The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece The Exorcist is one of the greatest films ever made, a phenomenon when first released with an uncanny power to awe audiences even today. Inspired by a true case of demonic possession in 1949, William Peter Blatty’s novel served as a powerful blueprint for Friedkin’s superb direction. Rarely does everything come together in a film like this so perfectly, from the haunting soundtrack to the wonderful acting performances by the entire cast. Often tagged as the scariest movie ever made, The Exorcist is more than a simple scarefest. It touches on issues that are more relevant than ever to society, including a crisis of faith and the conflict with science.

Regan (Linda Blair) is a young girl under the care of her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), an actress more concerned with her Hollywood circle than matters of spirituality. Regan begins having strange outbursts and starts referencing an invisible friend, “Captain Howdy.” What starts as odd behavior quickly grows out of control and Chris takes her daughter for help, seeking out the best medical doctors. After ruling out possible physical conditions, Regan’s dramatic behavior gets treated by mental health professionals. They have no answers for Regan’s condition and suggest exorcism as a last resort.

Chris is desperate for a solution and the secular woman seeks out a Catholic priest for help. Eventually she meets Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a priest trained in psychiatry. Reaching out to him for an examination, Karras begins to suspect that Regan has been possessed by something truly evil. The story is very careful to paint Karras as a modern skeptic despite his religious background, one of the film’s brilliant choices. Karras is struggling with his own issues, having doubts about his own faith. It makes for a potent thematic combination as the doubting priest has to confront a pure representation of evil in this demon-possessed girl.

An older priest is called in to help Father Karras with the exorcism, a Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Sydow had a long and distinguished film career but this might be his signature role. His character has relatively brief screen time but every second leaves a lasting impression. It is Merrin’s confrontation with the demon during the exorcism that elevates the film to magical heights, setting up the bittersweet conclusion.

Some classic movies get overhyped but The Exorcist is not one of them. Horror movies rarely get respect from mainstream critics but Friedkin’s brilliant handling of the material elevates it above the fray. This is a movie that simply can’t be missed, and a true landmark. Whether one prefers the unseen material added to the extended director’s cut or the original theatrical cut, its power to frighten is unmatched for receptive audiences.

Movie ★★★★★

Kids these days... @ 1:25:16

A fair assessment of the merits for this transfer are hard to separate from expectations. The transfer is a mixed bag from Warner, though in the end does not heavily affect the final outcome significantly. Is this the best one of cinema’s great masterpieces will ever look on home video? That is a highly suspect proposition. A better transfer could be created and probably will down the road, whenever WB feels the need to sell another format to us. Regular viewers will surely be pleased with how the film looks as it replicates the 2010 discs made for the digibook Blu-ray, but videophiles will definitely find fault with some of the minor digital processing used.

This edition includes a letter from director William Friedkin, which claims this is the best print ever available for The Exorcist. That statement is probably true given the advances in modern scanning tools. Friedkin further elaborates that both himself and cinematographer Owen Roizman supervised the color-timing of this new transfer. On that point, they succeeded in using a delicate touch to not alter anything too drastically, merely enhancing what was always there in the film negative. Most will be pleased with that aspect, as the film does show significant improvement in clarity and full grain structure over prior versions. Contrast is not overdone and flesh-tones remain healthy, without an excess warmth to the reds so common with modern color-timing. Roizman’s brilliant interplay of light and shadow is remarkably preserved in a completely faithful manner.

My complaints mostly reside in the area of suspected filtering and slight sharpening. The Exorcist has never been a razor-sharp film experience, as a slight softness was part of the original cinematography. Given the sometimes thick patina of grain on the original camera negative, it appears some level of digital noise reduction was employed throughout to lower its coarseness. In all fairness, filtering is mostly applied in a judicious manner at a uniformly low level. Only one or two scenes have occurrences of problems like frozen grain, or ripples of “swimming” grain.

On the other hand, textures look too clean and smooth in certain shots. Close-ups early in the film suffer the most from the effect, showing a loss of high-frequency information. Watch the skin on Father Merrin’s face in the desert for one example. DNR use is ultimately minimalist. Resolution is still quite good, likely owing to the 4K scan of the master done from pristine film elements.

Compression issues are really confined to the scene involving the actual exorcism and the few shots inside darkly-lit apartment rooms. The VC-1 encode holds up quite well until that confrontation at the exorcism, when it starts to slightly break down at the combination of fast action, dark interior lighting and murkiness. The compression encoder does a fantastic job given the limits of VC-1 at lower bitrates.

The Exorcist was never intended to be eye candy. The Blu-ray looks fine but a nagging thought reminds me that a better edition in terms of absolute picture fidelity and quality is possible. A newer transfer with less reliance on digital processing might source even more film-like fidelity from the 35mm negative.

Video ★★★★☆

The Exorcist has one of the most memorable and powerful audio experiences. Everyone above a certain age is aware of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells playing as its theme. Aside from the eerie score and music, the voice acting and sound design provided for Regan’s demon is classic Hollywood. The chilling voices and noises from the demon are as unnerving today as they were in 1973.

Warner has provided The Exorcist with a stellar 5.1 ES DTS-HD MA soundtrack, going above the usual 5.1 mix to add a sixth channel if you have the equipment. It was remastered from the original mix for surround when The Version You’ve Never Seen Before was released to theaters. Technically it is an amazing update for such a dated movie. A surprising amount of directionality and separation across the 6.1 channels makes for a fearsome experience sure to delight listeners.

Warner has included so many dubs in foreign languages and subtitles that it would difficult to list them all. Subtitles all display in a white font, including the following for the director’s cut: English (SDH), Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German (SDH), Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian (SDH), Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazilian), Romanian, Russian, Slovene, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin American), Swedish, Thai, Turkish.

Audio ★★★★☆

Warner Bros. has truly gone beyond the call of duty in this 40th Anniversary edition, spanning three complete BDs. It does duplicate the contents of the excellent 2010 digibook, containing both the director’s cut and the original theatrical cuts in their entirety with a plethora of special features for both versions. Owners of that set will focus their attention on the completely new special features exclusive to the third disc of this 40th Anniversary set. Most special features include a multitude of subtitle options, this set was clearly intended to serve a global audience.

It is packaged in a truly lavish slipbox, holding a normal Amaray BD case alongside a 40-page hardcover featuring excerpts from Friedkin’s memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.” Handsomely put together with select quotes and still photographs, it covers a number of topics from the director. A separate letter from William Friedkin is reproduced, thanking everyone for purchasing this edition which he calls the most complete yet. A UltraViolet digital copy is included, only redeemable on Flixster at the moment.

Disc 3

Behind The Scenes: Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (27:49 in HD) – An engaging, thoughtful documentary featuring William Peter Blatty as he goes back to the place where he wrote the novel. The second half interviews the author in Georgetown, as he walks the areas made so famous by the film. It is easily worth watching to get a better grasp of how Blatty approached the subject of demonic possession.

Featurette: Talk The Devil (19:50 in HD) – A vintage interview and discussion of Father Eugene Gallagher, shot in black and white. Gallagher was the man that first told Blatty about the real case of possession in St. Louis which inspired his novel. The interview was made after the film’s release, as the man discusses both Blatty as a student and the reaction to the film.

Disc 2 (Extended Director’s Cut)

Audio Commentary by William Friedkin – Just one of two Friedkin’s commentaries on this set. This is a strong, in-depth look at the extended cut by the director. He breaks down the things he did in the original cut and why, incorporating a wealth of production information.

Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist (30:03 in HD) – A lengthy documentary that covers a lot of ground, from cinematography to special effects. Linda Blair and several other cast members all participate. Cinematographer Owen Roizman elucidates his experiences in shooting the film.

The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then And Now (08:30 in HD) – This featurette has comments from William Peter Blatty and Friedkin on why Georgetown was necessary as a setting and the differences a few decades make.

Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist (09:52 in HD) – Friedkin and Blatty go over the differences between the two cuts. Friedkin admits the extended scenes were mostly at Blatty’s insistence.

2 Theatrical Trailers (02:01 in SD), 3 TV Spots (01:22 in SD), 2 Radio Spots (01:39)

Disc 1 (Original Theatrical Cut)

Director’s Introduction (02:15 in SD) – Friedkin makes a brief statement introducing his masterwork.

Audio Commentary by William Friedkin – This solo commentary covers a lot of wide-ranging information that will most likely only be of interest to hardcore fans.

Audio Commentary by William Peter Blatty – The writer gets extremely philosophical as he touches on the movie’s themes and ideas more than specific scene breakdowns. This is an interesting listening experience that is more thoughtful than most of the staid production tidbits one is used to hearing.

The Fear of God (77:09 in SD) – The excellent 1998 BBC documentary is a must-see affair for hardcore fans, examining the film from all angles. This strong look at all phases of the production from both cast and crew is one of the best of its kind.

Original Ending (01:42 in SD) – A deleted ending scene that acts as a coda to the story.

3 Theatrical Trailers (03:54 in SD), 4 TV Spots (03:10 in SD)

Interview With William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty (09:02 in SD) – A three-part interview that is congenial and has both men together, a rare treat.

Sketches & Storyboards (02:45 in SD) – Original storyboards and drawings.


Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Note: Since Warner has used the same video materials, screen shots from the 2009 Blu-ray release would be identical.