As far as new Fox TV shows spun off from dormant movie franchises go, ‘The Exorcist’ has a lot more going for it than the very dopey ‘Lethal Weapon‘. So why is the network dumping it right from the start in a lousy Friday night time slot where it’s almost doomed to fail?
Even as someone who doesn’t believe in demonic possession, I find ‘The Exorcist’ fascinating. Both the original novel and film are compelling works of art whether you buy into their theology or not. I’m also quite fond of the underrated ‘Exorcist III’. True, the other three movies in the series are all, frankly, terrible. But the stories behind how each of them got made are really interesting, more so than the films themselves.
The belated TV series has only tenuous ties to the movies. At least in the pilot episode, there’s no direct mention of characters like Father Merrin, Det. Kinderman or the MacNeil family. In a very brief bit of fan-service, our new lead protagonist, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera from ‘Sense8’), Googles some facts about demonic possession and comes across an old news story about a priest killed during an exorcism, which features a photo of the famous Georgetown steps from the first movie. That’s about it for plot connections, though the episode certainly embraces a lot of the iconic imagery from the film and closes with the “Tubular Bells” theme music.
The premiere starts off confusingly. In the slums of an unidentified foreign city (we’ll find out later that it’s Mexico City), an old priest heads toward an apartment building late at night. Before he gets there, he hears frightening screams from an upper floor. Obviously, he’s en route to perform an exorcism (the show is called ‘The Exorcist’, after all), but the details are parceled out in small chunks throughout the episode.
The main storyline takes place in present day Chicago. Young, charismatic Father Tomas has tight relationships with many members of his small congregation. Angela Rance (Geena Davis) is having a difficult time of things lately. Her husband Henry (Alan Ruck) suffers from a form of dementia and doesn’t know where he is most of the time. Of their two teenage daughters, the one named Casey seems fairly well-adjusted, but the other one, Kat, is sulky and depressed. While that may seem like typical teenager behavior, it turns out that Kat was recently involved in a car accident and her best friend died.
That would certainly be fair cause for depression, but Angela believes something else is also going on. She hears strange noises and voices in their house, and feels a malevolent “presence” that she believes is trying to take her daughter from her. She confides this in Father Tomas knowing that it makes her sound crazy. He flat-out tells her that demons aren’t real; they’re just “metaphors.” Nonetheless, she insists that he come to the house to see for himself. During their conversation, a crow smashes into the church window and violently dies right in front of them.
Tomas’ beliefs are challenged when he has very vivid, terrifying dreams of being in the room while the old priest from earlier (whom he doesn’t know) performs an exorcism on a young boy who’s clearly possessed by something supernatural. Tomas hears the priest called by the name “Marcus.” In one of the dreams, the boy attacks Marcus, then contorts his body into unnatural positions, snaps his own neck and dies.
Tomas goes to the Rance home and has a (mostly) nice dinner with the family. The only thing that goes wrong is that Kat behaves like a total bitch to her father (again, typical teenager stuff). Tomas tells her off, which makes the girl run off and sulk. Beyond that, everything seems normal enough… until he gets ready to leave. On his way out, he speaks to Henry, who has a moment of clarity and gives him unprompted directions to a location out of town. Tomas asks what he’ll find there, and Henry tells him that’s where Marcus is. A second later, Henry has no memory of the conversation.
Perplexed by this, Tomas follows the directions to a monastery called St. Aquinas. As he drives in, the priests and monks all eye him suspiciously. He’s greeted by a friendly but creepy man wearing dark glasses. Tomas assumes that he’s blind, but the man seems to see him. Upon hearing his name, the man knows exactly who Tomas is and where he’s from. (He claims to know all the priests in the area.) He talks for a moment about faith in a vaguely threatening fashion, but Tomas is distracted when he sees Father Marcus and runs off after him. After Tomas leaves, the man removes his glasses to reveal coal black eyes beneath.
Tomas chases Marcus to his room and tries to introduce himself, but Marcus has no interest in speaking with him. Even when Tomas tells him about his dreams and what he knows about the exorcism of the young boy (which apparently happened 18 months earlier), Marcus is incredibly brusque with him and tells him that he’s being manipulated.
Tomas returns to the Rance house to tell Angela that he believes God has spoken to him and wants him to help her. Suddenly, they hear strange noises from the attic. When Tomas goes up to investigate, a lightbulb blows and he has only the flashlight on his phone for illumination. He sees a figure that he believes is Kat and moves toward her, but he’s distracted by a rat scurrying between boxes. He turns back and Kat is gone. Then the rat is lifted in the air and crushed by an invisible force, and a demon hand reaches out of the darkness to grab it.
Before Tomas can react, a demon-possessed girl leaps out and attacks him. Just then, Angela climbs up into the attack and the light comes on. Standing before Tomas is not Kat, but the other daughter, Casey, looking innocent as can be. She smiles and tells her mom that the commotion she heard was Father Tomas killing a rat.
Tomas is shaken by this, but he isn’t sure what just happened and is afraid to say anything to Angela. Casey makes a comment about how when you see one rat, there are a lot more hiding out of sight. Tomas disposes of the rat and leaves the house. The episode ends back at the monastery, with Father Marcus gearing up and preparing for another exorcism. He knows that a battle is ahead.
I went into this pilot with pretty low expectations, assuming that it’d be a lazy cash-in on an old movie that still has some brand recognition. We’ve seen a lot of that recently. Surprisingly, it’s pretty well done and is taken quite seriously to function as a legitimate extension of the original movie without being a direct rehash of it. I’d even say that it’s better than the last two official ‘Exorcist’ feature films (the ones by Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin), but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. Nonetheless, the show is not at all the disaster I feared it would be.
The episode’s not terribly scary, though. That’s not for lack of trying. Pilot director Rupert Wyatt (‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’) mimics the style of the original movie as best he can and throws in a few jump-scares, but he has a couple of really big obstacles working against him: 1) He’s making this for major network television, which has a lot of limitations on what can be done or shown, and 2) Over-familiarity with the first movie and its countless imitators has dulled the impact that the depictions of demonic possession can have.
However, I like the twist at the end, with the suggestion that there’s more than one demon and Tomas will have to deal with a lot more than one possessed girl. That’s a smart way to extend this narrative to an ongoing series. I couldn’t imagine getting a whole season of storylines out of just one exorcism.