Horror filmmakers are a privileged bunch. They get to confront evil without ever having to look it in the eye. Granted, the evils most horror films center on don’t actually exist, so confronting evil at arm’s length is about as near as most directors can hope to get (so to speak). That makes William Friedkin unique among horror filmmakers thrice over: He made The Exorcist, one of the indisputable masterpieces of horror cinema, in 1972, and in 2016 he secured permission to film a real-life exorcism. He could well be the only person in the history of exorcisms (and the history of the camera) to receive access to an otherwise extremely private ritual held behind closed doors in the Paulist Fathers’ residence in Rome. That’s a rare honor.
That was fiction. This time, it’s the real thing with no special effects but it is nonetheless harrowing.
Friedkin has made an hour-long documentary called The Devil and Father Amorth about perhaps the world’s most famous exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, an Italian priest who died in 2016 at the age of 91.
“Some people will see this and be skeptical. I’m not a skeptic,” Friedkin, 83, said in a telephone interview ahead of the release of the documentary in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
Friedkin struck up a friendship with Amorth, a disarmingly jovial man despite his serious work.
“We had hours of conversations about religious matters, the New Testament and about the case he was working on,” said Friedkin, who was raised in a Jewish family in Chicago. “I found him to be the most spiritual man I ever met.”
In one of his books, Amorth said the 1973 film’s special effects, such as the twisting head and green vomit, were “over the top” but that he was grateful for the attention it drew to the problem.
As for what he hoped the documentary could accomplish, he said: “Just because we don’t know or understand something does not mean that it doesn’t exist. I was able to see this and made a record of it, now people should be able to see it and judge for themselves.