Controversial UHDs: The Exorcist

Alright, let's get into it.  When I was buying Warner Bros' new 4k Ultra HD release of The Exorcist, the cashier asked me, "is this the original, scary one?"  It's a rare thing when a store employee takes an interest in whatever dumb crap I'm purchasing.  "Yeah, it's the original."  "The real, scary one?"  And she's flipping it over, reading it.  "From the 70s" I say.
I don't know that The Exorcist has ever really struck me as scary; I think it works as a drama, first and foremost, albeit with a cool, supernatural element.  What really drives the story is the pain single mother Ellen Burstyn struggles with when her only daughter grows apart from her and their incredibly close, codependent relationship.  And the lengths she goes to in an attempt to save it, from the awful medical procedures we witness her undergo, to the ultimately absurd step of actually soliciting an exorcism in our modern, agnostic society.  I mean, the head twist was an awesome effect, and this film certainly went to an audience shocking extreme... I can't imagine next week's Exorcist: The Believer will depict anything a fraction as transgressive as the scene of underage Linda Blair flaying herself bloody while violently masturbating with a crucifix, then forcing her mother's face into her crotch screaming, "lick me! Lick me!"  That kind of cultural taboo envelope pushing pretty much peaked fifty years ago.

And sure, William Friedkin establishes some mildly spooky atmosphere, like Burstyn slowly creeping through her dark attic with a candle.  I guess there's a jump scare or two.  But honestly, you could almost cut the whole, big exorcism sequence out; the film had already made its mark by then.  It's always nice to get some more Dick Smith effects and (highly controversial!!  ...But we'll get back to that) colorful lights for the climax.  It's got a great score, excellent character work by Jason Miller and Max von Sydow, and really... everything is on point in this film.  There's a reason it's still hailed as a classic.  But apart from clearly declaring itself "The Scariest Movie Of All Time" right there on the DVD cover, I can't imagine this movie instilling much actual fear into the hearts of modern movie-goers, at least not as much as any competent slasher flick.  And I'm not calling that out as a failing.  I just don't think that was ever really the point.
Well, naturally, this film has had an extensive history on home video, all from Warner Bros.  The original DVD was a barebones flipper disc from 1997, which some say is still the ideal presentation of the film, at least in terms of color timing.  The very next year gave us their 25th Anniversary special edition, and that was followed by "The Version You've Never Seen" in 2000, which restores just over ten minutes of deleted scenes and makes some other interesting revisions.  It's called "The Version You've Never Seen" because at the time, Friedkin insisted the original theatrical version was still his preferred director's cut, but he seems to have come around to the newer version later in life.
a scene only in the director's cut
For my money, the original theatrical cut is still the way to go.  A number of the changes come off as almost silly, and the additional ending might've played well in William Peter Blatty's novel (since it leads up to the next book, Legion, where they become the protagonists), but feels a bit indulgent to suddenly focus on two characters who were fairly inconsequential in the film.  But fortunately, Warner Bros has essentially kept both cuts on the market, so we're not forced to choose.  ...I say "essentially," because Friedkin kept some of his more subtle changes in the theatrical cut as well, most notably a CGI morph effect used to cover up a jump cut, which in the 70s was the only way they could pull off Miller's final transformation.  That slightly altered theatrical cut has persisted from the end of the 90s through the 2010s - including the 2006 Anthology set, the 2010 remastered editions and the ultimate 40th Anniversary BD set - which is what makes this latest 2023 release so exciting.  Besides debuting both cuts in 4k with HDR, they've restored the original theatrical cut without those dogged alterations, except possibly for a bit of the coloring.
1) 2000 DC DVD; 2) 2006 TC DVD; 3) 2006 DC DVD; 4) 2010 DC DVD;
5) 2013 TC BD; 6) 2013 DC BD; 7) 2023 TC UHD; 8) 2023 DC UHD.
So I don't have every Exorcist release for comparison here, but as you can see, I've got a bunch of 'em.  And perhaps the first thing to say is that this new 2023 release is the first time it's been properly matted to 1.85:1 (both cuts), instead of 1.78.  Every previous home video release going back to laserdisc and VHS has been 1.78 or fullscreen.  So there's one little victory.

So, we're looking at eight transfers here, but the director's cut and theatrical cut on the Anthology DVDs, the 40th Anniversary BDs and 50th Anniversary UHDs are, for all intents and purposes, identical sets.  Those 2006 Anthology DVDs are also using the same transfer as the older 2000 disc.  So there's really four different transfers up there.  The 2010 remaster looks pretty similar to the older DVDs on first glance, but it is somewhat brighter, and the tweaks the geometry a very slim pinch, revealing a few extra pixels along the edge in the process.  It also separates the colors a little better, removing a slight reddish hue and deepening the blacks in a satisfying way.  So yeah, it was an upgrade for its time.

And it's apparently the same master on the 2013 BDs, though of course it's sharper and cleaner in HD.  It also tweaks the geometry a second time, clarifies finer detail and at least hints at grain.  But the new 4k is the first one to really get filmic.  Grain is still a little soft in places, but it's a big step beyond the blus.  Color-wise, I'd say the blus are a little washed and the UHDs are bordering on over-saturated, like some of the reds.  I prefer the UHDs color-wise (and absolutely resolution-wise, which each cutting filling nearly 80GB on triple layer discs, and of course in terms of restoring the jump cut, the proper aspect ratio etc), but Warners might've found the 100% perfect timing somewhere in the middle.  Still, viewers approaching this film for the first time, with no expectations set up by transfers that came before, will just be struck by how good the picture looks.  Although, one section of the film is more controversial than the rest...
1) 2000 DC DVD; 2) 2006 TC DVD; 3) 2006 DC DVD; 4) 2010 DC DVD;
5) 2013 TC BD; 6) 2013 DC BD; 7) 2023 TC UHD; 8) 2023 DC UHD.
So ever since the 1997 DVD (which, again to be clear, is not shown here), the exorcism got a little bluer, giving the scene a colder, less natural look, which Friedkin apparently preferred.  That's all well and good for the DC, but for the original theatrical cut, many fans were hoping for a more naturalistic look, but that's not what we got.  We've got a similar blue look to what we've had for the past twenty+ years.  It comes off a bit greener on the 2010s stuff, and a bit purpler on the older discs, but it's all in a similar ballpark.  It's also got a somewhat softer look to it, and there are theories that it could be down to damaged elements (in the extras, we're told the original elements had some wear), diffusion filters, Friedkin using a saturation process he came up with for The French Connection blu-ray, or maybe it was always bluer and it's the older transfers that were too desaturated.  ...Personally, I kinda think it's just Friedkin Lucasing it a bit, but oh well.  Unless you're going to track down the long OOP '97 DVD and watch the movie in over-compressed 480p, the UHD is still the definitive presentation, even if it's not an absolutely perfect one.
Especially since the UHD also restores the original mono audio track to the theatrical cut.  All the other discs on this page have the same 5.1 track (except it's bumped up to DTS-HD for the BDs), which changes some sound effects and things, which is fine for the director's cut.  I should also mention that the 1997 DVD had a 2.0 track, which I'm pretty sure is the original mono, but I don't have it to say for sure.  But it's a relief to have the original mono accessible again in any case, and lossless for the first time ever.  It also has a new Atmos mix, which sounds great, but has the altered sound effects of previous the 5.1 remix.  And the director's cut just has the Atmos.  Every disc also has at least English and French subtitles, but starting with the BDs, they've added a slew of foreign dubs and subs, too.
So let's talk extras.  Over the years, Warners has put together a whole ton of stuff.  The 2000 DVD has an audio commentary by Friedkin, which is pretty good.  He starts out with a lot of information, but by the end devolves into mostly just describing the action on screen.  There are also a bunch of trailers, radio spots and odds and ends.  By 2006, they'd added a brief introduction by Friedkin, a second audio commentary by Blatty (which is good but only runs for the first hour, including a few minutes of early recordings of the possessed demon voice) and the BBC Fear Of God documentary, which is a great comprehensive overview by Mark Kermode that visits the shooting locations and talks to practically everybody.  It should be noted that it's not the "festival cut," though, which is a few minutes longer and includes two additional interviews.  That's never been released on disc, at the interview subject's request.

And there's still more.  We get second Friedkin commentary for the director's cut (though it's very redundant), deleted scenes, and more interviews with Friedkin and Blatty together.  The one where they discuss the director's cut is especially informative and covers ground not in the other extras.  There's another half-hour making of doc, which is great because it's full of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage.  And there's a new featurette visiting the film's locations more directly than Kermode did, plus galleries of storyboards, photos, etc.
the 40th Blatty featurette
Then the 40th Anniversary disc added a third bonus disc of new extras never before included on any of the past editions, in addition to everything that came before it on the first two discs.  One is a roughly twenty minute featurette talking about the "real" case, which is a bit silly, but not as bad as, say, the ones they made for Poltergeist.  At least Blatty really did base his story on these reports.  But more interesting is a roughly 30-minute feature on Blatty, which covers some new ground.  He reads from his book and revisits the guest house he rented to write it in.  Friedkin and Blatty were repeating themselves a lot on the older extras, and it feels like this was made with all of that content in mind, to be something a little different.  The BD set also includes a note from Friedkin and an impressive, hardcover book reprinting the Exorcist-related parts of his memoir.

And the UHDs?  Oh, they dumped everything but the commentaries and the intro - whoopsie!  The only way to get all those docs and things I described above is to import expensive limited editions from the UK.  But the good news is, those imports are five disc sets.  The two UHDs that we got in the US, plus the three BDs from the 40th Anniversary.  So if you already have that set, the bog standard, reasonably priced US release is all you need to have absolutely everything, except the new swag.  There's going to be an AmazonUK exclusive one designed to look like a leather-bound bible and comes with a big BFI book, posters, lobby cards and stuff, which I have to admit looks damn impressive.  But here in the US, we just choose between a steelbook or basic amary case in a slipcover and that butt ugly artwork you see above.  Oh well, it's what's on the disc that's important, right?
It does feel a bit cheap that Warner didn't include their legacy extras in the new UHD sets here in the states.  Even overseas didn't get the full, uncut Fear of God.  And I understand people being a little let down that some of Friedkin's tampering still seems to be lingering in the theatrical cut.  We may have to wait for the 100th Anniversary to see a truly controversy-free Exorcist release.  But as it stands, this is the best Exorcist yet: 4k, 1.85, jump cut restored, the original audio, and the massive collection of features are available if you're willing to put in the extra work.  This is good news, guys.

The Best Last Horror Film

Suckers to the side, I know you hate my 88's!  But now might be the time to get yours.  As we're all stuck home on lockdown looking for films to keep us occupied, what better time to look back at our favorite cult labels and see if there's anything we missed?  And going back over my list, I see there are still a couple noteworthy labels I haven't made "Pair" posts for, and a couple Exotica-worthy titles from said label just dying to be covered.  In fact, 88 Films' blu-ray release of 1982's The Last Horror Film is a disc I've been meaning to cover since I started this site in 2014.  And hey, it's not like I have anywhere else to be today, so I guess the stars have finally aligned.

Update 5/5/20 - 9/20/23: Man, Severin and 88 Films have become the new Scream Factory and Arrow, when they were constantly releasing the same titles, and fans were always waiting to see which had the superior release.  Well, they latest salvo in this war is Severin's new 2-disc UHD/ BD combo-pack, which interestingly enough was only available during their brief Summer Sale.
Not to be confused with 2003's The Last Horror Movie, which is sort of a Man Bites Dog/ Henry: Portrait Of a Serial Killer found footage flick from Fangoria about a killer making a horror snuff flick... The Last Horror Film is a more interesting, and distinctly original, piece of work.  It stars Joe Spinell as another loner psychotic, and forms a perfect trilogy with Maniac and The Undertaker.  In fact, it's a better picture than The Undertaker, and possibly even Maniac, depending on your attitude.  Maniac is a more of a controlled, cohesive character study of a disturbed killer, whereas Last is a wilder, unrestrained exhibition of Spinell's own unloosed psyche.  To put it in form of an analogy, Maniac is to Kubrick as Last is to Fulci.  So, okay, it might be hard to argue this is a legitimate better film, but it could well be a lot of peoples' favorite.
Last reunites Spinell with his Maniac co-star Caroline Munro, who instead of being the strangely genuine love interest of a deranged killer, is the perhaps more straight-forward, unwitting object of his obsessions.  But that's about the only straight-forward aspect of this affair.  See, Spinell is of course a down-on-his-luck madman again, but this time he's also an aspiring movie producer.  And Munro is a Hollywood star.  So he follows her to the Cannes Film Festival, intent on creating a horror film with her as the star, whether she consents or not.  And what really makes The Last Horror Film The Last Horror Film is that this completely independent film production really went to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and stole all kinds of footage, guerilla style, right in the middle of their biggest events and regalia.  In a signature moment, Munro across a red carpet of reports and film stars, wearing only a towel and being pursued by a crazed Spinell.
And if you know your Maniac, you're familiar with how Spinell and his best friend - also on hand here - lifted the movie camera from the production at night to film their own improved scenes, which turned out to be quite compelling.  Well, that's like half of this movie.  We get everything from Spinell's vivid hallucinations of grisly murder to his daydreams of cross-dressing in a local nightclub.  We get movies within movies and Spinell's mother charmingly playing herself.  We're shown over-the-top extravagant production values set against cheap-looking, home video-like set pieces.  Vampires!  Strippers!  Airplanes!  Bubble baths!  Classic cars!  Castles!  Paddleboats!  Robin Leach!  Death by jacuzzi!  It's all here, and it all makes sense... at least in Spinell's mind.
Troma has the rights to this film, but it's important to note that this isn't a Troma production.  They didn't make this film anymore than they made The Stendhal Syndrome or My Dinner With Andre.  They're just the distributors; so don't expect anything along the lines of Nuke 'Em High or Sgt. Kabukiman cameos.  Thank goodness.  But that means, since 2000, they've been issuing it around the world on open matte fullscreen DVDs, usually under the alternate title: Fanatic.  In 2009, they made a bit of a special edition of it, and in 2015, they released it on blu.  But there was also an even better BD special edition, thanks to 88 Films.  But now, Severin has restored the film in 4k on UHD.  So let's see how much better they could get it.
1) 2014 88 Films BD; 2) 2023 Severin BD; 3) 2023 Severin UHD.
Both 88 and Severin present this film in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, scanned from the original negative, but 88's has a faded look, and leans a bit green, which Severin's corrects.  It varies shot to shot, and some are reasonably close, but just look how much better separated the colors are in that second set of shots.  The sky's supposed to be blue, but not the waiter's jacket.  Grain is also somewhat lighter on the 88, even when just comparing the two BDs.  And of course, detail that gets blocky and pixelated when you zoom in to on the blu-rays stays rounded and realistic on the UHD.  It's a distinct improvement even before you get to the composite footage.
1) 2014 88 Films BD; 2) 2023 Severin BD; 3) 2023 Severin UHD.

Surely, the biggest factor that set 88's blu-ray apart from its Troma counterpart was that it's uncut.  Troma's edition is missing some of key footage that apparently has been removed from the source materials.  To compensate, 88 has edited in workprint footage, also matted to 1.85, to make a composite cut which runs about a minute longer, where a couple of kills are considerably more graphic.  You'll definitely notice the picture quality shift from full color filmstock to almost monochromatically blue VHS tape quality.  But not so much on the Severin, because they were able to find the missing footage on a 35mm print.  Yeah, there's a difference between the print and the OCN's quality, but if you didn't know what footage was restored, you probably wouldn't notice the difference, whereas you couldn't help but notice it before.  And I agree with 88's decision to crop the footage to 1.85 rather than have the AR shift, but it was at the cost of losing picture information that Severin has been able to restore.  So as exciting as it was when 88 was able to construct their composite, Severin's is now equally exciting.

They both provide lossless versions of the original mono track (LPCM on 88 and DTS-HD on the Severins).  That was another point in 88's favor, since Troma's audio is lossy.  Also, neither release included subtitles, which Severin finally does.  So it's progress after progress.
88 also beat out Troma in the special features, although it was a closer race than you might guess.  Troma did actually cook up some worthwhile extras for this film.  First of all, Lloyd Kaufman gets into the spirit of things by filming his intro at Sundance and sharing his own personal memories of Spinell.  They also provide an audio commentary with Joe's friend and associate producer Luke Walter.  It's moderated by a kid from Troma, who detracts about as often as he contributes, but Luke has a lot to share, having frequently been on set and involved closely with the filmmaking, including enabling Spinell's indulgent forays.  It's a fun track with Luke pointing out who was an unwitting extra and who was an actual actor, telling risque personal anecdotes, etc.  They also have the trailer and that Mister Robbie promo clip Spinell made hoping to get Maniac 2 financed.  It makes more sense as an extra on Maniac, which it also is, but it's cool here, too, since these films are son closely tied together.

Anyway, all of the above are on both the Troma and 88 blus.  But both discs have exclusives.  Troma's exclusive, however, are all Troma-specific junk that has nothing to do with The Last Horror Film.  There's something about TromaDance and a short film called The Return Of Dolphin Man...  Unless you're a big Troma fan, you won't care.  But you will be interested in 88's stuff.  Well, most of it anyway.
First up is a short, nostalgic documentary called My Best Maniac (surely a play on My Best Fiend) where Walter takes us on a tour through Spinell's hometown.  He talks a little about the film, particularly an anecdote up front, but it's mostly a tribute to Spinell as a person, ending with a stop at his grave.  Then there's a short but great interview with William Lustig who shares what he knew about this crazy project, including how he was asked at one point to take over the direction (he declined).  After that, it boils down to odds and ends.  There's a promising sounding "Caroline Munro Q&A," but it turns out to just be a short clip with no connection to this movie.  She's actually being interviewed about Slaughter High and doesn't even bring up this film in passing.  I mean, it's still better than nothing I suppose, but what a let down.  Then there's a long reel of bonus trailers, and that's about it.  The sleeve has reversible artwork, which is cool.
But Severin now, has the best extras package of all, and it's all new.  They start off with an audio commentary by Luke Walter, which I had assumed was the same one on the previous blus.  But no, this one's different, and Severin's moderator is a lot better than Troma's.  Next, we have a second commentary by Caroline Munro and Alan Jones, and it's terrific.  We've been getting so many mediocre commentaries from the boutiques lately that I was starting to forget how much value a top level commentary can have.  Munro is in good spirits and happy to discuss everything.  And Jones is a knowledgeable critic more than ready to not just moderate, but add real insight whenever Munro didn't have so much to say.  They really compliment each other, and together manage to stay focused and entertaining for the entire running time.

They also interview Spinell's old friend, Sal Sirchia, who shares some personal history and dispels some myths about the actor.  He even plays some answering machine messages he saved and visits his grave.  Then there's a great locations tour, which finds all the spots in both New York and Cannes where the original film shot.  And there's an audio-only interview with producer and co-star Judd Hamilton, who has a lot of dirt to dish... he even blames his divorce on this movie.  And that leads us to his producer's cut.
2023 Severin producer's cut BD.
Yes, the director managed to keep the final cut on this film, and Hamilton's always been unhappy with it.  So Severin allowed him to go back and finally cut it his way.  And... it's not as good.  He basically just trims a lot of the nudity and some of the fun Cannes location footage (including that shot of the crowds in front of that giant James Bond sign at the Carlton in my first set of comparison shots).  It's definitely a case of a producer not fully appreciating the film his talent made for him, though to be fair, he only really takes 6-7 minutes out of it, and it's all thoughtfully done.  It's also brighter, but that might be less of a creative decision and more down to the compression or whatever, because it's presented here in HD, but only allotted 3GB of disc space, which is less than most DVDs.  So goodbye film grain and all of that.  It also has lossy audio and no subs.  But considering it's basically just a cut version, it's probably only going to be of interest to fans as a quick novelty anyway.

Anyway, Severin's release also includes an extensive, 100-page full-color book, half written by Hamilton, and also including a vintage interview with the director David Winter and some vintage artwork.  It also comes in a delightful, embossed Maniac II: Love To Kill slipbox, which they describe as "extremely unofficial."
So yeah, The Last Horror Film is a must for any horror fan's collection, especially if you love Maniac, and extra especially if you've already sprung for The Undertaker.  88's blu used to be the way to go (uncut, lossless audio, the best special features), until Severin came and raised the stakes (higher picture quality, subtitles and even better features).  Die-hards might still want to hang onto their 88's for some of those exclusive extras, like the Lustig interview.  But Severin's has become the definitive first choice now... at least until 88 decides to take up the gauntlet again and make their own 4k edition.