‘The Exorcist’ Premiere: What Works, What Needs Work

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Alan Ruck and Geena Davis in
Alan Ruck and Geena Davis in The Exorcist. (Photo: Chuck Hodes/Fox)

Pazuzu was exorcised four decades ago, but The Exorcist still hasn’t given up the ghost. A one-off horror movie that became an unlikely (and unfortunate) franchise because of its phenomenal critical and commercial success, William Friedkin’s 1973 story of a possessed young girl (Linda Blair) and the faith-challenged Catholic priest who tries to save her (Jason Miller) spawned three failed follow-ups — four when you consider the fact that the prequel movie, Exorcist: The Beginning, was actually made twice by different directors. That’s a roundabout way of saying that something supernatural would have to happen for the new Exorcist TV show to single-handedly reverse the downward spiral the franchise has been in since 1973.

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On the other hand, the series would also have to work extra hard to be significantly worse than, say, The Exorcist III. And the premiere episode suggests that while this Exorcist will never reach the lofty heights scaled by Friedkin, it at least returns the franchise to firmer ground. Picking up 40 years after the events of the original film — most strongly alluded to in a shot of the infamous Washington, D.C., staircase where Miller’s Father Karras took his final tumble — the series follows a new possession, this one affecting the Rance family.

Though they were once a tight-knit clan, it’s very clear that their bonds have frayed even before a demon moved in. Henry (Alan Ruck), the Rance patriarch, is living with a mental illness that robs him of his memory, which has left his wife, Angela (Geena Davis), understandably on edge. Her fragile emotional state isn’t aided by their eldest daughter, Katherine (Brianne Howey), who experienced a close brush with death courtesy of a serious car accident and has been sullen and withdrawn ever since.

The Exorcist: Hannah Kasulka and Brianne Howey.
Hannah Kasulka and Brianne Howey. (Photo: Chuck Hodes/Fox)

Katherine’s behavior has become so odd that her devout Catholic mother starts to wonder if she came back from her accident … wrong. For spiritual counsel, she turns to her priest, Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), who has been experiencing some strange phenomena as well — including visions of creepy things unfolding in Mexico City, where another clergyman, Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), is making discoveries that will eventually bring him up north to the Rances’ haunted Chicago abode.

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The episode climaxes with Tomas experiencing a revelation of his own: The possessed girl isn’t doom-and-gloom Katherine, but rather her sunnier sister, Casey (Hannah Kasulka). The demon inhabiting her body makes its presence known in the pilot’s standout sequence: a spooky encounter in a dark attic, lit only by the puny flashlight on Tomas’s smartphone. It’s a fake-out twist that feels more in line with The Usual Suspects than The Exorcist, but it does add a potentially interesting wrinkle to Tomas’s exorcism mission. After all, Angela is fully prepared to believe that Katherine is acting under a demonic influence, but she might have a harder time accepting that shiny, happy Casey is the source of the trouble. What is it they say about the devil taking many forms?

Alfonso Herrera in the Exorcist
Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) confronts the darkness. (Photo: Jean Whiteside/Fox)

What Works: That aforementioned attic sequence is the one scene where The Exorcist approaches Friedkin-level scares. And while the climactic twist feels a little hoary, Kasulka is shaping up to be a strong stand-in for Blair, projecting a childlike innocence that will almost certainly be corrupted as the possession advances. The series also displays some of the same genuine interest in questions of faith and family that drove the original movie, not merely paying lip service to those ideas. Ruck and Davis are particularly good as a husband and wife newly separated from each other by stress and illness. You could almost strip away the supernatural stuff, and The Exorcist would work as a family drama.

What Needs Work: Father Tomas, I’m sorry to say, is no Father Karras. Where the scenes in the Rance household feel unique to this version of The Exorcist, everything involving the priests plays like a warmed-over rehash of what’s come before. And as much as I admire the writers for aiming higher than American Horror Story’s increasingly goofy theatrics, the writing is awfully clunky, just barely made palatable by the strength of the performers.

Our Burning Questions: How long will it take for Tomas to tell Angela about his close encounter with Demon Casey in the attic? Is this particular demon a relative of Pazuzu or a whole new devil? And, finally, when are we going to see Casey’s head do one of those 360-degree rotations?

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The Exorcist airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox.