The Exorcist, a new TV series inspired by the 1973 horror classic, premieres tonight on Fox. The first episode is strong, setting up multiple narratives, introducing compelling characters, and delivering shriek-worthy scares. The rest of the season has a lot to live up to, but by the grace of Pazuzu, it’s totally possible—assuming it does these three things.
Damien was an A&E show set a few decades after The Omen; its premise was that the Antichrist had grown up into a generally affable fellow who somehow managed to forget his evil past, though said evil past had certainly not forgotten him. It was an awkward set-up—so, is that glaring little schoolboy a good guy now?—and the show often took itself way too seriously. (It was canceled in May after one season.)
The Exorcist has taken a smarter approach to adapting an iconic horror property. It’s not directly tied to the movie; the connection is more thematic. In the premiere, we briefly spot a news article about the Georgetown exorcism from the film, complete with a photo of the sinister staircase. There are some visual callbacks, like an eerily illuminated window, and a scene set in a spooky attic. It has the structure of a young priest whose faith is perhaps wavering, needing the help of an older priest who has been to hell and back. There’s a concerned mother with a troubled daughter. And, at just the right moment, “Tubular Bells” tumbles onto the soundtrack.
It’s all just enough to establish that the film and the TV show take place in the same universe—a universe filled with lurking, predatory demons—but it also sets the show free to follow its own course. Unlike Damien, viewers aren’t tasked with buying a weird narrative about, say, a familiar character completely blanking on his entire destiny. And if The Exorcist is smart, it’ll continue in this way. Subtle references to the film are great, but forging its own path is even more important.
The first episode leads us into the worlds of Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) and Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels). Father Tomas is determined and a bit naive; his attendance numbers may be small, and his church may be desperately in need of refurbishment, but he’s trying to do the right thing. Dude has passion, though—as a conversation with his sister, who mentions what seems like a forbidden girlfriend from his past, suggests—he might not always be putting that passion in the right place. Father Marcus has literally faced demons, so he has his own issues. These men are both fascinating, and in just one episode, we get a good sense of their past experiences, as well as the challenges they’ll be facing going forward.
The show’s other lead is Angela Rance, played by Geena Davis, who is The Exorcist’s biggest name and most recognizable star. (Alan Ruck is a distant second; he plays Angela’s husband Henry, who suffers from what appears to be early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s.) Unfortunately, Angela is also the least interesting character (so far, at least). A lot of what we know about her comes courtesy of exposition-laced dialogue. She’s very successful, because she oversees 400 employees. She “likes the idea” of God, and she certainly seems to believe in the supernatural, though we don’t get to see the crazy, poltergeist-y stuff she claims is happening in her house.
Presumably, Davis wouldn’t have signed on The Exorcist unless Angela offered some serious appeal—so here’s hoping the role gets way juicier as the weeks progress.
If you go back and watch William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, it’s amazing how well the 1973 special effects have held up. Where would horror be today without Regan’s ghoulishly grinning, rotating head? The Exorcist TV show is aware of that legacy, but it’s also, obviously, going to rely heavily on CG to visualize its fantastical moments. The premiere episode has its fair share; there may not be levitating beds at the Rance house (yet), but there are body contortions, bizarre eyeballs, animals behaving badly, and at least one sequence that owes more to contemporary horror movies than it does to any specific classic.
But this is not The Conjuring TV show or the Insidious TV show or The Ring TV show. This is The Exorcist. So while it makes sense to give a shout-out to what people expect from horror in 2016, it’s also important to stay true to the tone of the original material. So far, the show has that covered with lots of low-angle shots, dead leaves swirling through the outdoor scenes, weird things happening in the background (I’m almost positive I spotted a Prince of Darkness shout-out), random characters who just seem off, and heaps of atmospheric dread.
Angela’s scenes aside, the script is also careful to reveal only what it needs to. “They’re gonna love you,” Father Marcus tells Father Tomas after sizing up his vulnerabilities. Naturally, the younger priest immediately demands to know who “they” are—even though he, and we, have a pretty damn good idea of what Marcus is getting at. It’s a wonderfully chilling moment that says no more or less than it needs to.
The right tone can create something way freakier than all the CG fireworks could ever provide; a well-calibrated combination of the two is exactly what The Exorcist should keep striving for. Keep the scares coming on every level, and audiences will be compelled to keep watching.