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His Own 'Exorcist'

Movies | Commentary

After 27 years, writer William Peter Blatty finally gets to see his vision of the spirituality behind the terror in a new release.

September 21, 2000|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's never been a phenomenon quite like "The Exorcist." Its disturbing powerand graphic horror are unrivaled. Unlike "The Blair Witch Project," its cultural hysteria was about something very tangible--and not just a clever marketing campaign.

The 1971 best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and 1973 blockbuster movie directed by William Friedkin tapped into the era's social chaos and spiritual longing.

"The Exorcist" dared to prove the existence of God by giving the devil his due. No wonder it scared the hell out of everyone. And no wonder it continues to haunt people to this day, inspiring a revival of satanic movies, ranging from last year's "End of Days" to the upcoming "Lost Souls."

Trouble is, Blatty (who also was producer and screenwriter, taking home an Oscar for his adaptation) has been spinning over the movie ever since its release. After viewing a rough cut on a Movieola that he thought was masterful, Blatty was horrified when he saw the shorter version in a movie theater. Much of the spirituality was gone, he believed.

This turned to frustration and anger when critics and viewers expressed confusion about the ending and overall meaning of the movie.

But after 27 years of persistent arguing and complaining, Blatty finally persuaded the director to restore what he considers 11 crucial minutes of footage. This new version of "The Exorcist"--call it the "writer's cut"--opens Friday in limited release. And, if it catches on again, the distribution will widen significantly by Halloween.

"I was quite willing to let the film stand," Friedkin explains. "What I originally cut out was strictly for length and pacing and because I didn't think the spirituality needed to be spelled out. I thought the audience got it. Blatty insisted they didn't.

"He always felt these scenes were important. We've had a friendly disagreement all these years, and I finally agreed to look at the scenes again and reconsider a new version."

And Warner Bros. was willing to oblige, but not before testing the new version in select college towns last spring. The movie reportedly went over very well, aside from some nervous laughter. It played before packed houses in Austin, Texas, for two months.

New Version Is Clearer, Richer

It's amazing how much difference a few scenes can make. The re-released "Exorcist" is clearer, deeper and richer, essentially more faithful to the novel. And thanks to a thunderous new soundtrack in stereo for the first time (digitally updated to Surround EX by master sound designer/sound editor Steve Boeddeker of Skywalker Sound), we can hear everything too, including all the weird demonic noises and gurgling fish tank.

"It's just a more satisfying, fuller experience," Blatty boasts. "A little more electrifying, definitely more spiritual, not to mention a little scarier. It's just complete."

In a world consumed by evil, the film asks us to account for all the good. And that's what's been restored to this supernatural thriller about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl (Linda Blair) and the ensuing test of faith involving her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and two priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow). "Now people don't have to feel guilty watching the obscenity, and it's clear that the demon hasn't won," Blatty says.

Here's an overview of the new footage:

* An introspective break from the exorcism ritual as the two priests discuss the reason for the possession: "I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity," Von Sydow tells the troubled Miller. This clarifies the crucible as well as the eventual redemption of Miller, the true protagonist.

* An examination scene early on, in which early hints of possession are mistaken for attention deficit disorder and Ritalin is prescribed for Blair. It's an important connective tissue, not to mention an amusingly ironic moment. It also allows the physician more interesting character development as he goes from being smug to being baffled.

* A "spider walk" scene in which Blair descends the staircase with her body bent over backward. It's become the most talked about and requested outtake in "Exorcist" lore and is even included as a supplement on the DVD. Now it's here, but with a gruesome twist that's sure to shock audiences while attaining new legendary status.

* A minor scene in which Miller listens to a tape recording of Blair. This touching moment helps convince him to pursue the exorcism. It even adds spiritual weight to the following consecration ritual, in which Miller enunciates the "everlasting covenant, the mystery of faith."

* Additional footage that not only humanizes Von Sydow but gives him a self-deprecating sense of humor.

* The original ending is reinstated: The exchange of a religious medal now opens up the possibility of faith on the part of an atheist, and a new friendship is struck between two strangers, a detective (Lee J. Cobb) and a priest (the Rev. William O'Malley). There's a sense of closure, and the spirit of Miller lives on.

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