“The Exorcist” 4K UHD release may not be pretty on the outside but delivers in updated sound.

What is to be said about the recently late, great William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (or in the case of the actual title shown at the beginning of the film, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, if you want to get technical about it) that hasn’t been written about, speculated on, and critically appraised ad infinitum by writers more talented and intelligent than I? Perhaps the most infamously studied horror film of all time, Friedkin’s 1973 possession drama is having a big year, celebrating its 50th anniversary, as well as celebrating the release of the Blumhouse legacy sequel The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green (if it’s worth celebrating at all…it has Ann Dowd though, so it can’t be all bad). So, naturally, Warner Bros., lacking distribution rights to The Exorcist: Believer, had to get in on the action somehow with a 50th Anniversary home media release with its 4K Ultra HD debut just two weeks ahead of The Exorcist: Believer’s drop into theaters. The Exorcist has had jam-packed home media releases in the past. But with polarizing results regarding the integrity of its remasters, can the 4K transfer of perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time hold weight?

Both the Theatrical Cut and the Extended Director’s Cut are included in this 4K Blu-ray release, each on separate discs. For reference, I am reviewing the Theatrical Cut of the film, as I believe it to be the superior cut. Yes, we lose the spider walk scene, but we gain such better pacing (as well as a better ending) in the process. Though, I did pop the Director’s Cut in to see if there were any differences seen in the video/audio quality, particularly in the scenes not included in the Theatrical Cut, to which there was not.

It’s a tale as old as time, but let’s dig into it anyway.

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress shooting a film in the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C.. While shooting across the country from her Los Angeles home, she has rented a home where she, her hired help, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) live. When Regan begins to exhibit increasingly strange behaviors such as her bed shaking violently, episodes of dissociation, and aggressive tendencies, Chris becomes desperate to get to the bottom of her daughter’s affliction. When an army of doctors and psychiatrists cannot determine the cause of Regan’s behavior after rigorous, brutal testing, Chris turns to her last resort, local psychiatrist and Catholic Priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), to ask for an exorcism. While skeptical at first, Regan’s increasingly frightening and violent episodes begin to take shape as legitimate possession in the eyes of the church, and an exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), is called in to help exorcize the demon from young Regan. What begins as a standard, if uncommon, ritual spins out of control into something even the most hardened would be weakened by.

There are two things that plague The Exorcist these days from a societal standpoint. Since the film is often regarded with such high praise as one of the scariest films of all time, contrarianism is at an all-time high with a title such as this, particularly when it comes to how scary, or not scary, a viewer can claim the film to be. Even I was once this person, who at age 17, proclaimed the film to be “not all that scary” and acted above it. At 27, more matured and beaten down from the world, able to look past the scary part of the film being Regan herself and more of the emotional toll that Regan’s suffering takes on those around her, I know now just how damned scary this whole thing is. Secondly, since the film was so influential in the horror sphere, the well has been significantly dampened with cheap knockoffs of the film that, while some are quite good (Both Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 film Requiem and Scott Derrickson’s 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose are the closest winners to actually capturing the dread that The Exorcist carried, albeit in two different ways), most have helped sour the taste of exorcism films into something that is scoffed upon as “less than” now that everyone and their mother gets an exorcism film like it’s a car being handed out at The Oprah Winfrey Show. How can a film like The Exorcist feel special when you also have The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), Incarnate (2016), Prey for the Devil (2022), The Vatican Tapes (2015), The Devil Inside (2012), The Pope’s Exorcist (2023), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Possession (2012), Stigmata (1999), The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018), The Unborn (2009), all of The Conjuring films, and even all the sequels and prequels to The Exorcist itself, none of which have been good aside from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990)? It’s hard to understand the power that a film like The Exorcist carries when the “brand,” that was never even intended to be a thing in the first place, has been diluted in such a way.

The 4K transfer included with The Exorcist doesn’t make it a pretty film by any stretch of the imagination (doing so would betray the film’s core style), but it does clean things up a considerable degree to polish the 50-year-old film without scrubbing away all the texture that gives something that is 50 its immense charm. A healthy amount of film grain is mostly kept intact, and the implementation of HDR assists the film’s darker sequences (the ones that 99% of viewers come specifically for) a rich depth, contrasted nicely by the occasional pops of light in between. Some scenes definitely look a bit more polished than others, particularly that of the opening moments of the Iraq sequence early in the film, and when leading into the less heavily scrubbed footage as the film plays out, this can be a bit jarring going back and forth. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does lend a bit of an inconsistent tone to the transfer. Overall, it’s not a show-stopper that will sell 4K TV’s at Best Buy, as no one expected it to be, but I imagine those who care will be pleased with their new best way to watch this film.

On the audio front, things are even more impressive with a boisterous, but wonderfully balanced Dolby Atmos track included with both the Theatrical and Director’s Cut of the film, as well as a much appreciated DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track included in the Theatrical Cut of the film. What I love so dearly about The Exorcist is while, yes, there are moments of immense power in its soundscape, much of the film, including the iconic exorcism sequence in the film’s final act, relish in a haunting sense of quiet, never undercut by a manipulative score or anything of the like, mainly bolstered by a low-frequency hum that lends the film an even more uncanny, unsettling feeling to it than it would’ve had in complete silence. Still, this gives the Atmos track a considerable amount of space to breathe in the object-based sound design here, with atmospherics and surrounds being used subtly, but incredibly effectively in execution. As for the 2.0 track included in the Theatrical Cut, though it obviously lacks the bassy power and surrounds used in the Atmos track, it still provides a lovely, clean, and authentic representation of the film’s original 1973 mono track and is a wonderful addition not included in any HD release of the film until now.

For such a grand anniversary of such a grand film in the Warner Bros. canon, you would imagine that they would go all out with the film’s home media release celebrating the occasion, much like they did with the impressive 40th anniversary release that I own on Blu-ray, and the result of that assumption is…complicated to say the least. We must remember that we are dealing with David Zaslav’s Warner Bros. here and that nothing is sacred or off-limits for the now seemingly sociopathic studio celebrating its own 100th (and perhaps last?) anniversary this year. First off, this release comes with absolutely atrocious cover art that has been unnecessarily trifled with. A simple take on a simple, iconic image like The Exorcist’s poster is would’ve more than sufficed, or an equally subdued take like the 40th Anniversary edition included. But no, we have to get…this. The Best Buy exclusive steelbook is less egregious, but still lacking in comparison to what has been done with the cover art in the past. And apart from the two commentaries, one with director William Friedkin, the other with writer William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist III), as well as an introduction to the film from Friedkin included with the Theatrical Cut, plus another commentary with Friedkin included with the Director’s Cut, all other special features once included with home media releases of The Exorcist have been excised (or exorcised, in this case) to only be included with the Digital Copy included with the release, only visible to see with the Movies Anywhere app. I find this to be a cheap cop out, particularly when said special features were included on a separate Blu-ray disc in earlier editions of the film, and could have easily been included here without any changes. I do not count this as actual included features since you cannot get them natively on the disc, which makes the actual supplemental features included in the 50th Anniversary release, and debut in the Ultra HD format incredibly disappointing.

The Exorcist is a legendary film that only gets better with age (both the film’s age, as well as my own age), and whatever has gone on in its own franchise, and the genre of films it has inspired since is frankly, none of its fucking business. Again, I am probably near the bottom of the totem pole for eloquent voices in describing why The Exorcist is so spectacular as both a horror film and a brutally emotional drama (how Ellen Burstyn lost Best Actress that year will forever be a mystery to me that will follow me to my grave), but I’m sure most readers worth 1% of their salt already know that. Warner Bros.’s 50th Anniversary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release contains a nice 4K remaster of the film, a wonderfully well-rounded Dolby Atmos, and very welcomed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track on the Theatrical Cut, but is plagued heavily with the very Warner Bros. move of cover art so awful that it almost ruins the whole release, even if it had special features, but lucky for the cover art, Warner Bros. didn’t even bother to include those on the disc unless you utilize the digital copy specifically on the Movies Anywhere app. Still, it’s a piece of cinema history that is an easy recommendation for the new A/V transfer of the spectacular film at its core alone.

The Exorcist Legacy Special Features:

4K UHD Theatrical Edition:

  • Introduction by William Friedkin
  • Commentary by William Friedkin
  • Commentary by William Peter Blatty with Special Sound Effects

Digital Theatrical Edition:

  • Commentary by William Friedkin
  • Commentary by William Peter Blatty with Special Sound Effects Tests
  • Introduction by William Friedkin
  • “The Fear of God: 25 Years of the Exorcist”
  • Original Ending
  • William Peter Blatty Interviews
    • “The Original Cut”
    • “Stairway to Heaven”
    • “The Final Reckoning”
  • “Sketches & Storyboards”
  • TV Spots
    • “Beyond Comprehension”
    • “You Too Can See the Exorcist”
    • “Between Science & Superstition”
    • “The Movie You’ve Been Waiting For”
    • “Nobody Expected It”
    • “Life Had Been Good”
  • Trailers
    • “Nobody Expected It”
    • “Beyond Comprehension”
    • “Flash Image”

4K UHD Extended Director’s Cut:

  • Commentary by William Friedkin

Digital Extended Director’s Cut:

  • Commentary by William Friedkin
  • “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist”
  • “Talk of the Devil”
  • “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist”
  • “The Exorcist Locations: Georgetown Then and Now”
  • “Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of The Exorcist”
  • Radio Spots
    • “The Devil Himself”
    • “Our Deepest Fears”
  • TV Spots
    • “Most Electrifying”
    • “Scariest Ever”
    • “Returns”
    • “Never Seen”
  • Trailers
    • “The Version You’ve Never Seen”
    • “Our Deepest Fears”

Available on 4K UHD and digital September 19th, 2023.

For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures The Exorcist webpage.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.


Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming

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