'The Exorcist' on Fox: The Power Of Fear Compels You
I could not have been more surprised and pleased by the first episode of Fox’s The Exorcist TV show, especially as a diehard fan of the original 1973 film. Sure, The Exorcist III is a creepy, fun flick and The Exorcist II is just ridiculous enough to laugh at, but I have not yet seen an exorcism/exorcist movie that could top the original film (although that one Penny Dreadful episode comes close).
I worried that subsequent episodes would fall short of the premiere’s promise but as it turns out my worries were for naught. What The Exorcist gets right is what so many other attempts to replicate it have gotten wrong: complex characters that are fully rounded and sympathetic… and actually evoke fear.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
As Angela Rance, Geena Davis is pretty great. Unlike Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil she is religious, or at least as religious as your average moderately devout Catholic. Early on, she admits that she knows her suspicions about an evil presence seem crazy, but she still vocalizes them to Father Tomas. The initial focus of her fears is older daughter Kat (Brianne Howey), who mocks her mother’s concerns by making a snarky joke about liking her friend’s Wicca page on Facebook, which is contemporary and believable without trying too hard to be either.
Continuing the thematic thread of matriarchs from the 1973 film, Angela Rance may not be a single mother like Chris MacNeil, but she is the head of the household since her husband’s head injury left him disabled. She’s tough and doesn’t suffer fools. Henry, as played by Alan Ruck, doesn’t fall victim to the stereotypes of disabled people in pop culture; he seems like a decent guy who got dealt a bad hand.
The show also shifts our perspective about who is the troubled Rance kid in the very first episode by making it sweet, guileless Casey (Hannah Kasulka) and not Kat who is the object of the demon’s affections. Yet Kat doesn’t turn into a background character in her sister’s story. In fact, the famous car accident that has left her depressed and somewhat agoraphobic seems to be directly connected to the whole demon business, if you believe (as I do) that the man she almost hit with her car was the same homeless man who attacked Casey at the church’s soup kitchen.
Another well-crafted shift occurs with the character of Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera). Initially, he seems to follow in the footsteps of Father Karras (his physical similarity to Jason Patric, Jason Miller’s son is startling and cannot be an accident). He seems to question his faith, especially when it comes to Jessica Ridmark. But it doesn’t take long before we realize that it’s Father Marcus (the excellent Ben Daniels) who is more like Karras, only what Karras might have become if he hadn’t been pushed down those Georgetown steps all those years ago.
As Marcus, Daniels is mesmerizing, constantly on the verge of totally losing his shit. He’s as self-righteous as you’d expect from a career exorcist but also remarkably self-deprecating and witty. He has seen things that would destroy most people and makes Father Tomas look positively wet behind the ears. These two different versions of the devout – as well as the debased – are a thrill to watch, especially as they distrust each other and then decide to work together.
There are other characters that also intrigue. Maria Walters (and her Mason Verger-like husband who may be somehow connected to all of the nefarious goings-on) seems like she could be an ally or a foe. Mother Bernadette (who looks like Ellen Burstyn, let’s be honest) and her blunt, feminist ideals is a serious breath of fresh air. Cherry and Lester Rego seem like they might actually run a tour bus for the deceased in real life. Even Sister Claire is portrayed with sharp detail in just a few brief exchanges with Father Marcus.
It’s all well and good to have interesting characters, but there are a dozen shows with interesting characters. The Exorcist needs to be scary and genuinely so. One of the scariest aspects to the show comes in the form of one of its characters: The Salesman (Robert Emmet Lunney). It’s a smart move to put a human face to the demon’s form well before that demon shows its full power, not only in a world full of bad clones of the original movie, where the specter of Captain Howdy looms large though he was never actually shown, but also in a television setting, which gives the show more time to build suspense for the final boss battle.
It’s not just The Salesman, however. Each episode is filled with moments that range from the jarring or uncomfortable to the downright scary, and sometimes all at once. Often, they cleverly rework some of the original film’s tropes, such as heads twisting around, urinating out of fear, and green projectile vomit.
Is the creepy guy across the street from Father Tomas’s church mentally ill and/or a pawn of one of the demons? The scene when Henry, unprompted, tells Father Tomas where to find St. Aquinas and then can’t remember what he said is unsettling, but the scene in the attic with the rat actually made me jump. The sarcastic guy at St. Aquinas wearing sunglasses who has the very same multi-pupiled eye as the possessed child in Mexico was a creepy touch. Will he become more significant?
Then there are the seemingly banal touches like kid on the bike, who shows up at the beginning of episode two and keeps reappearing in the background. At the end when he and his family are slaughtered, in a grisly sequence worthy of NBC’s Hannibal, it turns out that some of the demon cronies are harvesting organs.
Significantly, we not only feel afraid of the demonic forces, but we feel afraid for the characters being tormented by them, which makes for a lot of nearly unbearable tension. It’s tense enough when Tomas and Jessica are together because of chance that he might break his vows to the church, but it’s worse when we realize that their relationship could put both of them at risk from the demons infiltrating Chicago.
There is Casey’s self-torture with a curling iron; we suspect what part of her anatomy she is burning but don’t find out for sure until later. There is also the subway scene, where we feel so many emotions at once: concern for Henry, fear that Casey will get raped, horror that she attacks her would be attacker after The Salesman shows up, and guilt that we don’t feel all that terrible that the would-be rapist got his comeuppance.
At four episodes in, The Exorcist is shaping up to be not only a terrific follow-up to the film, but also an excellent TV show on its own merits.