On October 5th, THE EXORCIST will invade the public consciousness once again, as it seems to do every few years, this time thanks to a Blu-ray release packed to the brim with special features and a sparkling new 1080p transfer (from the original negative, natch). Fiends for the film, still the scariest movie ever made for my money (I'm not alone, this I know for sure), should definitely be drooling over the prospect of owning this, the essential home video release of THE EXORCIST, which includes the Director's Cut of the film (aka the Version You've Never Seen) as well as the original, theatrical cut.
To help usher in the Blu-ray's arrival, Warner Bros. was kind enough to send me an advance screener of the special features, and recently held a lunch populated by some of key members of the EXORCIST family: Star Linda Blair; screenwriter and author William Peter Blatty; sound designer Chris Newman and director of photography Owen Roizman. Of course, I would have gladly talked to these folks for hours on end, but alas, I only got to spend a handful of minutes with each.
As for director William Friedkin, he popped in for literally about 40 seconds and then had to jet. I wasn't sure if he'd be missed or not. Though he's probably mellowed in the last few years, his reputation back in the 70s was that of, well, a take-charge guy, to put it lightly.
Director William "Billy" Friendkin
Chris Newman had the following to say about working with Friedkin on THE EXORCIST: "It was an excruciatingly difficult job... A lot of tension, extraordinary amounts of tension and expectation at the time of shooting and getting ready and being ready... Intense, the answer is intense, which is a blanket answer. I don't think I can give you - without violating a lot of confidences... You had to be ready and right, on the first take."
William Peter Blatty was at the lunch, and chatted gleefully about the movie, which he's been most associated with. I asked him about whether or not this was, once and for all, the "definitive" cut of the film. "This so-called 'version you've never seen' is not a change from the cut that Billy [Friedkin] showed me for final approval at - not a joke - the editing offices really were at 666 5th avenue. I watched it on a moviola, standing up, and I declared it a masterpiece... Then Billy goes back to Burbank, and the suits close in with 'Why don't you cut this?', and convinced Billy that no audience can sit without squirming for more than two hours, and he arbitrarily cut it down to a two hour length. This version is the original version, the cut that Billy put together and loved, and which I love."
Blatty added that this new version is more than a touch different than most other Director's Cuts: "There were existing shots in the film for which there were much better takes. Far more interesting, fuller takes. And he restored a lot of those. He substituted takes with the same dialogue and the same action which were far better in most cases, far better, than what the original editor had selected."
Of course, it wouldn't be an EXORCIST party without Linda Blair, who seemed as eager to speak about the film as ever. She lavished most of her praise upon Blatty, who, before THE EXORCIST hit everyone with a wallop, was known mostly as a comedic writer. "This is one of the greatest films ever made, this is one of the greatest magic acts ever put on film. And the credit - to me - it starts with Blatty who was challenged with, 'You can't write a dramatic piece, you're a comedy writer.' Blatty, a lot of people just don't realize, they said, 'You can't do that, Bill.' And he said, 'Oh really?' So he went to that challenge."
The actress also had an opportunity to address one of the most persistent rumors ever regarding THE EXORCIST: That it was plagued by some kind of evil force hell bent on ruining the production. "If you work on a project for a year and a half, someone's family member is going to die. It's all press. Sometimes you have to make a story. You have to interject things, because no one wants to hear, 'Oh, they just worked really hard, and it was normal.' Nobody could live with that. I think that's how so much has formulated throughout time, and the questions... But the questions are probably what lead us here today, this many years later, and you're getting to finally see the behind the scenes. Otherwise you guys wouldn't be asking!"
I might argue with Blair on that point. Those questions, interesting as they are, aren't why I love the film so. It remains my single favorite theatrical experience ever; the first time I saw it - really saw it - was at Radio City Music Hall when I was 16 years old. There, in that historic theater with its grand scale and booming sound, I was quite literally pinned back into my seat by the film. Its images unforgettable, its sounds skin-crawling and its human tragedy as captivating as any I've ever seen, THE EXORCIST grabbed me that day and hasn't let me go... Which is why it's a treat whenever it brings us something new.
While I've yet to see the actual Blu-ray of the film, I have gotten a look at the special features created specifically for that format, and I couldn't be happier. Some truly incisive behind-the-scenes footage has been unearthed, some straight from cinematographer Owen Roizman's basement (William Peter Blatty's words); if you didn't think they kept documents of such things back in the day, think again, because this footage proves that there was always someone shooting stuff in the background - a camera behind the cameras. Some might say that you shouldn't raise the curtain on such things, that the film itself is all you need and that looking into it too closely will taint the illusion. To hell with that, though; I like getting an in-depth look at one of my favorite movies of all time.
Jason Miller, William Peter Blatty and Ellen Burstyn
The footage is carefully incorporated into a brand new documentary (and Blu-ray exclusive) called Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist. Almost all of the film's classic sequences are seen from a fresh angle here: take a peek at Max von Sydow and Linda Blair being fitted for make-up (still hard to believe how young von Sydow actually was when he made this), or what it was like shooting the gruesome vomiting or "Let Jesus f*ck you!" scenes. Brilliant stuff.
Another special feature shows the contrast between the movie's famed Georgetown locations in the early 70s and now... Truth be told, they haven't changed a whole lot, but it's still interesting to hear Friedkin go into the whys of the locations he chose.
Finally, you get a down to basics look at the differences between the two versions, with Blatty and Friedkin explaining why the cuts were made and why it was important to put them back in. (One fascinating aside has Friedkin admitting he restored one particular sequence exclusively for Blatty's appreciation.) We also get to see some footage from scenes that weren't able to be restored due to audio issues, like a moment between Blair and Burstyn at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; there's additional footage of the two touring the capital as well.
This is great material, and makes this a must-own for horror geeks. Yes, in case you're still unsure, it's well worth the double dip. So what are you waiting for? Pre-order the EXORCIST Blu-ray right HERE! It hits shelves on OCTOBER 5th.