Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller
The Exorcist, William Friedkin's film treatment of William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel about a young girl possessed by a demon, was more an "event" than a great movie. Its popularity had less to do with any intrinsic merit than with the fact that it contained the most overt depictions of horror ever seen in a mainstream film at the time. Friedkin pioneered such in-your-face grotesqueries in a way that earned him a place alongside James Whale (for Frankenstein) or Alfred Hitchcock (for Psycho) in the history of the horror film. Now along comes the "new and improved" version of the film, familiarly known as Exorcist 2000 for advertising purposes, and unlike so many attempts to improve on older films, this one actually lives up to its promise. It isn't so much the new version's added horrors that enhance it. There are some "subliminal" inserts, which serve no real function, though they aren't hideously intrusive. The "spider walk," on the other hand (in which Linda Blair contortedly descends the stairs), does make the film play more logically, bringing the story to a pitch that makes the subsequent events seem more believably structured. The walk also undeniably jolts even a fairly jaded audience! Most of the film's horrors, in fact, seem to work quite well with modern viewers, but the biggest jolt of all is the simplest shock effect in the film -- the telephone suddenly ringing when Father Damien Karras is listening to the tape of the possessed Regan's rantings. It's a lesson that Friedkin could have applied elsewhere in the film to great profit, because -- just as in the original version -- the least effective and hokiest moments in Exorcist 2000 are also its most elaborate ones. The rotating head looked absurd and phony when the film was new, and time has NOT helped. But where this new incarnation really scores is in the restoration of much of William Peter Blatty's more deep-dish thematic concerns. Blatty's highly personal, Catholic mysticism suffered from Friedkin's decision to play up the film's roller-coaster thrills. It may have made good box-office sense, but it took a generally thoughtful story about the mysteries of faith, the nature of sin, guilt and redemption (and our own humanity) and turned it into a simplistic (and sometimes ragged) spook show. Blatty had ideas; Friedkin had split-pea soup -- a significant difference. Now we have a film that has both ideas AND split-pea soup, and it's definitely deeper and more disturbing, as a result. Blatty's concerns and preoccupations are both fascinating and worthwhile in Exorcist 2000, which now seems more of a piece with his own The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III. On the debit side, however, Linda Blair is still appallingly amateurish in many scenes, even all these years later, and it's only the overdubbed voice of character actress Mercedes McCambridge during the possession scenes that gives Blair's performance any effectiveness at all. Lee J. Cobb's police detective, Kinderman, is good, but he's so totally eclipsed by George C. Scott's portrayal of the character in Exorcist III that he doesn't come across as strongly as he might. That said, even in this expanded version, Cobb's character is given somewhat short shrift, though he does wonders with what he has to work with. The rest of the cast, however, could scarcely be bettered. It's a delight to be reminded what a dynamic performer Ellen Burstyn can be. And it's something of a puzzling disappointment to wonder why Jason Miller never had the career his portrayal of Father Karras suggested he should have had.