Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil



William Friedkin’s 1973 genre masterpiece The Exorcist is, by any measure, a remarkable film, and the story of what happened between it’s theatrical release and it’s arrival on DVD is worth recounting here, if only for the benefit of the generations who have never known a time where videotape wasn’t as commonplace as cornflakes.

It’s a popular misconception that the film was never officially available in the UK prior to its DVD debut on the 25th of October, 1999. In fact the film was briefly released on video in the early 1980s. At that time home video was in its infancy. Some companies, including Warner Home Video, refused to sell their tapes to the rental libraries, opting to hire them out instead (a hangover from the days when film societies would rent film prints). If a film was popular, the company would get more revenue, because the library would hold onto it longer. Before the sell-through market took off in the early 90s fans could only buy copies of their favourite movies if they were willing to pay what a rental library would be charged by their supplier (typically about Ł40), or if a copy was being sold off as surplus ex-rental stock. Because of Warner’s restriction, copies of The Exorcist rarely passed into the hands of collectors.

Renting out a copy of the film effectively became illegal after a media frenzy about “video nasties” led to the introduction of the 1984 Video Recordings Act. It became an offence to offer any film without a new home video certificate. Hundreds of titles effectively vanished overnight, often simply because the company that owned the rights weren’t willing - or able! - to pay for a film (which probably wasn’t earning them any money, anyway) to be re-certificated. Even if a distributor did want to re-certificate a film like The Exorcist, the prevailing political climate was against it. So, The Exorcist became a staple title for repertory cinemas (who were still able to screen it, because it had been certificated for theatrical release), and became a popular title on the bootleg video market.

Although it was officially denied by all parties, there was a steady communication between the BBFC and Warner Home Video about releasing the film on the increasingly lucrative sell-through market for more than a decade. The cat and mouse game went something like this: Warner Brothers would occasionally informally enquire whether a home video might be possible. The BBFC would suggest that it might be possible to release it if cuts could be made. This, understandably, was something that wouldn’t have been popular with Warner’s marketing department, who obviously wanted to be able to advertise it as uncut. There were also rumours that Friedkin still had enough clout to veto a bowdlerized version. Warner would quietly withdraw, and try again another day. The film became something of a bęte noire for the Board's chief censor James Ferman, who was of the opinion that the film couldn’t even be released in an edited version.

The BBFC’s hand was eventually forced by Warner’s decision to give the film a theatrical re-release to celebrate its 25th anniversary (a modest revival with a restored version had already been a hit in the US). Having weathered the minor protests about the theatrical release, and with Ferman no longer at the helm, it suddenly seemed probable that the BBFC would finally bow to commercial pressure and allow the film to be released on video.

The Board finally passed The Exorcist for video without cuts, with an 18 certificate on 25 February, 1999. In a frank statement the BBFC admitted that there was little - if any - hard evidence to support the position it had maintained for almost fifteen years. It acknowledged that the film’s recent theatrical re-release had passed without incident, and concluded that “The Exorcist, while still a powerful and compelling work, no longer has the same impact as it did 25 years ago. Film technique and special effects have moved on a long way since then, and audiences - including (or especially) teenagers brought up on a range of modern multi- media output - are less likely to be affected. Correspondingly, the potential of The Exorcist to disturb a small, impressionable minority must be significantly diminished”.

Noting that the film had been widely available in other European territories, (including Sweden, where it carries a certificate which would allow a 14 year old to see it), the BBFC also defended their decision by citing Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which impose a duty to preserve freedom of expression, as long as by doing so the health or morals of a country can be maintained, and that any disorder or crime is prevented. The BBFC also noted that the film’s notoriety would possibly make it a target for curious under-age viewers, but that its reputation would make “parents and guardians” more vigilant.

DVD REVIEW:  The Exorcist - 25th Anniversary Edition

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