Film: The Exorcist: it's back and it's a scream

The horror that turned heads in '74 has been exhumed from movie hell. Chris Darke exorcises its troubled past, while Catherine Von Ruhland gives it her blessing
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The Independent Culture
IN 1974, when The Exorcist was first released in the UK, sections of the British press were vehement in their disgusted dismissals: "The Devil take this contrived screen disgrace", "Sickening, gruesome, hateful", ran the headlines.

Twenty-five years on, the re-release of director William Friedkin's classic supernatural chiller arrives at a key moment in the debate on film and video censorship in Britain. While audiences in Scotland can see the film in cinemas from this Friday - with English cinemagoers having to wait for the projected big screen re-release scheduled for Hallowe'en - getting hold of a video copy of The Exorcist is another matter altogether.

For all the media furore the film provoked on its original release, it was passed uncut for cinema release and, in 1980, became one of Warner Bros' first home video releases in the UK. So what happened? To explore the fate of The Exorcist on video is to delve into the inconsistent and at times downright confusing machinations of the British Board of Film Classification.

It was the draconian Video Recordings Act of 1984 that made the BBFC responsible for video as well as films. The film critic Mark Kermode, who presented the recent BBC documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of `The Exorcist', and has written a BFI monograph on the film, explains: "The movie was withdrawn from video stores in 1986 and between then and now, they [the BBFC] have been asked if Warners could resubmit and the response has been, `Not now, not yet. We're not ready for it.' Nobody thought that the waiting would take this long."

Kermode insists: "This is called banning a film. [James] Ferman [secretary of the BBFC] has let it be known that if it was submitted it would not be passed."

However, James Ferman is due to leave the BBFC by the end of this year, having been in place since 1975, and the new president, Andreas Whittam Smith, is seen by some as promising a less restrictive attitude to censorship, something fuelled by recent BBFC decisions to allow video certification for the controversial films Crash and Kissed.

In Kermode's BBC documentary, Ferman explained the reasons behind his resistance to certificating The Exorcist for release on vid3eo. "The problem with The Exorcist is not that it's a bad film but that it's a very good film. It's one of the most powerful films ever made, and it is its power that's the problem on video. The fact is that you're importing it into children's homes, and probably into children's bedrooms, because now more than 50 per cent of children in Britain have TVs in their bedrooms and many of them have a video as well."

It's an argument that Kermode and many other anti-censorship campaigners have little time for.

In an open letter to The Observer, Kermode wrote: "It has been my experience that younger viewers are simply not interested in a movie which, for at least half of its running time, features worried parents and sombre priests anguishing in darkened corridors about loss, remorse, damnation and salvation. Even the celebrated special effects look dated to a generation raised on Jurassic Park and Titanic.

A spokesperson at Warners Video said that they are "having meetings with the BBFC at the moment" about whether the film can be now certificated. Given the importance of video sales to the commercial viability of film releases, Warners may find themselves the unlikely corporate champions of a whole new chapter in the history of censorship and certification.