Posted on Monday, October 24th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Here’s the thing about the television adaptations of The Exorcist and Scream – they both sound like terrible ideas. They booth reek of desperation, of television networks dragging a popular and familiar name kicking and screaming into another medium, hoping that name recognition alone will attract an audience. In the age of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, an age where horror on television has actually become popular, these shows feel like they should be the half-assed attempts to cash in on the small screen’s current obsession with things that go bump in the night.
But this is the point where I choke on my words, eat my hat, etc. Fox’s television riff on The Exorcist and MTV’s reinvention of Scream are not only good, but they’re also two horror-themed shows I’d actually recommend above the other major players in the genre this Halloween. I’m as surprised as anyone when I say that if you can only find time for two spooky shows to binge-watch during the season of the witch, pick these.
On one level, expectations play a role here. While The Walking Dead and American Horror Story air on “prestige” networks, The Exorcist and Scream have a home on channels that don’t have a reputation for participating in the “golden age of television.” This actually gives them an edge, a lower bar to clear. But these shows aren’t barely passing that bar – they leap over it and make it look graceful. These aren’t just pleasant surprises. They’re pleasant surprises that continue their streak of unexpected excellence long after the initial shock has worn off.
And most importantly, both shows succeed because they don’t treat their source material like a sacred text. Sure, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is one of the best horror movies ever made, and Wes Craven’s Scream is one of the most vital pop-culture pastiches ever devised, but neither show feels a need to recreate those successes. They’re comfortable doing their own thing, displaying a brazen confidence that allows them to color outside the lines, repurpose the familiar, and quickly transform into their own magnificent beasts. Beasts that just happen to share their title and barebones premise with popular movies.
And, of course, both shows are streaming right now.
It’s genuinely impressive how The Exorcist refuses to lean on the iconography of the original film. That famous music score only rears its creepy head once. An elderly priest never arrives on a doorstep shrouded with fog. Much of the story takes place outside of a young girl’s bedroom. When the show does borrow something we’ve seen before, like vomit that looks a bit like pea soup or a possessed individual’s violent response to a sexual assault, the results couldn’t be more different. The Exorcist uses its prestigious title as an excuse to tell its own supernatural horror story, one that is fresh and fun and scary and, somehow, wholly original. Most stories of demonic possession lean heavily on The Exorcist, so there’s something amusing about a TV version of The Exorcist actually breaking free of those shackles and doing something fresh.
Like the original film, The Exorcist is built around a girl possessed by a demon and the two priests who come together to exorcise it. But that’s not enough for an eight-episode season of television, so that familiar tale is just a single component of a much larger conspiracy. The Exorcist is, at its core, a mismatched buddy cop procedural where a visiting dignitary is being threatened by a dark conspiracy…except that those mismatched buddy cops are priests and that dignitary is the Pope and that dark conspiracy is a mysterious plot being hatched by a cabal of demons and their worshippers. Throughout its run so far, the series has proven compulsively watchable when it’s dealing with a possessed girl creating mayhem in her household and when it’s delving into the politics of the Catholic church and the city of Chicago. The mystery that connects all of these disparate threads isn’t especially complex, but it proves itself to be a satisfying vehicle for memorable characters, strong performances, and some very icky, very sticky scares.
As expected, The Exorcist is at its best when its straying into entirely unfamiliar territory. Like when Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels in a fantastic and commanding performance), an aging and bitter veteran exorcist with a chip or two on his shoulder, visits a convent and witnesses nuns battle a demon with compassion and forgiveness instead of righteous fury and the promise of God’s wrath. Or in the scenes where the young Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) attempts to balance the politics of running a parish in a rough neighborhood while one of his flock is literally possessed by an evil presence.
In one of the show’s most inspired touches, the series actually invites us into the mind of young Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka), letting us see her conversations with the initially charming and comforting presence that has taken up a residence within her. The show explores how and why a teenage girl would let herself be seduced by an evil spirit in the first place – the “Salesman” (Robert Emmet Lunney) comes to her as a friend and bolsters her self-worth and offers a shoulder to cry on before he reveals his true intentions. Since Casey’s home life includes a sister battling a recent trauma (Brianne Howey), a once-brilliant father suffering a career-ending brain injury (Alan Ruck), and a deeply Catholic and overbearing mother (Geena Davis), The Exorcist lets us understand why she’d be so ready to embrace a new friend, even one that only she can see.
These characters form the core the show, whose scope has steadily grown as the season has progressed. While I remain engaged by the mystery that drives the show’s larger narrative and am consistently impressed by how the familiar touches work as gears in a larger plot involving potential traitors at the Vatican and a team of possessed homeless people committing ritualistic murders, it’s the small touches that impress the most. It’s how Father Ortega finds himself doubting the supernatural threat at his doorstep because he’s the kind of forward-thinking priest who thinks demons are only metaphors. It’s how a demon taunts Father Keane by recalling a failed exorcism where a young boy died, casually adding that he’s not the demon that killed the child, but he admires his work.
And while it indulges these wonderful small touches, The Exorcist is always on the hunt for the next big scare or the next shocking image. There’s an air of unease hanging over this show at all times that will appeal to those hoping for a more sophisticated horror experience, but it’s never afraid to indulge in the occasional jump scare or moment of horrific violence. In fact, the patience between horror set pieces only makes their eventual arrival all the more compelling.
Last week’s episode, titled “Through My Most Grievous Fault,” represents the show operating at its best so far. There are familiar elements, including the use of a particularly famous quote from the original film, but they’ve all been turned on their head. While Father Keane and Father Ortega attempt an exorcism in the upstairs bedroom, the camera lingers elsewhere. We end up hearing much of their work as muffled shouts and cries through walls, as the victim’s mother, father, and sister sit elsewhere, helpless, biding their time and waiting for any sign of progress. When the episode’s ending arrives and delivers a twist that could feel like obnoxious fan service, it can’t help but feel earned. The show has been zigging so beautifully (and grotesquely) in a unique direction that it earns a familiar zag.
But most importantly, I feel like The Exorcist doesn’t want to waste my time. In the age of streaming, where too many shows are so full of unnecessary filler, every episode of this show has been dense with information and conflict and development. While it’s initially awkward just how quickly certain characters accept the situation at hand (many of them by the end of the pilot episode), this momentum pays off in dividends in subsequent hours. By getting to the point, by laying its cards on the table with a satisfying swiftness, The Exorcist provides an antidote to the molasses-paced The Walking Dead. I had forgotten how much fun it can be to watch a show that actually values my time. That it wasn’t written to be streamed all at once means that it actually makes for better binge-watching than most shows going straight to Netflix or Amazon. So if you’re looking for something to binge on Halloween week, you can do far, far worse.