Most of the time, limiting a documentary to only one point of view is not a winning strategy. You want balance, with a scope wide enough to deliver more than just an agenda-laden screed.
Leap of Faith doesn’t worry about all that. If your aim is to take a deep dive into the filming of The Exorcist, and director William Friedkin agrees to a lengthy interview, well, that’s that.
Sure, you could probably find someone to argue Friedkin didn’t craft one of the greatest horror films in history, but do we really need to give idiots any more screen time this year?
In just the last three years, director Alexandre O. Phillippe has deconstructed horror classics Alien (Memory: The Origins of Alien) and Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) to fascinating effect. Leap of Faith makes it a trifecta of terror, thanks to a film icon who also proves himself an endlessly engaging storyteller in front of the camera.
If it’s true every interview needs at least one good story to be worth the time, Phillippe’s visit with Friedkin is a pound for pound champ. The stories here – from Jason Miller taking the Father Karras role away from Stacy Keach to Friedkin’s battle with legendary composer Bernard Herrman over the score – keep you hanging on every word.
Strangely, though, the conversation never does get around to Linda Blair at all – not her casting, her performance, or the complexities of directing a teenage actress in such extreme subject matter. Even with all the compelling content here, it’s a noticeable omission.
But more than an indispensable guide through the making of a classic, Leap of Faith shines a wonderfully illuminating light on Friedkin’s creative process. Yes, Billy clearly likes him some Billy, but at 85 years old now, it’s hard to blame him.
Whether or not Phillippe knew what he was getting when first he sat down with Friedkin, the game plan no doubt materialized pretty quickly. Keep him talking, trim the fat, and then splice in the appropriate clips at the perfect time.
Leap of Faith might be a one man show, but when the show is The Exorcist and the man is William Friedkin, it feels like enough.
There’s always reason to be proud when one of he most established and respected directors decides to dabble in horror, and likewise, when one of our own makes it big in the mainstream. It put us in the mood for some double features: great directors, one horror movie, one non-horror movie. And the possibilities are endless. How about Scorsese’s Cape Fear/Taxi Driver? Or something a little more contemporary – maybe Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and Blue Ruin (if you’re feeling colorful)? Oh, what fun! Let’s get started!
5. Ben Wheatley: Kill List (2011)/ High Rise (2015)
Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in this genre bender. Without ever losing its gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities.
For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.
Set inside a skyscraper in a gloriously retro London, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is a dystopia full of misanthropic humor.
Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates his own story of life inside the “grand social experiment” – a high rise where the higher the floor, the higher the tenant’s social status. Performances range from slyly understated (Hiddleston, Elizabeth Moss) to powerful (Sienna Miller, Luke Evans) to alarmingly hammy (James Purefoy), but each contributes entertainingly to this particular brand of dystopia. Still, the wicked humor and wild chaos will certainly keep your attention.
4. Peter Jackson: Dead Alive (1992) / Heavenly Creatures (1994)
This film is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageous bloodbath. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), destiny, a Sumatran rat monkey, an overbearing mother, a prying uncle, and true love are bathed in gore in the Kiwi director’s last true horror flick – a film so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it.
Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.
Jackson’s first non-horror film still follows rather horrific circumstances – New Zealand’s infamous Parker-Hulme murder case. Even fans of the director’s work to this point couldn’t have suspected he (and writing partner/write Fran Walsh) had anything this elegant and fantastical in them.
Certainly, spellbinding performances from young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey didn’t hurt. Jackson and Walsh received their first Oscar noms for the screenplay in a film that eschews the trial, barely witnesses the crime, and focuses instead on the intense friendship that went horrifyingly wrong. It respects its source material and every person involved in the historical event, but it also understands the delirium of adolescence in a way few films do. Hobbits be damned, this is Jackson’s masterpiece.
3. David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981) / Eastern Promises (2007)
The film that made Cronenberg an international name in the genre is about mind control – a very sloppy version of it – and that societal fear of being dominated by a stronger being. At its heart, this is another government conspiracy film wherein an agency foolishly believes they can harness an uncontrollable element for military purposes. Scanners is hardly the best of these (Alien is, FYI). But it’s gory fun nonetheless. What makes the effort undeniably Cronenberg (besides the exploding heads) is that connection between human tissue and technology.
The acting is silly, the technology is comically dated, and the computer nerd toward the end of the film inexplicably boasts a band aid on his face. But Michael Ironside is on fire and the movie ratchets up tension by keeping you wondering when the next head will explode.
In 2005, Cronenberg produced his most acclaimed and most mainstream film to date, A History of Violence. That success spawned more than an interest in non-genre fare, but also a fruitful collaboration with the underappreciated and versatile actor Viggo Mortensen.
Two years later, Mortensen would join an impeccable cast including Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Naomi Watts in what would be the Canadian auteur’s finest film. Eastern promises is Cronenberg’s characteristically off kilter, visceral take on the mafia movie.
2. Stanley Kubrick: The Shining (1980)/ 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.
What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That freaky guy in the bear suit? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.
2001: A Space Odyssey
After a less than enthusiastic reception from both audiences and critics in 1968, 2001 persevered, establishing its legend as perhaps the most magnificent science fiction film ever made.
Kubrick and legendary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke adapt Clarke’s short story with ambitious vision, epic scope, precise execution. More than a film, 2001 transcends the screen to become a mind-bending look at “first contact” that elicits levels of awe and wonder reserved for timeless pieces of art.
Very simply. 2001 is essential cinema of the highest order.
1. William Friedkin: The Exorcist (1973)/ Killer Joe (2011)
Thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this impossible situation.
Friedkin balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre. Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.
Following a long, fairly quiet period, in 2011 Friedkin returned with something bold and nasty:Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular killer, a predator in a cowboy hat making deals with some Texas white trash. The deal goes haywire, and some crazy, mean, vividly depicted shit befalls those unthinking trailer folk.
Subdued, charming, merciless, weird, and oh-so-Southern, Joe scares the living hell out of any thinking person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really describe the Smiths – an exquisitely cast Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, and a flawless Gina Gershon. This is an ugly and unsettlingly funny film about compromises, bad ideas, and bruised women. And it is the best thing Friedkin has done since The Exorcist.
Aside from the very rare exception, Matthew McConaughey spent the first twenty years of his career proving to us that he looked nice without a shirt. Talent shmalent. Then suddenly, the king of the romantic comedy finally gave up his throne and began acting, and here’s the nutty thing: he’s damn good. Need proof? Read on, as we list the evidence.
10. Frailty (2001)
Spooky, languid, eerily observant, McConaughey’s performance in this underseen horror gem sets a great tone for the surprises in store.
9. The Paperboy (2012)
In a film this over-the-top, McConaughey anchors the insanity with an understated turn as a conflicted, good man.
8. Bernie (2011)
Jack Black is the reason to see this incredible film, but McConaughey’s turn as the baffled lawman and the film’s voice of reason is a winner as well.
7. Lone Star (1996)
Not yet Hollywood’s go-to for rom-com, McConaughey impressed everyone as Buddy Deeds, the legendary lawman-in-flashback in John Sayles’s Texan mystery.
6. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Here was our first reminder in more than a decade that McConaughey could act, not to mention poke fun at himself. With that insane hair and a little lip gloss, his Hollywood agent was the stuff of dreams. “Tivo!”
5. Dazed and Confused (1993)
No matter how much you hated Matthew McConaughey by, say, 2005, you had to admit that you loved him in his early-career turnin Dazed and Confused. That performance as Wooderson, the sleazy older dude still hitting on high school girls, was just about perfect.
4. Mud (2012)
By the time Mud came out, we’d grown used to the new and improved McConaughey, a flexible talent who still managed to put his own stamp on every new and fascinating role. Here he blends childlike wildness with wily survival instincts for a piece of beautiful storytelling.
3. Magic Mike (2012)
Yes, this movie blows, but it is so worth watching because of McConaughey’s positively unhinged and magnificent performance as the aging stripper-turned-entrepreneur.
2. Killer Joe (2011)
Holy shit. This movie – a kick-ass comeback for director William Friedkin – is so nuts, so dark, so Texan, that no one could possible shoulder the title role but McConaughey. Huge props to the entire balance of the cast, but just try to take your eyes off McConaughey.
1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
McConaughey may finally get the Oscar nomination he deserved at least twice in the last two years for his turn as the hard living Texan who finds himself victim of HIV and the medical industrial complex. A searingly human portrait, the performance is the best of what is becoming – at long last – a monster career.
The Exorcist gets a bad rap for being too Catholic, too traditional, anti-feminist. I read an account from a self-proclaimed Satanist who disliked it because the devil would never be so easily foiled. But for evocative, nerve jangling, demonic horror, you will not find better.
Director William Friedkin’s career is spotted with tepid-to-awful films, but when he cranks out a good one, look out. Hot on the heels of the verite action of his Oscar-winning The French Connection – a film that subverted expectations by casting seriously flawed heroes who don’t manage to resolve the film’s conflict – he made an abrupt left with this one.
Slow-moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child.
But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought closer to watch people running here and there on the Georgetown campus or on the streets of NYC.
Then we pull in a bit more: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by forgotten souls, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).
Then even closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, and examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.
The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.
So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.
Remember the stories of moviegoers fleeing the theatre, or fainting in the aisles midway through this film? It seemed like hype then, but watch it today, experience the power the film still has, and you can only imagine how little the poor folks of the early 1970s were prepared.
Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.
They snuck a whole additional DVD release date in this week, did you notice that? Sneaky bastards!
Well, the good news is that they are unleashing one of the year’s best and weirdest with their secret-second Christmas release. Today, film fans, today director William F. Friedkin offers something bold and nasty: Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular killer, a predator in a cowboy hat making deals with some Texas white trash. The deal goes haywire, and some crazy, mean, vividly depicted shit befalls those unthinking trailer folk.
Subdued, charming, merciless, weird, and oh-so-Southern, Joe scares the living hell out of any thinking person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really describe the Smiths – an exquisitely cast Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church and a flawless Gina Gershon. This is an ugly and unsettlingly funny film about compromises, bad ideas and bruised women. And it is the best thing Friedkin has done since The Exorcist.
If you enjoy it, try Friedkin’s 2006 White Trash Weirdness, Bug. Working for the first time with Tracy Letts, the playwright/scripter who also penned Killer Joe, Friedkin invites you into a world of paranoia, poverty, regret and tinfoil. Ashley Judd has never been better, playing a desperate waitress with a tragic past living in a cheap motel. She befriends a seriously damaged drifter – the creepy and wonderful Michael Shannon – and a nightmare unspools. Bug lacks the wrong-headed humor of Killer Joe, but it is an absorbing, bizarre, and beautifully executed ride.