Both versions of the film are in hi-def remastered, re-timed VC-1 transfers for this region-free release. Both come in with very impressive 1.85:1 images that bring The Exorcist screaming and projectile-vomiting into 1080p. It is a fact that William Friedkin went back in and altered The French Connection for its BD release, much to the displeasure of its fans – but he did so without the consent and the fellow authorisation of his DOP. This time, for The Exorcist, both he and cinematographer Owen Roizman oversaw and approved the project. And, in a nice little letter that you will find inside the package, you will discover that both of them are clearly very pleased with the outcome and praise the transfer quite emphatically. With this in mind, it is nigh-on impossible and utterly redundant to pick fault. It is their film, when all said and done. So there. And I have to say that I am extremely pleased with the fruits of their endeavours.
Damage is all but vanished, both prints looking remarkably clean, crisp and stable. The pictures aren't completely unblemished, but you really won't have anything to complain about with such loving restoration. There is a nice level of grain that is, for the most part, even and unobtrusive, but there are times – when we see Karras in his mother's apartment, for instance – when it intensifies to a rather glaring degree. All of sudden, in moments such as this, the film looks considerably rougher and more “of its age”. This sort of conspires to give the transfer a variable quality that will certainly displease some viewers who demand consistency. Me, personally? Erm, didn't bother me in the slightest, actually. I think you should expect something like this to happen. Glorious transfers such as The Searchers are wonderful, of course, but there are many reasons why not everything – even far more recent titles like The Exorcist – can look as consistent.
Another potential cause for concern is the re-timing of the colour. Well, the differences made to The Exorcist aren't as night-and-day as they were to the BD of Halloween (which I admire wholeheartedly – see review), but they make the film look brighter, cleaner and more vibrant. It means that the image now looks and feels warmer than ever before, with a more pleasant push towards the orange end of the palette. Contrast looks better and smoother, too. Look at the blue sky as Merrin confronts the statue of Pazuzu. Look at the marvellous contrast and naturally bright cast to the outdoor scene of Chris taking a walk back home from the location shoot. The blood is brighter, but no less realistic. The grass verges and the concrete, the trees and the clothing seen against the walls etc, tend to look more natural than they have before. But there is some vague inconsistency with the contrast during some of the pivotal exorcism scenes that lends the picture a somewhat fluctuating and flattening appearance. Again, I wasn't too perturbed by any of this. Black levels are strong but can tend to become a touch too vigorous, with a very possible element of light crushing taking place. I think the skin-tones look very life-like, with lots of pale tension, blotchy embarrassment, drawn and anguished shock and naturally weathered complexions coming over with visual accuracy.
Detail in Iraq is splendid – rock texture, the depth of field across the archaeological dig and down the crowded backstreets, the facial detail on Merrin and especially upon his fingertips (!), the dust and the sand and the grain on statuary etc. Finite elements of cloth and material, patterns, wood-grain etc look very good indeed and betray no degree of smearing or blurring even in the tighter, smaller niches. Hair separation is more than decent, eyes and teeth shine with detail. In fact, when Karras smiles in farewell to Kinderman, we can see just how yellow and nicotine-stained they are even from a distance. And what about Regans' eyes when they gain that unnerving yellowy cast? WOW! Okay, so the new level of detail actually makes some of the makeup more apparent – Merrin's old age wrinkles, some of the scars on Regan – but this just shows how much more defined this image is. Leaf-fall, medical apparatus, recording and playback equipment, the dust flicked away from a little effigy of the demon – this is a wonderfully detailed print, folks, that never looks horribly digital and retains its essential film-like integrity.
In fact, certain scenes throughout the film look astonishing in their clarity. For instance, when we cut from the slow camera zoom in towards the MacNeil house once we have left Iraq (a long shot that looks murky and muggy), we meet Chris as she lies on the bed going over her script. The image is very fresh, clean and wonderfully coloured with a very natural quality. Look at the moment when she leaves her room to investigate those strange noises, the light from behind shines through her orange nightgown and the shade is gorgeously rendered. Such moments of lighting, detail and clarity make The Exorcist look almost reborn. And to go along with this, three dimensionality is very good, though not profound. However, depth of field, as I alluded to earlier with the scenes at the Mosul dig in Iraq, can be very impressive indeed. You only have to look at the shots of Father Karras walking off across the university grounds after watching Chris' performance before the cameras, or of Chris walking back home shortly afterwards to see how clear, detailed and vivid far-off objectivity is and how exemplary the level of frame-spatiality appears. Or how about those crucial and ominous views up or down those steps? Yes, there are times when this transfer looks absolutely beautiful, although there are, also, times when it looks noticeably less so.
There is no problem with edge enhancement – a couple of buildings seen against the setting or rising sun in Iraq exhibit some slight ringing - and certainly no overt DNR usage. A touch of shimmering occurs on some lined structures – the railing doors in the university, say - but this is minimal. And I noticed a faint, somewhat puzzling instance of banding in the blazing haze from the Iraqi sun right at the start. But, all in all, The Exorcist has made a very impressive appearance on Blu-ray and gains a strong 8 out of 10 from me. No fan should be without it. And that includes the bozo, Stateside, who remarked that he wouldn't touch this version because the Warner logo at the start has been revamped into the new design! Grow up, you idiot!
The Extended Cut receives a DTS-HD MA 6.1 track whilst the Theatrical Version unsettles you via DTS-HD MA 5.1. There is nothing of real difference between the two, but I have stuck primarily with the 6.1 because I prefer the Extended Cut.
Basically, you are going to love this mix. The Exorcist is one of those early movies that totally realised the extent to which aural effects and sound design could be utilised. A few years later we would discover the power of Suspiria and the immaculate detail of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, not to mention a certain Star Wars – films that would also embrace and push the audio boundaries of what was possible. But The Exorcist made elaborate use of sudden stingers, subtle music and ambience, wild cacophonies of shrieking, dialogue, score and effects all rolled into one, and incredible silences that, by virtue of how they were brought into play, could be just as devastating as the sonic storms that may precede or immediately erupt afterwards.
The score is actually quite restrained, but then it always was. The passage of Tubular Bells, as it plays in the film, is low and subtle. The many classical pieces that punctuate the proceedings have a bit more clout and presence, but they do not overpower the underlying film. It is the effects that do that. Scratching, snarling, bellowing and manipulated screaming come over with appropriate intensity, and from all over the set-up. When Chris hears a groaning sound or the sudden lurching of a piece of furniture from upstairs, it sounds like it is emanating from somewhere suitably distant and directionality – be it for voices or for the effects – is pretty much spot-on, with unnervingly smooth panning. Clarity and detail within this often extreme sound-mix is excellent. Just listen to the ripping, guttural fury of the dogs fighting in the desert, or the precision staccato of the bed-legs thumping on the bedroom floor. Or the ceaseless anvil-clanking of the blacksmith teams in those back-streets. The whirling tempest of supernaturally flung objects is nicely immersive and directional, too. Impacts are weighty and sudden – the abruptness of some of them quite startling, such as the thundering carriage that almost runs down Merrin in the Iraqi streets. Those hellish moments when the demon causes doors to slam and crack, or walls and ceilings to tear open are more powerful and provide some physical jolts for the listener. Now, it is true that some of the more overt effects can come over as a little bit over-emphasised … but, if you're buying into this unholy mix, you'll be quite happy.
Quiet spells are just as well engineered. The soft and measured voices of the Chris/Kinderman discussion is a delight of subtle authenticity. Hushed hubbub in the psychiatric ward that Karras' mother winds-up in is, like the crowd scene in the film-within-a-film, or the general ambience in the cafe and streets of Mosul is natural-sounding and convincing, bleeding well into the rears. Exchanges out in the open – such as Kinderman meeting Karras, or Karras talking to Chris – are equally well rendered. Voices are clear and discernible unless they are deliberately deluged with demonic fury, the attention to setting and positioning welcome. But when it comes to demonstrative power, the repetition of “The Power of Christ compels you!”, over and over again, is so forceful and abject that you may have to warn you neighbours that there isn't a real exorcism taking place behind your front door.
The Exorcist definitely comes alive with more intensity than ever before with either of these two lossless tracks. Whichever cut of the film you opt for, you get a wide spread across the front, impeccable levels of detail, deep bass and active and intelligent use of the surrounds. Very impressive and a strong 8 out of 10.
This elaborate BD package comes housed within a lavishly illustrated 46-page digi-book that offers lots of factoids, trivia and info and, well, just looks really gorgeous. We also get the one-page “Personal Letter” from William Friedkin that tells how he and Blatty had a mutual goal in making the film, and how impressive this new HD transfer is.
The extras are spread over the two discs. Disc One contains the Extended Cut of the film and a commentary track from Friedkin hat pertains specifically to this revamped and re-jigged version. Disc Two also has a commentary from the director, although this one has a slightly different, far more focussed approach to the film, its themes, its conception and impact and its connection with Blatty's book, screenplay and the author's ideas.
Both commentaries from Friedkin contain some degree of overlap. But the filmmaker does provide his aural chronicles with enough variety and spontaneity to make it clearly worth listening to the both of them. However, I will say that the chat track for the Extended Version is almost remorselessly scene-specific, to the point where it actually seems as though Friedkin is afraid that we are losing the semblance of the plot if he wanders too far away from it, therefore he becomes quite self-consciously strict, like a narrator, eve down to describing what we can plainly see for ourselves. Mind you, we do learn that one of the stipulations that the Iraqi authorities demanded in order for Friedkin to shoot in Mosul was that his crew teach them how to manufacture fake blood!
Disc one also contains three great new featurettes, all in hi-def.
Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist (30mins) is the meatiest as it looks at the themes of the film and the shooting, itself, with makeup tests and behind the scenes footage liberally sprinkled in-between great interviews and reminiscences from all those involved. We get to see the places that the demonic production visited in The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now, which lasts for 9 mins. And then there is a nice little glance over and appreciation of how the film evolved over the years in Faces Of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist, which runs for another 9 mins. All very good stuff, folks.
A cluster of Theatrical Trailers, TV and Radio Spots for this cut of the film round out the first disc.
Disc Two houses the Theatrical Cut with a short but quite nifty Introduction from William Friedkin.
As well as Friedkin's commentary track, we also hear from William Peter Blatty in his own chat-track. This is quite expansive and takes in much more than the film, itself. We hear about his fascination for the original case of possession that kick-started the whole thing and his concepts of the theological war between Good and Evil and the individual crises that thrust all of the various characters together. This is a great track and offers a terrific alternate viewpoint to Friedkin's.
There is an interview gallery that brings Friedkin and Blatty together over coffee to discuss elements of the production, the changes that were made along the way, and the dramatic that each has come to regarding the film's success in the edited trio of featurettes entitled The Original Cut, The Final Reckoning and Stairway To Heaven. Very good stuff and nicely candid and honest.
And, of course, we get the feature-length retrospective documentary “Fear Of God” that Mark Kermode made for the BBC. Although this is still the version that has lost the Mercedes McCambridge footage, this is still an exemplary piece of warts 'n' all movie examination that boasts extremely candid and comprehensive interviews with practically everyone involved with the film other than McCambridge. Naturally, the anecdotes from Blair, Burstyn, Miller and Sydow are worth their weight in gold, but, as you would proably expect, the lion's share once again falls to both William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty, the two creatively squabbling peas from the pod without whom such a classic would never have been conceivable as a chunk of celluloid entertainment. Dick Smith spills some secrets, the two real-life priests talk about acting and their dramatic presence on-set, the stunt-gaffer grins about the nasty trick they played on Ellen Burstyn and the PR man tells us how Warner suits shook their heads in dismay at a private distribution screening and recommended that the film be shelved. The “curse” of The Exorcist gets a mention or two and we see footage of the amazing effect that the film had on cinemas.
The full version of The Original Ending gets aired – we've seen this already in the Extended Version, but this piece of Kinderman and Father Dyer embarking on the “start of a beautiful friendship” goes a touch further and incorporates the moment when the dialogue was lost in the sound-mix.
We are also treated to a three-minute montage of pre-production artwork and sketches that is quite nice to see.
The second disc is also rounded-off with a selection of trailers and TV spots for the original version of the film. It is worth commenting on the infamous “Flash” trailer, however, that offers over three-minutes of horribly intense black-and-white freeze-flash imagery, mainly of Regan and Pazuzu. Now, I'm no expert, but this strobe-like effect actually disturbed me, so I shudder to think how somebody who has any sort of visually-triggered epilepsy will fare with it. Personally, I think there should be a warning about it.
Although there is nothing here that takes specific advantage of BD's capability – we don't get a Demon-View Movie Experience with Pazuzu talking us through the film like Guy Ritchie does with Sherlock Holmes – this is a detailed, fascinating and very richly entertaining assortment that leaves pretty much no stone unturned.
Whatever our beliefs and whatever our opinion about the film itself, The Exorcist remains one of the greatest horror films ever made. Its importance to the genre as far as the medium of film goes is one thing, but the story itself has also informed the way that its literary siblings have developed throughout the 70's and onwards. Stephen King, for one, was hugely influenced by the power of this harrowing and explicit tale and the long-standing effect that it has managed to cast.
With fabulous performances right across the board, a complex and controversial narrative that openly questions your faith and belief structure – however minimal it might be – and an emotional ferocity that has been difficult to emulate (though many have tried), The Exorcist very justifiably takes is (un)hallowed place in the Horror Hall of Fame. William Friedkin broke more than just box office records when he unleashed the Devil onto an unsuspecting audience, he created a true cultural groundswell that actually did the unthinkable – it made God fashionable again. There really aren't too many films that can say that. And, for Heaven's sake, this is a horror movie with some shocking blasphemies and untold vile acts punctuating it!
Warner provide us with this now-stately Satanic offering in a superlative package that contains both versions of the film with sterling transfers apiece. Both video and audio have been meticulously restored and revamped, and The Exorcist now looks and sounds fabulous enough to make your head spin. The extras package is generous, supplying pretty much everything a fan could wish for except a crucifix and a can of green pea-soup. All we need now is a blisteringly good BD release for Exorcist III, with John Boorman's ill-conceived first sequel, The Heretic, thrown in as a devilish coaster.
I long believed that the film was vastly overrated – and it definitely has its flaws – but there can be no denying that The Exorcist is one of the most influential and powerful movies ever made. It may not be all that scary to us now when thought of in more “conventional” horror terms, but there is an irrefutable creepiness and dread conjured up by it that seeps into you and lingers there for a very long time afterwards.
It is a classic film that has been treated with great respect on Blu-ray. Buy it now … “The Power of Christ compels you!”
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