Formatted almost like a film school lecture, “Leap of Faith,” a new documentary about the making of “The Exorcist” and now streaming on Shudder, is a master class in how a classic movie was made.
In the almost fifty years after the release of a movie that was heralded as everything from “religious porn” to “pure cinematic terror,” “The Exorcist” has not lacked for critical analysis. Thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled printing books and articles on the subject while in the internet age everyone who has ever stepped into a theatre seems to have written something about the film. “Leap of Faith” does everyone who has ever posited an opinion on the film’s meaning one better. It goes to the source with an in-depth interview with the movie’s director William Friedkin.
Documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe goes long with the director on the creative process, nailing down the definitive stories of how the 1973 horror film came to be. Much of the information was covered in the 2014 autobiography, “The Friedkin Connection,” but here the director’s way with a story and Philippe’s use of visuals makes the stories cinematic.
This isn’t a casual fan doc. Friedkin and Philippe dig deep to uncover the film’s visual influences—everything from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 “Ordet” to Magritte’s “The Empire of Light” series—to how recording the score ended a long-time friendship. There is great detail on the casting, the filming of controversial scenes and why star Max von Sydow, who once played Jesus in a film, had so much trouble performing one of “The Exorcist’s” most pious and famous sequences.
Over and over Friedkin talks about following his instincts and making decisions that either seemed counterintuitive or deemed too costly by the studio. “I didn’t question my instincts,” he says, which I suppose is at least part of the reason the film is called “Leap of Faith.” There’s the obvious reason and then there’s the small leaps of faith that those working with Friedkin had to take along the way. Hearing about his battles with everyone from studio heads on down to get his vision to the screen is an interesting reminder of Hollywood when creative vison could trump corporate interference.
“Leap of Faith” isn’t a flashy film. It’s a detailed, if straightforward, making of documentary that connects the dots between the filmmaker and his faith in an interesting, if long winded way.
The spooky new supernatural thriller Deliver Us From Evil sees Eric Bana play a jaded NYC police officer. “I’ve seen some horrible things,” he says, “but nothing that can’t be explained by human nature.”
That changes when he meets a renegade priest (Édgar Ramírez) who convinces him a plague of demonic possession has infected the Big Apple. Working together, they combat the evil forces with exorcism and faith.
Deliver Us From Evil is based on a nonfiction book of the same name authored by Ralph Sarchie (with Lisa Collier Cool), a sixteen-year NYPD veteran who investigates “cases of demonic possession and (assists) in the exorcisms of humanity’s most ancient—and most dangerous—foes,” in his spare time.
“Before going out on a case,” he writes, “I put aside my gun and police badge and arm myself with holy water and a relic of the True Cross.”
Sarchie’s story joins a long list of exorcism movies with roots in true events.
The Exorcist, the granddaddy of all demon possession movies, is based in part on the 1949 case of an anonymous Maryland teenager dubbed Roland Doe. He was determined by the Catholic Church to be under a diabolical spell when strange things started happening — levitating furniture and holy water vials crashing to the ground — after he played with a Ouija board.
Exorcist author William Peter Blatty first heard about Doe’s story when he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1950. He drew from newspaper reports and a diary kept by the attending priest, Fr. Raymond Bishop, as the backbone of his novel.
The character of Father Lankester Merrin, the elderly priest and archeologist played by Max von Sydow in the movie, was based on British archaeologist Gerald Lankester Harding. Blatty said Harding “was the physical model in my mind when I created the character, whose first name, please note, is Lankester.”
In recent years hits like The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a real life exorcist tutor, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose with Tom Wilkinson as a priest accused of murder when a young woman died during an exorcism, are based on true events.
Finally in The Possession, a haunted antique carved “Dybbuk” box — containing an evil, restless spirit — turns the behaviour of a young girl (Natasha Calis) from angelic to animalistic. The owner of the real-life box offered to send it to producer Sam Raimi but the filmmaker declined. “I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “I’m scared of the thing.”
“The Exorcist” was released 40 years ago to great fanfare.
“This film, when it came out, lived at the very center of popular culture,” film critic and author Richard Crouse told CNN. “It was the only thing that people talked about. The speed of popular culture wasn’t as fast as it is now. Even a big hit like ‘Gravity,’ people are excited for a week, excited for two weeks, and then it fades away until awards season comes around. But it wasn’t like that in 1973. This movie, for a year, really inked out all available entertainment space.”
Crouse, author of the book “Raising Hell,” recalled “stories about people throwing up at screenings…