One would be forgiven for reacting with anger, or, more appropriately, horror, at the idea of “The Exorcist” being re-tooled for the small screen. Is nothing sacred, not even the 1973 William Friedkin classic? Apparently not, given TV’s current obsession with relaunching just about any piece of intellectual property that ever made even a modest amount of money.
The good news is, Fox’s version of the well-known tale of Satanic possession is much more than just another attempt to capitalize on the box office of an established property. The first installment of the drama does a truly impressive job of establishing a mournful atmosphere, as it sketches out an array of characters worth following on what promises to be a very challenging journey.
This is not a property “Exorcist” fans need to avoid, especially given the sensitivity of the adaptation by writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater, and the quality of the cast, which includes Geena Davis as Angela Rance, a businesswoman and mother, and Ben Daniels, who plays haunted priest Father Marcus Keane. There’s always the chance this “Exorcist” may falter after the pilot, but Slater, director/executive producer Rupert Wyatt and the show’s capable array of actors have given it an exceptionally effective starting point.
Wyatt shows an exquisite sense of control throughout the pilot, which is set in Chicago and Mexico City. The way that leaves skitter across a street on an unassuming Midwestern street on a blustery fall day, the angle from which he shot a run-down apartment building on a hill in Mexico, the deep blues and blacks of the director’s palette and the lived-in spareness of the production design — all these meticulous choices reinforce a quiet yet palpable sense of dread and foreboding.
And yet the first episode is not oppressive or claustrophobic; the Mexico City sequences punctuate the hour with intensely hued moments of crisis and action, but those are balanced by several Chicago-set scenes of nuanced conversations about fate and faith. Throughout the pilot, the pace is crisp and assured, and the presence of a believably kind and thoughtful priest, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera), keeps the taut tone from sinking into despair. Ortega knows nothing of the world of exorcists, but he begins to learn about them after a parishioner, Angela, asks for help. Ortega learns Keane is the best in the business, but after everything the latter priest has seen, he wears a haunted, broken look, even in repose.
“The Exorcist” needs actors who can easily transition between operatic scenarios and quieter moments of resignation and fear, and Daniels’ nimbleness in this regard is exceptional. He presents a cynical front to strangers, but it’s clear that he cares for his possessed charges very deeply — possibly too much, as a disapproving superior from the Vatican reminds him. Daniels was the best thing about the Starz miniseries “Flesh and Bone,” and he may well have even more chances to show off his charisma and finely calibrated range in this role.
With less able actors, even a well-written new version of the “Exorcist” could have easily drifted into cliché, but Davis’ Angela, a tightly wound yet wounded matriarch, and Daniels’ flinty Father Keane give the drama for two very strong foundations. It’s worth noting that this iteration of the franchise is not a reboot, but an addition to the canon of “The Exorcist”: One of Father Ortega’s online searches gives him some background on the famous case of Regan MacNeil, the unfortunate child in the 1973 film.
It might be heretical to do so, but you could say that this “Exorcist” honors the sacraments of the original. In the 2016 adaptation, there is a possessed child, unexplained events occur in the home of a well-to-do family, and key scenes feature a frantic priest reciting Latin. Wyatt supplies a few juicy jump scares, and some moments are downright creepy (especially when it emanates from a child, the bass notes in the supposed voice of Satan never fail to make me break out in a cold sweat).
Despite its air of supernatural menace, the pilot never loses its focus on the emotional foundations of the central family’s malaise. Henry Rance (Alan Ruck), Angela’s husband, has an unspecified malady that resembles early-onset dementia, but could be something else; one of her teen daughters is trying to recover from a personal tragedy; and the other is trying to keep everything together through sheer force of will. Could these traumas explain why the household feels as though it’s suffused with a sense of disappointment and even danger? Or is the culprit less mundane and more actively evil?
Like the Friedkin film, this “Exorcist” captures a sense of unease about transitions, a frequent theme in horror fare. Though the kids in “Stranger Things,” for instance, are younger than the Rance daughters, both shows use scary metaphors to explore the pain and confusion that can radiate outward when kids grow up and forge their own unexpected paths. Like Netflix’s summer breakout, this Fox adaptation doesn’t just pay homage to what’s gone before, it locates and mines the kind of unsettled emotions that so often form the foundation of the most emotionally resonant genre pieces. It takes the fear that a mother doesn’t know her own children, and magnifies it in visually arresting and thematically ambiguous ways, while suggesting that even in families that mean well, connections can be more tenuous than anyone ever guessed.