The process of film-making is always a case of continual revision. Sequences change due to unavailability of actors, unreliability of special effects, bad weather, sudden inspiration, and any number of other factors that turn a screenplay from a Bible into a blueprint. With the advent of DVD and the ubiquitous "Special Features", we can sometimes get little glimpses into the movie that could have been--glimpses that can totally change the nature of the film. (And frequently do: Witness the vast number of "Director's Cuts" of movies out there.) Sometimes the alternate takes are just tiny changes here and there, but sometimes they radically alter the movie in fascinating ways. Here are a few of my favorites!
Honorable Mention: Big Trouble in Little China. I can't really include this as a major change, because it's really just a tiny addition to the film, but seeing this missing scene completed the movie for me, even though I didn't realize anything was absent until I saw it. Right after they escape from Lo Pan's lair, when they're at the red light, there's an unused sequence where the red car from the beginning ("Son of a bitch must pay") passes by. Jack chases it down, rams it off the end of a pier, and says, "I feel much better now." I gotta say, after seeing that scene, I agree with him.
5. Clue. This is perhaps unique in that it's one case of an alternate ending that actually made it to theaters. People who only saw it at home might not be aware that the "This is how it could have happened"/"This is how it might have happened"/"This is what really happened" ending was an attempt to recreate a truly inventive theatrical experience--different theaters were shipped different prints of the film, each of which had one and only one of the three endings. (The DVD version has a branching option that allows you to watch it as it was originally shown.) Thus, it was impossible to spoil the mystery, because someone else might see a version with a different killer. It's an epic head-trip that was, to the best of my knowledge, never done again, and deserves kudos.
4. Alien. This one is interesting to me, because it's a scene that would have changed the entire face of the franchise if it had made it into the finished film. The "Director's Cut" of 'Alien' shows a sequence where Ripley, in her effort to escape the alien, stumbles upon the missing crewmembers Dallas and Brett. Far from being dead, as the theatrical cut implies, they've been cocooned by the creature and are gradually being rendered down into the raw ingredients of a new face-hugger. The hold full of eggs at the beginning? That was what was left of the original crew.
Had that scene made it into the finished film, James Cameron would never have gone with the Alien Queen. 'Aliens' would have been an entirely different movie, perhaps an unmade one, and all the subsequent spin-offs, adaptations, and sequels would have changed. It might not be the best unused scene, but it's probably the most consequential.
3. Lord of the Rings. Perhaps the most commercially successful "director's cut" ever, the LotR films gave Tolkien fans the chance to experience an expanded, enlarged, super-faithful (well, mostly) version of their favorite adaptations. This version included the final fate of Saruman, showed the bestowal of the Elven gifts, and generally made the movies long enough that I don't have the patience to sit through them. Oh, come on. They were already three freaking hours apiece! How much better can the extra footage make them?
And before I'm lynched by angry Tolkien fans, I think I should just move on to...
2. Army of Darkness. This film was released right on the cusp of the DVD revolution, and due to the original ending appearing in the comic book adaptation, fans of Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy had just enough time to build their excitement to a fever-pitch before they were finally able to see it for themselves. For those who haven't seen one of the sixty-seven DVD editions of the film, the original ending features Ash taking a potion to sleep until the present day instead of reciting an incantation to travel through time. He accidentally OD's on magic sleep juice, and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic London. It's a very nice sequence, and a hint at the direction the series would have failed to go instead of the one it already hasn't. (I know. We got Hercules, Xena, and the Spider-Man movies. I shouldn't be bitter.)
And the Number One Alternative Version of an Existing Film is...
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. No, really. This was an excellent direct-to-DVD movie in which a future protege of Batman takes on the seemingly-resurrected nemesis of his mentor, and it has a wonderfully epic feel to it. But the original version (which was finally released in an "uncensored director's cut") pulls out all the stops in its depiction of the final battle between Batman and the Joker. I really don't want to spoil, but the alternate take truly does elevate the film to a whole new level.