Fox’s new series is a worthy entry to television horror.
2016 has proven to be a resurgent year for the horror genre with several well-received features making a killing at the box office. Be it Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring 2, or this week’s Blair Witch, the year has been good to fright fans when it comes to the big screen projects. Can the trend carry over to the small screen too? When Fox announced they’d be adapting a series based on the classic film The Exorcist it was met with a hefty amount of reservation. The iconic 1973 horror flick is something of a sacred cow. In a dredge of poorly executed reboots and remakes, Fox touching something still so cherished by fans seemed like a project doom to fail.
I approached the screening of The Exorcist with trepidation. Horror is a tricky genre to master, especially on network television, but what creators Jeremy Slater and Rupert Wyatt have orchestrated is a series premiere that delivers on both scares and drama. Though not always compelling, it manages to be consistently engaging. The premiere opens with Ben Daniels as Father Marcus Keene, a priest traveling to Mexico City to perform an exorcism on a possessed boy. The details of the exorcism are played out through a series of flashbacks/visions had by Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera), a Chicago-based priest with demonic problems of his own. A member of his congregation, Angela Lance (Geena Davis), believes her daughter is the target of possession. Upon investigation, Father Tomas discovers that recent tragedies are splintering the family and appearances are not what they seem.
First and foremost, the show looks beautiful. Rupert Wyatt stages the camera with purpose not typically seen in network television, putting his feature film pedigree on full display. The series is filmed on location in Chicago, my hometown, and its character is instantly recognizable. This gives the supernatural occurrences a sense of realism that makes them all the more shocking. Set design is gritty, but seldom dull as muted yet sharp colors give the scenes flair. The visuals periodically reference scenes from the movie, but seldom in a way that feels forced. Another notable holdover is the score, which features a rendition of the spine-tingling theme we know so well. Aside from these, the show feels like an original effort to its own merit and pointedly modern. When Father Tomas needs information, he Googles it. Rather than shuffle around haplessly in a dark room, he’ll use the LED light on his smart phone. These little touches help ground the show and avoid common horror tropes. Minor details, but appreciated.
The cast is something of a mixed bag. The clear standout here is Ben Daniels as Father Marcus. Though he’s only featured briefly, his performance has gravitas to spare. It will be needed as Father Marcus is set up to have his own arc aside from being Tomas’ educator on Satanic matters. Speaking of the devil, Alfonso Herrera (Sense8) is instantly likable as the reluctant Father Tomas. He serves as our eyes for the story and he’s a man of pragmatic faith who isn’t quite willing to believe in demonic mumbo-jumbo. Alan Ruck (of Ferris Bueller fame) is a welcome presence as Henry Rance, Angela’s husband that has recently lost some metal faculties due to unrevealed circumstances. He supplies a few moments of comedy, but may hold a darker influence that will be explored further.
Who surprisingly stumbles a bit here is Geena Davis as Angela. I was excited to see what the long-served actress would bring to the series and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She seems rather flat as a woman who supposedly believes the devil is running amok in her home and whose husband has the memory of a goldfish. Time will tell if her performance is simply building toward something greater, but for now she seems to be sleepwalking. While Davis could benefit from turning it up a notch, the young leads of the show would best served dialing it down.
Hannah Kasulka and Brianne Howey (Scream Queens) play the Rance offspring, Casey and Kat respectively. Kat has prematurely returned home from college after a tragic accident. Her emotional despondence leads her mother to think she’s been seized by the devil, but she seems more petulant than possessed. Casey is the younger, more chipper sibling and even I was annoyed at her attempts to ease her sister’s demonic affliction with ill-timed tickle fights. The duo combines for a presence that feels very “CW”, especially against the more subtle performances by the rest of the cast. This isn’t to say any of the performances are bad. Both Howey and Kasulka show a great deal of promise. They just didn’t resonate particularly well with the material given. Without spoiling anything, there’s the potential to shift the dynamic of the two dramatically, so it may be best to reserve judgement.
Despite these shortcomings the drama featured here works. The characters gain enough emotional investment to make the scares matter — and plenty scares there are. The frights come by way of mounting tension that’s accomplished with smart sound design that keeps the viewer feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Rather than rely on jump scares the creators play on what you can’t see. It’s about the things that lurk in the shadows or peaks just slightly into frame that make you question your own eyes. Of course, it wouldn’t be The Exorcist without wince-inducing body horror. The show doesn’t disappoint. Heads do indeed turn and bodies contort to defy anatomy in disgusting ways.
All of this makes for a surprisingly effective show, but is it actually worthy of its title? The short answer is yes. The show does embody the spirit of its predecessor, albeit with a more modern twist. There was a concentrated effort on part of the creators to include enough of what defined The Exorcist while also exploring new territory. During a Q&A after the screening I was able ask Jeremy Slater exactly what inspiration they took from the film that would feel familiar to viewers. “We very much wanted to make the show feel like it inhabited the same world as the film,” said Slater. “[We wanted to make it something] that felt a little different, but still kept the spirit of the movie intact. Let’s just say there will be some pea soup.” With that said, The Exorcist feels like it’s attempting to reach a little higher than its contemporaries, certainly more than anything found on network television. The show does feel like it may be punching above its weight, but it’s equipped with all the tools to go the distance. It’s a welcome addition to this year’s parade of quality horror, though with some room for improvement.
Review Grade: B-
Watch The Exorcist season premiere September 23 on Fox.