Wednesday 5 July 2017

THE EXORCIST - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Original Theatrical Version of Friedkin Horror Classic Perfect! No Need To See "Extended Director's Cut" at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Just watch the original theatrical version. At home. Alone. On Blu-Ray.

THE EXORCIST is the best horror movie ever made!

The Exorcist (1973)
Dir. William Friedkin
Scr. William Peter Blatty
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb,
Father William O'Malley, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Peter Masterson

Review By Greg Klymkiw

No matter how many times I see William Friedkin's The Exorcist, it's like I'm seeing it for the very first time which, on a big screen, first-run, at the age of 14, beats pretty much any experience I've ever had. The picture not only chills to the bone, but it's so gorgeously crafted that seeing the movie is like being under hypnosis from beginning to end. I can't take my eyes off the screen - every beat, every cut, every shot, every sound infuses me with sheer, utter horror and its astonishing set pieces keep delivering a kind of explosive excitement that blows away the comparatively meagre joys bestowed via orgasm. Goddamn it, who needs orgasms when The Exorcist exists?

Thanks to William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel and screenplay adaptation, there is nobody alive on this earth who doesn't know what they're going to see - the simple, compulsive story about a demon that possesses 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), then compels her to commit some of the most vile acts imaginable until her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), in desperation (having exhausted every medical "cure"), turns to Fathers Karras and Merrin (Jason Miller, Max von Sydow) priests from the Jesuit Order, to do battle with the evil that's invaded her child. On the surface, that's pretty much it, though Blatty also managed to flesh out the narrative coat hanger with a host of beautifully etched characters to keep our eyes glued via our hearts and minds.

Not to downplay Blatty's writerly achievements, but the movie is finally as great as it is because of William Friedkin's command of cinematic language. This man knows how to use his camera to rip our very guts out and there are few American directors who have been able to so as consistently and successfully as he has. Film after film (The French Connection, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A., Cruising, Killer Joe), William Friedkin manages to slam us repeatedly in the face with a two-by-four and eventually send us soaring out of the cinema with a buoyancy most filmmakers can't even dream about, much less achieve.

My most recent helping of The Exorcist was, in this day and age, the best possible way to see it. I sat alone in my house, at night, with my telephone off, every light extinguished, the sound cranked and braced upright in a not-too-comfortable position (when we worship, we're not supposed to be comfy) in front of my HD monitor as the Blu-Ray player began spinning. Though I'd have loved to see it on a big screen, my only recent option would have been the TIFF Bell Lightbox special Cinematheque screening and alas, I'd have had, in that venue, to see it with other people in a rarefied atmosphere of "knowing" cineastes - a far cry from repeated screenings during the film's first year of release in a 2000-seat, packed-to-the-rafters picture palace and surrounded by audiences silently observing the proceedings - silently except for those moments when you'd hear hundreds of people gasping and screaming.

Even more problematic about seeing it at TIFF is their egregious choice to screen the "extended Director's Cut" (billed somewhat erroneously on their website sans the word "extended"). Nothing beats Friedkin's 121-minute theatrical cut. The near-horrendous 132-minute "extended Director's Cut" not only destroys the film's impeccable pace, but adds several sequences that should have remained as optional special features on Blu-Ray/DVD releases. The worst additions include the infamous "spider walk", a clunky dialogue scene between the exorcists twixt bouts in the little girl's bedroom and worst of all, an obvious "positive" ending.

Usually billed as The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen, this version of the film is only worth seeing for the exercise of viewing a director ruining what was already perfect (lest we forget Spielberg's not-so-special Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition or George Lucas's nutty tinkering with Star Wars). This so-called "Director's Cut" of The Exorcist has no place in a Cinematheque - the version being screened is little more than a cash-grab and a perverse nod to appease original writer-producer Blatty.

Oh, but the original theatrical version is a treat - a treat to end all treats! The opening scenes in Northern Iraq as Father Merrin presides over an archeological dig is still one of the creepiest sequences ever committed to film. The blazing sun, the sand and grit, the sweat pouring off everyone's faces, the desperation with which the good Father shoves heart pills down his gullet, the discovery of an evil-infused artifact, horses charging out of nowhere down a narrow street, armed Iraqi soldiers cocking their rifles, wild dogs snarling, growling and fighting in the desert and Merrin's face-to-face regard of an oversized sculpture of the demon Pazuzu, its grim visage and huge, erect lance-like penis; images crafted to jangle and disorient us, naturalistic sounds to shred our eardrums and a documentary-like eye to make us believe - really believe!

And in the words of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Friedkin's cameras take us from these exotic sites and plunge us into the world of Washington D.C.'s leafy, "safe" Georgetown neighbourhood and he begins the ever-so slow burn as a happy child transforms into a hideous, scarred demon - spewing vomit and expletives and yes, eventually masturbating with a crucifix, shoving her mother's horrified face into her bleeding vagina, demanding she lick the crimson oozing from between her legs.

And almost as horrifying are the battery of medical assaults upon the child, as nasty and intrusive as those of the demon, captured with a clinical Neo-realist fervour by a director at the top of his game.

Oh, and the exorcism! The chants and Holy Water, so rhythmically entrancing that I found myself, time and time again, on the edge of my seat, filled with creepy-crawly gooseflesh and my eyes welling up with tears.

Oh, this is cinema! In all its glory!

And to watch The Exorcist is indeed the ultimate experience of giving oneself to the visceral, the spiritual, the kaleidoscopic joy and horror of worship.

This is what it's all about!

This is cinema!

(Theatrical Cut): ***** 5-Stars
(Extended Director's Cut): ** 2-Stars

The Exorcist (Extended Director's Cut) is a TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Skip it. Just see the original theatrical cut of The Exorcist on the Warner Bros. magnificent Blu-Ray "The Complete Anthology" which has everything you'd ever want - a completist's wet dream.