulkner and Hollywood hacks like Friedkin and Blatty, needs an editor, and the shorter version of "The Exorcist," which dominated American culture for the first six months of 1974 (after its premiere the day after Christmas, 1973) was in every way superior. Understand: When I say better, I do mean better in the movie's own terms, not better in some kind of dubious, moral high art sense--better in that it was scarier, more intense, more disturbing, more haunting.

What's missing here is the incisiveness and velocity that the original editors--Norman Gay and Evan Lottman--brought to the materials, which kept the highly improbable story hurtling along so fast that you really didn't have much time to consider it, stressed out as you were from a.) the last atrocity and b.) anticipation of the next atrocity. It was fast and cruel; this one is sluggish and cruel.

The story is basically simple: Devil gets girl, priest gets Devil, girl gets life back. As we all know, it begins, on a note of high portentousness, in Iraq, where apparently an ancient demon is loosed from the earth, and a worldly old priest-archaeologist named Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) knows that he will have to battle this mutt-faced fellow for a human soul somewhere down the line. Cut to Georgetown, where movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), in a wardrobe of flashily hideous '70s clothes, is shooting a film about campus unrest. She should be punished by Senor Beelzebub for that green plaid blazer! Perhaps the Devil is Mr. Blackwell and that's why he chooses her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). He slips through an open window and takes up residence in the child. The rest of the film is given to observing with horror the depredations the beast works upon its poor vessel, as well as the occasional murder he commits in her flesh, all to the hysterical despair of mother and well-appointed friends. When science fails, she turns to faith in the form of a psychiatrist-priest named Father Damien (played by Jason Miller), himself undergoing a spiritual crisis. He struggles with the issue, but ultimately diagnoses possession and finds an exorcist--Father Merrin.

The high points remain: Regan's head still does a 360 on her neck, she still spews split-pea soup in the face of her interlocutors and she still does a very nasty thing with a crucifix. That creepy music--Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells"--really rocks, and this version's one appreciable improvement is to jack up the texture of the sound. As for the performers, Burstyn, in the hopeless part as a movie star/single mom who swears too much while living in what appears to be Pamela Harriman's house, is still hopeless. (In fact, the whole movie backstage milieu is as ridiculous now as it was then.) But Von Sydow and Miller are both fabulous; and everybody, including the vexed neurosurgeon, still smokes (in his office, no less!)

The additions are almost completely injurious to the film's intensity. Background scenes--doctors and priests setting up what the original film just cut straight to--slow things down. The atrocity count against poor Regan is intensified, and the inclusion of that ridiculous upside-down clamber is funnier than it is shocking. Cooler heads prevailed in the editing suites 27 years ago.

But possibly the looniest addition is the death masks. In the original version, we sensed the demon. His was the strongest presence in the film and the one thing it did so well was suggest the palpable reality of evil. He was everywhere and nowhere; as in other sophisticated works of horror ("The Silence of the Lambs," for example) you felt his actuality. That is because he entered your own brain through the portal where you were most vulnerable: He sprang into you through your imagination. The beast had our number.

That's largely muted; instead, Friedkin has hoked up a device that is utterly destructive to the spell he seeks to create: the literal face of the demon appearing on walls, doors, in mirrors, everywhere, to conjure his literal presence. Yes: glowing images of ugly faces! Advertisements for the darker self! Ludicrous neon signals of evil blinking in the night! Perhaps I make too much of this, but, duh! it's so stupid. Why make seen the unseen and make obvious the subtle, why make unfelt the felt? In this variant, the screws aren't tightened a bit; they're loosened, to the point of idiocy.

And there's another issue, too, simmering under the surface. Of course, we live in a more sensitive age now, to the horror of grumpy old guys everywhere, but one New Sensitivity that is for the good of all is that attention we pay to issues of child abuse. And child abuse underlies "The Exorcist" far more than any bogus notions of demonized evil. This creepy aspect of the movie went largely unremarked upon in its day. But to see the film now is to confront the disturbing truth that it drew most of its power from its central icon, which was a child's body, mutilated, maimed, tortured, sexualized, profaned in ways never before depicted. The filmmakers hid under a screen of supernatural mumbo jumbo, ascribing these depredations to Old Scratch; but it was really them, and not the Devil, who were tormenting Regan so vividly. And it was us--or the devil within us--that lapped it up so passionately.

They missed the point, even while confirming it. As that old Polish Joe put it, when he was writing in his new language under his new name (Conrad), "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."

The Exorcist, A Version You've Never Seen (132 minutes, at area theaters) is R-rated for scenes of extreme cruelty to a child and profane language.


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