I did not welcome the movie version of William Peter Blatty’s shocking, yet pious, best seller “The Exorcist” when it arrived the day after Christmas in 1973.
My wife and I were expecting our second child, and our first daughter was nearing age 3. A thriller that depended on subjecting a little girl to monstrous cruelties and her mother to emotional helplessness and desperation didn’t appeal to me.
An augmented and digitally enhanced version of “The Exorcist” opened yesterday at area theaters.
The original film became a controversial box-office sensation and picked up 10 Oscar nominations. So did the low-key “The Sting,” which emerged as the decisive winner. “The Sting” earned seven Academy Awards, including best picture. “The Exorcist” had to settle for the best-sound award and one for screenwriting.
One could argue justly that “The Exorcist” was shortchanged by the Academy Awards of 1973. No Oscars for makeup design or visual effects were given that year, when they were still occasional, honorary categories that required special recommendations to the Academy’s board of governors. Makeup artist Dick Smith and effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere were left out in the cold for several evocative horrors and marvels.
Mr. Smith was responsible for the facial deterioration of the possessed juvenile character, 12-year-old Regan O’Neill (portrayed for the most part by Linda Blair, who ceased to be a fresh-faced newcomer about halfway into the movie). Mr. Vercoutere handled the sinister and turbulent bedroom settings, which included a levitating bed and occupant.
The pretext for the original movie had been burning a hole in Mr. Battey’s imagination since his undergraduate years at Georgetown University, where he had become aware of an episode of reported diabolical possession and deliverance in a 14-year-old boy in Mount Rainier. An extended period of confinement and treatment, much of it in the St. Louis area rather than Washington, concluded in a revival of ancient rites of exorcism sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.
Mr. Blatty achieves his scariest psychological effects, as both author and producer-screenwriter, when movie actress Chris O’Neill (Ellen Burstyn) seeks medical expertise about her daughter’s affliction and finds no source of reassurance. Prescriptions of Ritalin to control inexplicably wild and anti-social behavior are augmented by Thorazine. A couple of spinal and brain scans remain inconclusive. Prolonged psychiatric observation and hospitalization loom.
Ultimately, modern medicine is humbled by two Catholic priests: Max von Sydow as the elderly, frail Father Merrin and Jason Miller as the robust but grieving Father Karras. Father Merrin seems to have provoked the demon that attacks Regan. During a curiously dangling prologue, he participates in an archaeological dig in Iraq and squares off with a nasty, priapic relic.
Father Karras, also a psychiatric counselor on the Georgetown campus, loses a beloved mother during preparatory scenes, which also establish Chris O’Neill’s alarm about her daughter.
“The Exorcist” is at its most sincere when depicting the valor of Merrin and Karras in mortal combat with the demon that invades Regan. The restoration, subtitled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” in some press material, adds about 10 minutes of footage. The most effective segments show an earlier round of medical tests for Regan and then a midexorcism interlude between Merrin and Karras in which the senior priest clarifies their mission: “The point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.”
A pretty strong argument could be made that “The Exorcist” opened the door for quantum leaps in graphic ugliness, blatancy and potential despair in the realm of movie melodrama and supernatural polemics. But at least it recognizes the value of siding with rescuers and healers when the chips are down.
The current restoration retrieves one gratuitous shock that must have been hard to lose: the sight of a shape-shifting Regan scampering crablike down the stairs and leaving a little blood on the carpet. It removes the stricken Regan from bedroom confinement in Chris’ rented house for the first and only time, suggesting that the demon ought to be able to run everyone ragged all over town.
Once you begin pondering that, the ominous bedroom seems a matter of filmmaking convenience more than anything else. Nevertheless, it certainly would have created a stir to see Regan the crab years before that critter escaped from John Hurt’s chest in “Alien.”
TITLE: “The Exorcist — The Version You’ve Never Seen”
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and supernaturally exaggerated graphic violence; shock effects include some notoriously repulsive, blasphemous and obscene moments.)
CREDITS: Directed by William Friedkin. Produced by William Peter Blatty. Screenplay by Mr. Blatty, based on his novel. Cinematography by Owen Roizman, with additional photography in Iraq supervised by Billy Williams.
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes (expanded from 121 minutes, the running time of the 1973 release)