Written by Dylan Brandsema
If the TV-14 rating disclaimer proceeding the pilot episode of FOX’s new series adaptation of The Exorcist isn’t enough to prove immediately that something is wrong, the following first few minutes will hammer it into your brain so hard you’ll feel like you’ve had a crucifix jammed into your skull.
You know how this story goes. Since the release of William Friedkin’s original 1973 masterpiece, it’s been told a thousand times, in a thousand different variations, but never as good as it once was. In case you don’t know how it goes, here’s a summary in one sentence: A well-to-do suburban mother calls upon the help of a priest to perform an exorcism when she is convinced that her daughter is possessed by a demon. It’s as straightforward as you can get, but even the worst of the worst of the worst of the countless exorcism films that exist have delivered it with more enthusiasm and are of better quality than this new made-for-TV modern-day reimagining.
I emphasize the “Made-for-TV” part of that description because, above everything else, that is its biggest downfall. Whether it’s meant to be a re-imagining of Friedkin’s film, or just simply another adaption of William Peter Blatty’s original novel, The Exorcist should absolutely never be anything other than R-rated (or TV-MA, in the case of television). Horror doesn’t need to be R to be scary, of course, but the weight of the story of The Exorcist, specifically, is practically nothing without its extreme graphic nature and content, almost all of which will certainly be unfit for FOX at 9 PM. If there was ever room for a new version of this story, primetime broadcast television is the last place that it belongs.
The characters and their purposes remain pretty much the same. Geena Davis leads as Angela Rance, the mother of Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka), the girl whom the demon later decides to possess. Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels play the priests, Fathers Thomas Ortega and Marcus Keane. Though the names and ages are different, their roles in comparison with the source material remain unchanged. The biggest difference, though, is the addition of two new characters, as well as the removal of the house maid character. Brianne Howey plays Katherine Rance, Angela’s second daughter, and Alan Ruck plays Henry Rance, the father who is mentally deteriorating due to an unspecified disease . It will come as no surprise to learn that neither of them contribute anything to the story.
Changing characters’ names and ages is fine–in fact, in some cases, it’s a good thing because it aids the audience in seeing a different character then they’re familiar with–but that in itself does not change the story. If you’re familiar with the original film or novel, or any exorcism story for that matter, it’s nearly impossible to be engaged or surprised by anything that happens. None of these characters, not a single one, is given anything interesting to do or say except serve as cogs in the machine that’s forcing the plot forward. The performances collectively range from middling and mediocre to completely awful. Geena Davis, in particular, who has been a fine actress in many things, is the most dreadful of the bunch. She stumbles around the entire episode with a forced sad expression, and halfheartedly mumbles her lines with a careless, monotone inflection. Not a single character or character arc is compelling in the least, and when almost every scene shifts its character perspective, it makes the entire thing cardboard. The vomit that came out of Regan MacNeil’s mouth in the original had more personality and charisma then any member of this cast.
The way the story itself unfolds is just pitiful as the characters occupying it. It’s true that bringing this story into series format will obviously force some liberties with pacing, but everything moves so quickly, and always at the same time, that the viewer never gets more than a few minutes to soak in one scene and observe what might be happening in the next. It is a slave to its runtime more than any other television show I’ve ever watched.
There are two moments that stand out from everything else as being particularly idiotic. The first is the moment that Angela Rance becomes officially convinced that her daughter is possessed. As where in the original Regan began convulsing and contorting her body in non-human ways to finally convince the mother that she was no longer herself, here, Angela simply observes that her daughter is “acting weird” (even though we are shown no evidence of this), and she hears a series of weird gurgling noises in the walls. I am not kidding; that is literally all it takes. I couldn’t come up with a more hamfisted, obligatory explanation if my life depended on it.
The second, and more egregious moment is the final reveal of possessed Casey at the end of the episode. Instead of a Satanic torturing creature confined to a bed, the demon has turned her into a spastic generic-looking demon-girl that hides in the attic and snacks on horribly rendered CGI rats. It is the laziest, most ludacris reveal I’ve ever witnessed of this kind of scene, and it is a disgrace to the source material. I was not at all surprised to learn the teleplay for the pilot was written by Jeremy Slater, who also created the series. For those unaware, he is the man responsible (along with Josh Trank) for writing last year’s superhero dung pile, Fantastic Four. The commentary there writes itself.
The worst part is that it isn’t as if the idea of an Exorcist remake has no potential either, especially considering how watered down and clichéd the exorcism horror sub-genre has become over the years, but the filmmakers do nothing to breathe any new life into the source material. Blatty’s novel presents with them a chess board, and the only thing they’ve done is move a few pawns. It essentially plays out like every other by-the-book possession horror film that’s come out over the last 10-15 years that wants to be The Exorcist, except this time it actually is. It’s replaced every single ounce of internal, psychologically-rooted religious terror that made the original so great, and replaced it with dime-a-dozen modern horror clichés that any group of idiots with a camera can execute easily and successfully for profit. It’s not just garbage, it’s soulless, useless garbage with no justifiable reason for existing.
The writing is horrible, the acting is of straight-to-DVD quality, and there’s absolutely no creative narrative or presentation of any kind to be found anywhere. It is unbelievably awful every single second. Every necessary element needed to tell a visual story fails extraordinarily on the most fundamental level. Every hardworking American citizen whose tax dollars went into paying for this unholy abomination should collectively sue FOX for organizing a money laundering scheme. [Editor’s Note: We don’t recommend you do this.] In scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to search for one positive thing to say, I’ve come up with this: The cinematography is passable, and not unpleasant to look at for about half of the time.
As the start to a paint-by-numbers broadcast network friendly exorcism story, it’s forgettable and boring. As an adaption of William Peter Blatty’s classic tale, it has committed ultimate sin. One of the slogans used by FOX on the show’s promotional posters was “There is a fate worse than death.” I firmly believe that to be true after sitting through this repellent, revolting, horrific, atrocious, completely irredeemable occurrence of cinematic blasphemy.
I cast you out, unclean spirit.