William Friedkin's seminal horror classic The Exorcist, adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, was for many years unavailable on video in the United Kingdom. Chances are if you were to ask someone on the street in Britain about
The Exorcist, they'd say it was banned for many years. Strictly speaking, that is not the case. A film that is officially banned will be noted by the British Board of Film Classification in their database with a Rejected entry, but running a
search for The Exorcist on their website will yield no such result. What you will see is a formal classification for a cinema release in early 1974 and a rather incongruous gap between that entry and the very first officially-classified home
video classification in 1999. Why this large gap? What happened to The Exorcist between its original theatrical release and a home video release some quarter of a century later?
Liberal spirits at the MPAA for theatrical release
Director William Friedkin.
Surprised at the leniency of the MPAA.
For its original theatrical release in the United States, the MPAA granted The Exorcist an uncut R rating; a move which, in this largely liberal modern age, may appear to be somewhat surprising for a largely Christian nation. After all, this is a
film which features a preteen girl masturbating with a crucifix whilst shouting, "Let Jesus fuck you" . In hindsight, Friedkin is surprised by the leniency granted to him by the MPAA, as he recounted at the Dallas Film Festival
"The Exorcist today would be rated NC-17. There aren't enough 'X's in the alphabet for what The Exorcist would be rated today. In those days, the ratings board was very liberal and they were not out to censor films, just warn people about
content, so parents could decide if they wanted their children to see them or not. And that's all the ratings board should do. But they go far beyond that today and they censor films."
Liberal spirits at the BBFC for theatrical release
Stephen Murphy, Secretary of the BBFC 1971-75.
Granted a surprisingly lenient uncut X rating.
The film went on to be a huge success but it was not without some controversy, with reports in the States of cinemagoers allegedly fainting and suffering heart attacks in some theatres. Over in Britain, The Exorcist was submitted for a BBFC
classification early in 1974 during the tenure of secretary Stephen Murphy. As we've discussed in previous editions of the series, ground-breaking films like Straw Dogs were causing trouble with the BBFC during the 1970s, but surprisingly
Murphy quickly passed The Exorcist uncut with an X certificate on January 28th 1974. Commenting on the event at the time, Murphy stated:
"It is a powerful horror movie. Some people may dislike it, but that is not a sufficient reason for refusing certification."
The Exorcist made a lot of money at the British box office, but just as it had Stateside it also attracted some controversy from pressure groups -- particularly religious ones. At one point, Warner Bros. had fleets of ambulances lined up outside
of cinemas should any patrons require their services. As a result, some local councils banned the film, but generally the British public took no issue with the picture and it continued to play well into the late 1970s.
Mean spirits at the BBFC for VHS release
James Ferman, Director of the BBFC 1975-99.
Possessed by the notion that The Exorcist should be banned on video.
After a few years, the home video market began to take off and Warner Home Video released The Exorcist on video in 1981 without a BBFC certificate. This was a time before the Video Recordings Act (VRA) was introduced, which would require videos
to be classified by the BBFC. As we mentioned, The Exorcist was never banned during this period, nor was it never prosecuted as one of the "video nasties". The VRA was introduced in 1984 and with the BBFC having being tasked with
reaching numerous decisions on a large amount of unclassified videos available on the shelves, a four-year grace period was granted to the Board -- by 1988 they had to either classify these 'pre-cert' videos, or demand that they be removed from
When it came time to consider The Exorcist, examiners debated at length about whether it was suitable for a home video classification. The unregulated nature of home video meant that underage viewers could easily have access to the film, and with
alleged reports of several young women becoming hysterical after seeing it the BBFC were concerned that "severe emotional problems" may arise if the film was allowed in the home, particularly amongst viewers who believed in the notion
of demonic possession. James Ferman was, of course, the secretary of the BBFC during this period and he took a hard stance against the film. Believing there was a significant risk of harm to British society in issuing a video rating, the pre-cert
video of The Exorcist was removed from shelves at the beginning of 1988, with Ferman refusing to issue The Exorcist with a home video rating. However, the BBFC had no problems with the film continuing to play in theatres during this period and
happily issued an uncut 18 rating for the film two years later on August 10th 1990. As time went on, The Exorcist would be brought up repeatedly for internal discussion at Soho Square over the years but Ferman remained steadfast -- a home video
release would not be forthcoming.
Cutting Edge interviewed former BBFC examiner Carol Topolski, who worked with James Ferman during this time, and she recalled the problems she and her fellow examiners faced when trying to reach a decision on The Exorcist with Ferman:
"I don't know what he had against that film. On the big screen, I don't think he had any problems but on the small screen, he just took against it. We endlessly, endlessly challenged him on this. He had a feeling about some films that if
they appeared in the home, they would cause moral chaos just by being in the home. It was rubbish, of course, but annually we had that debate [about The Exorcist] and annually he would just dig his heels in and say no, that he just thought it
would be too damaging if any child should watch it, and that was a whole other argument. If you say, which sometimes he appeared to be saying, that everything on video has to be suitable in case some passing child saw it, then everything would
be cut to PG, which is a nonsense. I would say over and over in board meetings, 'we are not the parents, we have to assume that most parents are reasonably responsible'."
The years rolled by, but with Ferman in charge fans of the film -- not to mention Warner Bros. -- continued to be disappointed at the lack of availability of The Exorcist on home video, with the distributors asking for a reconsideration every
year or two and Ferman continually responding in the negative. The Exorcist was never formally submitted during this time, and thus it was never formally rejected.
Liberal spirits at the BBFC for DVD release
Robin Duval, Director of the BBFC 1999-2004.
Exorcised the notion that the film should be banned on video.
Timed to coincide with the Halloween of 1998, the film was re-released in 260 British cinemas in October for the film's 25th anniversary, and the BBFC took the time to address the home video situation in December of that year via a statement on
their website. It read, in part, as follows:
"The problem is not the frightening nature of the story but the combination of the themes with which it deals and the very powerful treatment it is given. Showings of this film have resulted in severe emotional problems among a small but
worrying number of adults who do believe in the reality of demonic possession and satanic practices. A video or television showing would inevitably attract many young teenagers, some of whom would be, more even than adults, susceptible to this
sort of material, since they might well identify with the central character, a 12-year-old girl. Newspaper reports and letters in our files indicate the very real and serious disturbance that can result and we feel uneasy about being a party to
this sort of psychological damage. It is partly because the film is so convincing and effective that it can be so disturbing for some. Eventually, perhaps the time will come to release THE EXORCIST on video, but we are not convinced that this is
that moment, particularly at a time when many parents allow their children to see videos unsupervised, according to the latest research."
What's curious about the this press release is what was going on behind the scenes at the BBFC at the time of its publication. On March 27th 1998, James Ferman announced that he would be resigning as Director of the BBFC at the end of the year
after an unprecedented 23-year reign. It was later announced that his successor would be Robin Duval, who was appointed on November 7th (although he would not take over formally as Director until January 4th 1999). Warner Bros. were no doubt
acutely aware of Ferman's upcoming departure; indeed, by mid-June of 1998 the British press reported that Warner Bros. were already engaged in meetings with the BBFC about the possibility of a video release. A few months later, they submitted The
Exorcist for a formal home video classification at the end of October, following the 25th anniversary theatrical re-release.
Around mid-December, rumours began to circulate about a possible video release finally being granted, which likely prompted the BBFC's statement that month. Although no formal decision had been reached at this time, Warner Bros. were so confident
that the film would be passed that they announced an early 1999 release date to the trade under the codename "Project: Green" shortly before Christmas. Sure enough, the British public didn't have to wait much longer. On February
25th 1999 with Robin Duval as the new Director of the BBFC, The Exorcist was classified 18 uncut for a home video release. It had been 11 years since it was available to buy in British stores. In a BBFC press release co-authored by Robin Duval,
the Board stated:
"It must be acknowledged that there is little if any hard evidence known to the BBFC that THE EXORCIST has, in its video form, caused actual harm to its viewers. The video version was in fact widely available for many years before the Video
Recordings Act 1984 introduced the requirement of BBFC classification. The recent re-release of the film version by Warner Brothers has, moreover, been accompanied by none of the hysteria or audience disturbance which occurred in the mid-1970s.
The BBFC concluded that THE EXORCIST, while still a powerful and compelling work, no longer has the same impact as it did 25 years ago. We cannot discount the possibility that, however restrictive its classification, under-age persons may seek
ways to view it. On the other hand, both the name and the nature of this film are familiar to most people: its reputation should prompt many parents and guardians to be more alert to that possibility than would normally be the case."
The Director's Cut is available uncut on UK DVD and Blu-ray
The film was released without incident on video and DVD, and was later passed 18 in a Director's Cut version for a theatrical release on September 28th 2000 and later on video on January 2nd 2002. Both versions are available to own on Blu-ray in
One last note -- despite Robin Duval's appointment as director of the BBFC on November 7th 1998, James Ferman did not leave the BBFC at the end of the year as he had stated, instead choosing to hang around as a sort of unofficial advisor well
into 1999. As one anonymous insider working at the Board was quoted as saying almost a year later in October 1999:
"Robin Duval is finally feeling a little more secure as Director of the BBFC, having finally got rid of James Ferman, the ex-director who hung around like a bad smell until April, five months after he was supposed to have handed in his keys
and gone home."
It seems that even in his final weeks as director, Ferman was keen to leave his mark on the workings of the BBFC even in the presence of new blood. Any attempt he may have made to exert a negative influence over a video release of The Exorcist
was obviously in vain.
Violent spirits hack away at The Exorcist for US TV broadcast
To round off our season finale for this year, readers may wish to view the final segment of the video accompanying this article, which compares clips from the American network television version of The Exorcist against the original theatrical
version. Unlike the theatrical release, the film had to undergo extensive censorship to make it suitable for television broadcast. One particular point to take note of is the humorous redubbing of some of the more religiously-sensitive lines.
Cutting Edge Video, Season Three, Episode 49 The Exorcist
Cutting Edge now in High Definition
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.