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