It is amazing that the director of The Exorcist, the best horror movie ever made, was not completely defined by that film. William Friedkin’s terrifying opus came out 50 years ago, in 1973, and remains a shocking, evil thing—“when you watch The Exorcist, it still occasionally feels like you’re inviting cosmic calamity upon yourself, like it’s a sin to even remove that Blu-ray from its case,” writes our Jim Vorel. But before unleashing The Exorcist, Friedkin brought an innovative documentary style to the cop thriller, making The French Connection into an Oscar-winning, car-chasing, standard-setting piece of ’70s action. He broke barriers with queer cinema with The Boys in the Band and Cruising. He kickstarted the McConaissance with Killer Joe. A filmmaker of wide-ranging talent whose quick, surprising style has influenced directors across genres, Friedkin has died at age 87.
Variety and family friend Stephen Galloway confirmed that Friedkin died today in Los Angeles.
A master of tension and nervy energy, the filmmaker’s best work was also his most controversial. Discussing Killer Joe, Friedkin said, “the important thing is not ‘Does it go too far?’ but ‘Is it effective?’”
Friedkin’s work has always followed this ideal, whether that means upheaving the relationship between horror and religion, walking the line between homophobic stereotypes and progressive representation, or smashing us headlong into a corrupt, racist, desperately exciting cop thriller. The French Connection, for which he won the Best Director Oscar, goes plenty far, as Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle, a brutal adrenaline junkie of a police officer, bullies, shoots and careens through an unsuspecting public. It’s exhilarating and damning in equal measure.
But it is still The Exorcist that’s intensity and immediacy earned Friedkin the most imitators. Aside from the undeniably potent special effects, gripping style and chilling Satanic scenes, the work of the cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Linda Blair, makes the quiet moments of the William Peter Blatty adaptation into scenes of numbing hopelessness. Its balance of supernatural and natural horror, applying a realism Friedkin honed during his early career as a director of documentaries and live TV in Chicago, stuck in our hearts. It was so effective that audiences were lining up in the freezing cold for the chance to puke right alongside its possessed subject. It was so effective that even the horror-shunning Oscars couldn’t ignore it, nominating it for 10 awards (including Best Picture) and giving it two: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound. It’s not just the best American horror movie, but the American horror movie that showed us what horror could be.
Friedkin directed consistently in the years following his one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist, turning out movies that were appreciated in their time (like the neo-noir To Live and Die in L.A.) or have since been reassessed (like the Tangerine Dream-scored thriller Sorcerer). He popped back onto TV, helming episodes of The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and CSI. A late career partnership with playwright Tracy Letts returned him to the critical eye on the big screen, as Bug and Killer Joe both spoke to Friedkin’s boundary-pushing sensibilities.
Some of this sensibility is laid bare in his hilarious, sometimes startling, and always blunt memoir, The Friedkin Connection. More is found in the countless films trying and failing to mimic his style.
His final film, the courtroom play adaptation The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, will premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which awarded him the Special Lion in 2013 for his body of work.
Friedkin is survived by his wife, Sherry Lansing, and two sons.