New censor reviews video ban on 1973 shocker `The Exorcist'

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The Independent Online
IT IS AN easy film title to guess in a game of charades; the shaking body, the revolving head, the projectile vomiting - it can only be The Exorcist.

For 14 years this is as close to your front room as William Friedkin's notorious 1970s horror movie has been allowed to come. It has never been shown on British television and in 1984 The British Board of Film Classification exercised its new control over video releases by ruling that the film's disturbing plot, with its tangle of satanic perversity and suppressed sexuality, was beyond the pale. A domestic video licence was refused and all existing tapes were withdrawn from video stores. The ruling has stood ever since.

But times have changed and so has the board of censorship. At last, more than 25 years after the screenplay was adapted from William Peter Blatty's bestselling book, The Exorcist is about to be judged anew.

A fortnight from now, when Andreas Whittam Smith, the board's new president, returns from his holiday in France, he will sit down in the BBFC viewing suite and prepare to make a fresh decision. It is not a moment he is looking forward to. "I have just decided it is time for the board to look at it again," he told the Independent on Sunday. "But it is not the kind of film I would normally watch and it might well be that the board's current ruling will stand."

Mr Whittam Smith explained that he had followed the debate surrounding the film and that he would assess its merits on two counts. Will it cause any predictable harm to younger viewers? And is it likely to incite any harm in society at large?

"From what I understand, it is the first category that is likely to be relevant in this case, but I think I would be falling short of my duties if I did not review the decision on this film."

Fans of the The Exorcist are likely to be thrilled by the prospect of a new verdict because they have only been able to see it at infrequent late-night cinema screenings. The problem was that James Ferman, the man who has acted as Britain's film censor for 23 years and who leaves his post this December, is known to dislike the movie and fears that its powerful imagery might upset young female viewers who identify with the character of Regan, the 12-year-old girl at the centre of the story.

In a recent BBC documentary about the film, The Fear of God, he said: "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."

Mr Ferman's protective stance may sound outdated, but it is nothing compared to the reaction to the film at its 1974 British release. Newspaper headlines dubbed it "sickening, gruesome" and "hateful". Several churches tried to ban it, protesters held vigils outside cinemas and audiences walked out in disgust.

The owners of the film, Warners, have intermittently asked the censors to reconsider but have been rebuffed. In the early 1990s it looked as if the video ban would be lifted, but there was concern over ritual satanic abuse, and Warners shelved its plans.

Warners instead has used the controversy to marketing advantage and is staging a big cinema re-release on 30 October in the hope it will ride the wave of post-modern popularity surrounding the horror film genre, which has followed the success of films such as Scream.

t The BBFC is to endorse the view that violence on screen can provoke aggressive children into committing further acts of violence, writes Keith Nuthall.

Its opinion is contained in its annual report for 1997-8, due to be published on Wednesday.

The comments build on research carried out last year by academics from Birmingham University, including Dr (now Professor) Kevin Browne. The research concluded that although there was no proof that video violence could turn a child towards a life of crime, there was evidence that it could make youngsters from a violent background more vicious.

The report says: "Dr Browne concluded that viewing violent films can reinforce distorted perceptions about the usefulness of violence in resolving conflict and responding to provocation.

"This confirms American research which indicated that frequent exposure to media violence was not by itself predictive of criminal behaviour, but that the interaction of media violence and family violence was a more reliable predictor.

"What seems to happen is that children who are the victims of parental violence before the age of five have those lessons reinforced later on in childhood by the frequent watching of violent films and television."