Big-screen horror classic The EXORCIST is heading to TV. Joseph McCabe’s head is spinning already...
Where will the new TV series based on the film go?
With horror franchises hitting TV in ever increasing numbers, it was only a matter of time before someone adapted the most successful fright film in history, director William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece The Exorcist (based on the novel by William Peter Blatty). But while recent shows like Bates Motel and Hannibal have won audiences and acclaim, series like The Omen have been less fortunate. So what does it take to make this tale of demonic possession and those who battle it a hit? And will TV’s The Exorcist fare better than the original film’s many sequels?
“I’ll go to bat for III,” laughs the show’s creator Jeremy Slater. “I think Exorcist III gets a bad rap. That movie’s got some great stuff in it. Is it as good as the original? No, but nothing is as good as the original. But yeah, the problem with a lot of the sequels was that they tried to duplicate the beats of the original film, and that was something we were very conscious of when we were creating this. We can’t remake the same show that you’ve seen before. The only way you can succeed is by doing something new and telling a new story with new characters and hoping audiences will fall in love and will respond to this new story the way audiences did with the original.”
That new story is the tale of Angela Rance (played by Oscar winner Geena Davis), whose daughter has recently returned home from college, and who has begun noticing strange things around her home. With a husband (Alan Ruck) suffering from a traumatic brain injury, Angela turns to Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), a young priest – who in turn seeks the consultation of Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), a seasoned holy man who’s haunted by his own experiences with demonic possession.
“When you look at the original film,” says producer-director Rupert Wyatt, “as a filmmaker, William Friedkin, by way of his background and certainly the films he was making at that particular moment in time, they were very much grounded in a reality. It came from his documentary filmmaking experience. So he was approaching it as an agnostic. He was approaching it as a nonbeliever; or an ambivalent one, at least, in terms of the notion of evil insinuating itself into a situation. Whether that be a demonic presence or whether that be a psychological make-up of a person. That’s what made it wholly terrifying – it felt plausible. The subsequent films perhaps veered more in terms of the style and the genre of horror. I don’t think Friedkin ever intended to do that. So what we tried to do, although they’re huge footsteps to follow in, obviously, is go back to that approach.”
While The Exorcist’s pilot nods to the events of Friedkin’s film, Slater tells us the show won’t dwell on them as its own story moves forward.
“The reason we put in the scene where Father Tomas is doing research on his computer and you see that the Georgetown exorcisms took place 40 years ago was because, as a horror fan, nothing infuriates me faster than a remake that comes along and says, ‘The movie that you love no longer exists. The story that you were invested in is getting wiped out
of history.’ It was important to let everyone know that this is a continuation of an existing story. So that was our little nod to say, ‘Don’t worry. The events of the movie, the events of the book, still took place. We’re just telling a brand-new story with new characters 40 years later.’ Hopefully in the same tone, hopefully in the same spirit, hopefully doing justice to the legacy of The Exorcist. But we didn’t want audiences to sit there on the edge of their seat waiting for Father Merrin or Father Karras to show up. We didn’t want them to think that we were telling the same story in an oblique way.”
SPINNING IT OUT
Perhaps the biggest narrative challenge facing Slater was turning a single case of demonic possession into a show that could run for multiple seasons.
“Even in the scripting phase,” says the executive producer, “we were very conscious of the fact that you can’t tell an ongoing series where every season, every year, it’s just another American family undergoing a possession. You would burn out the audience really fast. I don’t know how to write that show. I wouldn’t want to watch that show. So it was important to start laying in bread crumbs right from the beginning, start introducing our Dharma Initiative, our bad guys who are out there. There’s little hints of it in the pilot. There’s little things that don’t quite add up. There’s a priest at St Aquinas with a double pupil. There’s a suspicious landscaping truck that you see a few times. And you’re going to find out a lot more about that in upcoming episodes.
“But the basic idea is that this time around, evil has grander ambitions than just targeting one eight-year-old girl in Georgetown. Evil has a plan. It’s actively working towards that. And even though the possession of the Rance family is our way into the show, that’s our entry point for the audience, hopefully, by the time you get a few episodes in, you’ll look at it and you’ll say, ‘Okay, now I can see how this is a show that can run for eight seasons. I see that they are building a mythology that’s large and expansive and interesting enough to generate story for a long time to come.’”
Though Slater, whose background is in screenwriting, hadn’t previously worked in television, it’s clear from his Lost reference that genre TV informs his work on The Exorcist.
“I’m a giant nerd, man,” he laughs. “I grew up on Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, all my favourite shows going back to The
X-Files. People won’t tune in week after week just for scares. You have to tell a story that audiences are not going to see coming, and it has to be about characters that either we’ve never seen before or characters that we fall in love with. Those are the lessons that I take away from shows like Lost and Battlestar
Galactica – you need the propulsive twists and turns. We have plenty of big plot twists coming up this season, but at the end of the day, it’s always going to be a show about a family in trouble and the two priests that are brought in to help them. If the audience doesn’t care about that, we haven’t done our job.”
Slater admits he’s well aware of the challenge in making iconic material fresh and frightening once more…
“There’s been 40 years of inferior imitations coming along to kind of dilute the source material. Luckily, we have a lot of horror fans behind the scenes, a lot of people who are familiar with the genre. So we can point out, ‘Yes, that’s been done before.’ The CGI contortion of bending over backwards… There’s just images that have been used so much in the public consciousness that they’ve lost any sort of power to shock that they once had. It’s a blessing and a curse because it forces you to be better writers and better creators.”
Slater says the show’s budget helped his writers exercise the restraint necessary to conjure effective creepiness.
“We are learning a lot about what you can and can’t accomplish on a television budget,” he explains, “and especially with the level of quality that you are seeing in the pilot. We really are making a 43-minute film every single week, week after week, and so you have to be very judicious and very smart about when you use your scares. If you try to make an episode that’s 43 minutes of wall-to-wall horror, not only will it numb and desensitise the audience, but everything will kind of suffer as a result. But if you make a great hour of television with a gripping story and great performances and then you punctuate that with one or two big moments of scares or one great scare per act, the audience knows that the horror is coming. They will be patient as long as their patience is eventually rewarded.”
“So the pressure,” says Slater, “is to tell the best story possible, not to tell the most shocking story possible.”
Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) is holding a torch for something…
What terrors await Casey (Hannah Kasulka) and Kat Rance (Brianne Howey)?
Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) is called to a most unusual case. Angela Rance (Geena Davis) discovers things more scary than Beetlejuice.