BBC iPlayer TV review: The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist
James R | On 02, Nov 2019
The Exorcist is, without a doubt, one of the scariest films ever made – and, without a doubt, the man most determined to convince you of that fact is Mark Kermode. The BBC critic is known for his ardent love of William Friedkin’s seminal horror, so it is no surprise that in 1998, he wound up presenting a documentary marking its 25th anniversary. 21 years on, however, it is a surprise that BBC iPlayer should bring it back to our screens for Halloween, after the documentary has existed in various cuts in various places but never available to stream legally until now.
Kermode is an engagingly enthusiastic guide to give us a tour of the real life locations used for the film, but where Nick Freand Jones’ film succeeds is that it doesn’t just present a making-of, but also asks why the movie struck such a chord with viewers – indeed, Warner Bros. initially almost didn’t want to release the film at all, convinced it would be a flop.
“It’s about a real street with real people living in it,” observes director William Friedkin and that push for realism runs through the whole production. Jason Miller, who played Damien, wasn’t an actor at all, but a playwright whose work Friedkin decided “reeked of failed Catholicism”. The iconic stairs with which audiences would become brutally acquainted actually were used to throw a body down, with rubber padding added on each step to help the stunt person survive. Ellen Burstyn, who plays the mother of the possessed Regan, reveals how she was injured by Friedkin’s forceful throwing of her to the ground during one sequence. And that famous projectile vomit? It was hot pea soup that, as it cooled, ended up being overshot to compensate – right into people’s faces.
Getting the room to be cold was literally a question of leaving air conditioners on overnight, while the movement of the set and the bed were all done in real-time, not just as a camera trick – all symptoms of a grounded spooky story that, throughout, doesn’t dismiss rational science in the face of religious fear.
Kermode collects these anecdotes from every key player you could imagine, from writer William Peter Blatty (somewhat at odds with Freidkin) to even someone from the BBFC. That access is crucial to the documentary’s level on insight, but it’s Kermode interviewing and passion for the subject that illuminate that insight, and draw those recollections out. We see the cast and crew’s genuine pauses as they reflect on the fact that several people lost their lives while making the film – almost as compelling a reason to watch as the enjoyable sight of a notably younger Mark Kermode sporting a higher-pitched voice and a more exuberantly oiled quiff.
The result manages the difficult job of explaining some of the aura that still surrounds The Exorcist, while also amplifying it. If you’re planning to watch the original movie this winter, this is an ideal chaser to follow it. If you’ve always been too scared to watch, this will make you finally push the play button – even though you’ll still have nightmares afterwards anyway.
The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist is available on BBC iPlayer for over a year.