The Exorcist

The Exorcist ★★★★

"You're telling me I should take my daughter to a witch doctor. Is that it?"

Forty years ago today, one of the scariest films ever made had its New York premiere. It was, of course, The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, who also produced and penned the screenplay, and it immediately entered the cultural lexicon -- and, in many ways, it has never left it. A lot of that has to do with director William Friedkin's skill behind the camera and his canny decision to treat the story's supernatural elements in the most realistic way possible. The Georgetown home of a successful actress is a far cry from the mean streets of New York City, but once it's invaded by the demon that takes possession of her innocent, preteen daughter, Friedkin makes us feel every visceral shock.

As successful as it was in 1973, in 2000 the film fell prey to the tinkering that has been visited upon many celluloid classics in the digital age. In this case, Blatty was the one who insisted Friedkin go back in and reinstate sequences he had wisely eliminated originally. The result, which added ten minutes to the already adequate two-hour running time, was dubbed "The Version You've Never Seen" when it was re-released in theaters and on home video. It's since been re-branded as the "Extended Director's Cut," but I'm of the opinion that Friedkin got it right the first time, so the Original Recipe is the version I sat down with tonight.

An uncommonly patient film, especially compared to more recent horror outings, The Exorcist spends its first ten minutes on an archeological dig in northern Iraq with the title character (the incomparable Max von Sydow as the indefatigable Father Merrin), who uncovers a disturbing trinket and then disappears for the next hour and 23 minutes. In that time, film actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) hears strange growling sounds coming from her attic, discovers her artistic daughter Regan (Linda Blair, who's just adorable) has been speaking to a gentleman by the name of Captain Howdy through a Ouija board, and quickly has her hands full when the girl begins to manifest signs of being possessed (many of which are the lewd things put in her mouth by Mercedes McCambridge).

When medical science and psychiatry fail Regan, her mother turns to local priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who's having something of a crisis of faith, making him perhaps a less than ideal candidate to assist when Father Merrin is called in, but beggars can't be choosers. Also in the mix are Chris's director, the frequently soused Jack MacGowran, and homicide detective and movie buff Lee J. Cobb, who doesn't have a whole lot to do, but that's just as well because Dick Smith's astonishing makeup effects do most of the heavy lifting anyway. That they still hold up four decades on makes an airtight case for keeping things practical.