THE EXORCIST (1973)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Disturbing Images

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Peter Blatty

(based on the novel THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty)

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn & Jack MacGowran

Of all the genres to win Academy Awards and be critically acclaimed, horror seems to frequently get dealt a raw deal. The horror genre is often seen as a bit of a black sheep among other cinematic genres, lending itself more towards exploitation and ridicule than its competition. However, there exists a crowning achievement of a horror movie that gained wide critical acclaim, won prestigious awards, and is celebrated as one of the greatest films of all-time. This groundbreaking title is William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST.

After a strange artifact is unearthed at an Iraqi archeological dig, elderly Catholic priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) braces himself for an inevitable supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil. Meanwhile in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has become deeply concerned over her 12-year-old daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) increasingly strange behavior. Little Regan has been doing all sorts of crazy things, like: violently cussing out random folks, spider-crawling down the stairs, and masturbating with a crucifix. It appears that Regan has been possessed by a demon…or she might just have a serious mental disorder…but it’s most likely a demon. All the while, boxer-turned-priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) looks into the possibility of an exorcism for Regan.

Besides being scary as hell (I’ll get to that in a moment), THE EXORCIST is a very powerful film. The characters are fleshed out in ways that make the viewer feel connected to each of them for different reasons. The mother-daughter relationship between Ellen Burstyn’s Chris and Linda Blair’s Regan is believable and touching. This is the film’s heartfelt center, though it certainly isn’t the only big story arc. Jason Miller’s Karras receives a great storyline as a psychologist-turned-priest who finds his faith tested in big ways. Karras’s journey is a deeply emotional one and arguably has the greatest resolution in this film. Also, there are hints that Max Von Sydow’s briefly seen Father Merrin has encountered this demon before and his entire life has been leading up to his priest-vs-demon confrontation.

Another subplot that weaves its way in and out of the main storylines (Karras’s struggle with faith and Regan’s demonic possession) involves a curious detective looking into a strange death. I don’t want to reveal too much about this subplot because it unexpectedly arrives at a certain point in the film, but this storyline plays a major part in the proceedings as well. Lee J. Cobb (who I mainly know as ON THE WATERFRONT‘s scummy villain) plays Detective William Kinderman. Even though there’s a demon possessing a small child and plenty of horror comes from that alone, Cobb’s curious cop adds an extra layer of suspense to the already tense proceedings. The way he interacts with major characters is entertaining to watch and the stunned look on his face during his final scene is priceless.

THE EXORCIST is beautifully executed in its connected plotlines and complex characters, but this is also a horror film and it’s a very scary one at that. The film utilizes both subtle terror and effects-heavy frights. The more subtle moments come in bits of editing that occasionally flash demon Pazuzu’s pale face across small bits of the film. There’s also a moment involving a Ouija board that sure to creep viewers out, even though the scare is seemingly insignificant. The film’s bigger frights involving shaking furniture, Regan’s spinning head, and (arguably) the film’s scariest visual features a freaky message appearing on Regan’s skin. THE EXORCIST’s best sequence is one of the most famous horror scenes of all-time: a lengthy exorcism that dominates the film’s final third.

THE EXORCIST remains chilling to this day and practically birthed an entire subgenre (though the other films in that subgenre are of a much lower quality). This classic doesn’t simply function as a frightening scary movie though, because there’s plenty of genuine human drama thrown into the mix as well. Like all of the best horror films, THE EXORCIST gets the audience invested in its characters and storyline, and then proceeds to scare the living shit out of them. The film also has an undeniable entertainment factor as the foul-mouthed possessed Regan (overdubbed by radio actress Mercedes McCambridge) utters infinitely quotable, filthy lines of dialogue. With all of these phenomenal qualities taken into account, THE EXORCIST holds its place as a must-see cinematic masterpiece!

Grade: A+

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Ernest Tidyman

(based on the book THE FRENCH CONNECTION by Robin Moore)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale & Bill Hickman

Though it was directed by renowned filmmaker William Friedkin, received the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture, and contains one of the greatest car chases ever put to film, I never got around to watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION until now. Very much a movie of its time (based on a true story that occurred in the 1960’s), this gritty police thriller contains a couple of fantastic performances, some well-constructed suspense and a dark tone throughout. Though it’s not without a couple of problems, THE FRENCH CONNECTION should thrill Friedkin fans as well as those who enjoy a solid cops-and-criminals flick.

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Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo are two New York City cops who specialize in undercover drug stings. Though they’re good at their jobs, they aren’t above beating a dealer to a bloody pulp in order to get information. The boys discover that something big may be on the horizon as a wealthy French criminal and his deadly hitman have enacted a devious scheme to smuggle a lot of heroin into the country undetected. Doyle and Russo decide to make it their mission to stop the illegal transaction from going down and catch the criminals involved. This is far easier said than done.

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THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s plot is fairly straight-forward with a couple of minor twists thrown into the mix during the third act. You can pretty much guess where the story is heading for a majority of the story, but that’s not necessarily a detriment to the film. Sometimes, the simplest stories can be the most powerful. Director Friedkin keeps a careful eye behind the camera and manages to capture every bit of grime and grit present in each scene. This only adds to the dark, brooding tone of this thriller that has no trouble building substantial tension throughout the well-paced plot. That being said, the handheld camera work both makes the film feel gritty and real as well as downright amateurish during a couple of sequences.

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The best sequence of the entire film is definitely the stand-out car chase between Doyle (in a borrowed pedestrian vehicle) and the desperate hitman (on an elevated train). This is where the movie has a few happy accidents in stuntmen not quite hitting their mark and the car being involved in a couple of minor collisions. However, Friedkin (realizing the potential of what these collisions could add to the already amazing sequence) kept these mistakes in order to heighten the suspense as Doyle pursues his target. It’s an excellent piece of filmmaking to say the least. Even if you don’t plan on watching this movie, I recommend that you just look up this scene on YouTube if only to watch one of the best car chases ever put to film.

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As far as performances go, Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as Doyle. Hackman has a penchant for playing unhinged, dark characters and that reputation might very well have begun with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Though I was supposed to be rooting for Doyle, he had very noticeable flaws (a severe bad attitude and an automatic trigger-finger) that kept him at a distance from my full sympathies. With significantly less screen time, Roy Scheider is more likable as his partner. Meanwhile, Fernando Rey and Marcel Bozzulffi are great as the villains. The same cannot be said for Bill Hickman as FBI agent Mulderig, who feels more like a plot device than an actual character. Mulderig’s so-so presence makes one moment during the conclusion (which should have been shocking) into more of a shrug-inducing bit of irony.

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Besides the shaky handheld camera work (which becomes downright annoying during a couple of scenes), THE FRENCH CONNECTION has one noticeable continuity error that stuck out like a sore thumb. This comes in a night-time establishing shot that transitions immediately to the next close-up taking place in broad daylight. I rewound this scene twice in bewilderment in an effort to rationalize it being there, but it simply seems to be one big noticeable mistake in an otherwise enjoyable thriller. THE FRENCH CONNECTION is an entertaining (though flawed) cops vs. criminals flick that has a simple story, great performances, and is loaded with tension.

Grade: A-

CRUISING (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Friedkin

(based on the novel CRUISING by Gerald Walker)

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, James Remar, Jay Acovone

I discovered CRUISING in a list of the most controversial movies of all-time. While its most likely not nearly as offensive as it was upon release (it sparked huge protests from gay rights groups), the film remains a quality serial killer thriller. Proceeding celebrated films like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN, CRUISING has a similar suffocating atmosphere that compliments the disturbing material. Some scenes haven’t aged well, but for the most part, this is a creepy film that leaves you with something to chew on after the chilling final shot. Directed by William Friedkin (of EXORCIST and FRENCH CONNECTION fame) and headlining Al Pacino (coming off four Oscar nominations in the 70’s), the film was critically panned on its initial released (going as far as to receive three nominations at the first-ever Razzies). I’d be lying if I said that certain moments don’t come off as a little stereotypical of the gay community, but the movie doesn’t delve too long in this aspect and wisely puts the cat-and-mouse game first.

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Steve Burns is a cop bearing a striking resemblance to the victims of a depraved serial killer at large. Sent undercover by his captain, Burns assumes the identity of a homosexual man in the nightclub scene to become the next target of the madman. Burns goes into the extreme side of sexuality (S&M) in order to hopefully attract the killer. Making friends with his next-door neighbor, Burns finds himself going in too deep as the darkness of what he’s seeing begins to consume him. The killer may have taken an interest in him and the real struggle comes with bringing down the lunatic, while also being able to get back to a normal life after all this is over.

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CRUISING was far from the first serial killer thriller, but there’s a gritty nature around it that is distinctly echoed in things like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN. There are a moments of graphic violence (one stabbing in the beginning is horrifying), but Friedkin also keeps things remarkably restrained for a good portion of the film. Apparently, the original cut was even more disturbing with about 40 minutes being cut out to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Most of those cuts probably wound up involving graphic sexuality (something that the MPAA seems more concerned over than bloody violence). Regardless of extensive cuts to the running time, the movie runs at a deliberate pace that slows to a crawl in the middle which may put some viewers to sleep. Besides this lull in the storytelling, the film does pick up very quickly in the final third. If the entire movie had maintained the high level of suspense so thick you could cut it with a knife that’s shown in quiet scenes near the ending, then I’d say CRUISING was a forgotten masterpiece.

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There are a few too many scenes of Pacino diving into the gay nightclub lifestyle, including a couple of silly dance scenes. The movie is first and foremost a serial killer mystery, but it also focuses a little too much on the natural 80’s cheese that comes with this time period. That may not make total sense when you read that sentence, but if you do wind up seeing this movie, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie also takes a subtle and disturbing road in its conclusion. Lots of questions go unanswered (Friedkin admits this himself) and the result is made even more disturbing for certain plot threads not being tied up with a nice little bow on top. The final scenes of CRUISING are something that can be debated and analyzed in many different ways with varying conclusions. The truth is that nobody absolutely knows what it all means, but everybody can get their own interpretation of what they take away from it. I found the ambiguous ending to be rather haunting in a lot of ways and the final shot (added up with my interpretation up to that point) was blood-chilling.

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CRUISING is a dark and disturbing film. Friedkin has said in interviews that his wife hated him for making it, but he can understand why. This is a tough movie that leaves you with a little something to chew on. Al Pacino does a good job, which we’ve all come to expect from him as a talented actor. Friedkin directs a majority of the film in masterful fashion, even though the middle does drag. I liked the way the conclusion played out which is part of the reason I’m recommending this one so highly. It’s a divisive film that some will love and others will hate, but everybody can take something away from the ending that might result in a heated conversation on what it all means. William Friedkin has had spectacular ups and disappointing downs in his career, but CRUISING is a little-known flick that deserves more attention. It’s dated and the pacing gets a little wonky for the middle section, but it still comes very much recommended for fans of serial killer thrillers.

Grade: B+

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