It’s now almost forty three years since The Exorcist was released in cinemas, one of the most successful, celebrated and controversial horror films of all times, directed by William Friedkin from the novel by William Peter Blatty, but in those four decades the world has changed enormously, the unchallenged dominance of religion eroded by the waves of rational secularity, undermining the fundamental themes, and audiences increasingly accustomed to what once shocked.
To revisit an acknowledged classic in a modern setting will always be a challenge, though as Battlestar Galactica demonstrated, it is one which can be won with overwhelming finality, but Ronald D Moore had an astounding resume before he took on that venture, Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Carnivàle, whereas the writer/producer of this apparent sequel series Jeremy Slater would be hard pressed not to apologise for 2015’s Fantastic Four irrespective of substantial post production revision over which he had no control.
Directed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ Rupert Wyatt, opening episode And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee parallels many of the events of the original, though rather than a single mother who seeks the help of a stranger in the crisis of her twelve year old daughter, the Rance family is composed of matriarch businesswoman Angela (Thelma and Louise‘s Geena Davis), her husband Henry (Star Trek Generation‘s Alan Ruck) and their teenage daughters Katherine and Casey (Brianne Howey and Hannah Kasulka) and are already friendly with Father Tomas Ortega of St Anthony’s.
Unlike Jason Miller’s cynical Father Damien Karras, Father Ortega (Sense8‘s Alfonso Herrera) is young and vital, coming down from his pulpit to walk through the congregation as he preaches dynamically. Where Father Karras was undergoing a crisis of faith following the death of his elderly mother, Tomas is the opposite, reassuring others that uncertainty is natural: “It’s okay to have doubt. It’s okay to have questions. God wants you to find your own way.”
Instead it is Angela whose fierce belief in God is tested, by the degenerative illness slowly taking her husband from her, from the accident in which Katherine’s friend died and which has left her daughter angry and resentful, yet even then it is an unfounded narrative leap for her to hear noises in the walls and find furniture moved in the morning and then run to Father Ortega and claim Katherine is suffering from demonic possession.
Sensibly, Father Ortega deflects her with the modernist interpretation of doctrine, telling her “Demons aren’t real. They are an invention of the church to explain things like addiction, mental illness. They were not monsters or creatures. Demons are metaphors,” but he agrees to visit them at home, where a comment made by Henry in his confusion triggers a link which leads him to seek out Father Marcus Keane (House of Cards‘ Ben Daniels).
Ostracised following an incident in which a child died, experienced exorcist Father Keane wants no involvement in whatever Tomas has brought to his door, but underneath his dedication to a purpose higher than the earthly church there is fear of what is coming. “God isn’t the one who works in mysterious ways. You’re being manipulated by forces you can’t even begin to understand.”
Structurally, the episode is fragmented, the scenes in the Rance household a conventional conveyance of domestic distress which makes Angela’s dire pronouncements out of place, while the rituals performed by Father Keane seem a world away, Father Ortega the bridge between them in a script which combines the slow gathering dread of the source material and the crowdpleasing antics of spinning heads and dislocated joints but cannot satisfactorily reconcile the two in one hour.
Visually, there are echoes of The Exorcist – the arid landscape of Mexico City where Father Keane has cloistered himself, the flickering windows of suburban trains in the evening light of Chicago, but suprisingly there is also much of Blatty’s own adaptation of his later novel Legion, filmed and then butchered by the studio before release as The Exorcist III, the camera prowling the streets as dead leaves blow, the fractured icons of the church, the visions of Father Ortega, the messages conveyed by the sick.
Where Regan MacNeil was an innocent in a more innocent age, both Casey and Katherine are considerably older and any coming transformation cannot have the same impact, particularly following a slew of possession films in recent years, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Rite, The Devil Inside, Deliver Us from Evil, Ava’s Possessions, which have collectively diluted former existential dread to watery ennui.
In this first episode both Herrera and Daniels are the standouts of the ensemble, both with very different approaches but a similar no-nonsense stance which will make them a good team, whereas Davis is the most disappointing, not through her performance but because Angela so far is a purely reactionary role which will have to develop as the show progresses if she is to match Ellen Burstyn’s complex and indomitable Chris MacNeil.
When J J Abram’s Star Trek closed with Alexander Courage’s theme, it had been earned; when this ends with Tubular Bells it is a promise made of what is to come but which as yet remains unfulfilled, but foregoing atmosphere for misplaced shock and unnecessary digital effects in the cliched attic scene which closes the pilot it is apparent that the narrow path to compelling viewing has not yet been illuminated, though unlike Damien, the recent remake of The Omen, at least it does not suck in hell.