Have you ever had an old friend you didn't care much for until a chance meeting, years later, made you realize you're head over heels in love with them? Me either, but that was what watching The Exorcist last night was like for me.
Yeah, I know. I should have always loved this movie. But I didn't. Sue me.
In my defense, the only other time I saw the film in my adult life would have been around the time the director's cut showed up on TV, a cut which doesn't improve the film at all. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. I was too distracted by the cheap attempts at subliminal imagery, superimposed over otherwise flawless shots, and the inclusion of deleted scenes which were better left on the cutting room floor. I think they even touched up Regan's vomit with CGI, if memory serves me correctly.
Long story short, my previous viewing had me repeating, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" I know it's an old tune to sing, but aging movie directors shouldn't be allowed to "improve" the films they made when they were young unless it's an effort to undo changes made by third parties such as censorship groups or studio executives. It's depressing to think the director's cut is probably the only thing that gets shown in theaters anymore.
Unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, the theatrical cut of The Exorcist still exists and it looks amazing in HD. The first time I saw the movie was on VHS, which can't replicate the grain and shadows the film wears so well. (If I ever get a chance to see an actual print of the film properly projected in a theater, I'll take it in a heartbeat. It feels almost blasphemous to watch it digitally no matter how good home HD technology becomes.) The one and only problem seeing the film this clearly is the seams in Max von Sydow's old age makeup become a little more apparent than they ever were on VHS.
I talked about the story elements in my review of the book yesterday, so I'll skip to what makes the movie special. In the novel, it's heart-wrenching when Chris MacNeil is taking little Regan to one medical specialist after another, but it has a slightly bigger impact in the movie even though that section of the story is reduced in length. Director William Friedkin reportedly hired real doctors and specialists to perform the procedures on Linda Blair's character, which makes it all the more realistic and traumatizing. Actually seeing and hearing all those loud and crunchy machines is almost as visceral as the scenes of Regan's possession manifesting itself.
The cast is top notch, too. The three adult leads (James Miller, von Sydow, and Ellen Burstyn) all embody the characters as they existed on the page. And I prefer Lee J. Cobb's detective to George C. Scott's portrayal of the same character in the third film. (Scott seemed a little to serious in contrast to Cobb's geniality.) Casting a real life Jesuit in the role of Father Dyer is a stroke of genius, and I feel like I don't even need to mention how good the 14 year old Linda Blair is in the movie, considering her performance has become legendary. (Come to think of it... why does she have so much trouble finding big movie roles these days? Did she play the part too well?)
Look, I was always wrong about The Exorcist... and I'm glad I was wrong because my most recent viewing feels like it was the first time. It's one of the greatest movies ever made.