Review Date: October 13, 2006
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 10/10/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 & 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Of all the modern horror franchises, few have changed hands and focus as much as Warner’s The Exorcist series. Not only was the third film more of a spin-off than a genuine continuation of the original, but the first and forth films come both with radically different versions. The original film has enjoyed success both in its original theatrical edition, and the ten minute longer 2000 re-release dubbed “The Version You’ve Never Seen”. Weirder still is the fate of The Exorcist prequel, which began first as a Paul Schrader film, but was eventually re-shot entirely by Renny Harlin. So thus both Dominion (Schrader) and The Beginning (Harlin) were born. Even though the series spans only four “stories”, there are six actual films in the convoluted world of demonic possession. Likely hoping to abridge all the confusion by housing all the films in a single set (and probably to get rid of the overstock of all those extra copies of the sequels sitting in Wal-Mart bargain bins), Warner has blessed us this Halloween season with The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology.
Most of the films have already been covered on their lonesome over the years on this site (some reviews dating 7 years), so I’ve elected to make this review similar in approach to my review of the Friday the 13th box set. In other words, below I’ll be providing a brief synopsis and critique of each film just enough to give a broad summary of the series as a whole. Reviews for the individual titles, if they are not already posted (The Heretic, Dominion and The Version You’ve Never Seen) will be covered on their own later. As a further prelude to this review, let it be known that each disc in this set is the exact same as all of their individually released discs, so the old reviews still hold truth as to content and quality of the discs. Enough gallivanting though, take out the crucifix and let’s penetrate this demon of a set.
Describing the plot for The Exorcist is like detailing the story of Jesus – everybody knows it, so really what’s the point? Site mandate dictates that I should synopsize it anyway though, so here goes. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) live a quiet life in Georgetown. Regan is the perfect daughter – never snappy and always a button in her mother’s eye. Soon enough though, she is puking pea soup into Father Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) eye. She’s possessed by the devil, and tied to her bed she must be exorcised. It takes the power of the aging Father Merrin, who has done an exorcism before (which we witness in the prequel) and the young Father Karras (Jason Miller), who, losing faith, seeks his help. What results is a story that is bound to test everyone’s faith.
The Exorcist is a masterpiece, no doubt about it, and it is one that has endured. What makes it unique, still even today, is its transcending use of high brow storytelling with low brow effects. The novel was an esteemed bit of literature when first released, so adapting it lends the film a high degree of respectability. Yet, the way Friedkin tackles the subject matter is often with virility, cashing in on the conceit of a little girl doing and saying the most awful things. Little is left to the imagination with the film’s grotesque imagery, but yet the deeply developed characters and Oscar-caliber performances end up giving the film an effectively uncomfortable mix of art and trash. So many films go one way or the other, but The Exorcist, equally as bombastic as it is austere, manages to straddle that line that no others have ever dared, and that’s why we still talk about it today.
We probably still talk about it today, too, because of its largely effective re-release back in 2000, where it went on to gross another forty million dollars. The Version You’ve Never Seen is more the version that William Peter Blatty wanted, with the iconic spiderwalk scene, more shocks and a padded ending. Blatty wanted an ending with more hope, and thus a tacked on exchange with Lee J. Cobb was added. The original ended on that hauntingly quiet shot on the stairs, where heaven and hell still met in quiet conflict. Yet in the 2000 version, the lively exchange between Cobb and the priest sort of fills in the blanks that horror films never should. Horror needs to end in mystery – it thrives on the very fact that the viewer no not what lurks in the dark, and when it is spelled out like it is here, the power of the genre is stripped.
An inevitability after the colossal success of the first film, Exorcist II: The Heretic picks up four years after Regan’s little pea soup incident. She’s now in a child care facility, under the close watch of a one Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Her mom is AWOL, but no matter, since Fletcher essentially serves as the Ellen Burstyn surrogate anyway. Father Lamont (Richard Burton) has been directed by the Vatican to investigate Father Merrin’s run-in with Regan in hopes of clearing the dead priest’s name. Lamont lamentably accepts his duty, and quickly ends up seancing with Regan and Gene as they lead him to some dark patches of Merrin’s past. There he witnesses a swam of locusts, the possession of an African boy and some really cheesy strobe effects. He carelessly decides that the best way to deal with everything is to get Regan possessed again, but she’ll be without makeup this time (as per Linda Blair’s contract). So Regan’s possessed and the father must do more than just spray holy water, as the forces of good and evil can’t overpower the stench of this fine feeding of fromage.
The Heretic is one of those odd films where the story and execution are so misguided, random and sloppy that you can’t help but watch the shit hit the fan. The acting is an embarrassment, with Burton and Fletcher so blasé you’d never guess they have an Oscar and seven nominations between them. James Earl Jones spends most of the film in a bug costume, and Max Von Sydow does little more than periodically look up at the camera as if trying to recreate the poster artwork for Salvador. The script, in its attempts to give non-stop backstory to the first film, feels like a heretic version of the globetrotting Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as Lamont jumps from continent to continent. And then there are the locusts, which fly endlessly towards the camera in crazy close-up all to the tune of Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully schizophrenic score. Throw in some random overhead shots of zebra running, and you can guess what a weird concoction this big budget mess becomes. It never approaches anything that could be remotely deemed “good”, but damned if seeing little Regan cure a girl of autism isn’t inexplicably entertaining.
Okay, so after the crazy detour that is The Heretic, we get back on track with William Peter Blatty’s return to the series, The Exorcist III. You won’t find Regan in this one however, as Blatty instead follows Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original and in this one played by George C. Scott). It picks up fifteen years after the first, with a string of religiously motivated serial murders taking place in a quiet coastal town. Using sheers, the killer beheads his victims, only to replace their thinkpiece with that of a religious statue. Kinderman thinks it is the Gemini killer, even though he was sentenced to death fifteen years ago. His worst fears end up being correct, as the Gemini killer comes to form in a psychiatric hospital with the same look and appearance as Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) from the first. In a number of high tension exchanges, the Gemini threatens the life of Kinderman’s daughter, but that’s small peas when the fate of the world also hangs in imbalance.
Directed with high style and surprising restraint by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist III is the worthy follow-up that The Heretic tried to be. Regan’s story had been mined twice before, and there is only so much horror that can result from a little girl doing unruly things in make-up. Blatty instead relies on a number of different horror situations and techniques to infuse the film with an eerie quality. The hallway attack midway through the film has rightfully earned its spot on the list of horror fans’ favorite jump scares, and house call by the possessed nurse at the end is also memorably effective. While the star here throughout is Blatty’s direction (his script covers possession in a manner that all his imitators had by then made cliché), mention must be given too to Brad Dourif, going insanely over the top as the voice and anti-body of the Gemini killer. This is Blatty’s show though, and he proves here that the success of the first film wasn’t all just Friedkin. And the best part is that Blatty gets the job done without a single self-pleasuring crucifix moment.
Fourteen years later and we end up twenty two years before the events in the first film for Renny Harlin’s The Exorcist: The Beginning. Father Merrin (now played by Stellan Skarsgard) finds himself on an archeological dig in Cairo, still traumatized by the events of World War II. In Cairo, he learns of a Christian church that was build in Eastern Africa over 1,500 before the coming of Christ. Faithless from the war, he decides to embark on the journey, only to discover God’s oldest foe, Pazuzu, waiting for him when he gets there. Merrin finds love in a young doctor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), but the forces of evil trounce such humanistic pleasures, as Beelzebub possesses the priest’s would-be companion. It is a battle of wills as Merrin must regain his faith and put Satan below the earth where he belongs.
Shot on a short shooting schedule and a revamped script thanks to Warner’s decision to reshoot everything Schrader had done with his take on the prequel, The Beginning, not surprisingly, feels rushed. The CGI looks unfinished, and the script seems that way too, although writer William Wisher’s parallels between World War II and possession, and society’s need for hope effectively parlay his writing for Terminator 2 into a horror context. Harlin isn’t much interested in the script though, instead basking in cinematographic legend Vittorio Storraro’s agreeably beautiful visuals. The film gets worse as it goes along, reducing itself to computer generated exorcisms and clichéd pleas for hope and forgiveness. The talents behind and in front of the camera stop Harlin from making this a total trash heap, although he tries his best.
After Harlin’s reworking of The Exorcist prequel was a huge bomb at the box office, all hope for a release of Schrader’s original version seemed lost. Yet, over a year after The Beginning’s theatrical release, Schrader’s version, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist finally debuted just in time for Halloween. Finally, this was the time that Schrader’s name could be cleared, and the whole prequel debacle vindicated of its bad press. The story is very much the same, although Schrader’s take is suitably more subtle. The events in World War II, where Father Merrin was forced at gunpoint to choose ten Jews to die at the slaughter, are now played first, and give the Father’s suffering some context. Still, he goes to Africa to unearth the mysterious temple, and this time he befriends a nurse who he notices was a former holocaust survivor. They together find a crippled child wandering the hills and take him in to heal, but when he starts healing at unprecedented speeds it is clear a spiritual force is at work…but this isn’t God’s doing. Merrin must regain his faith and help save the African village from this demon, a thing he was unable to do in World War II.
Well, after all the wait and all the hope from fans, the final result here is, well, about as poor as Harlin’s. Schrader was brought up a strict Calvinist, yet surprisingly there is little conviction to Merrin’s soul searching. It is as if Schrader doesn’t even care. There are never any scenes of Merrin as the outsider, contemplating his fate and existence, which would have given the film a more emotional center. Schrader was master of probing his characters in films like Hardcore, Taxi Driver and Cat People, yet here, the scope of the production seems to overwhelm him. Horror films don’t always need strong character development, but when Dominion is so without fright or scares, one must hope for something. Storraro’s cinematography looks so much more blasé in Schrader’s version, but this is probably due, at least in part, to a non-existent post-production budget, which would have at least given the visuals a digital intermediate for color correction. The way Morgan Creek pulled all the money out of the film also explains the laughably bad effects work (the “northern lights” finale makes the effects work in The Ten Commandments look fresh), but this is something you can’t really fault Schrader for. In Paul Schrader’s recent Film Comment article on defining the greatest films of all time, he states that he still has ten years of filmmaking left in him. Hopefully that leaves him enough time to make several films to bury the mediocrity that is Dominion – the worst film in his entire directorial canon.
The Exorcist legacy has passed through many hands over the last thirty-five years. It has been handled by acclaimed auteurs like John Boorman and Paul Schrader and it has been doted with big budgets and lavish casts. Yet, the only successful entries in the series, the original film and The Exorcist III, bare the stamp of the creator of the entire phenomenon, writer William Peter Blatty. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street has always been Craven’s baby (proven with the first, and then years later with New Nightmare), The Exorcist is something only William Peter Blatty can truly get right. While society has drifted away from religion considerably since the thirty-five years after the first film was a phenomenon, its enormously successful 2000 re-release, and consistent topping of horror film charts ensure that even if society isn’t still afraid of the devil (it wears Prada now, you see) there is something about Blatty’s vision that won’t go away. Try eating a bowl of pea soup...I dare ya’.
The six films in this set are all presented anamorphic and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Full specs can be obtained by looking at the individual reviews of each title, since the discs are the exact same. A quick summary of each will be provided here for simplicity’s sake. The Exorcist was fully restored for its 25th anniversary, the only problem is that that was eight years ago. While it certainly looks good for an older film, with a fairly clean picture and good colors, it is ridden with quite a bit of grain. The Version You’ve Never Seen, which was minted in 2000, looks a bit sharper, a bit lighter and a bit cleaner than the original version. The Heretic is relatively clean but noticeably soft throughout. Its colors and weakish darks make it fairly obvious that the film is thirty years old, and that the DVD itself is over five. The Exorcist III, the oldest DVD of the lot, certainly does not look its age however. Even though released in 1999, the DVD’s colors are exceptionally vibrant, and the darks, so noticeable in the Dourif-Scott scenes, are black and deep. It is sharp to the point of not having edge halos, although a newer transfer could have probably made it even clearer. The Beginning looks phenomenal, without a single aberration and with some truly luscious uses of sun-drenched color. Dominion¸ on the other hand, looks poor by comparison, with a large amount of white speckling (I don’t think I’ve ever written that for a new release) and inconsistent (and muted, to boot!) colors. While the quality of the transfers may be inconsistent, they are for the most part good, and for most having them in their original aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions is all that will matter.
Every film in the set has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, with some sounding better than the others. The Exorcist has a fairly lively surround track, and The Version You’ve Never Seen has an even better one in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. The Heretic looked the worst and it sounds the same, with a very quiet and up front mix that totally wastes the orchestral potential of Morricone’s crazy score. The Exorcist III has a sound scape to match the surprisingly solid video with its forceful 5.1 remix. There is a ton of movement in the rears, and used to good effect too, with Satan’s moans circling through the speakers and the score giving that extra little bit of punch in 5.1. The Beginning has the benefit of DTS, but both that and the Dolby Digital track are sort of lacking in overall envelopment. Still, there is a certain depth to the sound, even if the surrounds aren’t used to full potential. Dominion is in Dolby Digital 5.1, but hardly sounds it, with the sound mix as lacking in polish as the visuals. This was a film dumped to home video, and it shows. Even if the 5.1 is lacking for some of the films, one must consider that at least Warner took the time, unlike Paramount with their similarly packaged Friday the 13th box.
The only noticeable difference the films in this set have compared to their standalone counterparts are that the much loathed snapper cases have been replaced here with the slimpak casing that Warner has now been using for their television box sets like Tales From the Crypt. There are four cases in total, with the first two versions of the original, as well as the two prequels, each bunched together in single cases. That’s about it for new content, since the rest is just ported from the original discs. Here’s a quick rundown of each disc, with more comprehensive reviews available for the individual disc reviews.
The Exorcist comes with one of the best documentaries produced for film on DVD, the BBC “The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist”. It interviews a laundry list of people and includes the much touted spiderwalk deleted scene found in The Version You’ve Never Seen. In addition there is a telling commentary with William Friedkin, and then another with William Peter Blatty intercut with some sound effects tests. The sound effects are very interesting to hear, considering the sound in the film is so integral to its fright factor. The flipper disc is rounded off with some storyboards, more interviews, trailers and TV spots, and certainly does the film well.
The Version You’ve Never Seen is considerably more bare, although it has a different commentary with William Friedkin, as he talks about the differing versions of the film and the differences of opinion he and Blatty had throughout its making. There are a few text only screens, with some more enlightening than others.
Exorcist II: The Heretic comes only with an alternate opening and a couple trailers, but all three are just as bizarre and amusing as the finished film. The opening ties the film with the original using more archive footage, but provides a context that the finished film lacks. The trailers though…wow. The teaser is probably scarier than the entire film, as it takes some macabre pieces of art and starts transforming and morphing them together as that ominous trailer announcer voice repeats the title several times. The trailer though, is one hallucinogenic trip, with Morricone’s music just blaring as a quickly cut montage of footage bombards the screen. Like the film, it’s something else.
The Exorcist III features only a short little trailer, notable for manipulating the title of the film to form a cross. Considering how good the finished product is, and how Blatty both wrote and directed it, a commentary by him would have been much appreciated. Even if the audio and video quality of the disc don’t really warrant a re-release, the lack of supplements certainly do.
The Beginning has a commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette and a few trailers, and all are as forgettable as the film. Harlin’s commentary is biggest disappointment though, a totally safe and whitewashed appraisal of his film without any sort of documenting of the problems he had to face with all the reshooting and conflict with Morgan Creek.
Dominion has a commentary with Paul Schrader, and even he sort of shies away from the controversy surrounding the film. He plays nice, but still has a lot of great insight, which is no doubt why he still remains a much acclaimed film historian. There are some blips of silence, but basically he vindicates himself from the film by stating he did it as a favor to John Frankenheimer, who was originally to helm it before he died. He also talks about the problems in the script, and most enlighteningly about Vittorio Storraro’s insane methods of lighting a scene. While it would have been nice to hear the backroom chatter that went on when the film was finished, at least Schrader makes this more interesting than Harlin’s commentary. A few ho hum deleted scenes are included as well.
The Exorcist series has a spotted history, with the first holding strong as a masterpiece, the second a laughable misfire, the third a jumpy fright fest and the prequels better left unsaid. The DVDs of each film have been similarly uneven, with the first lavished with supplements, and the remaining ones containing only commentaries or even less. The audio and video quality have been consistent, all anamorphic and 5.1, and all generally pleasurable. Since this new box set, which posits all six films together for the first time, is essentially only a repackaging of each disc, those who own the films must ask themselves: is $42.98 worth dumping my old snapper cases? For those who only own the first or are entirely new to the series though, this set comes recommended, since it can be bought for little more than the price of a single new release. Bad or good, The Exorcist films have a high place in film history, and one could do much worse than spend Friday the 13th going through them all.
Movies - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - B+
Supplements - B-
- Running Time - 11 hours 50 minutes
- Rated R
- 6 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Stereo 2.0
- French Mono
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Audio Commentary on The Exorcist with director William Friedkin
- Audio Commentary on The Exorcist with writer/producer William Peter Blatty
- Audio Commentary on The Exorcist: The Beginning with director Renny Harlin
- Audio Commentary on Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist with director Paul Schrader
- "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist" documentary
- Deleted scenes
- Theatrical Trailers