One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
The path of the TV adaptation of The Exorcist is fraught with peril, and not just because of demons. The small screen is currently awash in horror and horror adaptations. American Horror Story leads the pack, of course, but there’s also the Scream series, Scream Queens, Bates Motel, the much-binged Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, The Strain…need I go on?
The Exorcist has the unenviable challenge of acknowledging its origins while simultaneously providing enough scares and plot alterations to hold the attention of an audience currently living in the new heyday of horror. While some shows have succeeded in transcending their big screen origins (Bates Motel), others have not (the short-lived Omen spinoff Damien). So the question is: does The Exorcist succeed?
The answer is…sort of.
The Exorcist updates William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel and William Friedkin’s iconic 1973 film, maintaining the basic plot structure and characterizations of both. The setting is contemporary Chicago, where young priest Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrara) tends to a small but devout Catholic congregation. Among them is Angela Rance (Geena Davis), a mother with two daughters and a slightly brain-damaged husband Henry (Alan Ruck), who apparently lives, at least in part, in a world of his own.
Angela is concerned about her daughter Katherine (Brianne Howey), who recently returned from college after a car accident that killed one of her friends. Katherine has retreated into her room, hardly talking to her mother and only engaging with her sister Casey (Hannah Kasulka). Father Tomas tries to allay Angela’s fears by reminding her that her daughter has lost a friend in the most horrific way, so it’s only natural that she should retreat. But Angela doesn’t think that Katherine is depressed; she thinks that Katherine is possessed. Strange things have been going bump in the night, and Angela believes the source is her reticent daughter. Though Father Tomas initially brushes off her concerns, he’s interested enough to agree to go to dinner and try to talk to Katherine.
Spurred by the fears of his parishioner, Tomas seeks out Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), an exorcist who keeps on appearing in Tomas’s dreams and visions. Marcus is first introduced as a rather threadbare priest in Mexico City, where he has gone to exorcise a demon from a small boy. As Tomas’s visions progress over the full length of the boy’s exorcism, he becomes convinced that Marcus can help him save the Rance family.
For fans of the original Exorcist, much of this will be recognizable, if not a total repetition of the events of the film. The opening sequence of Father Marcus walking through the darkly lit streets of Mexico City has resonance with the original film’s imagery, foreshadowing Marcus’s fate. Imagery, events, and even music are lifted wholesale from the original, yet not enough to make the show a straight remake. Rather, the show references the film without wanting to invest in it too deeply, trying to walk the line between being a remake and a new version of the story – the difference, perhaps, between a remake and a reboot.
The Exorcist further faces the weaknesses of much contemporary horror – an over-reliance on dark lighting that makes it almost impossible to see what’s going on, even in a straightforward dinner sequence. This would be called chiaroscuro, but chiaroscuro assumes the images are at least discernible. Taking a page from the American Horror Story/found footage playbook, a shaky camera follows Father Tomas, relying on stark, hyperrealist cinematography that distracts from rather than reinforcing the building tension. The horror of a small boy being violently possessed by a demon is somewhat dissipated when you struggle to figure out what the hell is going on.
Monstrosity, in fact, is so predictable in The Exorcist that it’s hard to find it particularly scary. I don’t fully understand why contemporary horror has fallen in love with distorted, elongated female bodies that come straight out of Asian Extreme, but the use of these grotesqueries has reached the point of over-saturation. The scenes of demonic possession and exorcism in Mexico City are better, but equally predictable – The Exorcist appears to be over-reliant on horror conventions without giving them the tension needed to make them effective.
Despite the predictable use of genre conventions, there’s much about The Exorcist that is attractive and provocative. The performances are all solid and come from a professional cast. Davis is the biggest name, and although she has a relatively small part in the pilot, she imbues what could be a simplistic role with a depth of characterization that surprises, especially in the scenes between her and Father Tomas. The family conflict has much to recommend as well, with seething animosities just beneath the surface that could develop into interesting directions throughout the season.
The show actually has a chance to grapple with contemporary spiritual conflicts within a horror story structure. The plot itself also presents some intriguing possibilities that stretch beyond a basic remake. The current state of American Catholicism, so fraught with scandal, is ripe fodder for a story of supernatural evil. The relationship between the spiritual and the physical worlds, the increasing secularization of American society in the wake of major scandals, and the losing grip of churches on public life – all of these could feed into the story of a possessed child, a victim of supernatural evil divorced from the rational world. The Exorcist has an opportunity to avoid the old binaries of its 1970s predecessor and create a paradigm of faith and fear founded in the conflict between the religious and the secular worlds. Whether the show will address this conflict is a matter for speculation.
The Exorcist has a great deal of potential. Although predictable, it’s a solid piece of entertainment, perfectly enjoyable for an hour-long show. I personally find it intriguing enough to watch the next few episodes, if only to see where the show chooses to take the bones of its narrative. It just has to stop trying to equate itself with the classic film, because it’s not going to achieve the same iconic status.
As long as The Exorcist abandons its attempts to equal its cinematic origin, it could turn out to be a worthwhile show.