Friday, February 08, 2013

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968) - William Friedkin

William Friedkin's first true foray into features (if you don't count the Sonny & Cher vehicle he did the year before) was an adaptation of a Harold Pinter play, one of his so-called "comedies of menace." There are moments of absurd wit, thanks to the material and the timing of its crackerjack performers Robert Shaw, Dandy Nichols and Patrick McGee. But watching Friedkin's film version years later, it's the horrific elements that shine through, little moments of tension-building and shock-cutting that he would put to later, greater use in outright horror movies like The Exorcist and Bug.

The seeds of both those films can be found in The Birthday Party. The claustrophobic boarding house where Shaw squats brings to mind the cheap, cramped motel of Bug or Regan's bedroom where so many "adult" things happen in The Exorcist. McGee's obsessive newspaper shredding (mixed to eardrum-bursting levels on Friedkin's soundtrack) recalls Michael Shannon's paranoid yen for aluminum foil. Friedkin amps the unease and widens the boundaries of the one-room play by switching to subjective camera (an actor-mounted POV) during a game of Blind Man's Bluff, then switches to grainy Blair Witch style black and white when the room lights go out. He later drops the screen entirely to black for unsettling periods of time. Basically, he does his best to bring some cinematic flair to what is primarily an elliptical dialogue piece. He mostly succeeds.

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