A documentary about the making of The Exorcist with no input from Mark Kermode? If this were backed by Warner Brothers or Morgan Creek, it’d be hauled back for reshoots with Dr K showing up at the end like Nicol Williamson in the studio cut of Exorcist III or a complete do-over a la Dominion/Exorcist The Beginning.
Alexandre O. Philippe, following his takes on Psycho (78/52) and Alien (Memory), specialises on narrow-focus cinedocs, looking at one scene from Psycho or only the first act of Alien … here, he considers the whole film but with only one perspective, as William Friedkin gives his side of things in an informal chat about the movie illustrated with on-the-nose clips – snippets of everything from Dreyer’s Ordet through Stacy Keach in Luther to 2001 A Space Odyssey illustrate exact points – and a range of other source material, including some literally illuminating glances at classical painting (Friedkin cites Caravaggio, Magritte and Vermeer). Given how contested The Exorcist – not to mention all the sequels – has been as a text, there’s only a little bit about the various cuts and deletions and restorations made since the initial release.
Underneath it all is a phantom story about the relationship between William Peter Blatty, author of the novel (and attempted auteur of Legion/Exorcist III), and Friedkin, and their strange mixture of trust, loyalty and deep, unresolved disagreements about the material. Friedkin tells two anecdotes about the casting of Father Karras that Philippe juxtaposes in a way that raises a thought which doesn’t seem to occur to Friedkin. He reveals that Blatty so identified with Karras that he offered to give up his percentage in the film if the director cast him in the role – which Friedkin didn’t do. He also says that Stacy Keach was cast and had to be paid off when Jason Miller, a playwright who happened to have studied for the priesthood, lobbied for a screen test. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Blatty would have been able to accept being passed over for a respected screen actor – he would later build his own film The Ninth Configuration around Keach – but must have fumed to find out the part had gone to a non-acting writer who wasn’t him. As a clip demonstrates, Miller later tied another thread to the tapestry when he directed a film of That Championship Season, the stage play Friedkin saw, and cast Keach in a role.
I get the feeling that much of the history of The Exorcist has been driven by Blatty trying to reclaim the material from Friedkin, while honestly feeling – as we see in an inscription in Friedkin’s copy of the novel – that the film improved on the book. Here, Friedkin dismisses Blatty’s first draft screenplay as a bloated mess – but Blatty chose to publish it alongside the Oscar-winning final draft in a paperback that was the first salvo in a war over recutting the film to underline its spiritual message with pauses between rites for the priests to discuss the meaning of it all. Blatty’s earnest intention extended to the novel Legion and its hacked-about film version, while Friedkin blithely admits here that he’s never quite understood what Blatty intended actually to happen in the last act of The Exorcist and has given up trying to rationalise it while being relatively content to let the audience draw their own conclusions.
It’s a shame Blatty has passed on, because it would be a handy exercise to follow this with a different documentary in which the author takes the chair and talks through his side of things – maybe that would offer the sort of odd overlap/argument found by double-billing Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning. And, while we’re at it, Friedkin spends no time talking about the supposed supernatural happenings around the shooting of the film – in fact, even when present at an actual exorcism for the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, he only owns up to being disturbed not convinced of the presence of the diabolic – but surely the real curse of The Exorcist is that something in the material leads to works that can never be finished or exist in metastatising multiple versions … as studios hire ambitious visionaries (including John Boorman and Paul Schrader) to make studies in spiritual desolation, then get a look at what they turn in and wish they’d gone with Renny Harlin and a spooky horror film with shock puke scenes in the first place.