Everyone on The Exorcist panel — which was preceded by a screening of the fall Fox TV show’s first episode — acknowledged the demonically-possessed elephant in the room. This is not the legendary horror film, nor is it trying to be, and they are all very aware of the pressure on anything titled The Exorcist.
Writer Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four), clad in a Halloween III: Season of the Witch t-shirt, was the first to admit it, saying, “There’s no larger fan of the original movie than myself.” Fortunately (at least going off the first episode, which we’ll discuss without spoilers here) the TV show is genuinely scary. Sure, it’s not as scary as the William Friedkin classic. But seriously, what is?
The Exorcist takes place in Chicago, in the present day, in the same universe as the film — we know this because a Google search by one of the characters turns up an old newspaper article about Georgetown, Chris MacNeil, and a very sinister set of stairs.
That said, it’s a stand-alone tale, introducing young Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), who ministers to a sparse congregation in a dilapidated church with a certain amount of admirable optimism. But he’s not perfect, and it’s suggested that he’s had troubles in his past that are still leaking into his current life. Also not perfect, despite her important job and upscale lifestyle: Angela (Geena Davis), whose tidy world has begun to crack. Her husband (Alan Ruck) has some kind of early-onset dementia, and her oldest daughter (Brianne Howey) is surly and mentally shaken in the wake of a bad car accident.
One problem with the first episode’s plot is that it’s very eager to get into the exorcism stuff — obviously — so it rushes Angela’s visit to Father Tomas, in which she tells him she thinks something is haunting her house and maybe her daughter, too. We haven’t seen much to back that up; by contrast, think of the slow build-up in the movie, in which an ailing Regan is subjected to a bevy of medical tests on her way to being fully possessed.
Here, we just hear what amounts to a couple of scary noises. So at first it seems like Angela might be paranoid or having some kind of stress-related delusion — until Father Tomas starts having insane dreams that suggest dark forces are indeed in their midst. Key to these dreams is Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), who’s kind of a younger, angrier version of Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin in the original film.
Is there an exorcism in the first episode? Yes. Is it scary? Hell yes. And that’s not all: The Exorcist also contains a doozy of a scene that pays homage to the original film while tipping its hat to contemporary horror films like Insidious and The Conjuring. And while Angela and Father Tomas are only mildly intriguing characters so far, the salty Father Marcus has a lot of potential. If he becomes the centrepiece of the show (as the title suggests he will), and it keeps up the fright factor, The Exorcist has a lot of potential, too.