How I Learned to Love The Exorcist TV Series

*Danger, Will Robinson! This blog post contains spoilers!*

When announced that The Exorcist (1973) was to receive the television network treatment, I thought the property was going to finally receive the last rites, never mind the Roman Rituals. William Friedkin’s New Hollywood masterpiece is one of those movies that changed my life. The Exorcist is at once utterly absurd and yet deeply - and profoundly - terrifying, to me. I'm not even religious. At Cannes this year, I was sat in the front row of Friedkin's career talk in the Salle Bunuel. After he’d finished speaking, I made a beeline, thanked him for the movie and its positive - if haunting - impact upon my life. We shook hands. I haven't washed it since....

Back in 2014, I had written a piece for The Guardian newspaper about Jason Miller’s role as Father Damien Karras. Friedkin called the article ‘required reading’ and ‘this is what The Exorcist is about’ to all his followers on Twitter. I probably should have retired then and there. I mean, how can my career get any better than that? 

For years, there have been ‘threats’ about bringing the property to the small screen and it was always denied by Friedkin or William Peter Blatty or Mark Kermode. Fans have every right to be sniffy about The Exorcist being adapted for telly. After all, you’ve seen the movie sequels … right? John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is a travesty, no matter what the hipsters say today. And the less said about Renny Harlin’s crappy effort, Exorcist: The Beginning, the better. I have time for Blatty’s Exorcist III and I’m eager to see the forthcoming Director’s Cut. I also like Paul Schrader’s Dominion, which bar some shoddy CG effects, has an amazing take on Merrin’s war years and the whole concept of the Christian church being found in pagan Africa is a doozy.

My first instinct and reaction toward this imminent series based on The Exorcist was to tell it to f*** off, if I’m frank. No good could come of it, I told myself. But I gave it a chance, and I'm glad I did.

The Exorcist, a sequel to the original told in ten-parts, begins badly. No two ways about it. Jeremy Slater, the screenwriter who was tasked with bringing the material to small screens worldwide, seemed too reliant on reboot-like references to Friedkin’s masterpiece. It felt like the makers were having their Exorcist cake and eating it. The pilot felt very lazy and the jump scares so painfully rote. The only thing chilling was my beer in the fridge. I almost bailed and thought ‘Nah, life’s too damn short’. Then talking to folk on Twitter, I was told that while the pilot does blow, I should stick with it because it gets genuinely riveting and goes to unexpected places. They were right. 

I feel like The Exorcist is in an unenviable position of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. By this, I mean referencing the masterpiece. It needs the cheesy pie nods and winks because ‘fans’ (or probably unimaginative execs) demanded these offerings. Once it gets to grips with itself and takes off on its own freaky ride, The Exorcist *does* become compulsive viewing and feels like an inspired riff, not on Friedkin’s film, but John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987). That of an apocalyptic event just on the horizon and time running out. Here, Slater gave the audience a smart spin on something it actually shares with the original: the palpably strange clash of the cosmic and the suburban. 

I also enjoyed Ben Daniels’ Father Marcus. He’s seen a lot of shit in his time as an exorcist and his backstory is revealed as one steeped in tragedy. But it’s the ex-communicated priest's pithy qualities and maverick edge which comes across as refreshing. Alfonso Herrera's Father Tomas Ortega is another compelling figure. He is, on the surface of things, just another uptight do-gooder trying to keep his flock together and the church from - literally - falling apart. But it's also revealed he's spiritually weak, due to a - shock, horror - consummated attraction to a married woman. The guy's being unknowingly groomed, too, by a gang of demons in human disguise. All of this is really cool and has nothing to do with Friedkin's movie, and more the better for it.

Then there's Geena Davis. She has some pretty fucking big shoes to fill. When the revelation hits, that she’s none other than an adult Regan MacNeil, it slaps of the ridiculous … but it’s, god damnit!, also very well handled. Pazuzu wasn't happy about losing round one of Operation: Possess Regan's Soul, thanks to Karras's brave efforts in kicking the demon's arse. Pazuzu is back with a vengeance and his plan to take Regan once and for all threatens her deeply troubled family. Robert Emmet Lunney, who plays Pazuzu, appearing first as an entity known as the Salesman, spends each episode in a stage of smouldering decay, as if his power is waning (kudos to the makeup department and special effects team). But it's his soothing voice which creeped me out the most. The makers didn't opt for a Mercedes McCambridge re-hash, thankfully. It's just about the only thing they left the f*** alone.

Fair play to Davis, because she’s done a very good job with a difficult role. One thing I really didn’t care for was the re-characterisation of Chris MacNeil (played by Sharon Gless), who arrives in the show in an absolutely shameless homage to Merrin’s arrival at the house in Georgetown. Here, Chris made a buck or twenty from carting her formerly possessed daughter around the talk show circuit back in the 1970s and wrote a tell-all book. It’s easy enough to understand, Burke Dennings’s death and the general mayhem of the possession may have weakened her career. But the drastic reworking makes her a shallow, career-obsessed narcissist and doesn’t chime with Ellen Burstyn’s memorable portrayal. 

Before I knew it, The Exorcist telly show had me hook, line and sinker, and I've grown quite fond of the bloody thing. I realised a few episodes in, that I was gripped tight by the characters, their personal and collective dilemmas and this surprising apocalyptic vision slowly being revealed. It's as if Slater foresaw in tea leaves or animal bones the horror show that would be 2016. The portrait of the church, not just that there are evil elements within passing as holy types, but hinting at the deep sense of shame in the wake of the abuse scandals, lends the show a subtle power which some might actually miss (because the themes are not dealt with overtly). But it's most definitely there in the politics of the story and subtext. It's ultimately a show about a set of crises happening all at once: apocalyptic, institutional and personal. It's really quite well done. Again, none of it to do with Friedkin's horror classic. It stands alone.

The Exorcist is far from perfect and yet if it gets cancelled, I would be disappointed because I feel like once it completes the MacNeil storyline, the show can move forward and do its own thing. That’s what’s - at least potentially - is so exciting. 

 The Exorcist airs on SyFy in the UK and is available to rent/own via Amazon.