Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Exorcist – Director’s Cut

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE EXORCIST – DIRECTOR’S CUT

6/10

(US title: The Exorcist – the Version You’ve Never Seen)
(original version : The Exorcist – US 1973 – rating 7/10 – length 122 minutes)
US 2000
dir William Friedkin
scr William Peter Blatty (based on his novel)
cin Owen Roizman and Billy Williams
stars Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow
131 minutes

Barely a year since The Exorcist enjoyed a successful re-release, here it is again, a “director’s cut” with nine or ten extra minutes. Except, as the American title hints, this isn’t Friedkin’s cut at all – that was the version released in 1973. This is much closer to what William Peter Blatty intended, but The Exorcist – Scriptwriter’s Cut doesn’t sound quite so snappy. The problem with these re-releases and new versions is that The Exorcist, unlike proper classic movies, doesn’t get better with repeated viewings. Very much the opposite, in fact, due to the deficiencies in Blatty’s novel and script, which even Friedkin’s powerhouse direction can’t quite manage to overcome.

First time around it does pack a punch – especially for younger audiences. But familiarity really does breed something like contempt, and, once you’ve got over the creepiness and the grisly effects, there isn’t a great deal of depth here. The movie is really just a shock machine, and no matter how excellent the direction, acting, sound and cinematography are, they’re all dependent on the essential lunk-headedness of Blatty’s story and (Oscar-winning!) script. It’s no surprise, then, that this new version, with an increase in Blatty’s influence, is that much less effective than the original.

Exorcist – Director’s Cut is mainly a marketing exercise, drawing in the movie’s fans with the temptation of seeing legendary sequences omitted in the 1973, such as the moment when the possessed Regan (Blair) does her bizarre ‘spider walk’ backwards down the stairs. A horrific image, but Friedkin knew the film’s atmosphere is much more powerful if we know Regan is confined in her room. The other additions are, at best, similarly unhelpful. At worst, we get even more of Lee J Cobb’s maddening cop Kinderman – cops, like doctors, are laughable stooges in Blatty’s adolescent view of the world, a place where only priests wield any real power. While the original ended on a pleasantly downbeat, ambiguous note, here we have a crass bit of joshing between Kinderman and a young clergyman. In Friedkin’s own words: “I shot that ending, and it was no fucking good at all… so I cut it.”

Blatty’s interference may simultaneously coarsen and de-fang the movie, but this also serves to underline the strength of what remains the film’s most powerful element: the astonishing turn by Jason Miller as Father Karras. It’s typical of Blatty that, despite his title, there are two exorcists – but Von Sydow’s Merrin is a relatively ineffectual figure, and it’s Karras who actually drives out the demon: amusingly, he doesn’t achieve this by any theological means, but by using his boxing skills to beat the (holy) shit out of it.

Everybody knew Ellen Burstyn was going to make the most of Regan’s mother, but it’s Miller – a playwright beforehand, now sadly best known as Jason Patric’s father – who utterly dominates the movie, making his Oscar nomination for supporting actor all the more frustrating. He brings an intense gravity to Karras, somehow maintaining his dignity as the movie’s gaudy, clanking rollercoaster gathers pace around him. Miller’s performance is complex, adult, challenging – everything, in other words, that The Exorcist isn’t. It’s just a dumb, fun scare picture, no matter which way you cut it.

by Neil Young

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