Tuesday, October 5, 2010

THE EXORCIST: Blu-Ray (WB 1973) Warner Home Video

In the history of American movies, two films from the 1970s broke the mould for acceptable screen violence, ushering a new era in Hollywood. The first was The Godfather (1972). The second is The Exorcist (1973).

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains as emotionally unsettling and viscerally disturbing as horror movies get; a terrifying excursion into the heart of darkness and demonic possession. Based on William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel - itself loosely an account of the 1949 exorcism of Robbie Mannheim - the film stays remarkably faithful to the novel and, upon its initial release received only an 'R' rating for its efforts.

Friedkin and Blatty had met socially in 1968, long before the book's publication, but their chance encounter was hardly cordial. Blatty showed Friedkin a script idea that Friedkin hated outright. The director wasted no time in sharing his disdain for the effort. However, the rejection of Blatty's work seems to have enhanced the author's resolve to do better.

Overnight, Blatty's subsequent novel, The Exorcist (published by Harper & Row in 1971) took off as few books of its vintage had. Even more unexpected, however, was Blatty connecting with Friedkin again, this time to suggest that he direct the movie based on his best seller. Simultaneously humbled and intrigued at the prospect Friedkin approached Warner Brothers; but only after Blatty rejected the studio's other choices for director was a deal struck.

Casting The Exorcist proved something of a challenge, since few parents of the 'then' reigning child stars working in the industry approved of the film's subject matter and would not allow their offspring to be subjected to the arduous transformation required to make the plight of demonic possession believable.

At one point, it is even rumoured that Friedkin considered casting an adult midget in the pivotal role of Regan McNeil. Eventually Linda Blair was selected from a short list of potential candidates, primarily because she was unknown to audiences, but also because she revealed an almost angelic quality to Friedkin that would make her transformation into the very essence of evil that much more terrifying.

As for the rest of the cast; the studio heavily pushed for Friedkin to cast Marlon Brando in the part of Father Merrin (the role eventually going to Max Von Sydow). Friedkin balked at the idea - believing that Brando's name would overshadow the story. He would also reject Jack Nicholson to play Father Karras. On the other hand, Blatty preferred Stacy Keach for the latter role while Friedkin had recently become enamoured with relative unknown stage actor Jason Miller - who eventually won and accepted the part with mild reservations.

After Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine both turned Friedkin's request down with outright disgust, the part of Chris MacNeil was pitched to Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft. The former agreed to do the part only if the film was shot in Rome while the latter was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Finally, Ellen Burstyn signed on, proving the ideal choice for the emotionally strained and religiously scarred matriarch who does ultimate battle with the devil for her daughter's immortal soul. The last bit of casting proved just as integral, if invisible, to the film's success; legendary radio and film star Mercedes McCambridge became the voice double of Satan, lending dramatic intensity to the devil.

The screenplay by Blatty begins as his novel, at the site of a remote archaeological dig in Iraq overseen by Father Lankester Merrin (Sydow) that unearths a bizarre grimacing bestial creature. This winged gargoyle-like creature terrorizes the locals, but it compels Father Merrin to do further research as to its purpose and architect. From here the narrative jumps forward to Georgetown University where Father Damien Karras (Miller) is troubled by his own lack of faith in dealing with his mother's terminal illness. Karras' mother dies without him at her side, an emotional hook that is revisited later in the film.

The central narrative concerns popular Georgetown actress, Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) whose young daughter, Regan (Blair) experiences a seizure that gradually begins to lead to more perverse and inexplicable behaviour. As example; at a house party, Regan appears from a deep sleep at the foot of the stairs, suddenly urinating through her nightgown in front of Chris' company.

Initially, Chris attributes Regan's manifestations as part of the onset of puberty. But then the truly harrowing behaviour starts. Regan curses and blasphemes in various tongues and demonic male voices. She levitates over her bed and mutilates herself with a crucifix.

Doctors are of no help; suggesting everything from a brain tumour to psychiatric dementia. At home the occurrences escalate. Regan's bed shakes violently, furniture hurls about the room and the temperature drops to frigid conditions. After Chris' director, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) is found brutally murdered just beyond the family home, Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to suspect foul play, though even he cannot fathom that the child is possessed.

Having exhausted all medical cures, Chris turns to the church and the possibility of exorcising Regan's demons. This unorthodox procedure is administered by Father Merrin with Father Karras' assistance. But the devil is in the details - literally - wreaking havoc on the priests and playing upon Karras' maternal regrets as it manifests as Karras' mother. After Merrin is killed by an unholy blast of power and physical assault from the devil, Karras takes hold of Regan in a last ditch effort to save her soul.

The demon passes from her into Karras, but before it can claim him for its own, Karras throws himself from Regan's second story bedroom window, effectively sacrificing himself and thereby saving both Regan and his own soul from eternal damnation. Kinderman, who has been keeping a very close watch on the McNeil house resolves that Chris and Regan are blameless in both Dennings and Karras' deaths and the film ends with Chris taking Regan away to parts unknown, but hopefully, free of the demon that plagued her.

Despite changing morays and audiences tastes, viewed today The Exorcist remains a film to be reckoned with. At the time of its general release, Billy Graham decried the film as evil incarnate. The Catholic church, however, embraced its frank depiction of prayer drawing out and destroying the devil.

Ironically, all of the backlash that the studio presumed would happen - especially after Friedkin refused to alter the depicted violence in his film from suggestions derived during a private screening for executives - never occurred. Instead, Warner Brothers happily found an audience eager to embrace the movie; even if some left midway through their viewing, white knuckled and pale faced.

Viewed today, The Exorcist retains its ability to shock. Can anyone truly forget the green-eyed, pock-faced Regan stabbing her bloody genitals with a crucifix, or the repugnant moment when she spews pea green vomit all over Father Karras? These are indelible moments of vial exposition that, once seen, become burned into our cinematic consciousness forever.

What the film has, therefore, is staying power – not so much for what is presented on the screen, but for what remains trapped inside the hidden recesses of our mind to tease and tempt us, like the proverbial snake beckoning Eve for a bite of the apple. Reportedly, for the scene where Regan is being violently snapped back and forth against her mattress, the special effects department rigged a sort of torture device that shook the girl to such an extent it generated real bruises across her entire body.

At least Blair escaped without any enduring physical and/or psychological repercussions. A leather harness designed to jerk Ellen Burstyn across the room after she is supposedly belted by the devil, left the actress with permanent spinal injury. When the film was re-released in theatres as ‘the version you’ve never seen’ in 2000 reportedly the newly inserted footage of Regan walking upside down and backwards elicited several loud chuckles from the cheap seats. Now, that is frightening.

Warner Home Video's 2 disc Blu-Ray contains two versions of The Exorcist; the original theatrical release and The Version You’ve Never Seen Before’ rechristened herein as the Definitive Director's Cut. Color fidelity is vastly improved on both versions when directly compared to the various standard DVD incarnations. Sharpness and fine details take a quantum leap forward. But film grain is inconsistently rendered.

For example; long shots of Georgetown exhibit grain that looks more like pixelization (harsh, shimmering and breaking apart fine details) while medium shots and close ups have a decidedly smoother, more pristine characteristic that seems, at least on the whole, more film like. Flesh tones exhibit marked improvement - less pasty pink and orange than on the DVDs.

The audio is a lossless 7.1 upgrade that is remarkably dimensional - considering that the original mix for this film was in mono. The theatrical cut contains the comprehensive nearly two hour long BBC documentary; Fear of God that delves not only into the film's cultural impact but also provides a thorough history of exorcisms and the Catholic faith. The director's cut contains 3 newly produced featurettes exclusive to this Blu-Ray release that explore the making of the film, its locations, and, its overall impact on American film making. Bottom line: this 2 disc Blu-Ray is a must have for fans of the film. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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