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.

1 comment:

  1. Controversial is the correct word, rather than bad. There are a number of big pluses here (mainly to the theatrical version), but from what I've reading, some folks are not going to budge until the third act looks as shit brown as it did on VHS and the pre-Anniversary DVD. The answer to *that* riddle might be somewhere inbetween (check out Exorcist II's Home Video Cut's prologue from Shout Factory).

    And the terrible domestic artwork and legacy extras being an overseas thing gets a big finger wagging from me. I'll wait for a sale/discount.