***Spoilers for The Exorcist follow. Spoilers***
Coming into Fox’s TV re-imagining of seminal horror icon The Exorcist, I was quite intrigued but, frankly, a little skeptical. I am … more than slightly obsessed with the original film and William Peter Blatty’s book. I love it so much that I watched the sequels and the incredibly weird double/duel prequels which are literally the same film released one year apart with teeny, tiny theme changes, exploring Father Merrin’s first fight with the demon Pazuzu.
(I learned an important lesson watching the sequels and prequels: you can love too much.)
The show thus far doesn’t need you to have seen the film to follow along, but the writers clearly expect that most of their audience has, so it might be worth checking it out as soon as you can.
I am going to refer to the film often, so for those somehow unable to watch: the 1973 movie follows the possession and exorcism of a 12-year-oldgirl by Jesuit priests, Fathers Karras and Merrin. The younger, Karras, is a guilt-wracked man who struggles with his faith, while the frail, older Merrin has tackled not only demons before, but the specific demon haunting Regan, Pazuzu. The battle for her soul proves a success, but costs the lives of both men: Merrin to his weakened heart and Karras, after calling the demon into himself, to a grisly and agonizing suicide.
The TV series is set in the modern day and with a new family, the Rances. Leading the incredible cast are Hollywood icons Geena Davis as Angela Rance and Alan Ruck as husband Henry, parents to Kat and Casey.
The Nu-Fathers are Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrerra … Hernando? From Sense8? HA!), the Karras stand-in parish priest to the Rance family, and Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels, House of Cards), the show’s aged-down, punked up Merrin, a man traumatised by his past encounters with demonic forces. The show picks up in a flashback with Keane, wearing a Merrin-style fedora, attending the Mexico City home of a possessed little boy.
In present-day Chicago, Tomas is saying mass in a poorly-attended Church and can’t even get his microphone to work. He’s a dynamic speaker and his adorable nephew adds some laugh-out-loud dramatic flailing to Tomas’ sermon, but it’s like a lot of modern churches: the pews are empty.
Later, he talks a little with Casey Rance about her sister, Kat, then notices a creepy homeless dude staring intently at the church, or indeed, at Casey. Really? A creepy homeless guy who knows shit? We’re dipping into the cliché bucket this early?
Tomas is distracted by Angela, the flawless, perfect Geena Davis, who is grateful for the mass, and more grateful Henry has somewhere so familiar and safe to go to after some kind of illness, perhaps a stroke, which has left him vulnerable and forgetful. They briefly discuss Kat’s slow recovery and reluctance to leave her bedroom and these are meant to be the first clues something is wrong.
Later, at home, Angela fails to coax Kat down to dinner. At his own home, Tomas is conflicted reading letters from (gasp) a woman! His sister Olivia arrives to pick up her kid and notices the letters, warning of the dangers of the relationship. When Tomas downplays it, Olivia calmly reminds her brother he doesn’t have to stay a priest if he doesn’t want to, as the grandmother for whom he joined the priesthood is dead. She suggests, “You gave it a try, it didn’t work out!”
Girl, I feel you, but this isn’t like he took up rollerblading. It can take up to eight years of studying just to become a priest, and, going by the actor’s age, Tomas might have had his parish for nearly as long as that again. That’s not “giving it a try.” That’s a fucking doctorate.
But Tomas swears he doesn’t want to quit.
Back in Mexico City, a Father Bennett was checking in with a 26-days-AWOL Keane. Keane listens to twangy blues music and smokes, and he’s got combats boots on, so you know he’s ice-cool, with it, hip. He’s violated orders from the Church (presumably to assess but not exorcise the boy) and Bennett wants to take the sickly child to the hospital. Keane, and I’m not making this up, pulls a gun on Bennett to warn him off.
Bennett vows, “Rome will not forgive this!” and Keane equally Game Of Thrones-ishly retorts, “It’s not their forgiveness I seek!”
And, again: o…kay. Keane goes back to his work. The little boy is bound to his bed by his wrists and ankles, his skin swollen and split. He has a creepy double iris in one eye, a mark of possession it seems. As Keane begins to pray, we see Tomas is somehow seeing all of this, but is ignored by Keane and the child. The boy spits something on the ground and Tomas picks it up; it’s one of the boy’s shattered teeth.
Tomas wakes up, back home in his bed, from what now looks like a nightmare. Great scene.
At the Rance house, Angela hears strange noises; thumps, like Kat is moving around the room she never leaves, then sees scratches on the walls (hallmarks of possession in the real world as well), and leans close enough to the wall to make out indistinct, whispering voices.
Casey surprises her; then, she heads upstairs to find Kat and try and coax her down to dinner. Casey is bubbly and sweet, and lets it slip that she saw their mother crying. Kat bitches it wasn’t an accident and that Angela wants attention and is climbing up on a cross to get it.
Girl. If we’d seen a smidgen of this, I might sympathize, but your mother is a boss, so wind your neck in. Casey calls out the hypocrisy and tries to encourage her sister to come to some parties with booooyysssss, but Kat shoots it all down until Casey just starts tickling her to get her to smile. Casey is adorable and I care about this kid. Kat … notsomuch.
Over at the church, Tomas is juggling a thousand things and is flustered. A broken stained-glass window is likely a low-key hint at the ongoing possession; petty vandalism was an early symptom in the film. The power goes out, so Tomas runs down to the basement to try and fix the fuses. For reasons I don’t understand, he’s frightened by sounds above him; bro, the church is literally full of people right now. But when he turns, suddenly: Geena Davis!
In his office, Angela is troubled and drops some back story on Kat: she didn’t just survive a car wreck; the same wreck killed whom Angela calls “her … friend” and Angela is worried about her. She asserts it’s not depression, which she knows very well. She talks about furniture being moved around; strange noises; voices.
Tomas starts to talk about his noisy fan and there’s this moment, this reaction Geena Davis gives, six seconds of silence listening to Tomas try and tell her it’s a fan …
Just look at her. Look at her and drink her in. We’re not worthy, ladies and gentlebugs. Angela insists she’s not crazy …. But there’s a demon in her house, coming for Kat.
Tomas tells her the Church doesn’t believe in real demons; they were metaphors for things we didn’t yet understand. Angela knows, but begs him to just come to the house; talk with Kat. As he agrees, a gigantic raven smashes halfway through his office window, the broken glass shredding its neck. It screeches and bleeds all over Tomas’ Holy Gospel, which he quickly moves.
If the trailer hadn’t totally blown that moment, it would have been fucking terrifying.
Traveling by train, Tomas has more strange dreams of Keane and the boy, Gabriel. In Kat’s room, she’s laying on her bed reading a magazine because she’s so fucking rude, shrugging off Tomas’ questions and concern. He tells her what her mother said about demons and Kat bitches that her mother’s upset, because before the crash Kat had liked a friend’s Wiccan FB page. She says, a year ago, Henry was fine; now, he’s not, so Angela just wants someone to blame. Tomas asks Kat whom she blames for her problems. She says: “Myself. Like an adult!”
Child, you blame yourself when you are to blame.
Right now, I’m not feeling so much that Kat is possessed as much as I’m feeling she’s just a brat.
Down at dinner, Tomas tries to ask Henry about a boat he’d been working on, but Henry clearly doesn’t remember what he means so Kat calls him a potato and clicks her fingers.
Clicks. Her fingers. In her father’s face. Hands inches from his eyes, going, “Hello!? Hello?” and Henry just looks crushed … just fucking heartbroken. He gets up and leaves.
Oooh, girl! Oh, my actual God. Oh, girl, you are so lucky I’m not your mother; oh, Kat. I’m supposed to give a shit this little brat is possessed? Let the fucking things have her.
Tomas talks about a friend in the priesthood who gave the last rights to a comatose girl, who then recovered. She could remember conversations that happened beside her bed while she was unconscious. He looks at Kat and says it shows that, no matter how bad the damage, something of the person remains and they know what’s happening around them.
He scolds; orders Kat, “So, keep your damn hands out of his face!” and he glares at her and she storms off because she’s a shitty person. Casey and Angela look like they just developed religious crushes because hell, yeah, Tomas.
So, clearly, Casey is the one who’s possessed, right? Because we need to give a living shit about the victim and, right now, Kat is just fucking awful. Even allowing for what she’s been through — her anger, grief, trauma — she is still just awful.
Later, as Ortega leaves, Henry sweetly thanks him for coming to talk to Kat, knows how hard it’s been for Angela recently; see, Kat? He’s cognizant. He’s aware.
As Tomas turns to leave, Henry tells him he’ll find Keane off Route 41 at a place called St. Aquinas. Tomas asks what he means and Henry pauses, then, as if it never happened, he repeats his earlier thanks for coming to see Kat.
Tomas goes home and to the Googles, and he researches. He looks at exorcisms and we get glimpses of Anneliese Michel, a real life victim of “possession,” who died from a range of injuries and issues after months of exorcisms.
He stumbles across a news clipping about the “Georgetown Exorcism,” describing the deaths of Jesuit priests Karras and Merrin after performing an exorcism on a sickly young girl. The music during this scene has very subtle echoes of Tubular Bells and, yeah, I have to admit, this scene got me.
So, the MacNeil incident was real in this universe; Karras and Merrin were real people.
But, also again, some more: Linda Blair would love to be in this.
Tomas sleeps and dreams again. Keane’s exorcism of Gabriel has hit fever pitch with him screaming orders in Latin and English while the demon twists and mocks him. It finally seems like he might be winning, but, abruptly, the boy tears loose of his bonds and twists his head all the way around, Regan-style; only his neck instantly breaks and he dies.
Time for more of my mixed feelings: I don’t like sequel/prequels that change the physics of the original source material. If Regan could survive it, this kid should be able to. Maybe it’s to do with which demon it is.
Tomas is driving and I do wish the show had done a little more to give him a reason to search so frantically. It turns out Keane lives just a few hours’ drive away and — wait, he does? HOLY convenient coincidence, Batman.
At the retreat, an older priest in sunglasses and another Merrick-like hat calls Tomas over and Tomas quickly figures the man is visually impaired, but not entirely blind. He introduces himself just as Tomas and the man creepily knows entirely way too much about him just from his first name. Is this guy possessed? This guy is possessed.
Father Creepy talks to him about finding answers from God about your purpose, your reason for being here but Tomas is like “… Sure,” and races off to find Keane. Father Creepy takes off his sunglasses and yep, double demon-iris: possessed.
Tomas follows Keane to his house and asks about possession before mentioning his dreams, but Keane is quick off the mark and asks whom Tomas needs help with. Tomas says, “Maybe a girl in my parish,” and doesn’t follow it with: “… but she might just be a wretched little brat.”
He talks about the dream of Keane’s exorcism and Keane demands Tomas tell him something about it that didn’t make the news. Tomas recites a nursery rhyme Keane told the boy about a cat with upside-down eyes and cloth for feet, and Keane is so intimidating that Tomas slips back into Spanish to recite it.
Keane says it was eighteen months ago and tells Tomas that God didn’t send Tomas here; that “they” will love him, but dismisses the other man. Tomas says he’s afraid and Keane says Tomas should be, too.
Tomas visits Angela and they break into the wine because they’re real proper Catholics, and Tomas asks if she believes in God. Keepin’ it light, Tomas. Angela is like many people: she likes the idea of God; that we’re not just molecules smashing into each other; but, truthfully, she’s not sure.
Tomas tells her he never heard the voice of God call him to the priesthood like every other priest will say they did. He was born in Chicago, but raised in Mexico by his grandma who wanted him to be the first Mexican Pope. He wished he’d heard God because he never felt like he belonged. But, now, he thinks he heard God tell him to help the Rance family. Angela looks relieved.
Upstairs, there’s a thud and a faint yelp, and they go running upstairs to investigate.
They head for Kat’s room but the attic ladder creepily drops down right in front of them, so Tomas goes up. The lights don’t work and he thinks he sees Kat in the attic but she keeps disappearing. One great spooky scene shows someone clearly walking across the ceiling behind him, but he doesn’t notice.
He startles a rat which tries to run away but an invisible force crushes it to death before a girls hand drags it into the shadows. The figure emerges aaaaand it’s Casey.
So … Kat’s just that mean, then? Bold strategy.
Casey is all possessed-looking and, in another spooky shot, walks a strange, physics-bending, drooping walk towards him before she leaps on him and pins him down, her face drooping like a stroke victim’s … is Henry’s illness going to be a failed attempt at possession that left him injured?
Tomas is freaking, when suddenly another unseen force launches Casey off him and back into the shadows. The lights come on and a baffled Angela walks in.
Was Casey cast back by Angela?
Casey, looking healthy and normal, emerges from the dark to tell her mother Tomas killed a rat, so they should put down traps. She looks pointedly at Tomas and warns, “Where’s there’s one, there’s probably a whole bunch.” Tomas looks like he’s soiled himself.
Later, he throws out the dead rat.
Keane, in his chambers, is packing his bag and readying to leave.
Tomas looks back at the house and sees Casey watching him from the window, smiling. Tubular Bells starts up as the men begin their walks.
He turns and walks way, afraid.
Keane dons the Merrin hat and collects his bag of priestly tools and, as the Bells peak, both men walk off into the dark.
Okay, I’m in.
The potential here is crazy, with some skillful directing, making for a great horror show right off the bat. The scenes with the possessed child were brutal, and Angela’s conversations with Tomas are basically always electrifying. The chemistry between everyone is outstanding and I’m excited for Tomas and Keane to have more scenes together; even a few good conflicts. The direction is gorgeous; every actor is just at the top of their game. Keane and Bennett’s little clash is weird, but invoking Rome could make for some interesting arguments and could perhaps lead to a more direct mention of the MacNeil incident. There are a few other things I think we’re meant to notice, too. The long shot of a delivery truck in the opening shots of St. Anthony’s felt deliberate and I want to know about Father Creepy and more about the St. Aquinas retreat. Is it for … “bad” priests? Or just the broken ones? And how can Father Creepy be there without Keane or some of the others noticing him, detecting his presence? If Angela can “just feel” something wrong, why can’t anyone else?
The homages to the film are well placed and well used, both narratively and in the visual or directorial nods to Friedkin’s masterpiece. However, I am very curious about the use of the Merrick-style hats Keane and Father Creepy wear. Is that just fan service, or could there be a direct connection there?
We’ll have to see.
What an excellent day for an exorcism.