Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Devil's in the Details

The last time I saw The Exorcist in the theater (for its re-release in 2010) I got so anxious that I made myself physically sick, and I had to leave before it had even ended. That's not a thing that happens to this avid horror fan very often (I can think of only one other example off the top of my head, which is Cujo, and I was 15 when that happened) but I don't think I'm particularly unique when it comes to William Friedkin's classic, one that changed the game for good -- here was a big-budget prestige studio flick, one directed by a director who'd just won an Oscar and starring an actress who'd just been nominated for one the year before, that had a little girl masturbating with a crucifix before shoving her mother's face into the bloody wound. The Exorcist was made to make people sick.

Or was it? That's a question for its author, and thankfully there's an entertaining and enlightening new documentary out on Shudder this Thursday called Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist that asks just that to just them. And as the doc's subtitle makes clear when I just said "author" I meant its "director" -- book author William Peter Blatty is not interviewed here. Neither are the film's stars Ellen Burstyn or Linda Blair interviewed. Not Owen Roizman who did the icily gorgeous cinematography, not Jean-Louis Decarme who designed the all-time-best sound, and not Mike Oldfield whose "Tubular Bells" has become as iconic as any horror music ever. And sadly I must report that Leap of Faith does not resurrect Mercedes McCambridge from the grave so she can detail to us her process of gargling eggs just right to get that perfect demon intonation. Boo!

No, Leap of Faith is presented by director Alexandre O. Philippe, the cineaste-scavenger who recently gave us the movie-specific studies 78/52 (on the shower scene in Psycho) and Memory: The Origins Of Alien, as a 103-minute sit-down with Friedkin and Friedkin alone -- Friedkin talks, we watch clips and listen. It brings to mind Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's 2015 doc on Brian De Palma -- you might remember it, it was called De Palma -- just with far less of a free-wheeling focus, narrowing itself down to a single film instead of that wide-ranging career retrospective.

But then calling The Exorcist "a single film" is akin to calling Pazuzu "a Georgetown tourist." There's a dare-I-say Hell of a lot to say about The Exorcist -- we as a culture have been talking about it ever since it dropped on Christmas Weekend 1973 (that holiday release remains so delightfully, perfectly perverse to me), and it turns out getting just under two hours of behind-the-scenes building and intrigue from its primary maker never, not once, feels like a stretch. I was rapt from start to final tumble down the stairs.

Does Leap of Faith maybe at times feel like an extra on a DVD of the film? Sure. But a really fantastic extra, one movie-nerds text and tweet their movie-nerd friends about -- one like Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, which situates our understanding of a masterwork from that point forward. It helps (by leaps and demon-dog bounds) that, like Werner Herzog and Brian De Palma, William Friedkin is a hell of a character and a heck of a story-teller all on his own. He's just a blast to listen to, whether he's rifling around in his recollections of paintings he leaned on to create some of the most memorable images in the horror canon -- Magritte looms large -- or in the desecration of a real-life friendship due to disagreements over the film's score.

That last tip does bring up the major shortcoming to Leap of Faith's approach, but it's at least one the film (and Friedkin himself) seems aware of -- we are just getting one man's perspective here. And directors, I don't know if you've heard, can trend towards the egotistical. Auteur Theory seems to be on its way out now, with a more generous approach to the hundreds and hundreds of people that it takes to get a movie made. There are, no doubt, other voices that saw the process of making The Exorcist very differently -- Friedkin at least reads as generous in giving credit to as many people as he can. But I still can't tell you how many moments I hoped the film might yank the rug of its own expectations out from under us and surprise-cut to a grinning Ellen Burstyn, with a sudden "Oh no, Bill, I don't recall it happening that way." Maybe Linda Blair could've popped out from behind a potted plant like she's Chris Hanson on How To Catch a Predator? I don't know. I guess we can save that for the sequel.


Shawny said...

Great film, that now has a tinge of kitchen value, especially with the spider walk outtake. The film used to scare the shit out of me when I was a kid. For my first two years in a row of trying to watch it when it aired on TV, I could only get as far as the first scene where she’s flipping on the bed. She slams her head down and makes that horrible sound for the first time. But the third year I watched it through and loved it. I kind of have to ask why my parents would let me watch it at that age, but I guess that’s another story. But that was the film that I cut my teeth on to be the horror film lover I am today.

Shawny said...

Meant kitsch value. Damn autocorrect.

Bill Carter said...

"Mike Oldfield whose 'Tubular Bells' has become as iconic as any horror music ever."

Nah. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is much more iconic-er.

dre said...

Scared the crap out of me when I was 10. Made me laugh out loud at 28. I hate when that happens.