Shudder UK film review: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
Ivan Radford | On 26, Dec 2020
Director: Alexander O Philippe
Cast: William Friedkin
Watch Leap of Faith online in the UK: Shudder UK
What is there left to say about The Exorcist? 47 years on from its debut, William Friedkin’s seminal horror is not only one of the scariest entries in the genre, but also one of its most discussed. Alexandre O Philippe, who gave us such incisive essays as Hitchcock shower doc 78/52, is therefore an idea person to bring a new take on the classic to the screen. A thoughtful and detailed dissector of cinema, he’s at the forefront of modern cinematic essays.
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is a somewhat surprising offering from him, because it doesn’t give us the kind of obsessive examination of The Exorcist that you might expect. Instead, as its title suggests, he chooses to simply interview the director and linger on his recounting of making the film – a decision that gives this documentary a decidedly one-dimensional approach. Initially, it appears to be a fairly surface-level chat about the behind-the-scenes that you might have heard before – like the way Friedkin slapped Father William O’Malley to get the kind of shock he needed on camera, or the importance of using raw eggs in trying to strain the vocal chords of Mercedes McCambridge enough to voice Pazuzu.
But once you’ve tapped into the flow of the documentary, you realise that this isn’t a film about The Exorcist at all – really, as its title indicates, it’s a film about William Friedkin himself, and Philippe relishes the chance to delve into the myth-making around The Exorcist, as told be a man whose a storyteller even when he isn’t behind the camera. There’s a lot of discussion, therefore, about the thematic and spiritual content of the film, particularly the ending, which, although it seems fairly clear-cut, is a source of great conflict for Friedkin.
“Films are about the mystery of fate or the mystery of faith,” remarks the director, and while he talks about forces beyond him that shaped the film’s production – the casting of Father Damien Karras, for example, was a surprise, last-minute revelation. This is less the kind of gossiping that we’ve come to associate with The Exorcist’s supposedly cursed production, and more about the way that Friedkin himself perceives these things; with William Peter Blatty sadly unable to contribute his point of view, Friedkin’s take on his own creative process takes us all the way from day-to-day observations from the set and the rejection of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the Ryōan-ji Zen temple gardens in Kyoto. It’s the latter that really opens up an unexpected amount of depth and intrigue, as the film fully immerses us in Friedkin’s worldview – one that’s swayed by fate as much as faith, and invites us to take one step at a time up the stairs towards seeing The Exorcist anew. The result is an ideal companion piece to Mark Kermode’s Fear of God (on BBC iPlayer) and The Devil and Father Amorth (on Netflix UK), creating a trilogy of The Exorcist commentaries that, together, give you the definitive word on a definitive horror.
Leap of Faith is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.