Still Scary After All These Years

This ain’t your daddy’s version of “The Exorcist.” The most acclaimed and artfully done horror film is returning to U.S. cinemas on Friday, 27 years after its original release. With a full 11 minutes of never-before-seen footage, plus a fully reworked stereo soundtrack (with additional music and notched-up sound effects), “The Exorcist” feels, in many ways, just as contemporary today as when it was released (except maybe for the big lapels, sideburns and the slow pacing).

This isn’t the “director’s cut” of the film, but rather the “writer’s cut.” William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay (based on his novel), has been lobbying ever since “The Exorcist” first came out to replace a handful of scenes that director William Friedkin filmed but edited out of the picture. (Read’s accompanying interview with William Friedkin.)

While most of these additions are either minor (a short snippet of dialogue) or low-key (new noises in the attic, a ghostly shadow on the wall), there are several major changes that help to explain some of the enduring mysteries of the film.

Here’s a brief rundown of the major scenes that now appear, for the first time, in “The Exorcist.”

The “Spider-Walk” Scene: This deleted scene, which lasts only a few seconds, is the stuff of movie legend. In one of the most conventional “shock value”-type scenes filmed for “The Exorcist,” Regan (Linda Blair) startles her mother and housekeeper by scampering down the stairs upside-down in a weird sort of insect crawl. Originally, director Friedkin opted to cut this scene out simply because it didn’t look convincing; the effect was created by hanging Blair‘s stunt double on wires and gliding her down the stairs, but the wires were slightly visible and it was apparent that Regan wasn’t crawling under her own power. For the new version, Friedkin used computer-generated imaging to matte out the pesky wires and to otherwise clean up the imperfect effects work. Then he replaced this footage (it occurs, startlingly, at the end of the scene wherein Regan’s mom learns of Burke’s mysterious death). He also judiciously edited it for maximum effect, cutting out the tail end of the sequence wherein Regan’s devilish (and very rubbery) tongue flicks out of her mouth.

The Doctor’s Office: One of the great mysteries (or imperfections, if you prefer) of the original cut of “The Exorcist” was that there was very little foreshadowing of Regan’s demonic possession. Except for her fascination with a Ouija board, there was nothing to suggest a connection to the supernatural. In fact, there was a gaping hole in the story. After the infamous “party scene,” wherein Regan wanders into the room and tells an astronaut that he’s going to “die up there” on the moon, Chris puts her daughter to bed and tells her not to worry. That her weird, unexplainable behavior is caused by nerves, just like the doctor said. But never before had the movie shown or mentioned anything about a visit to the doctor. The new version of “The Exorcist” fixed that gap by replacing an entire scene that Friedkin originally filmed yet deleted because he felt it too expository.

The Moment of Truth: Near the end of the film, after Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) have completed Round One of the exorcism, the two priests sit outside Regan’s bedroom, gathering strength to continue the climactic ritual. In the original cut, two men were simply seen sitting on the stairs, and the implication was that they were simply collecting their physical strength. The new version restores a brief conversation between the two, wherein Karras asks the question that all of us watching the question are also asking: “Why her? Why would the devil possess this little girl.” Father Merrin doesn’t exactly know, except to say that it’s the ultimate test of faith, a gambit by the devil designed to erode everyone’s faith in God.