11 more minutes of devilish thrills

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michael Janusonis / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

The Exorcist is on the big screen again . . . and then some.

Eleven minutes of footage that were left on the cutting room floor back in 1973, when this devil-possession movie first terrified movie audiences, have been put back in. The results underscore the plot's religious overtones, as well as giving us a shot of Linda Blair walking on her hands and feet backwards -- like a crawly spider -- down a staircase.

Although The Exorcist has long been widely available on video, I hadn't seen director William Friedkin's version of William Peter Blatty's best seller in more than a quarter century. I recalled that back then, customers reportedly were fainting in their theater seats and vomiting in the aisles, something that, of course, turned the movie into an enormous box office (as well as critical) success. But I questioned whether the film that was recently voted the scariest movie of all time in at least one millennium poll would stand up in the face of all the other horror movies that it had spawned in the interim.

Well, we might have become more blas about heads turning 180 degrees on a little girl's body, foul language, a levitating bed and gallons of pea-soup "vomit" spewing across the screen, but I'm happy to report that nevertheless The Exorcist remains an unsettling, unnerving trip. On the other hand, I must confess that the only time I actually jumped -- and I was alone in the very dark auditorium at the time -- was when a jangling telephone on screen suddenly interrupted a quiet scene. Besides the added footage, the sound has been improved for this re-release. It's the little things that count in a big way.

For all its blasphemous sights -- including the desecration of a statue of the Virgin Mary and the use of a crucifix as a sexual device -- The Exorcist is a surprisingly thoughtful film about faith.

Blair plays the precociously sweet little girl, Regan, who becomes possessed by the devil -- why is never explained -- while she's in Washington, D.C., with her film-star mother (Ellen Burstyn) who is shooting a movie at Georgetown University about campus unrest. Doctors try to explain the girl's sudden strange behavior in scientific and mental-health terms. Gee, you'd have thought they'd conclude that something more than mental illness was involved when the little girl's bed started vibrating off the floor.

Her distraught mother is finally driven to seek out a priest who can perform an exorcism on her daughter. But Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) doesn't think he's exactly the right man for the job, especially since he's losing his faith and is tortured by the guilt of not being present when his sainted mother died alone in another city. So Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), a gaunt old priest who has had experience in exorcisms before -- as well as being an archeologist who has unearthed a statue of an evil spirit in Iraq -- is called in. Father Karras agrees to assist.

The plot is fairly simple and allows for all sorts of technical wizardry to turn sweet little Regan into a shrieking harpy who has a pointy devil's tongue, frozen breath and a sewer-mouth complex. This is the stuff that got people talking and brought them into theaters back in 1973 and, apparently, is doing the same thing today. Warner Bros. opened the re-edited version of The Exorcist in limited engagements in several cities last weekend and the results were so through-the-roof at the ticket window that the film is quickly being rolled out everywhere this weekend.

But The Exorcist is more thoughtful than just its scary stuff. At heart, it examines the tortured soul of a man of God who is afraid that he has lost God, and of a mother who is near the end of her rope in trying to save her child's life. These are desperate people trapped in cataclysmic circumstances.

Friedkin gives The Exorcist a constantly edgy tone and stages several disquieting sequences, especially one set in a state-run mental asylum. One thing about The Exorcist is that it makes one wonder whether America really was as grim as it seemed in 1973. Even the latest scientific equipment looks shopworn, like something left over from an exhibit of 19th-century medical supplies.

Friedkin couldn't have found better actors to carry out the film's frightening aspects than Burstyn, who is a case of jumpy panic, and Miller, who makes Father Karras a haunted soul who keeps looking within himself for answers that never come. They create riveting characters and make The Exorcist a seat-squirmer even in today's seen-it-all environment.


The Exorcist

Starring : Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair.

Producers: A Warner Bros. picture written by William Peter Blatty from his novel, directed by William Friedkin.

Rated : R, contains violence, profanity.

Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.