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Synapse Films presents
"We must know evil to be able to fight it."
DVD ReviewIn contrast to the foul-mouthed, pea-soup puking demonic possession of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973), Jess Franco's infamous satanic trip Exorcism (1974) plays almost like a documentary. Released just a year after the William Friedkin film, Exorcism is like a counterbalance to the whole demon-possession genre, with the true evil here being represented by the singularity of an all-consuming, frothing religious fervor. The basis of Franco's film is actually far more terrifying than any bed-shaking devil could ever be, because it shows that the real darkness can often lie within those who are supposed to be the most holy.
The film has been known by a number of different titles over the years, and just about as many hastily edited versions, too. Exorcism was released in the U.S. under the slightly misleading title of Demoniac, while much of the rest of the world knew it at times as Exorcisme et Messes Noires, El Sádico de Notre-Dame, or even the lurid Sexorcismes. With this DVD release by Synapse, Franco's film has been carefully restored from a number of surviving prints into what is likely to be the definitive version, considering the film's age.
It's odd that with a title as eerily genre-tinged as Exorcism, that the only demon present is defrocked priest Paul Vogel (played by Franco, here billed as Jess Franck). The religious zealotry of Vogel, which borders on what you might call a wee bit obsessive, is that he considers himself "the sword of the Lord" which entitles him to take the lives of those he believes are on the path to Hell. He contributes fiction, filled with sex and murder, to a kinky S&M publication called "The Dagger and Garter," openly admitting to the editor that the stories are based on fact. When Vogel learns of a group who dabble in staged Black Masses for a group of even kinkier wealthy weirdos, he takes it upon himself to save them (re: kill them). It's more than a little ironic that his method of "saving" generally involves its own dose of bondage and organ removal.
Franco's pacing is uneven at times, with some plot points getting extended screen time, while others get nary a chance to develop. The Black Mass sequences are really nothing more than soft-core lesbian bondage romps, and Franco allows the camera to linger longer on the action than one would expect. Some of the scenes go on at great length, as do the prelude-to-sex scenes in the apartment of two Black Mass participants, uber-hot Anna (Lina Romay) and Rose (Lynn Monteil). A massive orgy erupts at one of the Masses, and it too seems to go on and on. When Exorcism suddenly shifts into the film's out of place detective mode in the final act, it almost seems as Franco was told to wrap it up , and wrap it up quick.
A lot of the production values are noticeably cheap (do those guns sound like they're firing caps?), and the acting is often amateurishly flat (though that is probably due in large part to the English dub), even for a genre film. Franco, with his vacant, heavy-lidded stare, is actually the best of the lot as the murderous priest; he has that faraway deranged look down pat here, and when he stares longingly in Anna's window, it's easy to imagine the twisted machinations going on inside his mind.
However limited the plot range and often mediocre English dub may be, the film is framed by Franco's inherent skill as a director to build tension and overall uncomfortableness through a series of often dark and disturbing images, both staged and "real." I imagine a lot of people, weaned on more sophisticated satanic thrillers, might look at Exorcism today and proclaim Franco a hack; this might not be that surprising when one considers that at a casual glance the bulk of the film is really nothing more than the slightly predictable formula of nudity and murder. The naysayers may not realize that historically this is an important genre film in not just Franco's career, but in the entire twisted school of filmmaking that he came from.
This is a B-movie after all, and even though it loses steams somewhat during the seemingly rushed climax, Franco's Exorcism remains arguably his most notorious work, and this fine release by Synapse is a well-packaged special edition.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, this Synapse release of Exorcism should no doubt stand as the definitive edition. Using a number of rare prints, Eurocine (the film's original producers) was able to assemble this print from the mind-numbing number of so-called alternate versions that have been available over the years, and as such, there are moments when there are a few brief jumps or noticeable color shifts. Fleshtones, especially during the numerous nude scenes, remain consistent and look as natural as a 1974 Italian horror film can look.
This is not a flawless transfer by any means, but it certainly represents the most complete U.S. release of Exorcism to date. Image transfer imperfections, when compared to the overall solid restoration, are exceedingly minor in comparison.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: A no-frills English dub mono transfer has a minimum of hiss or crackle, and provides a generally clean reproduction of dialogue on this 1974 satanic thriller.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jess Franco, Kevin Collins
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Listening to Jess Franco is not unlike listening to Brad Pitt's Mickey character from Snatch, in that much of what he says sounds like so much unintelligible mumbling, with only fragments of discernible words. The good news is that One Shot Productions' Kevin Collins acts as a moderator of sorts, and he does a fair job of often reiterating what Franco has just said. You really have to listen close, but it is possible to lock in on Franco's ultra thick accent and follow his thought stream. Much of the comments center on salient production morsels, including a brief talk about Franco's religious upbringing and how he knew priests who were as "illuminated" as was his character of Vogel. I think it's great that Synapse landed a commentary from Franco, considering how significant Exorcism was in his career; I just wish the man was a little easier to understand.
Alternate "Clothed" Opening (04m:05s)
A tamer (at least in terms of nudity) sequence that was used in some prints of the film. It doesn't vary much, if at all, and still features the mock Black Mass, with the only difference being that the girls are semi-clothed.
This is a nondescript set of 20 bright color stills, as well as a couple of promotional posters.
Reversible Double-Sided Cover Art
I like this option, which gives you the chance to choose the cover art. The cover insert is two-sided, so if you don't like the stark black background with white text (see above), you can flip it over to change to a more stylized image of Lina Romay, a skull and huge cross.
As a hidden bonus Synapse has included a panel interview with Jess Franco and Lina Romay, along with One Shot's Kevin Collins, recorded at some filmcon in Chicago in September, 2000. Entitled Jess Franco And Lina Romay (18m:31s), this segment is plagued by not only mediocre audio, but by Franco's thick-as-mud accent, so you have to listen carefully. If you do, though, you will be rewarded with a few good anecdotes from Franco on this easter egg, to say nothing of the humbling sight of seeing Lina Romay as a middle-aged woman.
Tim Lucas, co-author of The Films of Jess Franco, has written a detailed, two-page history of the film, which covers its various incarnations. A widescreen trailer for Exorcism, in it's original U.S. guise as Demoniac, is also included.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsSynapse has assembled what is certainly the finest DVD edition of Jess Franco's infamous satanic classic, which over its life has been edited into at least three alternate versions. Mixing equal parts of sex, bondage, Black Mass, and one hell of a generally creepy vibe, Franco's film still holds up surprisingly well today. The acting is typical stiff B-movie caliber, and some of the minor plot points are nothing short of ridiculous, but Franco's directorial skills of presentation and shot composition were really at their peak here.
This is a must for genre fans. Recommended.
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