By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 30, 2012 at 12:00PM
The decent opening weekend for the NC-17 "Killer Joe" should be celebrated for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably, it marks something of a comeback for director William Friedkin. The helmer was, for a brief period in the 1970s, the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, but a series of critical and commercial flops after "The Exorcist" saw his stock drop quickly, and while there were a few quiet gems, the quality of his work tended to be closer to sub-"Basic Instinct" erotic thriller "Jade" (which Friedkin has said is one of his favorite of his films, curiously), or tree-rape horror "The Guardian," than to his breakout films.
But 2007's "Bug," with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, based on the Tracy Letts play, was a serious return to form, and that has continued along with "Killer Joe," another collaboration with the playwright that boasts a starry cast and a dark, mean sense of humor. It's a terrific little film that features some of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. With "Killer Joe" finally in theaters, it seemed like a good time to go back and pick out the filmmaker's essential movies worth tracking down. Check them out below, and if you want to fight in the corner for a film we didn't mention, you can do so in the comments section below. And if you want more Friedkin himself, check out our extensive interview with filmmaker right here.
William Friedkin started off his career with a number of mostly forgotten pictures, but 1970's "The Boys In The Band" put him on the map, and after Howard Hawks, the father of his then-girlfriend, told him he should "make a good chase. Make one better than anyone's ever done," the helmer took on the film adaptation of Robin Moore's non-fiction novel "The French Connection." And the result was one of the best cop flicks ever made, and features a car chase that was pretty much the most thrilling even captured on camera up to that point, vaulting Friedkin to A-list in no time. Following narcotics detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) as they try to crack a French heroin-smuggling ring in New York, it might embellish the plot a little for the sake of the thrill-ride, but its documentary-style realism (inspired by Costa-Gavras' "Z"), full of handheld cameras and Friedkin's terrific attention to detail, reinvigorated the genre. While the plotting might suffer these days due to it being ripped off countless times in the last 40 years, it's the character work from Hackman and Scheider that really stands out, making for complex protagonists that never fall into stereotypes. Friedkin's breakout film is is many ways still his finest film to date.
In a world of tentpoles and franchises, it's almost unthinkable that a firmly R-rated horror film (one in which a young girl masturbates with a crucifix and says the line "Your mother sucks cocks in hell," no less) could be not only be a giant hit, but rank among the ten biggest grossers in history. And an top of those achievements, "The Exorcist" remains a stone-cold horror classic as well. Starting off as Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) confronts the demon Pazazu in Iraq, we're soon halfway across the world, as famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) notices horrific changes in her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Before long, doctors start to take more seriously the idea that Regan might, as she claims, be the Devil herself, and Father Karras, whose faith is falling apart, along with Father Merrin, a renowned exorcist, are brought in to drive the demon away. Tapping into primal fears -- about our children, not to mention his satanic majesty himself -- Friedkin brings the same realism that turned the cop genre on its head to the horror film, particularly thanks to a fine cast (Burstyn, Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and the methods that Friedkin used to freak them out on set, including firing a gun mid-scene. And it's because of that realism that the film is so absolutely terrifying; visceral and painful and searing, even after years of imitation by lesser films. It's worth noting that you should stick with the original, rather than 2000's "Version You've Never Seen."