Despite being discussed ad nauseam like most everything else regarding The Exorcist (1973), director William Friedkin’s statements regarding “horror” never being an intention of his nor author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty with the film remains one of the more curious, and perhaps slightly misinterpreted, pieces of the film’s legacy. While Friedkin has admitted that The Exorcist is of course a horror film (1), his remarks of how “I thought it was a film about the mystery of faith”(2) have nevertheless understandably irked many horror fans so used to filmmakers or critics substituting “horror” with some other term, typically “psychological thriller”, in attempts to distance themselves from the genre. Friedkin however is hardly hostile to horror, being a vocal fan of the genre. Particularly of classics such as Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1969), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955) as well as Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Suspiria (1977) (3), Friedkin and Argento being longstanding friends. Friedkin’s post-Exorcist filmography [i] even saw Friedkin flirting with horror in a variety of ways from the giallo and slasher echoes of Cruising (1980), the gruesome true crime roots of Rampage (1987) based on the “Vampire of Sacramento” Richard Chase, the traumatic paranoia of Bug (2006) and even returning the genre outright with The Guardian (1990) and episodes of The Twilight Zone (1985-1989) and Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996), “Nightcrawlers” and “On a Dead Man’s Chest”. Even an erotic thriller like Jade (1995) bares obvious stylistic traces of Friedkin’s admiration of Argento [ii]. Friedkin’s remarks on a lack of “horror” intent with The Exorcist seem then to relate more to a temperamental approach to Blatty’s source material, both approaching the story in a straightforward dramatic and character driven manner rather than structuring the film solely around the iconic scenes of visual horror.

Friedkin’s statements of intent are somewhat ironic as the most affecting horror of The Exorcist is built upon the dramatic, character focused foundation. As has been pointed out innumerable times since the film’s release, the true horror of the The Exorcist lies not in Linda Blair’s green vomit or spinning head, Dick Smith’s brilliance notwithstanding. Obviously, the horror of an innocent child corrupted by an unseen entity is central to The Exorcist. However, the horror conjured by Friedkin and Blatty is also rooted in something much more tangible, Friedkin and Blatty wanting the film “as realistic as possible, with the flavor of a documentary”(4). That flavor coming from the horror felt by Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil. A single mother that, despite her well-off, famous actress status with access to the best resources, is still forced to watch helplessly as her only daughter is slowly overtaken by said unseen entity. This more personal intensity and investment, sustained throughout even the most fantastical, special effects-heavy moments, is not unique to The Exorcist, with much of the close to home realism of the film inherent in Friedkin’s work since debut The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) [iii]. A documentary centered on the titular death row inmate Crump, so powerful was the film Crump’s case was re-evaluated and sentence eventually commuted. Dubbed a “method director” by Killer Joe (2012) star Gina Gershon, well documented are the stories of Friedkin’s up-close-and-personal, one-take style from the potentially deadly filming of the legendary car chase in The French Connection (1971) to Friedkin’s participating in actual narcotic raids in preparation for the film. The authenticity of Cruising was similarly born from Friedkin’s friendships with figureheads of the New York crime underworld granting permission to film inside the leather bars which were part of their racket. Friedkin’s commitment to realism in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) even drew the attention of the feds, both the physical printed counterfeit money as well as the counterfeiting techniques seen in the film a bit too close to federal comfort.    

To me the two most interesting characters in the history of the world are Hitler and Jesus” says Friedkin in the opening moments of Francesco Zippel’s documentary profile Friedkin Uncut (2018). “There’s good and evil in everybody. That’s a truth that I believe, that there is good and evil in every human being. Every single one of the people out there. And me.” Friedkin’s most direct and literal exploration of this duality in the classic religious sense, the concept of a 12 year old girl becoming capable of evil via demonic possession is again crucial to the effectiveness of The Exorcist. Though much like Ellen Burstyn’s predicament, perhaps even more so is the ambiguity surrounding the evil, the demon Pazuzu’s motives never explicitly stated, remaining a “mystery of faith” as Friedkin might say. Pazuzu being an exterior, invading force also uniquely contrasts The Exorcist with other Friedkin films centered on the tug-of-war between the light and the dark. While not under the possession of literal demons, Friedkin’s characters nonetheless tend to exist in ambiguous, moral gray areas, inhabited by their own more interior and oftentimes obsessive personal Pazuzu’s targeting similar crisis’ or “mysteries” of faith as experienced by Jason Miller’s Father Damien Karras throughout The Exorcist. One such obsession inhabiting Friedkin himself for The Exorcist, Friedkin admitting the film “inspired me to the point of obsession” (4), as well as the historically treacherous, both physically and psychologically, shooting of Sorcerer (1977). Friedkin’s follow-up to The Exorcist, a descent through a jungle Hell on Earth, Sorcerer, the film and the namesake truck in the film, was driven by highly morally dubious characters possessed by their own individual obsessions, greed, ideologies and desperations. While the nihilism of Sorcerer of was one of the main critical rallying cries against the film, the dubious mortality would only become more pronounced in subsequent Friedkin films, Friedkin telling the American Film Institute in 2003 “I don’t make films about heroes and villains. Each person, with rare exception, has both things going on at all times.”(5)   

The fixation on duality is the key thread running through all of Friedkin’s crime films and films dealing with law enforcement in any capacity, Friedkin quick to highlight the “thin line” between cop and criminal. “There is a thin line between the policeman and the criminal” said Friedkin while discussing To Live and Die in L.A (6).“The best cops are always crossed” Friedkin continued, “The best cops are the ones who are able to think like criminals. But for a quirk of fate, they might have been criminals.”(6) To Live and Die in L.A. being a quintessential Friedkin crime narrative with Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Peterson) being a quintessential Friedkin cop proving accurate  Nietzsche’s warning about fighting monsters in his possessive, obsessive pursuit of counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Peterson’s Chance was of course an 80’s variation on Friedkin’s most famous bad cop, “Popeye” Jimmy Doyle portrayed by Gene Hackman in The French Connection, similarly consumed by his own ethically line crossing hunt of “Frog One” Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Particularly fascinating is Cruising with the possible interpretation of Al Pacino himself being responsible for some of the killings he’s been sent undercover to investigate. Pacino’s brief dialogues with Nancy Allen with lines like “There’s a lot you don’t know about me” further emphasize this possible duel side. Equally fascinating is Rampage with prosecutor Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) experiencing a Father Karaas-esque crisis of faith in his prosecutorial profession. A staunchly anti-death penalty prosecutor, when confronted with the grisly crimes of Charlies Reece (Alex MacArthur), Fraser seeks the death penalty, the tageline of the film “Sometimes a life must be taken” reflecting Fraser’s conclusion when faced with certain evils. For a later title like Killer Joe, Friedkin dispensed with some of the subtleties, Matthew McConaughey’s titular “Killer” Joe Cooper a homicide detective by day and outright killer-for-hire by night, operating within his own custom moral core that still has its own set of ambiguities.

Despite the success of The Exorcist, the film undoubtedly Friedkin’s most recognized along with The French Connection, and the various aforementioned spiritual parallels with other films, Friedkin has long resisted returning to “The Exorcist” as a property. No fan of the sequels, referring to them as “unbearable” (2), Friedkin’s interest in the topic of possession and exorcism nonetheless remained since directing The Exorcist. So much so that in April of 2015 when in Italy for the Puccini Festival, Freidkin the recipient of the Puccini Prize for his opera work, Friedkin expressed interest in meeting with Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Vatican (4). 90 years old at the time, Father Amorth was a veteran of over one thousand exorcisms, having held his official chief exorcist position since 1992, succeeding Father Candido Amantini whom he’d been assisting since 1986 (4). The Karaas to Amantini’s Father Merrin, so-to-speak. Amorth also happened to be an admirer of The Exorcist, even writing of the importance of the film in bringing general awareness and interest in exorcisms in his 1990 autobiography An Exorcist Tells His Story (4). “The ritual of exorcism is not practiced by an ordinary priest. An exorcist requires specific training and must be thought to have a personal sanctity” (4) wrote Friedkin in describing Amorth for a Vanity Fair article in 2016. Initially intending to simply speak with Father Amorth, Friedkin asked if it were possible to not only witness, but film the Father at work, documenting the process of exorcism. Much to Friedkin’s great surprise, Amorth answered in the affirmative, Friedkin ultimately documenting his experience not simply for the Vanity Fair piece but making a return to his early days of hands-on documentary filmmaking as well with The Devil and Father Amorth, released two years following the publication of the Vanity Fair article in 2018.

The documentary opens with Friedkin outside Georgetown University, alma mater of Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Along with archival interview footage with Blatty, who passed away in 2017, Friedkin gives a brief overview of the 1949 “Roland Doe” case in Cottage City, Maryland which inspired Blatty to write The Exorcist novel, in which a 14-year old boy was said to have been possessed. Just as with Regan in the film, after a variety of medical and psychological professionals failed to determine the cause of the boy’s affliction, two Catholic priests were called upon to perform the exorcism rite numerous times. Though Friedkin admits he had “no particular interest in the spiritual or the supernatural” (4) when Blatty asked him to direct The Exorcist, Blatty was particularly convinced of the validity of the 1949 case as the family involved refused any publicity. By the time Friedkin directed the film however, he admits early in The Devil and Father Amorth he too believed in the case. Following some brief biographical background on Father Amorth’s fighting in the Italian resistance during WWII at the age of 18, becoming a priest ten years later, Friedkin introduces testimony from two siblings, Palo and Nadia Vizzacchero, who had sought Father Amorth’s expertise. As Palo describes, Nadia was “suffering a spiritual disease”, experiencing many of classic symptoms many have come to associate with possession such as speaking unknown languages, showing “extraordinary strength” according to Palo, Nadia having to be tied to a bed for her second exorcism,  and behaving so violently unhinged the police refused to enter her home when called. After four exorcisms conducted by Father Amorth over the course of eight months, Nadia was “liberated”, Father Amorth then exorcising Palo as a precautionary measure.         

Palo became an assistant to Father Amorth for future exorcisms. As the film details, it was through Palo that Father Amorth was introduced to the heart of the documentary in many ways despite Father Amorth being the film’s namesake, Cristina, a 46-year old architect (Her name was changed to “Rosa” in Friedkin’s original Vanity Fair piece) said to be suffering from a “spiritual disease”. Upon hearing screaming coming from a church, Cristina writing on the floor, Palo immediately recognized the same symptoms as experienced by Nadia. Discussing her constant “attacks” on dates related to Jesus with Friedkin, Cristina described her life as one of “pain and suffering” and reached out to Father Amorth after coming to a “point of no return”, psychiatrists having failed to cure this “spiritual disease”.  “Cristina is possessed by the devil” says Father Amorth directly to Friedkin’s camera. “The devil’s power is supernatural. He speaks and acts through her.” When asked by Friedkin how he can be sure of possession, Amorth responds “I can only be sure when I perform an exorcism and provoke reactions that are unique to a possessed person.” Friedkin then segues into the centerpiece of the documentary, Cristina’s ninth exorcism conducted by Father Amorth. Lasting around fifteen minutes, Cristina’s ordeal lacks the levitation, green spew and head spinning made famous by Friedkin’s earlier filmed exorcism. There is nevertheless a strange and curious intensity to what follows with Cristina’s violent shaking and thrashing inches away from the elderly Amorth. Surrounded by frantically praying family, Friedkin’s lone camera closes in tightly as Cristina is forcefully held down by boyfriend Davide, himself with a possessed look in his eyes throughout the exorcism. The Exorcist is recalled however in the exchanges between Amorth and Cristina during the exorcism, Cristina exclaiming “We are legion!… We are armies!” when interrogated by Father Amorth who ends the ceremony with an emphatic “Enough!” following the familiar “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!”  

Following Cristina’s exorcism, Friedkin shifts from the religious to the scientific, having a number of psychological and medical experts from UCLA, the Tel Aviv Medical Center and Columbia University review and remark upon the exorcism footage. Expecting pure dismissal or at the very least skepticism, Friedkin is rather surprised by all the interviewees rather dismissing the idea of “unconscious fraud” Friedkin asks might be at play. In fact, all during the Columbia discussion concur that Cristina is unquestionably suffering a bizarre affliction, psychologically speaking, with a recognized name in the psychology field, “Dissociative Trance Disorder”. This portion of the film is especially fascinating as the group discuss the potential benefits of exorcism as a psychological “cure” akin to psychotherapy with a variety of factors at play. Environment and culture being the driving factors in Cristina’s case. “Everybody in the room, they actually believe this is the framework of reality” states one of the Columbia doctors, the true belief of both the “possessed” individual as well as all involved participants perhaps lending to a kind of placebo response. True belief, or personal spirituality and holiness become the center of Friedkin’s conversation with Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who takes Friedkin aback with his confession of he himself feeling not personally holy or spiritual enough, despite his position as Archbishop, to do Father Amorth’s work. Describing evil like a “shadow” or “parasite”, evil is never truly “inherent” Barron tells Friedkin. However, everyone is susceptible, particularly when getting “in close quarters” with the Devil, as Barron words it. Writer Jeffery Burton Russell, author of numerous Satan-centric books, gives a similar warning, Friedkin even opening the documentary with Burton proclaiming “The more you open yourself to thinking about this stuff and you start feeling about this stuff, the more room you allow for the supernatural power of evil to come in.

Cristina’s exorcism happened to coincide with Father Amorth’s 91st birthday as Friedkin cuts back to Amorth celebrating with Cristina’s family post-exorcism. As Father Amorth gives Cristina’s father and mother precautionary blessings however, Cristina’s ninth exorcism proves unsuccessful as Cristina suffers another attack. Her protests and violent thrashings are more intense than during her exorcism, Davide struggling to keep Cristina in a death grip, his eyes too, even more frightening and impassioned than during Cristina’s exorcism. “And then suddenly it was over. But for how long?” asks Friedkin’s voice over, seguing into the most fantastical portion of the film surely to taken with the biggest grain of salt by most. Not in the sense of what is shown but rather what is being described by Friedkin’s narration, the only source of information for this segment of the film as Friedkin admits to leaving his camera in the car prior to retelling the events. As Friedkin recounts, after Cristina’s last minute relocating of an interview from Rome to the small mountainous village of Alatri, Friedkin and his line producer were led first to a park and finally to a church in the village square. Friedkin proceeds to tell of being “trapped in a living nightmare” upon entering the church, greeted a ferocious, screaming Cristina in another trance state sliding around the floor dragging Davide with her, both demanding Friedkin give back the video footage of the exorcism. “No, I want it shown!” screamed Cristina “in the voice of the demon” claims Friedkin’s narration, Davide supposedly going so far as to threaten to find and kill Friedkin’s family before Friedkin and his line producer rushed out of the church back to Rome.   

Although hoping to exorcise Cristina for a tenth and hopefully final time, Father Amorth had been hospitalized prior to the episode in the church described by Friedkin. After contracting pneumonia while in the hospital, Amorth died on September 16, 2016 at the age of 91. “He was the most spiritual man I’ve ever met” says Friedkin near the films closing moments. Cristina’s ultimate fate however is left up in the air, Friedkin claiming to have reached out but getting no reply at all, though second-hand accounts from friends in Italy report Cristina still seeking exorcism from other priests, albeit unsuccessfully, Father Amorth being, as Friedkin states, “in a class by himself”. Friedkin nevertheless ends the documentary on somewhat of a hopeful note, saying in front of the famous “Exorcist steps” “My own belief is that there is a far deeper dimension to the universe. We know there is evil. There is also good. And if there are demons, there must be angels.” As for the skeptics, of which there are many who have dismissed the film outright, Friedkin admitted “I understand that there’s room for skepticism” (7) while promoting the film. At the same time Friedkin bounced back with “You don’t know a damn thing, and neither do I” (7), telling The Guardian rather defiantly “I’m not interested in convincing you, or anyone else… This is what I saw, and the only way to deal with that conclusion was in this way, getting closure through this film. You’ll have to work that out for yourself.”(7) Despite its brisk 68-minute run time, The Devil and Father Amorth does offer quite a bit for skeptics, true believers and the still undecided to work out, the film in some ways being Friedkin bringing his directorial career full-circle as well as a curious coda of sorts to The Exorcist.  

i. Friedkin’s particular knack for horror was evident years before The Exorcist having directed an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965), “Off Season”, as well as bringing a strange sense of terror to his adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1968) starring Robert Shaw and Patrick McGee.   

ii. Friedkin’s music video for Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” (1984) is also highly informed by giallo.

iii. Even Friedkin’s most outlandish genre film, The Guardian, is similarly rooted in the very real-life parental fear of harm coming to a child. Friedkin was partially inspired to do the film based on an incident he and his wife experienced, leaving their young child with what they thought to be trustworthy babysitter only to come home to a house full of bikers throwing a party.

1. “The Exorcist & The French Connection Dir. William Friedkin on Religion, Crime & Film”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYG_n4zoVRY&t=0s. April 25, 2013.

2. ‘The Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin: “I Didn’t Set Out to Make a Horror Film”. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/exorcist-director-william-friedkin-i-835016/. October 28, 2015.

3. “William Friedkin on 13 Must-See Horror Movies”. https://ew.com/gallery/william-friedkin-13-must-see-horror-movies/?. October 29, 2007.

4. Friedkin, William. “The Devil and Father Amorth: Witnessing “the Vatican Exorcist” at Work”. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/10/father-amorth-the-vatican-exorcist. October 31, 2016.

5. William Friedkin: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). University Press of Mississippi. March 18, 2020.

6. “To Live and Die in L.A.”. https://www.tcm.com/watchtcm/titles/17812.

7. “William Friedkin: ‘You don’t know a damn thing, and neither do I’”. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/apr/24/william-friedkin-interview-exorcist-director-you-dont-know-a-damn-thing-and-neither-do-i. April 24, 2018.