A reimag­in­ing of 1970s clas­sic The Ex­or­cist for tele­vi­sion sees mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives un­fold as a des­per­ate fam­ily grap­ples with a de­monic force

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The Ex­or­cist, Artsville: Glenn Mur­cutt — Spirit of Place,

Much an­tic­i­pated and fe­ro­ciously well re­alised, The Ex­or­cist is billed as a se­quel to Wil­liam Fried­kin’s clas­sic 1973 movie, and is in­spired by the 1971 novel by Amer­i­can writer Wil­liam Peter Blatty. The film was one of a scary suc­ces­sion of “de­monic child” movies pro­duced in the late 1960s and early 70s (in­clud­ing Rose­mary’s Baby and The Omen). The book de­tails the de­monic pos­ses­sion of 12-year-old Re­gan MacNeil, the daugh­ter of a fa­mous ac­tor, and the two priests who at­tempt to ex­or­cise the evil spirit. The novel was, to some ex­tent, based on a 1949 case of de­monic pos­ses­sion the writer had en­coun­tered while a stu­dent at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, and he made the area in Wash­ing­ton, DC, near the cam­pus the set­ting for his tale.

As many have sug­gested, the book was lost in Fried­kin’s cin­e­matic trans­la­tion. While I some­how man­aged to miss the movie at the time, it was im­pos­si­ble in the 70s not to be aware of Fried­kin’s skill in tak­ing ad­van­tage of the medium’s abil­ity to or­ches­trate hor­rific things — Linda Blair’s ghoul­ishly grin­ning 360-de­gree swiv­el­ling head, the pro­jec­tile vom­it­ing, pro­fan­ity and vi­o­lent relic mas­tur­ba­tion.

This new ver­sion of the story, set in Chicago, prom­ises to be some­thing orig­i­nal, the first episode con­fi­dently es­tab­lish­ing a fore­bod­ing at­mos­phere with some lovely gothic touches. It deftly pre­sents us with an ensem­ble of be­guil­ing char­ac­ters, is vis­ually ar­rest­ing and, with mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives, the­mat­i­cally am­bigu­ous.

The open­ing ti­tles set it up bril­liantly: a pulpy kind of hor­ror se­quence with snarling wild dogs, a priest walk­ing down al­ley­ways, screams in the night, and a room high in a house where a bright yel­low light burns. It’s un­set­tling but a wide shot qui­etly takes us to a sub­ur­ban church and an­chors the drama in the quo­tid­ian. As a priest talks about ques­tion­ing faith, leaves drift in slow mo­tion through the frame, cre­at­ing a tan­gi­ble sense of anx­i­ety.

Cre­ated by Jeremy Slater, with the first episode di­rected by Ru­pert Wy­att, the se­ries stars Geena Davis as An­gela Rance, a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­woman and mother of two girls who is con­vinced there’s a de­mon haunt­ing her spot­less house. Her hus­band, Henry (Alan Ruck), seems to be bat­tling Alzheimer’s, while el­der daugh­ter Kather­ine (Bri­anne Howey) is an acid-tongued recluse who re­fuses to leave her room after be­ing in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent in which her friend died. Her sis­ter, Casey (Han­nah Ka­sulka), thinks she can hear strange noises com­ing from in­side the walls. There is a quiet sense of des­per­a­tion in the Rance house.

An­gela begs for help from Fa­ther To­mas Ortega (Al­fonso Her­rera), a com­pas­sion­ate young priest whose faith is wa­ver­ing but who is al­ready seen by the Catholic Church as a ris­ing star. He runs his small, di­lap­i­dated par­ish in the sub­urbs of Chicago, its iconog­ra­phy in bad re­pair, its or­gan tem­per­a­men­tal. Ortega quickly sees his in­volve­ment with the Rance fam­ily as a sign from God, for which he has been long­ing.

But as he flails around un­sure of how to cope, his dreams full of a ter­ri­ble ex­or­cism in which a room in Mex­ico is de­stroyed by mad­ness, he en­coun­ters a vet­eran priest who warns him, “‘What now God? Give me a pur­pose, point me in a di­rec­tion, make me your divine in­stru­ment’ — once you ask him that, you’ll be sur­prised what the old guy has to say.”

Know­ing noth­ing of ex­or­cism, the young priest seeks out Fa­ther Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels), a mod­ern-day re­li­gious war­rior. He is an or­phan raised since child­hood by the Vat­i­can to wage war against its en­e­mies, and he was once locked in a life-and-death strug­gle against evil in the slums of Mex­ico. To­gether they are about to be­come the Rances’ only hope against an evil force that has some­how been con­tained for cen­turies.

Psy­chol­o­gists of­ten ar­gue there is a cor­re­la­tion be­tween watch­ing hor­ror movies and re­duced feel­ings of fear; they rep­re­sent a chance to purge neg­a­tive emo­tions. With so much un­cer­tainty in the world, The Ex­or­cist should have a long run. “Ar­chi­tec­ture is what na­ture can­not make,” the great ar­chi­tect Louis Kahn said. “Ar­chi­tec­ture is some­thing un­nat­u­ral but not some­thing made up.” He might have been re­fer­ring to the work of Glenn Mur­cutt, whose finely struc­tured build­ings are won­drously ar­ti­fi­cial while em­body­ing a philosophy of “prospect and refuge”, as Renzo Piano put it, drawn from na­ture, open to its plea­sures. “I want a quiet ar­chi­tec­ture and when peo­ple and clients say there’s a calm­ness in the house, there’s a free­dom and there’s a seren­ity, that is im­por­tant to me,” Mur­cutt says at the start of a be­guil­ing and beau­ti­fully bal­anced bio­graph­i­cal film from writer and di­rec­tor Cather­ine Hunter.

She fol­lows the ar­chi­tect as he de­signs his most am­bi­tious project — a mosque for an Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Mel­bourne. “Some peo­ple have said I’m only good at houses; well, time will tell whether my abil­ity in larger-scale work can match some of the qual­ity that I have tried to achieve in the smaller-scale work,” Mur­cutt says. A mem­ber of the com­mu­nity, which has funded the house of wor­ship, calls it, “the first full-on, Aussie-design mosque”. It’s far from a tra­di­tional concept: there’s no minaret and in­stead of a dome, 96 huge lan­terns adorn the roof, each hand­painted in gold.

In the ar­chi­tect’s view, there’s lit­tle doubt this de­light­ful build­ing will be a sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tion to his port­fo­lio. “From the out­set it was un­der­stood this mosque and as­so­ci­ated fu­ture build­ings had to ad­dress the spirit of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, to be in­clu­sive and to re­spect peo­ple of all faiths,” Mur­cutt says. There was op­po­si­tion to his ap­point­ment to the project ini­tially but Hunter doc­u­ments the grow­ing ac­cep­tance of the design, stylishly weav­ing into the nar­ra­tive the sto­ries of his fa­mous do­mes­tic com­mis­sions, in­ter­views with those in­volved, and an in­ti­mate bi­og­ra­phy of his life.

As Hunter re­veals, Mur­cutt re­mains an at- trac­tively enig­matic fig­ure, an ar­chi­tect who has never built out­side of this coun­try, as he be­lieves one must un­der­stand a place in­ti­mately be­fore de­sign­ing build­ings for it. He doesn’t have staff or a com­puter and doesn’t use email, in­sist­ing good design can only come from the hand. “I still use pen­cil and pa­per for draw­ing be­cause I re­ally be­lieve that it is in­te­gral to a way of think­ing,” he says. “I be­lieve we don’t cre­ate ar­chi­tec­ture, what we do is dis­cover it.”

For him us­ing the pen­cil is a way of dis­cov­er­ing emo­tion. “How can you get emo­tion for a mouse?” he asks. “On a com­puter there’s none — it’s dead dull.” As David Malouf says in the film, Mur­cutt’s build­ings “have his fin­ger­prints ev­ery­where, like brush­strokes in a paint­ing”.

In­spired by Ger­man-Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect Mies van der Rohe and his Fin­nish coun­ter­part Al­var Aalto, Mur­cutt’s prac­tice evolved from a com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing of his coun­try, be­gin­ning with the Marie Short house at Kempsey in 1974. Forty years on he has de­vel­oped the notion of build­ing, as The New York Times’ Jim Lewis sug­gests, as “min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion, yield­ing build­ings so ef­fi­cient, and so deft in their design that they hardly feel like build­ings at all”. For Mur­cutt, the ar­chi­tect is like a crafts­man con­trol­ling every as­pect of the project, re­fus­ing to con­nect with the out­side world un­til he has mas­tered the next chal­lenge.

His fo­cus has been the cre­ation of en­ergy-ef­fi­cient build­ings per­fectly suited to their en­vi­ron­ment, and his break­through de­signs have had a wide in­flu­ence. He has re­ceived nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional awards, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects Gold Medal in 2009, and in 2002 the Pritzker Ar­chi­tec­ture Prize, the most pres­ti­gious hon­our in the field. He has put Aus­tralia’s ar­chi­tec­ture on the world stage but, as this film shows, he re­mains mod­est, unas­sum­ing and self-dep­re­ca­tory, pre­fer­ring his build­ings to speak on his be­half. Sun­day, 8pm, Show­case. Tues­day, 9.30pm, ABC.

Al­fonso Her­rera as Fa­ther To­mas Ortega, above, and, left, Alan Ruck with Geena Davis in The Ex­or­cist

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