A newly revised cut of THE EXORCIST, christened “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” made its world theatrical premiere on March 15, 2000 in Austin, Texas at the SXSW Film Festival. Producer/screenwriter William Peter Blatty was in attendance and remained afterwards for Q&A; session with the audience. To a packed house, Blatty introduced the picture as the version he’s been waiting 26 years for, the restoration of “Billy” Friedkin’s first cut with an additional 11 minutes of footage originally excised for length concerns. I consider it a rare privilege to have been among the first in the world to experience this new chapter in THE EXORCIST’s storied history. According to Blatty, our print was literally finalized two days earlier; our audience was the first to see this new cut outside of director William Friedkin and assorted crew involved with the restoration, even before Warner executives and Blatty himself. (Warner executives were scheduled to watch the new cut that evening too, concurrently or slightly later than our screening.)
The screening was an absolutely thrilling experience. The film has been remixed with an incredibly bold and directional sound mix, including some additional (newly recorded?) foley work to beef up the soundstage. (There was a brief sound level problem during a bed-shaking scenes, but it was noted by Blatty for correction.) The new mix sounded GREAT, and it triggered some genuine jolts in the audience during Regan’s demonic howls and other unsettling sound effects. (Tim McCanlies, screenwriter for THE IRON GIANT, sat 2 rows behind me, and I could hear him raving about the new sound mix.)
The highlight of the picture was the restoration of the spiderwalk sequence — a sequence that produced huge applause in the audience as the scene faded to black. It worked AWESOME! It was quick, creepy, bloody, disconcerting and horrific. It startled all in the audience, including me, and I was expecting it! Although rough footage of the spiderwalk sequence is contained on Warner’s 25th Anniversary home video release, it does not adequately prepare you for how great the sequence truly is in its final restored form. Friedkin utilizes a different take than the one shown in the previously released rough footage, ending with a stunning shot of Regan that I won’t spoil for you.
Friedkin has added a few new subliminals that work quite well (including one, jokingly complained Blatty, that Friedkin sneaked in without his knowledge!) and a subtle CGI morph that works just fine. Friedkin also added additional footage of Regan’s doctor visits early in the film to correct the continuity problems during the urination scene and, more importantly, to stretch Regan’s eventual possession into a more gradual process. Friedkin also removed the previously puzzling footage of a cheerful and happy Reagan before said urination scene. Most of the remaining additional footage is padding on existing material — for example, in the 1973 cut, when Chris is notified of Burke’s death by a production assistant, the scene fades to black as the two embrace in sorrow; in the expanded version, the scene ends with the production assistant rushing nervously out the front door, muttering “I’ll see you later.” And yes, the infamous Blatty “happy” ending has been restored, for better or worse. In all honesty, the revised ending did not bother me, and it certainly did not lessen the impact of the film’s previous 132 minutes.
Blatty, casually dressed in jeans and a blue pullover sweater and looking quite vigorous for a 72 year-old man, remained after the screening for about a half-hour Q&A; session. (He would have stayed longer but the theatre manager ended the session to close up the theatre). Blatty seemed to enjoy interacting with audience; he thoroughly answered questions on all sorts of subjects, including: THE EXORCIST III sequel (made after Warner dangled a $500,000 check to him and Friedkin — Friedkin bailed out the night before their meeting to finalize the deal with Warner); the Catholic Church and its reaction to THE EXORCIST (surprisingly positive); how Lee J. Cobb was cast (Blatty and Friedkin ran into him by chance in the audience at a play production); whether audience laughter during the screening bothered him (Blatty observantly recognized most of it as nervous laughter); and convincing Friedkin to change the ending (easy to do once Friedkin viewed it edited back into the picture in context).
Blatty briefly mentioned his directorial debut THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (referring to it as TWINKLE, TWINKLE, KILLER KANE) in a discussion about his use of medallions as a supernatural cinematic device. The device has its roots in a supernatural event Blatty experienced while holed up in a rented cabin to write The Exorcist (interestingly, a novel Blatty has not read since its completion). While leaning over a bathroom sink to look at himself in the mirror, Blatty saw two medallions hanging from his neck in his reflection (he was only wearing one at the time). The extra medallion depicted the Immaculate Conception, and he instantly recognized it as a medallion belonging to his late mother [cue for spooky music].
Blatty does not believe in “the curse of THE EXORCIST” — a curse that supposedly has brought misfortune to many involved in filming THE EXORCIST — but he did acknowledge the existence of mysterious and unexplained thumping on the soundtrack of some unnamed scenes. The thumping went undetected by headphone-wearing sound technicians recording the takes, even though the technicians, Blatty said, were particular enough to end a take at the sound of a barely audible stomach grumble! As Blatty closed the Q&A; session, he explained he was on his way to call Friedkin, who was expecting a prompt report from Blatty about the screening.
I highly recommend experiencing this restored version theatrically for its incredible sound mix and to see the spiderwalk sequence in its full panoramic glory. THE EXORCIST opened on March 17, 2000 in Austin, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Athens, Georgia with little fanfare by Warner. I hope the response is positive enough for the film to continue a theatrical run across the country to your hometown. If not, you should have the opportunity to watch it via yet another THE EXORCIST special edition home video release coming soon to your favorite retailer!