The Theatrical Or Extended Cut of The Exorcist? What to Watch

By Brian Robert Oliver

It’s officially Halloween season and that means it’s time to sit down, kill the lights, and scare the crap out of yourself. You want to watch a scary movie. No, you want to watch the scariest movie of all time. Well, though it’s debatable, many people consider The Exorcist the scariest movie ever made, and even if it’s not the scariest movie ever made, it’s a fantastic film. So, you say “let’s do it! Let’s watch The Exorcist!”

BUT! there seems to be a problem. Do you watch the theatrical version of the film, or the extended director’s cut? Well, you’ve come to the right place because I have the answer for you. The answer is: it depends upon whether or not you’ve ever seen it, haven’t seen it in a long time or have recently watched it. And if you’re wondering who would watch a movie and then immediately rewatch it then you don’t know fans of The Exorcist.

Which is Better? Theatrical or Extended Cut of The Exorcist?

Truthfully, this is a silly article. The original theatrical cut of The Exorcist is a masterpiece and the Extended Director’s cut of The Exorcist is also a masterpiece. In fact, aside from a few alterations in the edit and a couple extra shots, it’s the same damn movie. However, in my opinion they are both a must see for both newbies and horror film veterans alike. Here’s the skinny; the original theatrical cut is the more cohesive film. It masterfully builds tension and increases the horror as the film progresses. It’s the film that became a sensational classic long before the “version you’ve never seen before” was released. Legendary stories were told about people puking in the aisles and passing out. However, what would those stories had been had those originally audience members seen the spider walk scene?

The spider walk scene is a great sequence. So great that they used that shot to sell the version of the film “that you’ve never seen before”. However, it was cut from the theatrical version because it disrupts the film’s trajectory. Still, the extended cut tells a more nuanced story between Chris, the mother, and Regan, the possessed daughter. It adds in layers to the relationship. Themes such as guilt and neglect are hinted at, giving it a depth not seen in the previous version. Of course, with the added scenes of the new edit, it also extends the absence of the title character, who appears in the prologue, but does not reappear until the third act.

The Original Theatrical Version is Iconic

Who really knows for sure if theaters were full of puking teenagers passed out in their seats when The Exorcist premiered. Of course, the infamous Crucifix Scene was probably something no one was prepared to see at the time, but the legends seem a tad hyperbolic. Aside from that, this is a seriously good movie. It is filmed as thoughtful as it is beautiful in its terror. Though the pacing is slow, it moves with a purpose and it is sure of itself.

The true secret of The Exorcist is how it carefully and methodically raises the stakes. It ups the ante with every shocking turn of events. William Friedkin, the director, paints the picture of a sweet, innocent girl, and then slowly turns her into the devil. In one scene she explains to her mother a beautiful horse she saw on a walk. About 45 minutes later we see her raping herself with a crucifix in the aforementioned Crucifix Scene.

The OG Cut Favors The Crucifix Scene

The theatrical cut is all about showing, not telling. Regan’s innocence is proven, and the love between her and Chris is proven. The chemistry between the two is realistic. Then, slowly we begin to see the subtle changes in Regan. She pisses on the floor at her mother’s party. Then we begin to see there is something evil at play and it has its sight set on the innocent girl. Eventually the demon takes over, and the more power it gets the more heinous its actions are. Regan’s appearance is increasingly more hideous and her behavior more devilish. This is the brilliance of The Exorcist; the pace is so steady and the possession of Regan is so chronological that we believe this is happening. Nothing is sudden but every disgusting and horrific thing Regan does, she eventually outdoes herself again and again. These are just the facts.

The Extended Cut has the Spider Walk Scene

Here is another fact: The spider walk scene is awesome. So, if it is so awesome, why isn’t it in the original theatrical cut? This goes back to the secret of the film’s brilliance. Yes, the spider crawl scene is flat out terrifying, but it jumps the gun. First we learn that Burke Dennings is dead, then we see Regan crawl down the steps upside down like a spider. It is so good that it prematurely raises the stakes. As good as the crucifix scene is, this undercuts it. The orchestra of The Exorcist depends on the rise and fall of each of Pazuzu’s evil developments in Regan’s body. It is hard to argue that the crucifix scene is not a crescendo, or high point in the second act. It is the moment that Chris realizes she can’t help her daughter.

The spider crawl scene, or sequence, shows us an early peak that takes away from the second act’s high point, or its most important visual beat. For the sake of the original version, it is no wonder why this awesome sequence was cut from the final film.

The Extended Cut Focuses on Chris and Regan

However, that’s not to say that the extended director’s cut is inferior. For example, the extended cut paints a more nuanced picture of the relationship between Chris and Regan. Regan’s behavioral changes are extended for a longer period of time. In the re-edit, we see that Chris brings her daughter to the doctor before she is seen pissing on the floor at the party. Then, Regan is cut from the party sequence where she is seen acting normally and actively talking with people at the soiree. This adds a layer of neglect on the part of Chris and adds to the guilt she might have over favoring her career over being a mom. When Regan appears at the after party sequence and pees on the floor, it appears as though Regan had been up in her room the whole time as Chris was having fun.

While the extended cut has this rich element, ultimately, it is probably not too important to the story overall. Besides, it is not the guilt of Chris that is important, but that of Father Karras. Also, what really separates The Exorcist from movies these days is that is includes a prologue. We are introduced to Father Merrin, the exorcist. The opening sequence does not directly tie into the main story of either Chris/Regan nor the story of Father Karras. Since Father Merrin’s role in the overall story is not needed until the third act, his character goes missing after the prologue. In the extended cut, even more time is added to that absence.

Watch the Theatrical Version First, Then Watch the Extended

So, if you were to ask me which version of The Exorcist I prefer, then I have two different answers. While I do favor the theatrical cut, I very much adore the director’s version. However, if you have never seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while then the answer is clear; watch the theatrical version. The careful, thoughtful pacing and tight edit make for an amazing cinematic experience where each horror is only topped by the next horrific sequence. Then, as soon as you can, watch the extended version. Though it does not tell as smooth a story, it is worth it for the added thematic elements as well as the spider crawl scene.

Brian Robert Oliver
I love horror films. From time to time I'll make a short horror film or I might write about something horror related.

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