Finding the grace notes: ‘LEAP OF FAITH’ dissects ‘THE EXORCIST’ with scary, fascinating detail

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST

Not rated, 104 minutes.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Subject: William Friedkin

The power of documentary compels you.

Very few documentarians can take a simple idea and run with it into a richly layered realm. However, Alexandre O. Philippe is not an ordinary documentarian. He’s an analyzer, truth-seeker, and collector of many unique perspectives who uses offbeat methods to make his mark. Philippe took two of the most iconic scenes in genre filmmaking (Psycho’s shower scene and the chest-burster sequence in Alien) and peeled back their layers to see why they’ve been placed in the cinematic time capsule.

With his latest project, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, Philippe shakes things up by making a scrumptious film analysis. The sole source is Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, who casually recounts making his 1973 horror classic. There are no other talking heads or testimonials from any colleagues or theorists. Nothing rings particularly sycophantic about it. It’s precisely Friedkin’s unguarded tenor that makes Philippe’s film such a profound and riveting experience. 

When it comes to The Exorcist, it seems most people focus on the scares. Its discussions around Linda Blair’s character’s legendary spider walk (only in the director’s cut), the crucifix masturbation scene, or the nightmare-inducing head spin moment. There’s plenty to be scared of, and Philippe gives attention to those areas. But what is perhaps most surprising about Leap of Faith is how it delves into the themes and sensory elements of The Exorcist –– the poetic nature, the skin-crawling musical score, the lighting, the artistic inspiration behind certain images, and the state of mind everyone was in. 

Friedkin has a no-nonsense mentality when it comes to making films. One of the most shocking reveals happens when The Exorcist director unearths a story about failing to get a reaction out of an actor. Some may have heard about the physically grueling experience star Ellen Burstyn had on set that left her with permanent spine damage. That scene isn’t discussed here, but Friedkin does bring up another behind-the-scenes bit where Friedkin smacked actor William O’Malley in the face to get him to produce an authentic emotion.

“I hit [O’Malley] full in the face… and pushed him in front of the camera and said, ‘Action!’ And afterward he hugged me and thanked me because there was no other way he was ever going to get that,” Friedkin says in the film. “But I don’t think I would do that again, that way. Techniques like that would not go over today.” 

From there, Friedkin says how it wasn’t an approach that he invented and that filmmakers like John Ford and George Stevens did whatever it took to portray the truth, which opens up a school of thought that could warrant a whole other documentary. 

Leap of Faith doesn’t make you just more invested in The Exorcist, but also classic cinema and art, too. Friedkin often brings up inspirations from other works, whether it’s a visual one or a particular feeling he wanted to recapture. Philippe follows suit by inserting clips from other films that illustrate Friedkin’s words. It has a lyrical and spiritual quality that perfectly elevates the material.

Leap of Faith is a compelling documentary, possessed of a breezy, curious tone. It largely centers on the creative clashes Friedkin had to achieve a film with legs, ultimately proving himself right most of the time. Friedkin is a welcome subject because he’s equally fascinating when explaining his beloved film’s background, even going as far as to expose weak spots and share what might have been. You’ll grow to have a greater appreciation of the directors’ work (both Friedkin and Philippe) and a desire to seek out and revisit their titles.

Grade: B+

Leap of Faith is now available to stream on Shudder.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.