It’s an age-old Hollywood dilemma: Is it better to recycle a show/movie that’s already been done well, or stick with rebooting the ones that didn’t deliver on their promise the first time around? (A third option is to simply come up with a slate of completely new ideas, but that one’s never played particularly well at the networks and studios.) If you’re remaking a classic, of course, the bar is set impossibly high. You better know what you’re doing and bring something new to the table (see Fargo). If you’re tackling a lesser property, sure, there’s no place to go but up. But audiences are less likely to have a reason to watch in the first place (what’s up, Teen Wolf). Which brings us to The Exorcist, Fox’s what’s-old-is-new spin on something that was already done very, very well with William Friedkin’s still-terrifying 1973 pea-soup possession chiller.
I don’t want make it sound like The Exorcist is sacred. Far from it. It’s long been stripped for parts in a string of big-screen spin-offs that range from laughable (Exorcist II: The Heretic) to passable (Exorcist III), to head-scratchingly pointless (Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning). It’s also been parodied in Scary Movie 2 and aped by virtually every movie to trundle down the Blumhouse production line. But after watching the first three episodes of the new Fox series, I’m still not sure why this latest incarnation exists other than to cash-in on a title that still carries some cache with horror hounds. It’s not Must-See TV, it’s oh-well-it’s-Friday-night-what-the-hell-else-are-we-gonna-watch TV…albeit well-made oh-well-it’s-Friday-night-what-the-hell-else-are-we-gonna-watch TV.
The pilot, which aired on Sept. 23, kicked things off with a promising punch. It was stylishly creepy (dark, rain-slicked alleyways; disembodied demonic voices), the premise was laid out economically (the two daughters of a Chicago couple may or may not be the handmaidens of Satan), the acting was solid, and it even made good use of the original’s melodically menacing “Tubular Bells” theme. But since that opening hour, the trajectory has quickly dipped.
Geena Davis, the requisite “big star” of the show, plays Angela Rance, a high-powered Windy City wife and working mother who has about three minutes of screen time before being turned into a cliché of domestic hysteria. For someone who isn’t quite sure whether she believes in God, she spends an inordinate amount of time in church. Then again, who wouldn’t with the parish’s hunky new idealistic priest, Father Tomas Ortega (Sense8’s Alfonso Herrera) at the pulpit? Angela’s certainly got a heavy spiritual burden. Her husband (Alan Ruck, returning to his Ferris Bueller Chi-town stomping grounds) has suffered some sort of poorly-explained and symptomatically-improbable brain trauma. Her daughters (Brianne Howey and Hanna Kasulka, both older and less innocent than Linda Blair was in the original) have been acting strange lately. And her house is acting even stranger (Don’t go in the attic!).
Then there’s Ben Daniels’ Father Marcus Keane, a sort of wandering Bad Boy of the Diocese, who’s craggy good looks and Daniel Craig accent mark him as both the show’s most charismatic figure and its least convincing one. As Herrera’s Father Tomas gets in over his head with the Rance’s demonic travails, the clerical newbie turns to the world-weary Father Marcus for help. Marcus is a fallen priest, a man grappling with his faith after witnessing some truly spooky stuff battling demons around the globe. And he tries to send Father Tomas packing. “Go home, Father Tomas,” he warns. “Give your homilies, break your bread, live a long and happy life. You’re way out of your depth.” But before you can say “Pazuzu”, they’re working together like a Vatican Buddy Movie, hellbent on ridding the Rances of their paranormal houseguests.
I don’t mean to make The Exorcist sound like a comedy. It’s not…although there are some unintentionally hilarious moments. This is a deadly serious drama that wants to ask Big Questions about faith and doubt and good and evil, while scratching its undiscriminating Friday night audience’s horror-flick itch. Too bad that after its promising first hour (directed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Rupert Wyatt), it’s already showing signs of aimlessness and repetition. For example, each commercial break is introduced by a jump scare – a climactic stinger that means to raise the hairs on your neck and make you gasp before someone tries to sell you Tide Pods. But these beats are already getting a bit predictable. We feel them coming and they’re losing their power to shock.
It’s hard to know if the show is planning on spending an entire season focused on the Rance clan, or if the focus will shift over to the pair of priests taking on other possession cases (there are already hints of a city-wide rash of demonic ritual murders). I think the latter makes more sense. But either way, The Exorcist is a lot scarier in theory than in what’s actually made its way onscreen. After a while, the sight of a man in a white collar with a crucifix in his hand shouting “The Power of Christ compels you,” becomes sort of old hat. Been there, cleansed that. It’ll be interesting to see if this Exorcist can serve up more than just reheated pea soup. B-