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With all the remakes and revivals currently on TV and in development, it's hard to immediately get excited about each new one that comes along. Double that when it comes to horror, a genre infamous for botched revisions. But somehow, Fox's new small screen take on that most iconic of horror films, The Exorcist, not only serves as an exception to the "bad remake" rule but also stands alone as a chilling and nerve-rattling psychological thriller. I don't know if Pazuzu would approve, but audiences definitely will.
While not the first story about demonic possession, The Exorcist is arguably the most well-known of them all, and William Friedkin's 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel has been the inspiration for dozens and dozens of similarly themed films and other pieces of entertainment. Wisely, The Exorcist's first trip to TV does not outwardly fit itself into the film franchise, offering up similar but updated conflicts over faith, family and other elements that plague humanity. There is one big moment in the pilot in which the worlds of the original film and this series are connected, and it's perhaps the most persuasive bit in that first episode. But I won't ruin that for anyone here.
Mexican actor Alfonso Herrera, who is great in Netflix's Sense8, takes on the role of the calm Father Tomas Ortega, a progressive and empathetic priest taking over a Catholic church in the suburbs of Chicago. (Spoiler alert: Herrera is the shining light in this cast.) Flesh and Bone's Ben Daniels stars as the ever-frantic Father Marcus Keane, who was raised since birth as a warrior for the Church's cause, and you might have gathered that cause includes banishing demons and that sort of thing. The two priests aren't at all alike, yet they become connected in a big way - both mentally and physically - thanks to a normal family dealing with some very abnormal issues.
Angela Rance, played by Geena Davis, is the one who calls upon Father Tomas for assistance, as she believes there are bad things happening inside her home. For one, there's her distant husband Henry (Alan Ruck), who experienced a recent trauma and isn't having the easiest recovery. Then there are their two daughters: Katherine (Brianne Howey), who refuses to leave her bedroom, and Casey (Hanna Kasulka), who believes she's hearing noises coming from inside the walls. I'll admit that the family is the weakest part early on, but that's not really an insult, considering how good other aspects are.
The Exorcist was developed for TV by screenwriter Jeremy Slater, whose past efforts include the widely panned horror The Lazarus Effect and the similarly panned Fantastic Four remake, as well as the festival hit thriller Pet, which hasn't been released yet. So it wouldn't have been too shocking had this new Exorcist been extremely bad, but I couldn't be more delighted that it isn't. It remains to be seen if Slater's vision for this story will remain intact or if it'll get thinner than pea soup, but this is as promising a beginning as one could have hoped for.
One way The Exorcist stands up to its predecessor is in how the direction and sound design are used to maximize scares. The pilot was directed by Rupert Wyatt, perhaps best known for his equally well-executed reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he puts everything together extremely well here. Rather than always filling the sequences with rapid-edit bursts, Wyatt lets the camera hang on certain shots while the intensity is ramped up by what's coming through the speakers. There's a bit in the opening that, despite being little more than a man staring up at a house, immediately fills the viewer with dread thanks to the overwhelming mixture of screaming and the drone of the score.
Which finally brings us back around to the "real" point of it all: that the Fox horror succeeds in delivering the scares, and they come in a variety of ways. Like Robert Kirkman's Outcast on Cinemax, The Exorcist employs dramatic shifts in tone and tension when the frights are afoot, and that turn-on-a-dime approach is so much more satisfying when its allowed to extend longer than overused basic bitch jump scares. One instance involving a certain animal will go down as one of the best "Holy Shit" moments in 2016 TV. Mark (of the beast) my words. Yeah, I know that's The Omen and, if you like, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Horror is alive and well on TV, even when it's full of the undead, but it's not a genre that the big broadcast networks like to go to very often, with Hannibal easily the best that recent years have given us. Luckily, Jeremy Slater and Rupert Wyatt have delivered one hell of a good time with their jarringly frightening retelling of The Exorcist, which breathes new life into an unfortunately stagnant franchise. Have no misconceptions about its Friday night timeslot, The Exorcist will possess you.