Warner Bros. recently asserted that “The Exorcist” holds the title of the “scariest movie of all time.” While the subjectivity of such a claim can be debated, there’s no denying the film’s ability to instill fear in audiences, including the author, who admits to being terrified by it upon first, second, and third viewings. Over time, familiarity may have dampened the scares, but it allowed for a deeper appreciation of the film’s performances, themes, and presentation. “The Exorcist” transcends mere horror and delves into a dramatic exploration of faith and spirituality, appealing even to agnostics and earning its status as a classic.
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The film’s profound subject matter and revered status have cast a shadow over attempts at sequels and franchising, often seen as crass. However, a new trilogy, beginning with “The Exorcist: Believer,” was set to premiere, sparking curiosity about its potential impact on the franchise’s legacy. Additionally, the release of “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen” in 2000 faced criticism, with some purists finding it unpalatable.
Contentious Relationship Between Writer and Director
The roots of “The Version You’ve Never Seen” can be traced back to the production of the original “The Exorcist” and the strained relationship between its writer-producer, William Peter Blatty, and director William Friedkin. Unusually, Friedkin advocated for a faithful adaptation of the source novel, while Blatty’s initial screenplay condensed the narrative and deviated from the book’s structure. Despite this initial discord, the two collaborated to revise the script, forming a strong friendship. However, as the film’s producer, Blatty lacked authority over Friedkin, whose reputation for difficult behavior was well-known.
The breaking point came when Blatty, in a heated argument, “fired” Friedkin, expecting to reconcile later. To his surprise, he was informed by lawyers that he had no power to dismiss the director. Disheartened, Blatty distanced himself from the production. “The Exorcist” exceeded its budget and schedule, leading Warner Bros. to have low expectations for the film. Nevertheless, when Friedkin presented his initial cut to Blatty, the writer was ecstatic.
Unfortunately, this cut had not been shown to the studio. Friedkin, with the final say on the film’s edit, made around 12 minutes of cuts based on Warner Bros.’s feedback, sidelining Blatty from the post-production process. These cuts included scenes significant to Blatty’s theological message, which aimed to strengthen faith. The writer wanted the film to be an “apostolic work,” but Friedkin preferred a more open interpretation. The theatrical cut of “The Exorcist” became a cultural phenomenon, but the missing material irked Blatty, leading to a decades-long quest to restore it.
Significant Changes in the 2000 Version
“The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen” was not an entirely new film but rather a reinsertion of previously excised footage. This approach contrasted with other re-edits of famous movies that removed content. Friedkin restored most of the material he had removed after his first screening with Blatty. While some of these scenes had minimal impact on the plot and logic, others significantly influenced the film’s tone and character development.
The theatrical cut quickly transitions to the exorcism after Father Merrin’s arrival in Georgetown, leaving little room for character development. However, the restored version provides moments of interaction between characters, adding depth to their relationships. Additionally, key dialogue between the priests about the demon’s true target, omitted from the theatrical cut, sheds light on the story’s underlying themes.
Blatty was particularly keen on the film’s ending, as he wanted to affirm that the priests had succeeded in their mission. This conclusion, included in “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” contrasts with the perceived bleakness of the theatrical ending. Some viewers objected to this alteration, arguing it created a “happy” ending.
Best Version of “The Exorcist”: The debate over which version of “The Exorcist” is superior is ongoing. Some argue that the additions in “The Version You’ve Never Seen” enhance the film’s character development and thematic depth. Others believe the theatrical cut maintains a taut atmosphere and appreciate its more ambiguous ending.
The author, whose introduction to the film was through the re-cut version, acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of both editions. While some additions may not be essential, the third act’s extended character development and the inclusion of key dialogue contribute to a more profound viewing experience. Ultimately, the choice between versions may come down to personal preference, with each offering a unique perspective on this iconic film.