Collins’ Crypt: THE EXORCIST Director’s Cut Vs. Theatrical Versions

Brian watches the Director's Cut and theatrical versions of THE EXORCIST back-to-back and compares the two.

While I managed to catch most of the universally accepted horror classics by the time I was 14 (1994, when I finally saw Dawn of the Dead), for reasons I cannot recall I never got around to seeing The Exorcist until 1999, on DVD. I went to like four or five different video stores during my life until this point (all in one town – remember when we had options? Way to kill a great business model, lazy online renters!), so I’m sure at least one of them had a copy… no idea what my problem was. Maybe I thought I’d be scared I’d have to go to confession (I was raised Catholic) for watching something so blasphemous; actually, now that I think about it, it WAS around 1999 that I stopped going to Church as well. Hmmm…

Anyway, while it’s not in my top ten horror flicks (I prefer slashers and zombies; supernatural horror is way down on my genre preference), I recognize it as terrific and an important, must-see film in general, not just for horror fans. I also love seeing movies theatrically with a (respectful) crowd, so I headed out to the Arclight last week to watch it with a post-screening Q&A with director William Friedkin, as well as the director of an upcoming stage adaptation at the Geffen Playhouse to which I already had tickets. I thought of skipping it, because Friedkin tends to drone on and after two special edition DVDs I figure I’ve heard everything he has to say about the movie, and also I’m quite busy of late and thus shouldn’t be spending over three hours (with Q&A and driving) watching a movie I’ve seen ten times, but I wanted to try something.

As most of you probably know, there are two versions of the film – the original 1973 cut and then a “Version You’ve Never Seen” (aka director’s cut) that was released in the fall of 2000, where it became the first movie I ever went to see theatrically despite owning at home (even the Star Wars films - I never owned a copy of them until the 1997 special editions were released on VHS). Like most folks, I wanted to see the legendary “spider-walk” scene and other changes, but it had been a while since that first viewing, so I wasn’t 100% sure on every change. And over the years, I’d watch one version or the other, not entirely sure what was different due to the length of time between viewings.

Then in 2008 I watched both back to back for a HMAD review, and finally determined that there were only two alterations that I liked in the D-cut, with the rest being forgettable or downright worthless. However, I watched the theatrical first and D-cut second, so it might have just been a bit of fatigue on my part – I’m not the type that watches a movie twice in one week all that often, especially if it’s one I’ve already seen a few times (and adding to that, having to watch another “new” movie for HMAD those days). So this time I wanted to go the other way; I hadn’t seen either version since then, so I’d watch the D-cut at the Arclight, and then the theatrical at home, and see which one came out on top.

Well overall, my opinion didn’t change – let’s go scene by scene and see why.

(Note – I believe this is pretty complete with the exception of minor things like angle changes and shots trimmed by a few frames – if I missed something major please let me know! Preferably in a non-dickish way!)

1. Opening shots of the MacNeil home before the Iraq scene. This is not only a bad change, it’s also one of the more puzzling – why show the house long before anything happens there? If we’ve seen the movie, we KNOW something bad is going to happen there, and if we haven’t, then now we’re just confused as to why we looked at a shot of a house before heading off to another country.

2. Regan undergoing tests. This is a change I actually like quite a bit. Not only does it make more sense out of a later line from Ellen Burstyn (“it’s like the doctor said..”), but it adds to her desperation, as we now have double the “trying science before turning to God” scenes. It’s also good to see that Chris is under the impression that this is a minor thing that can be fixed (love her reaction to the doctor telling her about Regan swearing), which gives her later panic more resonance. Note – this addition led to the removal of a shot of a perfectly normal Regan at the party, which no longer fit.

3. Subliminal faces. To put it gently - NO. These are so dumb, none more obnoxious than the one that flashes over the stove as Chris walks around her kitchen. In fact throughout the movie Friedkin has added digital faces on a bunch of the scare scenes, and all of them distract and add nothing. And I say this as someone who had only seen the movie WITHOUT them once before they were added; I can’t imagine how intrusive they are to die-hard fans who had seen the movie 50 times before the d-cut was released. Note - I’m including all such instances in this entry, they continue throughout the film at random spots and I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t make me roll my eyes.

4. The Spider-Walk. Another one I hate. In addition to being too quick and silly looking to be effective, it also has no followup – barely even a reaction shot from Chris. It also takes away from the impact of Burke’s death, and introduces the idea of Regan leaving her room. Some might argue that’s scarier that she can leave and might be choosing to stay, but since she doesn’t ever leave again, it’s kind of moot. She might be able to turn into a dinosaur too, but unless she DOES then we don’t need a hint of it since it's not going to pay off.

5. Karras listening to tapes of Regan. A decent little scene that doesn’t add much but certainly doesn’t kill the pace or impact of the scenes around it like the Spider-walk does.

6. More little bits with Merrin as he arrives at the house. Again, nothing crucial, but not harmful. I can take or leave it.

7. Merrin and Karras talking on the stairs in between exorcism sessions. I’ve talked to people who forgive every other change in the movie because they love this bit so much – I don’t put that much stock into it, personally, but it’s a nice little moment. It also helps explain the rather jarring editing of the original version (when we just had quick cutaways of the men sitting silently in between their excised dialogue), so as an editor I endorse it on that alone.

8. Extended ending with Father Dyer talking to Chris. Don’t care much for this part; there’s only so many times I can see a little medallion change hands in such a short amount of screentime. Plus it feels like foreshadowing that he thinks she should keep it – “No, you hold onto it in case Regan gets turned into a lab rat for some incoherent experiment in four years!”

9. Added scene with Kinderman and Dyer. I actually like this bit, though it does drag out the ending a bit too much. I like Kinderman a lot and wish he was in the movie more, and the idea that he and Dyer become pals is nice*, though I’m not sure this one is necessary. At least they trimmed the Casablanca reference the scene originally ended on (it was available as a stand-alone scene on the earlier DVD release); the D-cut fades to credits just before that groaner.

Thus, of the nine changes I only really like three, one of which I think I liked more as a stand-alone bit than in the movie itself. Then there are two that I can take or leave. Of those remaining four, I downright hate three of them. So it’s not that the D-cut is completely without merit, but I think I’d rather miss the bits I like than keep suffering through the ones I don’t. They don’t RUIN the movie by any means, but they distract more often than not, and other than the hospital scene none of them really fix anything that could be considered a flaw in the original (Regan’s out of nowhere need for medical attention).

I’m also amused that the more horrific in nature a change is, the more it detracts, for two reasons. One is the obvious – you’d think adding “scary” bits to a horror movie would always be helpful, but in this case it’s the addition of quieter, character driven moments that are the real benefit while the hardcore horror stuff is a detriment. The other is that they were added by Friedkin himself, who reportedly prefers this version now, as he has gone on record with saying that this isn’t really a horror film. So it’s not a horror movie but you’ll add a scene of a girl running around like a spider, dripping blood while everyone screams? Because that’s… what, something out of a costume drama? Make up your mind, man.

Curious what you guys think though – are you a bit on the fence like me, or do you universally endorse one version over the other? Do you think the Spider-Walk is in any way useful? Please note which one you saw first, too. I suspect anyone who saw the D-cut first would probably prefer it to the original, but I may be wrong. All I know for sure is, either version is a blast to watch with a crowd, both for the scares (I think there were some Exorcist virgins in the crowd considering the reaction the first head-spinning got) as well as the humor – when the doctor lights up a smoke while telling Chris about Regan’s test results, the whole place erupted. I also never noticed the humor of Kinderman’s oblivious acceptance of more tea until the other night – poor bastard is so lonely.

No matter what version you see (Warner put both on the DVD box set as well as the recent Blu-ray, so you pretty much can't have one without the other these days), I think you can agree that it’s a shame we don’t see big classy horror films like this anymore, with top notch actors and a hefty dose of drama to go along with it. There’s a reason it’s still the highest grossing genre film of all time (you don’t even need to factor in inflation) and spawned enough imitators to make up its own sub-genre – and you can see it in either version.

*I know it’s based more on the original book than a true sequel to the film, but Exorcist III’s version of Kinderman has him talk about Karras as his “best friend," which just makes him look pathetic if you’re not aware that they’re going by the novels instead of the movies. They only met once and didn’t even really get along! Poor Kinderman.