Tensions remembered to this day | Daily News

William Friedkin

Tensions remembered to this day

The Exorcist is one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen, though much of its appeal has faded away with the passing of the years. The first time I saw it, I was 18; roughly the same age my mother was when she saw it at the Liberty decades ago. I remember the possession scenes the best, but these merely mark the climax and the culmination.

The tensions, the conflicts, the clash of faith and science, make themselves felt well before the gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing, utterly disgusting scenes of overflowing bile and expletives the movie is remembered for today. Like all effective horror films, particularly supernatural horror films, you feel something’s not right long before everything goes wrong. The signs are there: a clock stops ticking and a pack of dogs tear at each other’s skins beside the statue of a demon in the desert, while far away in Georgetown, in the US, a divorced woman wonders who’s making noises in her attic. “Rats?” she wonders. “No rats,” her Swedish servant retorts. As events unfold, we realise the servant’s right.

When it first came out, critics were divided over the film. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars, but he had his doubts: “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie,” ran his conclusion. Pauline Kael disliked it immensely, and wondered what woman in her right mind would allow her daughter to take part in such an outing in such a role.

Scariest film

The New York Times’s Vincent Canby dismissed it as “occultist claptrap” and “impossible to sit through.” The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffman wrote he found it tough to sit through too, but he meant it as a compliment: “this is the scariest film I’ve seen in years.” Jon Landau didn’t think so: he called it a religious porn film. From these reviews, Kauffman nailed it best: the truth is that while a great many supernatural horror flicks had been made about child possessions before this, The Exorcist stood apart from them. It was the scariest movie anyone had seen until then.

Much of the reason for that has to do with the extreme lengths to which the director, William Friedkin, went to achieve what he wanted. A horror movie like Saw and Scream will terrify you and me, but once you see through the facade, the way such films manipulate audiences, you tend to grow bored (as I do). On the other hand, a work like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which isn’t a horror movie at all, shocks and terrifies because we aren’t paying attention to how the director’s manipulating us. When Willem Dafoe’s character mutilates his own genitals, you don’t gasp out, much less scream: you take it in and let it burn your soul. That is the kind of sensation you get with the best horror films, particularly those that question the gap between reality and myth. The final scene of Rosemary’s Baby, where Rosemary stares in horror at her deformed baby, Satan’s own spawn, and she cries out in anger, you feel her anger and terror even though you don’t see the baby. What Friedkin did in The Exorcist was heighten that sense of terror: it’s Rosemary’s Baby, but with much more gore, awe, shock, and jump-scares.

Friedkin’s obsessive meticulousness in the production is, of course, the stuff of legend today. He subjected his actors to untold extremities, refrigerating an entire room until they felt cold enough to project the kind of fear he wanted from them. Linda Blair, who played the little girl, was 12 at the time, but he didn’t really care: she’s in that room most of the time, and he went ahead and cooled it even more. Not all the actors agreed with or tolerated him, yet they stuck by him and by the film until the end.

Tied to a chair

This was probably not the first film where a teenage girl spouts expletives, but to hear Blair spouting them out, even today, seems a tad disconcerting. Blair’s demonic voice was not hers: it was of another actress’s, and to get the wheezy tones he wanted, Friedkin and his cast got her to swallow three raw eggs and some Jack Daniel’s and tied her to a chair. The papers went to town over these measures: one even alleged Blair had to be institutionalised at a mental hospital after filming wrapped up. She didn’t. “I made every scene a game with her,” Friedkin once told an interviewer. Watching Blair today, I’m inclined to believe him.

The Exorcist got a rerelease in 2000: a Director’s Cut. This version of the story keeps back much of the original cut, but adds two or three storylines which distract from the larger themes of the plot. It also incorporates CGI effects that were added later and a particularly gruesome sequence with Linda Blair walking backwards which is, hands down, the most gruesome such sequence in the film, but is also a distraction. This is the version of The Exorcist that’s available everywhere; the version I saw, more faithful to the original cut, is on the other hand nowhere to be found: a point to be regretted, certainly. In the history of the movies I can’t think of a single film that was given such an unwholesome treatment; certainly not Rosemary’s Baby, which precedes it by a good five years. The differences between the 1973 and 2000 cuts thus boil down to a difference between horror that horrifies and horror that merely shocks.

Friedkin is, of course, known more than anything else for The Exorcist, but it wasn’t the only film he made. Two years earlier, in 1971, he directed The French Connection; celebrating its 50th anniversary later this year, it scooped up Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. It established Friedkin as a maverick the same way Blood Simple established the Coen Brothers and Dawn of the Dead established Zack Snyder. Yet like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola and, his career, once held promising, ebbed away by the end of the decade. This same fate befell Brian de Palma at the end of the following decade. What happened?

Hollywood doesn’t always reward heavyweights; that’s why de Palma’s careers faded away just as quickly as it peaked, and why, barely five years after making The Godfather Part II, Coppola failed to get the plaudits he desired with Apocalypse Now. With Friedkin the issue had less to do with his tough guy image than with his exacting standards. This came out discernibly in Sorcerer (1978), his remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller classic, The Wages of Fear (1953). That he tried to emulate Clouzot wasn’t really a coincidence: like the latter, Friedkin demanded much of his actors and cared about budgets only insofar as they let him have his way in his movies. He was by no means an undisciplined director, much less a difficult one. But the stories he went for, as with Coppola and de Palma, simply did not interest audiences.

Stories not copied

Peter Bogdanovich faced just about the same issue: after the exhilarating success of The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), he made Daisy Miller (1974), Saint Jack (1979), and They All Laughed (1981): cult classics, but anachronistic and out of place in the era of Spielberg and Lucas. Bogdanovich and Friedkin were making movies that took audiences back to the Hollywood of the 1960s, movies that didn’t copy the stories that came from that era but that were certainly influenced by them. No one wanted to watch them; they had Star Wars and E.T. to look forward to.

Friedkin’s career, then, was doomed to fade away, and fade away it did. The earliest surviving recipient of the Best Director Oscar still alive, his work remains, then as now, unfinished: one of his pet projects was a film about Jack the Ripper, which never came to be. On the other hand, it’s not as though he’s let go of making films altogether: among the most recent ones, the most recent of them, Killer Joe (2011), received plaudits from critics.

Yet the reception these late works have received and continue to receive hardly befit a director who gave us the scariest film ever made and topped it up with a remake of one of the most suspenseful thrillers ever made. It’s an all too clear indication that in filmmaking as in every other profession, your best shot may well be your last shot, period. This is certainly true of Friedkin’s career.