William Friedkin RIP 1935-August 7, 2023
William Friedkkn’s 1973 The Exorcist was a horror blockbuster as much from a cultural standpoint as box-office or genre film standpoint. No other film made as much of an emotional impact on me than seeing The Exorcist with a packed audience at the huge Loew’s theatre in Montreal. So packed that my friend and I (who were both under age I should add) had to sit in the only available seats right in the front row of the large Loew’s theatre screen. The anticipation my friend and I felt after the media frenzy around the film was palpable and the genius prologue in Iraq —a scene not in the novel so entirely Friedkin and Blatty’s design— was so unexpected its length felt interminable (“When is the scary stuff going to start, we thought to ourselves!”). But the way the sequence so eloquently set up many of the film’s themes without any obvious scares to set up the audience for the film’s slow burn horror was an aesthetic masterclass of narrative build-up. From 1968-1980 Friedkin had an enviable run of unique films each different in tone or subject yet remarkable personal reflections of how art can reflect social anxiety: The Birthday Party, 1968 (an engrossing Harold Pinter adaptation with a fantastic pre-1975 Jaws Robert Shaw performance, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1968 (show business musical comedy starring Jason Robards and Britt Ekland), The Boys in the Band, 1970 (bitchy, ahead of its time gay comedy drama), The French Connection, 1971 (multiple academy award winning police drug crime thriller with an all-star cast including Gene Hackman as unrelenting detective Popeye Doyle, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey), The Exorcist, 1973 (arguably the greatest horror film ever made), Sorcerer, 1977 (on its day overlooked but now recognized as a masterful remake of Clouzet’s taut as a clothes line thriller The Wages of Fear, 1957), Cruising, 1980 (Friedkin’s second gay themed film, a detective-serial killer cat n’ mouse thriller set in the New York city underground gay S & M nightclub scene, which caused shock and controversy on its initial release. Post 1980 Friedkin would only sporadically scale these same artistic heights with To Live and Die in LA (1985), Bug (2006), and Killer Joe (2011), but his own legacy as a cantankerous old school director as dictator was cemented and endorsed by his own many on screen testaments and interviews (such as Alexandre O. Philippe’s elucidating documentary Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, 2019).