TV’s The Exorcist reinvents its source material for an occult-savvy (not to mention cinema-savvy) audience.
By Peg Aloi
Without thinking too long about it, what are the most memorable moments from William Friedkin’s iconic 1973 film The Exorcist? For me, it’s not specific things that happen, but the way the film looks and sounds (and feels, more to the point) at the times between things happening. The silver saint medal falling in slow motion in the opening montage. Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) at a café in Iraq, so spooked after uncovering an ancient demonic statue at an archaeological dig that his hands tremble as he takes a nitroglycerin pill. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), tenderly wrapping a bandage around his elderly mother’s leg. Mike Oldfield’s wistful, urgent “Tubular Bells” playing while Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) strolls briskly home after a day of shooting a film in Georgetown, autumn leaves swirling in the breeze and kids in Hallowe’en costumes prancing by. The film’s first hour is subdued and subtle compared to what comes in its second half, when all hell quite literally breaks loose.
The central story follows Chris, a divorced actress whose pre-teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair) begins acting strangely, then violently. Her mother takes her to numerous doctors, only to be told her daughter needs psychiatric care. Chris, in desperation, approaches a Jesuit priest (Karras) to ask him about obtaining an exorcism. Like another occult-tinged blockbuster of the era, 1967’s Rosemary’s Baby, the film’s metaphorical structure suggests a Jungian concept of the monstrous female, the changes wrought during pregnancy (or, in Regan’s case, puberty). The two exorcists called in (Merrin and Karras) could not be more different in manner and temperament, and they create a compelling chemistry. On some level the film is as much an exploration of religious faith as it is of the invasion of evil.
Issues of faith and the monstrous feminine also feature strongly in the FOX series The Exorcist that began in 2016. While set firmly in the present day, the series valiantly pays homage to Friedkin’s classic horror work. There is less subtlety to be sure (it’s FOX, after all), and much more sophisticated special effects (1973’s effects are a source of laughter for some cynics in the current horror zeitgeist), most of them of cinematic caliber. There’s also an ambitious effort to craft an overarching conspiracy of corruption and occultism involving the Catholic church: an interesting choice, given how easy it would be to simply point to the real-life scandals that have all but ruined the institution’s moral credibility. At times this story arc is reminiscent of the intricate and ancient conspiracy seen in the short-lived (and also ambitious) Chris Carter series Millennium.
The Exorcist, which has had two seasons and will possibly have a third, introduces two priests brought together to investigate a teenage girl’s possession in Chicago. Ben Daniels (House of Cards) plays Marcus Keane, a rebellious globetrotting Irish priest whose renowned talent as an exorcist does not prevent him from getting into hot water with his superiors. Alfonso Herrera (Sense8) is Tomas Ortega, a young priest whose parish in a poor Chicago neighborhood catches the notice of a wealthy Catholic philanthropist (Kirsten Fitzgerald). Marcus and Tomas are battling their own personal demons, paralleling the figures of Merrin and Karras, all of them enigmatic sinners of a sort.
Ben and Tomas are asked to intervene when the teenaged daughters of Henry and Angela Rance (Alan Ruck and Geena Davis), Casey and Kat, begin to act oddly. Kat’s been through a legitimate trauma that haunts her, but it soon becomes clear Casey, who secretly harbors resentment of her sister being the center of attention, is the one who is possessed. In the film, an unseen entity named “Captain Howdy” speaks to Regan through her Ouija board; here, a middle aged man (Robert Emmet Lunney), who is equal parts charming and creepy, starts showing up and cajoling Casey to misbehave and act out. The implication is that teenage girls are ripe for demonic possession and can be easily manipulated; in their weaker moments, at any rate. When a pack of drunken frat boys start harassing Casey on the subway, she suddenly finds that she has the telekinetic powers necessary to kick their collective asses. She transforms from shy and unpopular to bold and brash. Too bad she’s also the devil, and bent on murdering her family.
By the time one realizes that the show’s first season is intended to be a continuation of the original, there are already a number of nicely-conceived moments that nod to the mood and style of its predecessor. Why is there a demon hunting these teenage girls? Why, because their mother had a run-in with him way back when. It was so scandalous she had to change her name. Sharon Gless (Nip/Tuck, Cagney and Lacey) makes a delicious cameo appearance as Chris MacNeil, whose career was apparently derailed by her daughter’s harrowing experience. Those who know Friedkin’s film well might be waiting to hear seminal lines like “the devil is a liar” or “the power of Christ compels you!” They will not be disappointed. There is also Mike Oldfield, and autumn leaves.But more often than not the series crafts its own original aesthetic, and does it well, the supernatural glitter a nice counterpoint to the “real” moments of interpersonal drama.Click To Tweet
One aspect of the show I appreciate deeply, and which is beautifully explored in the first season, is the portrayal of women as exorcists. Whereas this franchise has tended to portray women as possessed victims in the three films, the series features women as capable and creative demon-whisperers. Specifically, a group of nuns with a sweet (but badass) elderly matriarch leading them has found that a compassionate, nurturing approach has been very successful in expelling demons; yes, exorcism with a woman’s touch. In the second season we also see a nun whose past connection to Marcus is reinvigorated when she joins his efforts to subdue both demons who possess humans and church officials whose corruption ( involvement with the occult) runs deep.
The show’s first season does not exactly carry over into the second, aside from following the adventures of Marcus and Tomas, who have become something of a team. As with the first season, we begin with the site of a possession, this time a rambling huge house by the water near Seattle. It’s a foster home run by Andy Kim (John Cho in a compelling role) whose wife committed suicide (watch for Alicia Witt in a haunting cameo). When Andy starts to lose his grip on reality it becomes clear that grief and depression have paved the way for possession. The foster kids (a motley, loveable crew) are randomly terrorized by the demon as well. Marcus and Tomas are unaware of the possession until they show up one day; one of their clients winds up there because her mother, who claimed her daughter was possessed, had been secretly poisoning her (as in The Sixth Sense this is a case of Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome). Meanwhile, a cabal of Catholic influencers pushes deeper into their secret society, and Marcus and Tomas find themselves caught up in Vatican intrigue.
I found the writing somewhat uneven, though often clever and satisfyingly dramatic. Perhaps it’s because the down to earth work of the exorcists, which consists mainly of reciting passages from the holy rite of exorcism for hours, days or weeks at a time, makes for an odd juxtaposition with the more fantastical demonic elements. But I was consistently impressed by the scope and vision of this adaptation and curious to see where it might go next.
Despite our current real life cultural fixation with the occult, The Exorcist occupies a distinctive space, where events take place in a seemingly more innocent and less apathetic world. The cast is uniformly excellent, apart from Geena Davis, who feels rather miscast and lackluster, which is a shame given how crucial her role is to the first season. I enjoyed the series a good deal more than Lucifer, which, while it is entertaining and sexy, feels slightly gimmicky and lightweight. The Exorcist reinvents its source material for an occult-savvy (not to mention cinema-savvy) audience, acknowledging the corrupt and craven institutions that run the world, and the people who are learning to resist them. In the current crazy political environment, where the Pizzagate conspiracy gained unfathomable traction, television is perfectly poised for giving the people what they want: Satan, 24-7.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.