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Most convincing and frightening

I READ "The Exorcist" in one horrified gulp in high school and since then have gone back to it several times to be scared, entertained and moved by it. William Peter Blatty wrote a good horror book and William Friedkin made it into a great horror film. I saw it on the first day first show, when it first played in the Indian theatres in the 1970s. The audience I saw it with were shocked into silence. None of us had seen anything like it on screen.

Twenty years later, sometime in the early 1990s, "The Exorcist" had a re-run in India. This time the audience greeted it with catcalls and meows. Having grown up on splatter-fest movies like "The Evil Dead," "Braindead" and "Re-Animator", they found it slow going.

They didn't realise that this was the movie that had begun it all: the gross-out horror, the stunning make-up, the gore and the mind-blowing special effects. (What we can be grateful to, in the otherwise mediocre "Sixth Sense", is that its box office success returned the genre to quiet, eerie horror movies like "The Others").

Today, "The Exorcist's" climax alone (the exorcism itself) feels ferocious — you can see why it influenced the genre the way it did — but the rest of the movie feels almost contemplative, even arty!

A few years ago, it celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special digitally re-mastered edition. (Which, by the way, never made it to Indian theatres).

To coincide with the film's anniversary, BBC made a documentary on the making of "The Exorcist" called "The Fear of God." And less than a year ago it was released worldwide in a brand new version called "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen". (It is yet to come to our theatres).

So what's new in "The Version You've Never Seen"? It has a new beginning. It doesn't start anymore with the Iraq prologue but with a quiet night scene in Washington D.C.: you find yourself on M street, a breeze blows, a candle shivers in a nearby church casting shadows on the face of a bust of the Virgin Mary, and then you see what could be the lighted window of Regan. And then the light goes out. Fade into Iraq. It also contains some legendary outtakes that had been left out in the first version. In terms of both special effects and what is scary is the eerie Spider Walk of Regan, where she crawls down the stairs backwards. It was left out in the first version because Friedkin thought it was too weird in an already weird film.

What else? Well, there are more hospital scenes with more realistic looking clinical tests. A clever but simple addition (that looks like it could have been part of the original but wasn't) is the superimposition of the demon Pazzuz's face in various scenes, coyly planted in the background, giving you the creeps.

But perhaps the most important bit of recovered footage is the original ending from the book that was shot but not used. It has Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer planning to see a movie. Both are movie buffs and it is their way of remembering the brave and kind Father Karras who was also a movie buff and a friend to both. Kinderman wisecracks: ``I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.''

``By this end," says Blatty, ``I was suggesting that Karras lives on in Dyer.'' (Blatty produced, wrote and directed the little seen, underrated second sequel, "The Exorcist III", which is a truly eerie, scary, suspenseful horror gem).

The soundtrack and the music score have been spruced up: Jack Nietzche takes Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells theme and expands nicely on it. Producer-writer Blatty is particularly happy with this version (it really ought to be called `The Writer's Cut') because it restores what he thought at that time to be a crucial exchange of theological dialogue between Karras and Merrin, which the director had left out in the earlier two versions.

This scene occurs when both priests, exhausted from the exorcism, sit on the stairway. In the first version they sit silent. In this version Karras turns to Merrin and asks him the eternal question about the existence of evil. The dialogue reveals Karras's crisis of faith, the meaning of Regan's possession — why would God allow such a thing to happen to a little girl? Friedkin thought it too overstated and left it on the cutting room floor. He thought it slowed things down; he felt that at this point - cinematically - silence between the two priests said a lot more than a theological explanation. But Blatty thought it was important the audience heard Merrin's reply.

I'm usually both amused and outraged at the way some critics will read `things' into popular movies but here's one that had me wondering. Peter Biskind in his book, `Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,' says, ```The Exorcist' presents a male nightmare of female puberty.

Emergent female sexuality is equated with demon possession, and the men in the picture unite to abuse and torture Regan, in their efforts to return her to pre-sexual innocence... indeed `The Exorcist' is drenched in a kind of menstrual panic.''

Well, however you look at it, "The Exorcist" continues to be the most convincing and frightening horror movie ever made. Few horror movies are both.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com)
visuals by Netra Shyam

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