Spherical Panavision - 1.66:1
1.66:1 - 16:9 - 1.37:1
Screenplay by: William Peter Blatty
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Mercedes McCambridge
At one point in the movie Beetlejuice, the title character states "I've seen The Exorcist about 167 times...and it keeps gettin' funnier every single time I see it," and that assertion exactly describes my feelings for The Exorcist. The first time I saw The Exorcist was at a science fiction convention screening back in 1979 or 1980; I was about 15 or so at the time, and the film freaked me out just a little bit at first because it was creepy. However, once Linda Blair finally appeared in all her glorious Dick Smith created "demonic" makeup, I just couldn't help myself...I thought it was funnier than hell. It was just great! I know, I know, The Exorcist IS the film that supposedly had the general public fainting and vomiting in the aisles, but what can I say? I was brought up on a steady diet of science fiction, horror and fantasy films, so I wound up thinking the film was fun. Although I haven't come close to seeing it 167 times, I still get a kick out of watching The Exorcist every so often solely because of Linda Blair's excellent portrayal of a girl possessed (and of course the fun makeup effects).
Since everyone knows what the film is about, here's a few tasty background tidbits instead that some of you might find fascinating. Author William Peter Blatty based the lead character of Chris MacNeil on his neighbor, Shirley MacLaine, and she originally wanted to play the part as well (the part went to Ellen Burstyn). The actual production of the film was also plagued by strange problems and coincidences (which people over the years have of course tried to attribute to "the subject matter"): the original statue of Pazuzu (the demon you see in the film) disappeared, the MacNeil's Georgetown house interior set burned down, and a screwy sprinkler system damaged the main set (Regan's refrigerated bedroom). All of the actors had problems of one sort or another as well, the strangest one being Jack MacGowran (he portrays drunk director Burke Dennings in the film), who died a week after completed his death scenes for the film. And let's not forget about lawsuits, either, of which there were several. The most famous one involved actress Mercedes McCambridge decided that her voice portrayal as the demon was solely responsible for the film's success, and she insisted that she get screen credit - even though she was not contractually obligated to have a credit, Warner Bros. did insert one into the film. But the problems didn't stop there. Feeling she was "wronged" somehow, McCambridge basically blackmailed the studio by holding back permission for her voice to be used for a soundtrack album release. Eventually, she was given a portion of the royalties, got a nice advance, and received 100%-sized billing as "the voice of the demon". As for release, even though the MPAA gave The Exorcist an "R" rating, it was shown in several areas with either an "X" rating or a "no one under 17 admitted" banner thanks to U.S. District Attorney censorship of the film.
Released by Warner Bros. Home Video on DVD, The Exorcist is presented in both widescreen and standard formats, with each version appearing on its own side of the disc. Filmed in Spherical Panavision and matted theatrically to 1.66:1 (not 1.85 as stated on the packaging), the letterboxed edition appears with an approx. 1.66:1 aspect ratio. With regard to the standard version, it is essentially an open matte "full-frame" edition of the film, featuring more picture information on the top and bottom edges of the frame, with cropped sides (usually the left side is the one that is cropped more). Both DVD versions look much better than Warner's previously-cropped laserdisc offering, which came out back in 1990. The image is sharper, the colors are far more accurate and stable, and the contrasts better (for example, the attic sequence was horrible on the laserdisc, but looks great on the DVD). The original laserdisc version had a very dirty print as well, with numerous scratches and "dirt" appearing on it, and was grainy in places - although such problems still exist with the print used for the DVD transfer, it is a vast improvement. Also, although the colors are better, some segments are still somewhat weak looking. Again, although much better than the laserdisc, The Exorcist transfer is not up to the standards of all the other DVD's I've viewed thus far - however, to be fair, I should mention that the film does date from 1973 when film stock wasn't the greatest, and short of some restoration work (which the film will hopefully receive some day), I doubt a better transfer could be done at this point in time. As for which version is better, I have to say definitely the letterboxed version (which is also enhanced for those of you with 16:9 widescreen sets). Although the theatrical matting cuts off some picture at the top and bottom, it does adds a bit to the sides, and the director's intended framing is just...well...better. Friedkin is no slouch when it comes to directing and composing his film, and his shots are designed for the 1.66:1 frame. Comparing the framing between the "full frame" laserdisc and DVD versions, the DVD generally shows more information on all sides than the laserdisc, but it depends upon the individual scenes - in general, the "full frame" laserdisc image is "pushed in" much more than the DVD.
Additionally, some people have been questioning whether or not the speeded up, somewhat jerky motion in several of the opening scenes are a DVD-related problem - they are not. This speeded-up "look" was inserted into the film during its original editing stage, and remains in all existing prints (and yes, it is also present on the laserdisc edition). However, there are several instances that do suffer from some minor artifact problems, especially during the opening Iraq sequences. I generally noticed a problem occurring with non-moving walls or floors that have a lot of patterns or detail in them - they are solid, then they "shift" slightly, then solid, then a small "shift" again, etc. I only noticed this happening maybe four or five times throughout the entire film, but this really isn't that much of an issue since most people won't notice it at all unless you are specifically looking for it or are a videophile. For example, I showed a couple instances to my wife, and she had a hard time seeing what I was talking about even when I told her where to look. Also, these artifacts seem more pronounced on the standard version than on the widescreen version.
The DVD contains both English and French-language soundtracks. In what seems to be a strange transfer error, the widescreen version contains both a 2-channel English-language Dolby Surround stereo and a 1-channel French-language mono soundtrack, while the standard version actually contains a 6-channel Dolby Digital surround track and the same French mono track. As you might expect, the Dolby Digital tracks on the "standard" side are much stronger than the 2-channel surround on the "widescreen" side - it makes for an interesting viewing experience: you want to watch the widescreen edition, but the sound is worse. How nice. Both the regular 2-channel English and mono French tracks do sound fine themselves, but there are some differences between the 2-channel English soundtrack on the DVD and the old laserdisc presentation. At first listen, the laserdisc sound mix is apparently brighter and the music and the surround stereo effects have a"wider" quality to them. However, the DVD sound mix is apparently more accurate - even though the surround effects and music are seemingly a bit muted in comparison to the laserdisc, the soundtrack has an overall deeper and clearer quality. It's a little hard to decide which is better, but I think I prefer the 2-channel DVD sound to the LD - it just sounds a little more "natural". Of course, I'd really prefer to have a widescreen edition with the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix instead. Anyway, hopefully Warner will realize their mistake and correct the soundtrack error. The audio can be switched with the remote or through the menu options.
The Exorcist include subtitles in English, French or Spanish, and makes for a great way to learn how to curse at someone in two different languages. As far as the English subtitles goes, they almost always replicate the dialogue completely, with minor paraphrasing cropping up occasionally. As with the audio portion of the disc, the subtitles can be switched with the remote or the menu options. The disc is also closed-captioed encoded (requires the use of a decoder).
The interactive menu on the disc is identical for both movie versions of The Exorcist. First up is "Jump to a Scene," which gives you a selection of 9 scenes you can access by picture or description, in addition to a "start movie" and "end credits" button. There is a section called "The Cast," which features biographies and filmographies for a number of people: Ellen Burstyn (3 pages), Max von Sydow (3 pages), Lee J. Cobb (3 pages), Jack MacGowran (2 pages), Jason Miller (2 pages), Linda Blair (3 pages), and director William Friedkin (3 pages). (Author/Screenwriter William Peter Blatty is also listed, but you cannot select his name). Next up is a "Production Notes" section (5 pages), which gives a short, general overview of the book and film, and an "Awards" section, a one-page listing of all the awards The Exorcist received or was nominated for. You can choose to watch whatÝis listed as a "theatrical trailer", but it is more like a quick teaser spot - it runs only 28s, and features no scenes from the film, just the standard movie art (the figure underneath the street light) and some dull narration that says nothing much. The trailer is letterboxed at about 1.71:1 on the widescreen side, and is presented cropped on the standard side. The "Film Flash" section is just a one-page advertisement to try and get you to watch other Warner & MGM films (i.e., "If you liked The Exorcist, you should watch Interview with a Vampire, The Lost Boys, Poltergeist or The Shining"). Finally, there a selections that let you change the language or subtitling options for the disc.
The Exorcist DVD is encoded for Region 1 players only (U.S., U.S. Territories, Canada), and is packaged in Warner's standard plastic and cardboard "keep case." The inside flap contains a full listing of all 24 chapters.
Review by Jeff Krispow
Original Review: 05/10/97
Last Updated: 08/22/97