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Warner Bros. has decided to repackage and re-release all five (or six if you consider the 2003 original re-release) of their Exorcist films. If you've already bought or seen the previous DVD releases of these films you may not want to bother reading what will most likely be a very long review. These are all the exact same DVDs. There really isn't much to say about them that hasn't already been said, so I'm going to do my best to keep things short.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

The Exorcist


The original film is a pop culture mainstay. As one of the first massive blockbuster releases of the post movie-brat era, it's often forgotten how genuinely good The Exorcist is. Straight out of his Oscar shattering debut, the ne-plus-ultra of gritty crime dramas The French Connection, director William Freidkin had an amazing sense of inflated ego and something to prove when he started production on the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's original hit novel. The finished product struck such a chord with the nation that it went on to be one of the highest grossing motion pictures of all-time.

The fact that a relatively slow moving, psychological horror film about the possession of a pre-teen girl could capture the attention of so many people is a product of the time it was made. Had the film premiered today, in its present form, it would most likely be written off as cheesy, boring, and ultimately (and perhaps most shockingly) not scary. Almost as interesting as a litmus test for a past society's moral barometer and entertainment measure as it is a film, The Exorcist begs revisiting, even if it has become unfortunately dated in 33 years.

Freidkin's craft is undeniable, as are the performances. After the novelty of shock value has long since warn off, we can admire the layered plot building and amazing acting chops. Had The Exorcist been made in the post- Scream '90s, those involved would've most likely found it impossible to take the subject matter as seriously as necessary. At no point during this film is anyone's tongue planted in his or her cheek, and this serious tone is what ultimately leads to the many critical dissections of it that followed its release. Like most '70s era, hard horror releases, it is an allegory for many real life issues, in this case divorce, puberty, dogma, and faith, and many others.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen


For the 30th Anniversary, director William Freidkin—who by the way never repeated the critical or monetary success of either of his first two films—re-edited the original film, and added new sound and visual effects. Obviously this decision was based largely on the success of the re-release of George Lucas' original Star Wars Trilogy in 1997, though this revamping proved to be far less controversial than Lucas'.

The new effects (most of which are subliminal images) are iffy, and like those of Star Wars, they did not blend into the original footage very well. The inclusion of the 'spider walk', a scene originally deleted back in 1973, was the biggest difference. It’s effectively creepy, but makes little sense, and makes the mistake of having the possessed Regan leave the confines of her bedroom, which at that point in the film was a mistake. In addition to this there are some other reinstated scenes throughout the picture that owners of the original DVD release may remember from the The Fear of God documentary. It appears that author Blatty finally nagged Friedkin enough to make things a little less up to interpretation. The revamped sound on the other hand is spectacular and almost the preferred way to view the film.

In the end this re-release ended up making even more than Warner Bros. had anticipated, proving perhaps that younger generations were willing to revisit the horrors of their parents. Based on the general youth consensus however, the film doesn't quite transcend the generation gap.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Exorcist II: The Heretic


The second Exorcist film is a great example of how not to follow up a massively successful motion picture. This wouldn't be the last time Warner Bros. would drop the ball on the franchise, but it was a great place to start. First off, if history has taught us anything, it's that the audience usually wants more of the same out of a sequel. This is especially true when the first film left no room for a sequel in the first place. I know that this is creatively bankrupt way to make a movie, but it's usually a good way to make a few bucks, especially in the creatively bankrupt late '70s.

Exorcist II awkwardly tries to expand on the original's story, but the plot makes almost no sense, and the film bares very little resemblance to Friedkin's original. As best as I can explain it, the story revolves around the demon Pasuzu trying to repossess Regan, who's now in college, having forgotten completely about her harrowing experience in the first film. To stop the demon, Father Philip Lamont tries to bring about Regan's repressed memories through an experimental hypnotism process, which involves some silly Sci-Fi headgear. Credited writer William Goldhart only wrote one more script following this one, just in case anyone was wondering.

The second failed step made in the pre-production process was the hiring of John Boorman, one of the most experimental men ever to work in mainstream Hollywood. Boorman is best know for his work on indispensable films like Point Blank and Deliverance, but has also directed such overdone fantasy epics as Zardoz and Excalibur (both cult films, but undeniably weird ones). Boorman really goes for broke when it comes to bizarre touches, such as pre-digital layered effects, and a very long flashback sequence from the point of view of a locust.

In the end, Exorcist II may be worth revisiting for Boorman's over-the-top direction and Ennio Morricone's inappropriate but extremely catchy score, but since the damn thing seems to be on cable TV every other weekend there's little point in purchasing a DVD. The finished film is the utter disaster that history claims it to be, but this is what makes it somehow watchable today and not unlike watching a car crash as portrayed by Salvador Dali after a bout with e coli. The film also contains, in flashback, a third variation on Merrin's past which differs from both of the later prequels.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Exorcist III: Legion


Years after the complete debacle that was Exorcist II Warner Bros. found the courage to revisit the series again, only this time putting the writer of the original, William Peter Blatty, in charge of both writing and directing. Blatty based his film on his original novel, entitled Legion, in which we find out a man called the Gemini Killer (not to be confused with the  Zodiac Killer) was put to death at the same instant Father Karras killed himself in order to stop Regan's possession. The killer, played with gusto by the one and only Brad Dourif, goes about his bloody business post-mortem by possessing victims to do his evil bidding. Gruff cop, played gruffly by the always gruff George C. Scott is hot on his trail, but must deal with his own preconceptions of the supernatural and faith first.

Blatty's picture was pretty much ignored on its initial release, but garnered more praise than Boorman's massive flop, which intelligently enough Blatty pretended never existed. After its release on video, the film gained some steam and a healthy cult following, as is want to happen in out post-internet day and age. Some now consider The Exorcist III on level with the original, but the truth is that like so many 'discoverd on video' classics, it has become a tad over-praised by a vocal minority. On the whole, the film is fine, hinging on a tortured performance from Scott, a surprisingly potent visual sense, and some genuinely creepy scenes that leave a lot to the viewer's imagination. Unfortunately, the final act is very muddled, only skidding by through Blatty's visual flair.

Word has it that Blatty was plagued by a lot of studio interference, and that the final act, especially, was compromised. Apparently the original book and screenplay didn't end with an exorcism scene at all; a fact that once realized makes the scene even more painfully moot. The key to the film's success is how low-key it is, and the fact that only the most liberal of minds could even consider it a horror film, despite the tacked on exorcism and one of the most bowel cleaning scares in cinema history (you know the one). This is the one film besides the original that may be a must see, but it only barely earns the tag.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Exorcist: The Beginning


The story of the Exorcist prequel is, unfortunately, about ten times more interesting than the actual movie itself. When someone at Warner Bros. (or technically subsidiary company Morgan Creek) first came up with the idea of making a film concerning the adventures of a young Father Merrin, director John Frankenheimer was brought on board. Frankenheimer is best known for his early successes ( The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, Grand Prix, Birdman of Alcatraz), and later failures ( Island of Dr. Monreau, Reindeer Games), and actually shares quite a bit in common stylistically with Exorcist II director John Boorman. Unfortunately Frankenheimer died during pre-production, and Paul Schrader was brought on board. Schrader is best known for his dark work writing films like Taxi Driver, and directing films like Affliction. He seemed like a good choice.

When Schrader delivered his final cut, the producers were none too happy. Apparently Schrader's film was too psychological, and too understated. Execs were expecting a horror film, not a study of the loss of faith in the face of darkness (a Schrader specialty). Once again, Warner Bros. stepped in to muck about with an Exorcist film. Schrader was taken off the project and cheese processor Renny Harlin ( Deep Blue Sea, Cutthroat Island, Cliffhanger) was brought aboard for re-shoots. After struggling to produce the thrill-machine Warner Bros. wanted, Harlin ended up partially recasting, and basically started from scratch. All this meddling did not bode well for the final film.

When the film was finally released, the general public didn't seem to have a grasp on just how screwed up the filmmaking process had been, and The Beginning actually pulled in a decent opening weekend haul, all things considered. Of course the fact that the film was exactly as awful as fans had feared didn't help the film in the following weeks, nor did it garner more than a small handful of positive reviews.

It's too easy to blame Harlin for the film's eventual self-destruction. Factually, Harlin was brought on as the hands of executives, and in the end was simply doing his job. The plot of the film follows a young Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow in the original and here by Stellan Skarsgård), a man down on his luck and faith, who’s confronted for the first time by the evil demon Pasuzu. Merrin has found solace in archeology, and has discovered an ancient church buried in the sands of East Africa. When the site is opened, the demon escapes and possesses a villager. Meanwhile, evil is afoot, and a war is about to break out between the natives and the British settlers.

Exorcist: The Beginning was most reviled for its generally nasty nature (showing a small boy torn limb from limb by ravenous hyenas and a lingering shot of a maggot infested still-born, for example). I do not pretend to think the film was not nasty, but personally feel that it was this nastiness that gave the film its one edge. For the most part there is nothing to separate this film from any other generic Exorcist rip-off. No interesting characters, no dynamic visuals, no decent special effects, and no real scares. The worst offense the film commits, however, is its twist ending, which goes against the original films loose mythology, by changing the possessed individual.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist


After the fish-like flopping of Harlin's film, Warner Bros. decided to release Schrader's film after all, thanks to good early reviews and the fact that it had gained a bit of a mythic reputation over the internet. Suddenly we were left with two very different versions of the same film, something that hadn't occurred in cinematic history (as far as I know, and remakes don't count). Now the public could decide for themselves whether the original producers had made the right decision in scrapping the film in the first place.

Shockingly enough, it turned out that Warner Bros. may've been right; Schrader had delivered a thrilless, boring motion picture. Not only this, but the drama was flat, the characters were just as uninteresting, and Schrader's usual gritty touch was almost entirely absent. If anything, I'd say that at least visually Harlin's film has the edge, especially in texture, which Schrader should be expected to deliver.

Dominion does deliver some creepy moments, but I was personally expecting a psychological experience on par with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Affliction, and Auto Focus. Instead I got a thinly drawn lead who comes off as more of a big baby rather than a tortured soul (I get it, Nazis are bad, enough). The film is an actual prequel, in that it doesn't change anything, and thus should be seen as the real prequel by fans (for the record, only Dominion and Legion are cannon, the other two films kind of take place in an alternate universe), but it doesn't excuse the fact that its still a bad movie.

It seems unfair to berate Schrader while letting Harlin off the hook, but I have to remember that Harlin was just doing a job, and had almost no creative interest in the project. This, we are expected to believe, is the best Schrader could do, and I for one know it is not.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Video


As I said before, these are exactly the same as the previous releases, right down to the disc art. There has been no re-mastering. The original Exorcist is the same single layered disc released back in the early days of the format. Thankfully it is anamorphically enhanced, and has been cleaned up to a degree. The colours and detail levels are muted, and there is a lot of cross-colouration, but overall the print isn't too bad.

The re-release, on the other hand, is a revelation in clarity. When compared back-to-back it's obvious that a lot of effort went into the reconstruction of the original negatives for the revamp. Colours are much richer, details are extremely sharp, and grain has been greatly minimized. If you can take the additional scenes and the added effects, The Version You've Never Seen is by far the superior version.

Exorcist II gets a decent treatment, but is one of the newer releases of the set, figuring there wasn't much demand for supply. Again, it is anamorphically enhanced, and has been cleaned. Details aren't the sharpest, but will do, and colours are relatively vibrant. Black levels are deep, and nearly noise free. There is some digital blocking on moving edges, but overall this is rather impressive. Exorcist III is another older DVD, and has some problems with noise mostly. But the release is anamorphically enhanced, and detail levels are decent, making it an average DVD watching experience. I must admit I was a bit impressed considering the disc's age.

The two prequels are the newest films, in both production and DVD mastering, and are sharp all around. The Beginning is the only film in the set that utilizes a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and probably looks the best all around. Night time sequences are slightly muddy, but finding real fault is pretty much impossible. Dominion is a hair less crisp, but represents the film's muted colour pallet well, and cannot be faulted on any great level.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The

Audio


The original DVD release of the original film was sort of awkwardly remixed from mono into Dolby Digital 5.1. The track is very two-dimensional, and though the surround channels get some action, they always seem to be playing on the same volume frequency. The mix also lack bass. The re-release is, again, a revelation. Fidelity is very high, and the added bass track throbs most unsettlingly. Surround tracks are very aggressive, and directional effects are frighteningly effective. Once again, if you don't mind the extra junk, this is the ideal way to watch the film on a modern home theater system.

Exorcist II is the only disc in the set that isn't presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. The disc retains the original mono soundtrack only, which despite box claims, only comes out of the center channel. It sounds fine, nothing too exciting. Dialogue is clear, and there's very little distortion, even during the film's louder moments. The only loss is Ennio Morricone's wacko score, which sounds great on stereo CD, and probably could've sounded even better in full-on surround sound.

Part three has been semi-successfully remixed into 5.1 Dolby Digital, is more just loud than good. There are some effective surround effects, but dynamic range is severely lacking in separate channels. There isn't much distortion, and dialogue is plenty clear, but the track tends to just blare noise rather than sound.

The two prequels sound like new movies, and The Beginning is especially aggressive. It's also the only one with an optional DTS track, which is basically a louder version of the Dolby Digital one. The Beginning isn't a very good film, but a lot of effort was put into its sound design, and the effort was worth it. Dominion on the other hand, sounds surprisingly flat, and even during the spooky scenes doesn't raise too many neck hairs. The mix is crisp and realistic, but not exactly mind-shattering.

Extras


Once again, in case you've skipped the rest of my review for this section alone, these are not new DVDs. If you own the old DVDs, you own this set, just in a different box. Warner Bros. has pretty much dropped the ball here, especially in the shadow of Fox's Alien Quadrilogy re-release a few years back (not to mention their own Superman collection due out this year). That set included long, well produced documentaries about each film in the series, and offered up a producer's cut of the misunderstood Alien 3.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The
The original DVD release of The Exorcist was a flipper (movie on one side, features on the other), and was a real special edition set when it came out. I personally did not have a DVD player at the time and bought the special edition VHS tape, which featured parts of the feature length documentary, The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist. I never got the DVD, so I never knew how much of the documentary I'd missed. Produced and narrated by Mark Kermode (who can be heard on a plethora of horror film related documentaries, including Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror, Scream and Scream Again: A History of the Slasher Film, and Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments), the doc is all encompassing, and one of the most impressive of its kind, even today.

From a fan standpoint, the bit of information I'd missed on the truncated VHS version was the fact that El Topo sound designer, Gonzalo Gavira was brought on by Friedkin to help create the eerie effects track. The rest of the doc contains some pretty common knowledge stuff—Friedkin’s on set tyranny, production deaths, the film's massive response, but the best parts are the asides with Blatty and Friedkin discussing what was cut from the original release, all stuff that was put back in for the re-release. If you don't own the original DVD release, and aren't too hip on picking up all 5 films, you might want to track down a used copy just for this doc alone.

The disc also features two commentary tracks, one from Blatty, one from Friedkin, just in case you hadn't already learned everything you ever needed to know about The Exorcist from the doc. Blatty's a lot less entertaining than Friedkin to listen to, and their is a bit of repetition, but these are basically solid tracks. There are a few outtakes from the doc featuring an even longer discussion between the writer and director about the deleted scenes. The trailer and TV Spots are all tops, including the infamous 'flashing-faces' trailer that was banned by the MPAA during the film's reissue.

The Version You've Never Seen is a bare-bones release, with only another Friedkin commentary and a few trailers to show for itself. The commentary is pretty moot if you have the old one, as Friedkin hardly even mentions the reinstated scenes. It's pretty obvious that this was meant as a companion piece to the original DVD and not a replacement.

Exorcist II is also barebones, though its teaser and trailer have to be some of my favourites of all time. The rhythmically quick-cut full trailer will get Morricone's theme song stuck in your head like non-other. Fortunately for me, I own the CD. Sometimes the making of a flop can be even more interesting than the making of a classic, and a retrospective documentary could've been a nice addition for this release. They could've at least gotten a hold of Boorman for a commentary, he did a decent one on Point Blank with Steven Soderberg.

The big tragedy of this re-release is, of course, the lack of a Blatty director's cut on Exorcist III. In light of Richard Donner's Superman II finally seeing release, you'd think Warner Bros. could've looked into re-cutting their other fan favourite studio infiltration piece. I suppose the footage may've been lost, but we all know Blatty would be interested, based solely on his treatment of the original film. As is, the disc is barebones, featuring a only a trailer.

The Beginning has an advertiser’s featurette, some trailers, and a Harlin commentary track. I've always been a fan of Harlin's track because he makes no qualms about the low-level ambition of most of his films. Here he's a little less active than usual, but manages to cover all but one base. The base Harlin oh-so-delicately tip-toes around is the fact that this was not originally his film. There is almost no mention of the film's sorted past, though this may've been implemented by the studio before the track was even recorded. Those who've sat through the film will be happy to know that Harlin basically apologizes for the sub-par nature of the digitally created hyenas, and blames the short production period.

Excorcist: The Complete Anthology, The
Dominion also features a trailer and a collection of deleted scenes (all of which are totally dispensable). Again, the worthwhile feature is Schrader's commentary. Schrader is another creative type that is good at speaking about his work, and the track is the closest we get in the set to a history of the doomed project. Schrader leaves too many blank spots on the track, but when he does speak it comes from the heart.

I find myself thinking again of Fox's Alien Quadrilogy box set, where the studio had the guts to make a feature length expose on their own breaking of Alien 3. Had Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek had any guts, or want to please series fans, they would've done something similar here for the prequels. It's a tragically missed opportunity to make this collection an important one on the grand scale.

Overall


So, once again, if you already own the previous region one releases of these films, you have this set. For the price, it's not a bad deal, if you like the films, but really there's only two good films to choose from, the original Exorcist, and Exorcist III (and for the superior A/V experience, though with extra and unnecessary scenes, the 30th anniversary re-release). The second film is a slightly fun oddity, and the prequels, though basically garbage, are interesting for historical and comparable reasons. Warner Bros. has, in my opinion, dropped the ball in not putting any effort into this release, unlike other, superior re-releases like the Alien Quadrilogy.

Personally, I've had enough of these films for a very long time now.


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