Television reboots of classic movie franchises are becoming a phenomenon, one of the latest being a reimagining of The Exorcist. Aaron Yap explains why the show is neither a hit nor a flop.
If there’s one thing the modern prolificacy of remakes has taught us, it’s to be cynical. Instead of maintaining an open mind, we’re prone to responding derisively any time a cherished canonic film is receiving a contemporary make-over. Maybe more so now that the trend, once primarily the domain of movies, has penetrated the sphere of peak television. Yes, TV, that almighty bastion of hope for telling original, smart stories, is also lazily capitalising on a business formula that’s synonymous with the bankruptcy of imagination.
When I first heard that Fox would be adapting William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist into a TV series, my level of disinterest and skepticism, rather predictably, couldn’t be higher. Remake all the Lethal Weapons and Rush Hours you want, but this here, I mean, you’re fucking around with the Citizen Kane of horror movies. There’s no chance any good can come of it. And definitely not with Jeremy Slater, the relatively green writer of the Fantastic Four debacle – and not much else – running the show.
Perhaps to counter the vehement resistance to a new Exorcist, the studio haven’t specifically positioned this version as a “remake” as such. It’s just inspired by, not even based on, the source of Friedkin’s movie, William Peter Blatty’s novel. Semantics aside, the result is clearly a quasi-sequel that (a) takes place in the same universe and (b) seeks to capture the tone of the original while minimising the temptation, common in these sort of franchise-reviving endeavours, to wink at audiences familiar with the material.
Slater has retained the basic framework of two priests working together to exorcise a demonically possessed girl. A few obligatory callbacks abound. There’s a brief reference to the infamous Georgetown steps. At the close of the pilot episode, Mike Oldfield’s iconic “Tubular Bells” theme kicks in. Admittedly, it made my hairs stand, but it’s more out of nostalgic recognition more than the chills it once so effectively induced. Beyond that, this iteration of The Exorcist appears to be staking out divergent, if thematically connected, territory.
As with Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priests here are racked with guilt and suffering a crisis of faith. Father Thomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) is good at his work, well-liked by his parishioners, but doubts his purpose and fealty to God as he can’t stop flirting with a married woman. The fedora-wearing Father Merrin analog is Marcus Keane (Flesh and Bone’s Ben Daniels), a veteran exorcist so tormented and haunted by an exorcism-gone-wrong that he’s been shut away at a retreat for “broken priests”. As a Karras-and-Merrin team-up for a serialised adaptation, Ortega and Keane have a more conventional mismatched couple dynamic – one’s idealistic, the other’s jaded – but I’ll take it.
Occasionally the slow, methodical build of Friedkin’s movie, where the word “exorcism” doesn’t even get uttered until halfway in, is missed. Being a network TV offering, Slater’s version needs to unload the ‘goods’ immediately to reel viewers in, hence an over-reliance on juiced-up horror tricks to reassure us that it’s a worthy scare-fest. An hour of deliberately paced character development wouldn’t have been likely. There’s an inclination to heap on the dysfunctional family drama too, as if the sheer terror of being menaced by a demonic entity isn’t dramatic enough (mom Geena Davis hasn’t been the most attentive parent, dad Alan Ruck has a brain injury, eldest daughter Brianne Howey survived a car accident that killed her best friend).
On the plus side, the show is decently acted, fairly atmospheric and gets away with an extraordinary amount of hard-R horror stuff. No c-bombs or vaginal crucifix stabbing as yet (not that would I want such direct, frequent nods), but in the first three episodes, you can expect a parade of gruesome delights, including neck and leg snappings, jaw-ripping, centipede vomiting, self-immolation, mass homicide and organ stealing. If you’re partial to the schlockier aspects of the franchise, you’ll be well-served.
So was resurrecting The Exorcist necessary? Probably not. With Lucifer, Preacher, Ash vs Evil Dead, Damien and Outcast around at present, the competition to lure your eyeballs to yet another demon-populated hour of TV is stiff. But it’s a better-than-you’d-think addition to the legacy of a hallowed classic. Here’s a gauge: some of you will find it preferable to The Exorcist II and III, but I can say with certainty, everyone will find it superior to Exorcist: The Beginning. It might not give you sleepless nights, but neither will it put you to sleep.
The Exorcist is available to view on TVNZ On Demand.
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