The Exorcist: Director's Cut

(William Friedkin, USA, 2000)


Many years ago an aunt of mine, an extremely open-minded Catholic nun, came to me with a special request. Prompted by the disturbing questions of her young students, she had gone to see The Exorcist (1973), but was puzzled by the experience.

She decided that she needed to embark on a special course of private study in order to better grasp the medium of cinema. So I duly handed over to the kindly Sr. Ursula my copy of Victor Perkins' Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies.

Still today, I can think of no better place to begin an appreciation of cinema than with William Friedkin's The Exorcist, one of the most remarkable and original films of the '70s. Critics like to hail the more obviously socially conscious and artistic films of that period – like The Godfather (1972) or Nashville (1975) – but The Exorcist has had an equally profound effect on popular and innovative cinema alike.

Moviegoers have grown cynical about sometimes indulgent 'director's cut' versions of films that seemed perfectly fine in their first form. This new version of The Exorcist reverses the general trend: it is substantially better than the original.

Although Friedkin has supervised and approved this restoration down to the tiniest detail, it is really not so much the director's cut as the producer/writer's cut. Just before the film was completed in 1973, Friedkin made the bold move of excising fifteen minutes that he considered extraneous or repetitive – much to the chagrin of his collaborator, William Peter Blatty.

Mark Kermode's British Film Institute book on The Exorcist vividly documents the battle that subsequently raged for decades between these two men. Blatty was more conventional when it came to plot links – such as gradually setting up the disturbance that besets Regan (Linda Blair) – and also in his moral purpose. He wanted to offer some hope, clarity and a sense of resolution – while Friedkin was more interested in shock, fragmentation and disorientation.

Eleven of those fifteen lost minutes are now back in the movie. It is a richer story in terms of character development. A quiet, brief scene of philosophical reflection near the end between the two exorcist priests, Karras (Jason Miller) and Merrin (Max von Sydow), is especially crucial. But, happily, Friedkin's wildly experimental shock tactics are cranked up to an even greater pitch.

This was – and remains today – an extraordinarily daring horror movie. Its agonising, slow-burn narrative structure is full of false leads, unsolved mysteries and events snatched away in medias res. Its sudden apparitions – such as the newly included 'spider walk' of Regan down the stairs – are terrifying as much for their abruptness as their lurid content.

Friedkin likes to say that he deliberately presented only the bare bones of the story, leaving its interpretation to viewers. The claim seems disingenuous because Friedkin's method – announced here and taken to an extreme in his masterpiece, Cruising (1980) – is to swiftly sketch many, contradictory readings of the enigmatic events on screen, without settling on any of them.

His is a cinema of hysteria – and in Regan he has a hysteric worthy of Freud's case studies. (Like some of Freud's women, she is confined to bed.) Blatty's own understanding of his story is straightforwardly religious: it is about the struggle of Good against Evil, two primal forces that shape all cultures at all times (hence the film's mish-mash of modern and ancient, Christian and Pagan cultures).

But what does Regan's possession, and her revolt against the established order, truly signify? Commentators have variously taken the film as an allegory of generational conflict in the aftermath of the turbulent '60s; a cautionary fable about drug use; an obscure drama of gay desire; and a savage critique of the nuclear family unit.

Friedkin and Blatty also insert occasionally clumsy references to student riots, anti-Semitism and the anti-psychiatry movement. What cannot be shirked by any account of the film, however, is that Regan is female, and a child – and that in both roles she becomes violently sexual. The Exorcist seems a twisted, largely unconscious response both to feminism and (belatedly) Freud's theories of the polymorphous perversity of children.

However you choose to take it, the film is a blast. New digital effects – conjuring a subliminal death skull in every nook and cranny of this haunted house – heighten Friedkin's idea that the movie is a "collective hallucination" experienced by all its characters, a "symbiosis of dreams". Perhaps even more affecting is the technological enhancement of the soundtrack – one of the harshest and most disconcerting noisescapes in all cinema.

Forget all the parodic jokes down the years about twisting heads and green vomit. The Exorcist is more startling and captivating now than ever before – and a shining example of how radical, on every level, a piece of popular entertainment can be.

MORE Friedkin: The Birthday Party, Jade, Rules of Engagement, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

© Adrian Martin March 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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