‘The Exorcist’ Series Premiere Recap: Your Mother Sucks Fox in Hell

 

Cameron from Ferris Buehler's Day Off on The Exorcist.

Cameron from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off on The Exorcist. Fox

When I was maybe ten or eleven, my parents gave me a collection of old Mad Magazine bits. After I read “The Ecchorcist,” they had to explain to me—in a reasoned, agnostic kind of way—like, “You can believe this if you want”– about demonic possession. It scared the Hell out of me, if you will, and commenced a period of my life of increased interest in Christianity (we were churchgoers). I started saying my prayers a lot, apologizing to God for cussing, and I started suffering from intrusive thoughts about the devil.

One way to read the story of The Exorcist, then, is as a very effective version of those Christian haunted houses they might have had in your hometown, that the main point is just, ‘Watch out for the Devil or he’ll get ya!!” But it also subverts that conservatism, because the 1973 movie is regarded as one of the most frightening things ever made, a film that almost exudes evil.

That’s a lot to live up to! The good news is that the pilot for the new Fox television adaptation of the show has some good moments in terms of acting and cinematography, and it’s very, very scary. The bad news is it’s clunky and unintentionally campy at times and tries to do too much, feeling somehow both underwritten and overwritten (to be fair, this is true of most pilots: go back and re-watch the first episodes of The Wire or Mad Men sometime).

The show begins with the older priest character, Father Marcus Keane, approaching a house from which screams emanate. It’s the same tableau as the classic movie poster, as though the show was promising to live up to not only the original film, but the thrill you might have gotten looking at the cover of the forbidden VHS at Blockbuster when you were a kid.

Next we’re introduced to Tomas, a smoldering hunk of a priest (more like Sexorcist, am I right? Yowza), who tells the story of the disciple Peter trying to walk on water, with the lesson that it’s okay to have doubt, that God wants you to find faith in your own way. In his congregation are 3/4ths of the family around which the show centers: Angela Rance, played by Geena Davis; Casey, her perfect angel daughter; and husband and father Henry, who is suffering from some sort of early on-set dementia. Alan Ruck– whose performance as Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of the all-time great subtle, far-ranging, tragicomic performances of the ‘80s, and who I was just recently saying is criminally underused now– plays Henry. The other daughter, Kat, has chosen to stay at home instead of go to church—uh, yikes, Kat, definitely possessed by Lucifer himself much?

Angela offers Kat donuts, and Kat, from inside her room, devilishly refuses them. Meanwhile at his home, Tomas’s sister gives him a hard time for maintaining snail-mail correspondence with a married woman, and Tomas playfully shoves a pizza towards her face.

Marcus, in a village in a Spanish-speaking country, receives a visit from a representative of the Vatican, who demands he come home and give up on the exorcism he’s been trying to do on a young boy. Marcus pulls a gun on the man. Marcus is a LOOSE CANNON who DOES NOT PLAY BY THE RULES. Marcus goes to tell the boy a soothing rhyme about a cat and the boy flips back into possessed mode. Then it turns out these are dreams or visions Tomas is having.

Angela hears evil noises in the walls, then Casey walks by, startling her. Casey is on her way to have a nice, reasonable talk with her sister Kat, who by virtue of her typical mopey, sullen contrarianism, must certainly be naught but a vessel for Beelzebub. In fact, Kat is the only relatable character so far. Casey, trying to get Kat to come out with her, says, “There’s gonna be guys there!” “Hard pass,” Kat replies.

In a beautiful sequence, Father Tomas goes through the church’s basement with a flashlight, illuminating old religious statues, until he gets to the switch box. In the previous scene, Casey had remarked, “Is this whole family allergic to light?” Tomas turns to see Angela behind him—it is the second fake-out jump scare in just a few minutes. The show is capable of literary subtlety but it also goes cheap whenever it feels like it.

Angela tells Tomas that Kat and her “uh, friend” had been in a car accident together, which killed her “uh, friend.” Kat has been different since she came back from the hospital, and Angela insists that this, along with the weird sounds around the house, prove that she has a demon infestation. “I have 400 employees under me,” she says. “I am not a crazy person.” Because no one in charge of a lot of people has ever been a delusional maniac with devils in their head.

Tomas says that demons are an invention by the church to explain things like addiction and mental illness. “Demons are metaphors,” he says. Then a raven crashes through the window.

Tomas says that demons are an invention by the church to explain things like addiction and mental illness. “Demons are metaphors,” he says. Then a raven crashes through the window.

Tomas talks to Kat, who says that Angela is only convinced there are demons in the house because “I ‘liked’ my friend’s stupid Wiccan craft store on Facebook, so now she thinks I’m out drinking ram’s blood or something.” If this is the modern translation of the movie’s Ouija board element, I’m gonna be very upset.

Tomas has an awkward dinner with the Rance family, in which more of Henry’s mental health problems come to light. Angela eye-fucks Tomas after he sticks up for Henry. Tomas talks to Henry one-on-one, and Henry appears much more composed and intuitively gives Tomas answers to some questions he’d been looking for regarding Marcus’s whereabouts. Wait, is Alan Ruck’s character in this also pretending to be catatonic as part of a different kind of meltdown altogether, just like his character in Ferris Bueller?!

Next we’re treated to that most thrilling of all cinematic devices– the Google search. One of the news articles Tomas pulls up—you have to pause to catch this—tells of the death of Jesuit priests Damien Karras and Lankester Merrin during an exorcism in the actress Chris MacNeil’s Georgetown house. That’s the plot of the original Exorcist! The show is a sequel, folks.

After an especially nuts flashback/ dream, in which the demon kills the child by breaking his neck, Tomas goes to see Marcus at a private center for theological study. First he talks to a creepy guy who describes Tomas as “seeming lost” and a “rising star” in the church. After Tomas walks away from the guy, the guy’s eyes do a demonic eye roll. I hope this character is significant, because the actor who plays him has a great jovial/sinister John Goodman vibe.

Marcus is in a room listening to a doo-wop song about an angel sent from Heaven and drawing pictures of the Slenderman or something. He confirms that the visions Tomas has been having of him are indeed real events that happened not long ago, and advises Tomas to stay away from the legions of demons. Ben Daniels, who plays Marcus, manages to work really subtle and complex gestures into an overly-“big” monologue.

The Rances suffer not only from the kind of problems—grief, teenage hormones, mental illness– that the church would have called “demons” not too long ago. But they also suffer from legit demons. Is the show—like the movie, debatably—interested in advancing the fundamentally regressive notion that sometimes metaphors are real, and even taking it a step further, saying that skeptical hunks aren’t enough to deal with these problems, that sometimes you need a gun-waving old maverick to do it?

The episode finds a good in-between in the final act, when Tomas, interrupted from an emotional talk with Angela about faith, goes up to the Rance family attic to investigate scary noises and discovers Casey, the nice daughter, up there being demonic AF! She snaps a rat’s spine without touching it, then lurches towards Tomas to strangle him. Angela, using the power of recurring metaphor, innocently walks in and turns the light on, revealing a normal-seeming Casey, who credits Tomas with the rat’s extermination. “Don’t they say where there’s one, there’s probably a whole bunch?” she asks, looking right at Tomas. The classic Exorcist theme, “Tubular Bells” plays as Tomas exits to see Casey smirking at him through the window, while meanwhile, Marcus suits up to step back into the world of demon-vanquishing, knowing it may well kill him.

The episode is not a classic piece of television by any means, but that ending is totally chilling and made me very excited for the next one. I’ll see you next week unless the demon Pazuzu, who inhabits my body, tells me to do something less offensive.

‘The Exorcist’ Series Premiere Recap: Your Mother Sucks Fox in Hell