‘The Exorcist’ Attempts To Bring A Demon-Riddled Film Franchise To The Small Screen

Set in a demon-haunted Chicago where the El trains scream like angry panthers and even the sunny days have a sense of doom, the new Fox series The Exorcist attempts to stretch the chills of the Exorcist movies across a network TV series. It’s a daunting task and whether The Exorcist can live up to it remains something of an unanswered question even at the end of the pilot. The hour contains a lot of unnerving, if familiar, moments and efficiently sets up a longer story that will play out over the course of the season. But it also makes it hard to see how the season can sustain the effectiveness of this opener without running out of new ways to scare viewers. The pilot throws in everything from angry rats to suicidal birds. How much is left in its bag of spooky tricks remains to be seen.

Then again, it’s best not to underestimate anything Exorcist related. Since becoming a big-screen sensation in 1973, the series has had a surprisingly resilient second life. Based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, the William Friedkin-directed original spawned the bizarre-but-underappreciated Exorcist II: The Heretic by John Boorman, a second sequel directed by Blatty himself, and not one but two prequels — one directed by Paul Schrader and the other by Renny Harlin, who essentially re-shot Schrader’s version when the studio decided to scrap it. Like the demonic creatures at its heart, the franchise has proven tough to drive away.

Now its struggle between conflicted priests and the evil spirits who mock them has moved to the small screen. The pilot, written by series creator Jeremy Slater and directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), combines a lot of portentous vamping, hints of a rich backstory to be fleshed out later, and unexpected twists (including a doozy of a last-minute reveal that should prove to be either the silliest element of the show or its most inspired). It also throws in more than a few allusions to the movie that started it all, long before the familiar sounds of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” kick in in the closing moments.

From the opening scene it’s clear we’re in familiar territory. A priest we’ll soon learn is named Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) walks the rain-slicked streets of what will later be revealed as Mexico City. But for now it’s a horror movie Anywhere Street, an ominous place filled with the sound of crying babies and stray dogs who snarl menacingly as Father Marcus nears his destination. Climbing a steep set of stairs he peers up at an illuminated window looming above him from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. There’s something horrible going on upstairs.

So far so good. Slater treats his inspiration with respect and Wyatt brings a lot of stylish intensity to the opening moments. From there it gets trickier. Alfonso Herrera plays the young Father Tomas, destined to be the other half of the demon-hunting duo alongside Father Marcus. He’s young and full of energy, even if he preaches to a small congregation who, at best, seems mildly enthused by his sermons.

One parishioner is paying attention, however. Angela Rance (Geena Davis) is going through a rough time. Her husband Henry (Alan Ruck) has some sort of unspecified mental illness that’s left him with memory problems and a limited ability to carry on a conversation. Her older, college-aged daughter Katherine (Brianne Howey) hasn’t been the same after leaving school to recuperate from an accident that killed her friend. She stays holed up in her bedroom, from which strange sounds sometimes emerge. That leaves only Angela’s ebullient teen daughter Casey (Hannah Kasulka) to try to keep everyone’s spirits up.

But Angela senses there’s an even deeper problem than her family’s run of bad luck. “It’s not depression,” she says of Katherine while confiding in Father Tomas. “I know depression.” So what could it be? Angela knows it sounds crazy, but she’s pretty sure it’s a demon. And we’re off.

Slater has clearly studied his source material well, particularly Blatty’s original novel and the first film. Daniels plays Father Marcus as a man haunted by all he’s seen, à la Max Von Sydow in Friedkin’s film. But in many respects Herrera has the more intriguing character. He’s young and he has doubts and he’s not so deep into his career that he’s given up corresponding with an old acquaintance for whom he might still have feelings. And like Linda Blair’s Regan in the first film, Katherine doubles as a nexus for parental anxieties about today’s kids. She’s sullen and distant and she likes Wiccan stores on Facebook. Maybe the devil has a hand in her problems?

The pilot also has a pretty good handle on what makes the movies’ exorcism scenes so unsettling. Flashbacks to Father Marcus’ recent attempt to exorcise the demon that’s taken possession of a boy in Mexico City — attempts Father Tomas witnesses in a dream — are filled with grotesque imagery and a sense of mounting despair. Even men of unshakable faith — and neither Father Marcus nor Father Tomas seem to be such men — might not be able to stand up to a supernatural foe this strong.

To work as a series, however, The Exorcist will have to become more than a respectful homage, and find a bigger story than one family’s demon-troubled home and the jump scares contained therein. That won’t be easy, but the pilot at least provides reason enough to turn in for another episode or two to see if it can be done. If nothing else, it will be fun to watch the show try to top the first episode’s shot of an eyeball with two pupils. That’s going to be a high bar to clear.

The Exorcist premieres Friday, Sept. 23 on Fox at 9/8c.