Alexandre O. Philippe continues his run of feature-length documentaries concentrated on classic genre movies, with a look at William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often described as “the Citizen Kane of horror”, this deep dive benefits from Friedkin serving as our personal guide.
As a production, The Exorcist was virtually sui generis. In the history of cinema, there isn’t really anything to relate it to. Like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, it’s one of a kind, singular, unrepeatable (though it launched a wave of pale imitators and cruddy sequels). The closest we get is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, a work the New Hollywood director admits served as a major source of inspiration because it made the miraculous and supernatural utterly believable.
A picture about demonic possession hadn’t really been done before. Certainly not in such a grounded, realistic way. Set on an ordinary street in Georgetown, Washington D.C., the battle for the soul of a 12-year-old girl tapped into our wider cultural and religious fears. Author William Peter Blatty praised the movie as better than his original novel. The film got under the skin and created a moral and spiritual panic among audiences.
While hardcore fans of the movie will be au fait with pretty much all the topics on the discussion here, Leap of Faith is still a riveting masterclass from a great filmmaker, mixing making-of reminisces with articulate ruminations on themes at work in the subtext. With excellent use of clips adding further illumination to points of discussion, along with behind the scenes footage and photos, the immense craft and creative detail which went into the film’s production is impressive to this day.
According to the director, the strange hand of fate appeared to be guiding him to artistic glory. While Friedkin ponders metaphysical topics occasionally, thankfully Philippe’s documentary has no time for the silly myths which generated down the years, regarding spooky happenings on set. Leap of Faith is serious film analysis without being boringly academic. Sometimes to make an engrossing documentary, all you need is a great talker and to let the camera roll. Philippe understands this. The result is always fascinating and frequently hilarious.
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn