THE EXORCIST Blu-ray Review
The Exorcist, widely hailed as one of the most frightening and influential horror films of all time, made its Blu-ray debut back in October. I'd intended to review it at the time, but was ultimately sidetracked. But you know what they say...better late than never.
This film had a rather spotty history on DVD. Originally released way back in 1997 as one of Warner's very first forays into the new format, it was re-released as a 25th Anniversary Special Edition a year later, with some wonderful extras...and, true to the early standards of the format, a so-so transfer, riddled with artifacts. Two years later, a new cut of the film was released to DVD after a limited theatrical run. Dubbed "The Version You've Never Seen," it included some scenes not present in the original theatrical release, as well as a few newly-added digital effects. Some proclaimed this new cut superior to the original, whilst others felt it was a step backward. But there were two things that could be said for certain. The transfer was an improvement (though still nothing to write home about), and the extras were a disappointment. The 1998 DVD went out of print after this new release...and before long, the "Version You've Never Seen" was, ironically, the only version you could buy. At least until the theatrical cut was quietly included in a box-set entitled The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology, in 2006.
So in 2010, there was considerable anticipation - and trepidation - regarding the HD debut of this prestigious catalog title. Director William Friedkin had previously raised the ire of film fans worldwide when he tinkered with the look of The French Connection for its Blu-ray release, producing a revisionist transfer full of crushed blacks, artificially enhanced grain, and bleeding colors. The film's cinematographer, Owen Roizman, called the results "atrocious," and most reviewers and consumers agreed. So when it was announced that he would be supervising The Exorcist's transfer, as well, fans became wary. Luckily, Roizman, who was also the DP on The Exorcist, helped Friedkin to create the transfer for this release, so fears of ill-conceived retooling were ultimately unwarranted. But when the first screenshots showed up online, there was something else to worry about. The screenshots showed little to no grain, leading many to suspect that perhaps Warner had once again besmirched one of its highly-anticipated catalog transfers with DNR. But fans lucked out again, and it turns out the problem was the screenshots...not the transfer.
So, after all the preliminary concerns, how did the release actually turn out? Thankfully, very well. Certainly well enough for longtime fans like myself to breathe a collective sigh of relief. In terms of picture quality, The Exorcist is a revelation on Blu-ray. While much of the image is inherently soft, this is no fault of the technical transfer. The film is a product of its era, and modern viewers need to bear in mind that razor-sharp photography was not the rule in decades past. But given its somewhat softened appearance, fine details are beautifully rendered and resolved (a close-up on Merrin's hand in the Iraq opening reveals the loops and whorls of his fingerprints in remarkable detail), and the ever-present grain field makes the initial concerns about DNR seem ludicrous in retrospect. Indeed, this release could aptly be described as a grain-hater's worst nightmare. And about that, I couldn't be more pleased.
Click to see holy water splash across your screen in full 1080 resolution:
The Blu-ray release includes both the original 1973 Theatrical Cut of the film and the "Extended Director's Cut," which is essentially the "Version You've Never Seen," with a couple of minor changes (some of the needless digital effects added in 2000 have been removed). Both films have been remastered, and appear largely identical, in terms of image quality - though I believe the grain (and detail) may be more finely resolved in certain portions of the 1973 cut, versus the Director's Cut. There is a smattering of digital artifacting in either version that keen-eyed viewers (i.e. nitpickers like me) may notice, but it is minor, infrequent, and fleeting. Color timing is consistent in both cuts, and (thanks in large part to Roizman's participation in the transfer) is an improvement over all previous home media editions of the film.
Audio is likewise robust. The Theatrical Cut and Extended Cut feature the same audio mixes as their DVD counterparts (5.1 and 6.1, respectively), but both benefit strongly from the bump to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Both mixes are full of life and power, particularly in their dissonant representation of evil. I advise viewers to crank their subwoofers to really get the most out of the things that go bump in these sounds mixes. As is so often the case, it's a bit of a shame that we don't get the original audio mix, and the purist in me has to deduct points for that...but the original audio was never available on DVD, either, and these lossless tracks are so good, I can't grumble too much.
Extras go the last mile, including all of the worthwhile extras from previous DVD editions, as well as some new material. Disc 1 (the Extended Director's Cut) includes the same Friedkin commentary as the "Version You've Never Seen" DVD...and I have to say, it's one of the worst tracks I've ever listened to. It's wall-to-wall narration, with scarcely any insight at all. Apparently, Friedkin had already said everything he had to say on his previous commentary (more on that later), and decided that this time out, he would simply relate to the viewers what's happening on-screen, in case they happen to be blind. Also included are three all-new HD featurettes...Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist, a 30-minute HD retrospective featuring new interviews and behind-the-scenes footage never seen before; The Exorcist Locations: Then and Now, a 9-minute HD presentation with side-by-side comparisons of the locations in 1973 and today, with comments from Friedkin and Roizman; and Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist, a 10-minute examination of the film's evolution from workprint to theatrical release, to Director's Cut, to Blu-ray. Add to this package a handful of trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, and the Director's Cut features much stronger extras on Blu-ray than it did on DVD.
The second disc features essentially all of the extras from the 25th Anniversary DVD, barring the tedious text screens. You get two commentaries...one with Friedkin, which in stark contrast to his commentary for the Director's Cut, is a highly informative track, and wonderful to listen to...and one with William Peter Blatty, the author of the bestselling novel upon which the film is based. Blatty runs out of steam part-way through the film, but the track doesn't end when he stops talking...added on are original sound tests with Mercedes McCambridge's demonic vocalizations. In addition, there are interviews with Friedkin and Blatty, sketches, storyboards, the original ending, and more trailers and TV spots. But the real treasure on Disc 2 (and indeed, in the entire extras package) is the inclusion of The Fear of God, the 1998 BBC documentary on The Exorcist, which was first featured on the 25th Anniversary Edition. Though it's presented in standard definition (as are all but the three newest features on Disc 1), this 77-minute exploration of the film and its enduring legacy is a definite must for all Exorcist fans.
The 2-disc set is also packaged in an exclusive digibook, with the usual array of nice photos and various writings on the film. Nothing too special, but fans of collectible packaging will no doubt love it. And finally, a "Personal Message" from William Friedkin. The director concludes this message by expressing his gratitude to Warners for the treatment they've given the film on Blu-ray, which he says represents "the best print ever made of The Exorcist." And while Friedkin has obviously seen more prints of this film than I ever will, I have to agree that it's by far the best I've ever seen.
Strongly recommended to any and all Exorcist fans. Hopefully, the power of this review compels you to add it to your collection.
Last edited by EvilOnTwoLegs; 03-17-2011 at 02:25 AM.
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