Mark Kermode’s The Exorcist documentary: The Fear of God review

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We take a look at the exclusive new cut of Mark Kermode’s The Exorcist documentary, that’s on BBC iPlayer from 10am on October 31st.

Halloween is almost upon us. And as the witching hour quickly approaches, whilst you can be sure that there’ll be plenty of chilling films to choose from, it’s highly unlikely that any of them will have enjoyed the same cultural impact as The Exorcist. The William Freidkin-directed 1973 horror drama that has been both celebrated and reviled throughout its history, often at the same time, has entered into cinema legend.

From stories about audiences careening out of the auditorium to vomit before returning to their seats in a state of macabre fascination, to screenings being picketed by religious action groups, the tale of The Exorcist is one that has only grown in the telling, aided of course by the BBFC’s removal of the film from home video for ten years and its unfair association with the ‘video nasties’ moral panic that swept the nation in the UK.

Along with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Freidkin’s film had already passed into myth for those of us who came of age at a certain point in the 1990s, sailing off, like the fabled once and future king into an Avalon-esque unreachable, state of suspended legend. With the home video market booming, neither of these titles were legally available until the decade’s end and yet naturally, that only increased the fervour to watch them.

Whilst might one assume that perhaps the sanctified presence of a priest may be prudent whilst exploring such a singular story and such horrifying subject matter, instead we get a doctor.

The good doctor, Mark Kermode (along with Nick Freand Jones) originally made documentary The Fear of God to celebrate The Exorcist’s 25th anniversary in 1998, and thanks to the BBC, the film is getting a re-release of sorts on iPlayer, just in time for Halloween. Excitingly, this version of what is considered to be the definitive documenting of The Exorcist is a never-before broadcast cut of the documentary. Named by Kermode as the ‘festival cut’, it adds in a couple of significant interviews that have never been included in the same version, along with a new introduction from Kermode himself.

Whilst some argue that the power of The Exorcist itself may have waned over the intervening decades (now that it’s so widely available), Kermode’s documentary has lost none of its impact, largely due to absorbing interviews with the key creatives and a clever decision to structure the film with director William Freidkin and novelist, William Peter Blatty opposite each other, immediately bringing to life the creative tension at the heart of the production.

Whilst there might not be any true paradigm shifts within The Fear of God, (such as the moment in Kermode’s equally-celebrated Blade Runner documentary, On the Edge, where Ridley Scott admits on camera for the first time, a stunning reveal about the nature of Deckard’s character,) the documentary is full of anecdotes from the cast and crew that show the depth of feeling invested in the making of the movie. It also includes the first reassembled version of the ‘spider walk’ too, a sequence cut from the original movie that would (albeit in a different form) find its way into the later extended cut, ‘The version that you’ve never seen.’

Whilst it’s beyond doubt that the making of any film can be a gruelling experience, the tales of on-set conditions, physical sacrifices made in the name of art and the shadow of a dark curse all help to embellish the film’s legend.

Whilst it’s worth noting that many of these stories have now passed into film legend, such as Friedkin endangering the physical safety of his actors to get the perfect shot, The Fear of God is where those stories were first documented. Even if you’ve seen the documentary before, this specially-released ‘festival cut’ makes it worth a rewatch, with added interviews that chart the creation of those chilling demonic utterances and a really interesting interview with James Ferman, the then-Head of the BBFC where a perfectly reasonable (and hugely respectful) argument is put forward to justify the film’s removal from the home video market. 

Whilst it may be over two decades old and counting, The Fear of God still bears the standard for documentaries on this seminal film. If Kermode’s exploration into his favourite film leaves anything unturned, it’s The Exorcist’s integral position within the New Hollywood movement, an equally important chapter of cinema history that isn’t really explored in The Fear of God. Still, it’s an understandable decision. It’s the visceral, physical nature of the film that clearly captured Kermode’s heart, soul and mind and he seems intent on understanding that aspect of viewers’ relationship with The Exorcist rather than diluting that through an exploration of the film’s wider legacy in American cinema.

Celebrated documentary-maker, Alexandre O Phillipe, director of this writer’s favourite Hitchcock documentary, 78/52, has a documentary of his own releasing this year. Based on The Exorcist, it’s entitled Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, currently doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit. Whilst we’re sure that it will be a more than worthy addition to the tapestry of myth that surrounds this, one of cinema’s most hallowed properties, you can satisfy yourself already (and slake those spooky Halloween urges) by settling down for a double bill of The Exorcist and what is still the definitive story of its inception, The Fear of God.

It’s on iPlayer from 10am on Halloween.

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