DIRECTOR WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
Can you believe THE EXORCIST turns 40 years old this Christmas? Craziness, right!? And no doubt, as the anniversary of the film grows closer and closer, we can expect to see and hear about all kinds of revivals, re-releases, retrospectives, commemorations and the like. But I want to do a little something different. I instead want to shine the spotlight on the Oscar winning filmmaker who directed THE EXORCIST, Mr. William Friedkin. At 78 years young, Friedkin is still going strong, yet despite a wildly eclectic filmography, the man has always kept one foot deeply entrenched in the horror/thriller genre. Solid outings like SORCERER, CRUISING, RAMPAGE , THE GUARDIAN, BUG, KILLER JOE…these titles make up a good portion of Friedkin's 5-decade directorial canon. You know what that means, right? Yup…it's Dissection time…Billy Friedkin style!
While THE FRENCH CONNECTION rightly won all the critical plaudits a film could, two years later Friedkin did a complete one-eighty to give us an equally visceral, yet utterly terrifying experience with THE EXORCIST. And boy are we glad he did! With an Oscar winning adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestseller, the most impressive thing about the flick might be how confidently Friedkin takes his time mounting dreadful suspense over the course of two hours. No quick flashes, no cheap thrills, no easy payoffs…exactly the contrary…the chills and thrills in THE EXORCIST are genuinely earned. And they're earned through tight storytelling, deft pacing and grade-A acting as much as they are through the groundbreaking makeup and visual FX work by hall of famers Dick Smith and Rick Baker. The scares feel germane to the story. Without Ellen Burstyn's devastating performance, Max Von Sydow's mere gravitas, and Linda Blair's highly believable turn, the film would likely cease to be the preeminent religious horror classic it remains to be after four decades. Real shite!
Seriously. Not only is THE EXORCIST firmly etched on the mount Rushmore of horror cinema (along with THE SHINING and ROSEMARY'S BABY) – made during a time when the industry's finest (Kubrick, Polanski) took a crack at the genre – it's also the preeminent religious horror flick. One can't help but think of THE EXORCIST when talking about religious horror or exorcism flicks, not to mention all the lesser examples of the subgenre it inspired. In fact, Christian evangelist Billy Graham claimed an actual demon was living in the celluloid reels. It's truly a groundbreaking film, one that also happens to be, when adjusted for inflation, the highest grossing R-rated film of all time!
Well, since he's on record as calling it his favorite of his own films, I'm here to lambaste the hell out of Friedkin's 1995 erotic-thriller, JADE. I mean, the flick stars David Caruso. 'Nuff said! Your favorite film, Billy? Hell, I liked BLUE CHIPS better! Seriously, as much as I wanted to like JADE, for no other reason than a large part of it was filmed in my hometown, I simply can't back what essentially equates with a third-rate softcore porn airing on Skinemax at 1 AM. Written by sleaze-hound Joe Eszterhas (SHOWGIRLS), JADE feels little more than a random collection of throwaways from SLIVER and BASIC INSINCT, some would say "better" Eszterhas exploits. To be fair, I did sort of enjoy Linda Fiorentino's performance…the smoky voice, the duplicity, the raw sex appeal…all of it. Too bad JADE landed the poor lady little more than DOGMA and…retirement.
If you've not seen it, JADE follows a D.A. out to solve a grisly hatchet murder. When he (Caruso) finds a clue at the scene of the crime, he decides to shroud it, and that further entangles him in a web of lust, deceit and murder. Chazz Palminteri, Michael Biehn, Richard Crenna and Angie Everheart do pop up, but they're not given enough to do. Again, the flick just feels like one of those mid-90s sex-thrillers that could have been done by anyone. Definitely below Friedkin's standards!
No question, Friedkin's vintage trademark is heightened realism, and going to whatever lengths necessary to achieve said verisimilitude. The camera technique most associated with such is the hand-held aesthetic, which Friedkin has employed since his early days as a filmmaker. Recall those shaky chase scenes in THE FRENCH CONNECTION for example…how gritty, visceral and in your face they felt…like you were right there in the scene yourself. Or, as the stories go, how Friedkin used to sneak around the set of THE EXORCIST and fire pistols behind unbeknown actors to elicit genuine reactions of fright. Dude's a wild man like that…whatever it takes to get the desired result!
Yet even as the verite/documentary stylings would persist throughout his work, it's clear Friedkin's aplomb in complex car-chase sequences have also become a common theme. He broke the mold with THE FRENCH CONNECTION, yes, but in movies like TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and JADE…he picked up his own torched and relayed the car-chase to a further degree. And even better, said chases always derive out of the material and feel necessary to the story. They never register as a gratuitous chance to see shite blow-up. No, they feel required, which makes them even more impressive as a viewer. Nothing beats believability in a movie, and no one understands that better than William Friedkin!
Because Friedkin will likely be associated with his two all-time film classics (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST), people tend to overlook a few surefire hidden gems in the man's resume. RAMPAGE, for example, is a slick little serial killer thriller starring Michael Biehn that went way under the radar due to the fact it was released in the states 5 years after it was made and had its European debut (and it STILL hasn't been released on DVD). Make no mistake though, RAMPAGE is a grisly morality tale, and definitely a flick worth seeking on VHS if you're a Friedkin completist.
Friedkin's CRUISING is a really unheralded whodunit set against the backdrop of New York's gay leather bar scene of the late 70s. If such sweaty nightclub scenes reminiscent of the Blue Oyster club in POLICE ACADEMY make you squeamish, then you may have a hard time getting into the flick. But I clocked it again just last year and maintain it's a well made murder mystery anchored by one of many solid Al Pacino performances. Moreover, just the mere audacity to make such a flick. Seriously, do you think a movie like CRUISING could be made in this day and age? Hells no!
Then there's THE GUARDIAN, the thrilling 1990 curio about a nefarious nanny who abducts young children for her Druid practice…then turns into a tree! It's a trippy if uneven flick that suffered various renditions and rewrites. While it would have been interesting to see what Sam Raimi did with the same material (he was attached by opted to make DARKMAN instead), THE GUARDIAN remains one of Friedkin's under-seen achievements.
More recently, I feel the movie BUG deserves mention. First off, it has a tremendous performance by Michael Shannon, it alone is worth checking out the flick. Second, I remember feeling quite uncomfortable when I saw BUG for the only time…to the point of not even enjoying myself. It was too extreme, too out there, too frustrating. But it's a film I've not been able to shake in 7 years. It's stayed with me. In particular, the subtext of drug use being a deadly virus (a BUG) is a metaphor I've come to admire more and more as time passes. A two-hander in a single location is always a difficult proposition, but like a true pro, Friedkin directs the material masterfully!
Sadly, we know of no next project for Billy F. When that's case, we normally steer you to the filmmakers' latest…which I'm happy to say was one of my favorite flicks of 2012. Yup, I'm talking KILLER JOE, or, when white trash meets dark comedy! Based on the play by Tracy Letts, KILLER JOE goes like this:
Finding himself in considerable debt, Chris a Texan drug dealer, decides the only solution is to murder his mother to collect the insurance money. Getting together with his father, the ex-husband of Chris' mother, they decide to hire Joe Cooper a contract killer, who also happens to be a police detective. The plan is that the money will go to Chris' sister Dottie. However due to the size of the contract fee, Chris agrees that Joe can take Dottie as a retainer until the insurance comes through.
F*ckin' bonkers! If you've not yet seen it, you HAVE to immediately. Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Hayden Church and Gina Gershon are all absolutely hilarious, depraved, perverted and totally believable. Massive props to Friedkin for making this film and proving that, even well into his 70s, dude's still got huge directorial balls. I don't know many 20-30 year olds who could make such a lively, absurd, violent and funny minor masterpiece.
Billy Friedkin is not only one of the best filmmakers to come out of Hollywood's second golden age (the 70s auteur age), he's also one of the more accomplished purveyors of eclectic horror cinema. Although he's only given us 20 or so movies over the course of 5 decades, at least half of them reside in the horror/thriller genre, many of which being the finest examples of the form. THE EXORCIST will live in infamy for its powerful, 40 year old effect on audiences worldwide, but THE EXORCIST isn't the only worthy genre piece of Mr. Friedkin's. Flicks like SORCERER, CRUISING, RAMPAGE, THE GUARDIAN, BUG, KILLER JOE are all wildly different from each other, but equally effective in their own right. Hell, even Friedkin's non genre outings (BRINK'S JOB, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., BLUE CHIPS, etc.) are more than competent works of art. Simply put, Friedkin's one of the best we've ever seen…in genre our out!