James Franco’s Cruising – where the actor reimagines the 40 minutes of lost footage from William Friedkin’s much-maligned 1980 film – sounds really interesting. Even more interesting though is another piece of footage that’s somehow blown loose from Cruising, one that has somehow traveled backwards across Time to appear in Friedkin’s film The Exorcist, which was terrifying audiences in theaters seven full years before the director even called “action!” on Cruising.
Paul Bateson was a radiology nurse at the time The Exorcist was being filmed (in 1972). He helped create the brain scan images used in the film, and scored a nonspeaking role as a clinic assistant in the film. And then (in 1979), Bateson was arrested and jailed after confessing to murdering film critic Addison Verrill by hitting him on the head with a frying pan – true story.
During his confessions, Bateson spoke obscurely of the “bag murders”, the serial killing of a half-dozen gay men in New York in the late 1970s and the scattering of their dismembered remains – sealed separately in black plastic bags – in the Hudson River. The “bag murders” were the inspiration for New York Times reporter Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising that the film was developed from, and movie lovers may remember the dismembered arm floating in the river in the film’s opening scene.
Friedkin interviewed Bateson (who is still alive by the way, albeit in prison) as part of his research for Cruising. By all reports, their conversations were friendly, informative and peppered with reminiscences from the set of The Exorcist.
The “bag murderer” was never officially identified, and Bateson was not charged with any additional murders, despite key parts of his confession matching concealed forensic clues. But what’s he doing – in his only screen appearance – popping up like a clairvoyant ghost in a film made seven years prior to, and made by the same director of, the film that would loosely cover his self-confessed crimes? I’m going to borrow one of Shirley MacLaine’s favourite questions and ask: is it coincidence?
Oh, and please note that the 40 minutes of missing footage from Cruising contain the precious offcuts from the leatherbar scenes, which were filled with extras from regular patrons of leather clubs like the Ramrod who Friedkin directed to do “what they normally do in a place like this on a Saturday night”. Studio executives, horrified by the resulting footage, ordered Friedkin to remove 40 minutes of the extras’ antics so that the film could avoid an “X” (now “NC-17”) rating. In other words, Cruising doesn’t have to be read with quite the malicious intent that many gay commentators insist that it does. On the contrary, parts of the film are quasi-documentary, and the scenes that most inflamed some gay commentators of the day (and still some today) were watered down versions of what some gays of the day (and still some today) routinely got up to.
In any case, we can all be greatful that this lovely zing of stardust was preserved for Cruising‘s final cut: