Digital enhancements aside, “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen” comes close to matching the legendary rough cut of the film that director William Friedkin showed to “Exorcist” producer/writer William Peter Blatty on a Moviola prior to the film’s 1973 release. Shortly after this screening, Friedkin had a change of heart and trimmed 11 minutes from the film despite the protests of Blatty, who has gone on to refer to the original rough cut as the definitive version of the film for last 26 years. The announced reconstruction of this famous pre-release rough cut of “The Exorcist” in 2000 created an excitement similar to the buzz that accompanied news that an original workprint of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” had resurfaced in 1990.
Thanks to the remarkable success of Fox’s “Special Edition” reissues of the “Star Wars” trilogy, Warner Bros. decided to follow suit with one of their top grossers by offering Friedkin the chance to restore “The Exorcist” to all of its original, pre-release glory. Not only does the new version of “The Exorcist” contain 11 extra minutes of footage, but Warner Brothers completely remixed the soundtrack to five-channel digital surround and restored the picture quality to make the film look as good or better than it did the day that it was first released.
After viewing “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen,” it turns out that Friedkin’s final cut (the theatrical version) was the superior of the two. Little of the deleted footage is essential to the film’s narrative structure or character development. The inclusion of this material turns what was a tight, intense horror film into a more leisurely paced character study.
There are two scenes in “The Version You’ve Never Seen” that are standouts. The first is the now famous “spider-walk” sequence where Regan (Linda Blair) descends a staircase on all fours on her back. Aside from the startling effects work, what makes the scene so unsettling is that it is given no build-up and it has been inserted at a point in the film where it is entirely unexpected. The second most notable deleted scene presents a brief conversation between Father Karras and Father Merrin as they rest during a pause in the exorcism. The scene provides a hint at why the demon has selected the body of Regan MacNeil for possession. Of all the deleted material the following was the scene that Blatty had fought the hardest to include in the final cut:
[ INT. HALL OUTSIDE REGAN’S ROOM ]
In the dimness, Merrin and Karras lean against a wall, their faces numb with shock as they stare at door to Regan’s room. O.S. singing continues.
KARRAS: Father, what’s going on in there? What is it? If that’s the Devil, why this girl? It makes no sense.
MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair, Damien – to see ourselves as animal and ugly – to reject our own humanity – to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.
The longest restored scene involves an early physical examination where a Georgetown physician first diagnoses Regan’s problems and reveals to Chris MacNeil that her daughter has let loose with a few vulgarities (off-screen). This scene goes on for about five minutes and is unnecessary. It bogs the pace of the film down and, more importantly, lessens the its impact when we first hear Regan curse on-screen. It is far more jolting to hear a twelve-year old start swearing like a drunken sailor from out of the blue instead of first hearing the doctor talk about it earlier in the film. There is also a new unnecessary (but nonetheless interesting) upbeat final conversation between Detective Kinderman and Father Dyer that serves as the film’s new coda.
The main reason to pick up “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen” on DVD, above even the opportunity to view the restored footage, is for its amazing picture and sound quality. The film could pass for a brand-new studio release if not for the out-of-date period fashions worn by the background extras. All previous versions of “The Exorcist” have had some amount of film grain visible (even the acclaimed 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD). This new version is pristine, with vibrant colors that pop off the screen. The disc’s remixed soundtrack is also superb and has been presented with an EX extension for a rear center channel. Effects in this version are clean and very directional.
The most disappointing feature contained on the DVD is the William Friedkin commentary track. Friedkin provides a running narration of on-screen events and offers almost nothing in the way of production insights. Perhaps he did not want to repeat information he had already covered on 25th Anniversary DVD of “The Exorcist.” Friedkin’s commentary track on the 25th Anniversary edition DVD, on the other hand, is loaded with interesting production information and should not be missed by fans of the film. Also included under the Special Features menu on “The Version You’ve Never Seen” DVD is a brief, textual section of trivia and “making-of” tidbits all of which should have been integrated into Friedkin’s commentary track.
For those considering purchasing the DVD, “The Version You’ve Never Seen” is a nice companion piece to Warner’s (essential) 25th Anniversary Edition DVD of “The Exorcist.” The theatrical version is without a doubt the superior of the two. The 25th Anniversary disc also contains an excellent 74-minute documentary called “The Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist” as well as a separate commentary track featuring Blatty’s insights. “The Version You’ve Never Seen” is certainly worth owning for its expanded look at the classic and its amazing restoration of this classic horror film, but “Exorcist” fans should still hold on to their 25th Anniversary Special Editions.
Also highly recommended for those interested in learning about the production of “The Exorcist” in greater depth, is a fascinating 96-page book called “The Exorcist” by Mark Kermode (BFI Modern Classics, 1997) which: chronicles the genesis of “The Exorcist” project; makes known the numerous contributions of Linda Blair’s uncredited stunt double Eileen Dietz, who actually performed many of the most difficult possession scenes (including the spider walk); gives a warts-and-all glimpse of Friedkin’s directorial techniques; and dispels some of the myths surrounding the production of “The Exorcist”. Blatty’s original novel, on which the film is based, is also one of the best pieces of horror fiction ever written and is a “must-read” for “Exorcist” fans.