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'Exorcist, The'

Hellish as ever: The re-released 'Exorcist' has gotten scarier

Friday, October 13, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Gazette

What the devil has got into Linda Blair?

Nothing that two aspirin and lots of exorcise won't cure.

'The Exorcist'

RATING: R for language, violence, theme

STARRING: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb

DIRECTOR: William Friedkin

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


It was 1974 when director William Friedkin ("The French Connection" Oscar man) got the hell out of her by turning William Peter Blatty's No. 1 best-selling "Exorcist" into the horror movie that changed all horror movies thereafter. 1974 to 2000 is a long time -- in-between which, never having cheated by refreshing my memory with a video, I forgot a lot of details and don't remember it frame by frame. I mostly remember the opening-day line of people waiting to get in (wrapping around an entire city block), the Catholic pickets outside, and my subsequent inability to sleep for a week.

I doubted I'd even be able to recognize that much-touted, additional reel (12 minutes) of footage cut from the original and now restored with this re-release.

I was wrong. Worth the price of readmission is a bizarre, bloody thing called "the spider walk" scene in which Linda Blair does the most -- but, no, let's not give it away. Trust me, you'll know it's "new" when you see it.

What's old, on the other hand, is the long opening sequence of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) at an archeological excavation site in Iraq. What exactly does he find there? I'm no more certain now than in 1974, but it's something evil, and there's a murky relationship between it and what gets into Linda Blair.

That's followed by an equally long and long-winded exposition back in the States concerning the doubt-filled priest-psychiatrist Father Damien (Jason Miller) and his dying Italian mother. It takes a great deal of time to get these two priests' stories established before we get down to the devil's handiwork at hand.

Which would be sweet little Regan (Blair), so wonderfully goody-goody innocent at the start with her cherubic face, begging her mother for a horse. Mom is Ellen Burstyn -- anything but sweet. An actress making a Warner Brothers protest-era movie in Georgetown, she's a bitchy, swearing, snarling prima donna, the last person in the world you'd think to be a believer in that most exotic of all Roman Catholic rituals known as exorcism.

Her friends are no better -- obnoxious actors and directors who goad each other and the hired help at parties. There are lots of bad vibes at Ellen's big party, and they get worse with little Regan's incontinent entry and announcement that somebody's going to die.

Hmmm. Disturbing. Something's wrong with the girl. The doctors are all sure it's a brain lesion, putting her -- and us -- through a series of horrendous tests. Particularly grisly is the insertion of a tube into -- and spurting blood out of -- her throat. Be forewarned that it's extremely hard to watch and, I suggest, a good time for the squeamish to make a popcorn run.

Equally shocking -- still, 26 years later -- is the brutally profane language in Regan's devil voice (actually that of the great Mercedes McCambridge) as the manifestations of her possession get more and more violent. Neither a quarter of a century nor probably even the great Tom Savini could improve on the fabulous makeup that turns her from a pretty little girl into a monster.

And you'll be glad to know the impact of that famous green vomit has not diminished with the years.

The fine supporting performance of Lee J. Cobb as a weary, film-buff detective adds a lot. But best of all is Burstyn, so committed to the role that she makes it and the plot work.

"The Exorcist," of course, inspired countless absurd sequels and even more absurd imitations. But this was the original, and none of the impostors -- nor the decades -- have taken a thing away from its hellish impact.

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