One of the true but unspoken shames of the horror convention industry is that, if you make one horror film that is moderately well known, you will be able to live off that moderate level of fame for the rest of your life, signing autographs and paying the bills when you’re unable to continue a career or move into a more populous genre of film. William Friedkin may be one of the only film directors who made one of the most iconic horror films in American history, and has never in his career settled back on that comfort.
Friedkin began his career as a television director, but quickly moved into features with independent projects like “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” and “The Boys in the Band.” His career was officially on fire when his next film, the gritty and realistic crime drama “The French Connection,” won five Academy Awards, including one for himself as Best Director. His follow-up film, “The Exorcist,” was a box-office smash and another Oscar winner.
His career became broader and more hard to pinpoint from there, shifting between tense thrillers (like “Sorcerer,” the remake of the Henri Clouzot film “The Wages of Fear”), true-life comedies (the heist film “The Brink’s Job), and controversial dramas (the gay-biker themed Al Pacino cop film “Cruising”). His insistence on trying every kind of movie and not carrying a specific style or cadence from one work to another made it hard for audiences to build a loyalty to his work. After his triumph directing “To Live and Die In L.A.”, it was a long and middling series of films during the heavily corporate-run decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
He had something of a resurgence in interest in the new millennium, from the military thriller “Rules of Engagement” to another film with Tommy Lee Jones, the wilderness action film “The Hunted.” He has recently had a few successful indie films based on plays by playwright Tracy Letts, but Friedkin has never returned to the glory and respect that he saw in the late 1970’s as an accepted and revered member of the New Hollywood. But he never cashed in and signed autographs, either. He has one undisputed classic on his resume, and two interesting, if lesser known, entries in the genre.
After forty years of observation, criticism, and rewatching, there is little left to say about Friedkin’s work on William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.” A film that works better than most horror films because of Friedkin’s insistence on a level of documentary realism, this is the film by which all other exorcism, possession, and battle with the devil films will always be measured. Great performances by Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and the unfortunately under-utilized Jason Miller (whose career would continue after this film, but who would never see a better platform for his subtle skills) put this film rightfully in the arena of “Silence of the Lambs” as one of the only horror films to win major Academy Awards.
When the director of “The Exorcist” was announced to be directing a horror film for the first time in seventeen years, the excitement must have been palpable; that is, until everyone found out that the film was about a nanny who is a secret Druid trying to feed a young couple’s baby to a living tree rooted nearby. A truly unusual film, it almost goes beyond the idea of good or bad because of its strange story and casting, and its refusal to veer into camp. Still, it’s worth seeing to say that you watched the movie with the baby-eating tree.
A remarkable film that not only chronicles Friedkin’s return into brilliant and paranoid cinema, but also displays the talent of Ashley Judd and acts as a clarion call for the brilliance of then-unknown actor Michael Shannon. Essentially a one-location thriller about a confused woman whose problems root from a lost child, and the twisted relationship she embarks on with an ex-military man whose eccentricities pave the way for disturbing revelations about his sanity, “Bug” is a film that is felt as much as it is seen: the filthy room, the western heat, the drunken and drugged haze. It’s a taut masterpiece of shifting reality and consuming discomfort that reminds the world that this was the man who made back-to-back Oscar-winning films.