The Devil to Pay

Warner Bros. must have a hell of a good reason for rereleasing The Exorcist.

The Exorcist
Fly girl: Linda Blair gets uppity with Max von Sydow (center) and Jason Miller.
Fly girl: Linda Blair gets uppity with Max von Sydow (center) and Jason Miller.
In the 1998 documentary The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist, made for the BBC and available on The Exorcist 25th-anniversary DVD, director William Friedkin spends a great deal of time explaining why he excised certain scenes from his film, scenes author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty had begged him to keep in the movie when it was originally released in 1973. Quite simply, Friedkin insists to an unlistening Blatty, those sequences didn't work; they said too much, hit the nail too hard on the head. One such scene takes place near the film's end, when Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) sit on the stairs outside the bedroom of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the little girl possessed by the foul-mouthed, sexed-up Lucifer. Karras and Merrin say nothing to each other; they're exhausted and terrified, in need of a brief moment of peace. For us, as well, it's a welcome moment of quiet at the end of a busy, noisy movie -- a respite from the sound effects (borrowed from a slaughterhouse and a jar of bees, among other things) that clutter the soundtrack in an effort to terrorize an audience held hostage.

But 27 years later, Friedkin has inexplicably restored the scene as Blatty wrote it. The whispered dialogue screams important, but actually adds or reveals nothing; it serves no purpose, other than to stop the film dead as it moves toward its shrugging, cold climax. "Why this girl? It makes no sense," Karras asks Merrin, the man who is somehow responsible for the demonic possession taking place upstairs. "I think the point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly," Merrin says, trying to swim in the deep end of a shallow pool. "To reject the possibility that God could love us." It's enough to make you want to stand up in the theater and shout at the screen, "Go to hell!"

Why did Friedkin reinstate the scene? Perhaps the devil made him do it, because it is high-minded nonsense in a least-common-denominator film meant to scare audiences out of theaters and into the nearest church. (As Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker in January 1974, The Exorcist is "the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's.") Blatty always insisted his original book was about faith, redemption, and spirituality, but Friedkin knew better (or worse, depending on how charitable one feels toward him at this point in his floundering career, which has been riddled with such bumbling failures as Jade and Rules of Engagement).

Friedkin, fresh from winning an Oscar for The French Connection, was smart enough to reduce The Exorcist to its most base elements: blood, urine, pea-soup vomit, curse words spewing from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl, and crucifix masturbation. He knew he wasn't making art; he was concocting gross-out pop -- a movie so "scary" it borders on being silly. Which it is: It's impossible now to hear Linda Blair (actually, Mercedes McCambridge, who provides the male-female demonic growl) utter those famous words -- "Your mother sucks cocks in hell" -- without giggling just a little bit. Or a lot, even if Laraine Newman's Saturday Night Live version ("Your mother sews socks that smell") doesn't linger in the memory. The power of Christ compels you to laugh.

This "version you've never seen" cleans up the sound and adds about 10 minutes of footage to the film's original 122-minute running time, which never felt that long. To his credit, Friedkin never lingers on the dull moments. But the add-ons are superfluous, like building on a spare bedroom in a 55-room mansion. They don't answer questions raised in the original: What did Father Merrin's archaeological dig in Iraq at the film's beginning have to do with the demonic possession of little Regan MacNeil? And why the hell did the devil pick on little Regan MacNeil to begin with? Nor do they deepen the thrills, which are quick and cheap and not a little sordid.

They're merely there, these cynical little additions (including frequent, "subliminal" appearances by the infamous white-faced demon) that will allow Warner Bros. to get the film back in theaters and make some quick, easy coin from a dusty antique. Then, Warner can rerelease this version on DVD -- this ham-fisted "director's cut," even though the original held true to Friedkin's near-sighted vision. At least the director didn't cave in to Blatty's desire to end the movie with the original conclusion, found in the book and on the DVD, in which Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and Father Dyer (the Reverend William O'Malley) walk off arm-in-arm, reciting Humphrey Bogart's final speech from Casablanca. "Many people to this day interpret The Exorcist as a downer," Blatty says of the ending on the 1998 DVD, and you wish he'd shut up.

Certainly, the most famous deleted scene is the so-called spider walk sequence, in which an upside-down Regan skitters down a staircase on her hands and feet, with her belly in the air; Blatty insists she looks "like a tarantula." Cut because it didn't work -- the sequence in which it was to appear, when Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) finds out about the death of Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), was already too busy -- it has been restored, sort of. It's slightly different from the scene found in The Fear of God: Instead of attacking her mother at the bottom of the stairs, Regan now stops on the middle of the staircase as blood oozes from her roaring mouth. It accomplishes nothing except to gross us out further. It's one more shock-'em scene, one more special effect with which Friedkin can beat us over the head. But that's what directors do when they have nothing new to say: They go back and rewrite the past, if only to avoid facing the future.

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