So the word broke last week that FOX is planning to do a television adaptation of The Exorcist, and… the internet exploded.
As it does at pretty much at any news of any kind anymore, so if you missed it, don’t feel bad. Exploded Internets are not that much of a thing anymore, actually. Still, the reaction overall was pretty negative, and for good reason… the track record for remaking classic horror films is pretty godawful. Consider just the last 10-15 years or remakes or reboots:
Nightmare on Elm Street. Rob Zombie’s Halloween 1 & 2. Psycho. The Hitcher. The Amityville Horror. The Wolfman. The Fog. Thirteen Ghosts. Silent Night, Deadly Night. Children of the Corn. Friday the 13th. Fright Night. The Wicker Man.
Dear God, The Wicker Man.
Sure, there have been some interesting takes on some earlier properties that have worked to greater degrees, like The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine, Let Me In, and The Evil Dead. I even – and I know I am courting blasphemy here – enjoyed the prequel version of The Thing, even if it was for all intents and purposes a remake of the Carpenter film, but overall, the remake and the horror film have not gone terribly well together.
There are a couple of reasons for this, I think, and those are modern filmmakers suffering from both the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia and – and most critically – a failure to understand the context of the original films. You see it the worst in movie remakes of old TV shows – think The Dukes of Hazzard, the A-Team or Starsky & Hutch – where the studios look at the shows of the 70’s and 80’s and think they’re funny, not grasping that while those shows have aged poorly, they were taken seriously in their time. (Well… maybe not The Dukes of Hazzard.) Those shows are funny now, because of the audiences they were made for then.
Still, those studios forget that the original Godzilla was made by the only country to ever have an atomic weapon dropped on them, and so we get Godzilla (1998). The context they miss in that disaster of a film was that the culture that made the original 1954 film was looking at the horrific aftermath of nuclear weapons and showing that through the metaphor of the monster movie. Sure, the sequels got progressively silly, but the reason there were sequels was the power of the first film. The ’98 movie completely fails to realize that to make even a semi-serious film about a giant radioactive lizard, you have to make it feel scary in a way that is actually relevant to the target audience… something the 2014 version managed to do much better.
It’s the problem I have with the Universal Pictures drive to reboot all their classic monsters. I love the original The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I am keenly aware that a modern take on it would have to make so many changes to the original film as to make it completely unrecognizable. It’s a different world we live in today than the one of 1954, and movies and what studios think audiences want are vastly different as well. Sure, the effects could be better, and the big budget will make for likely beautiful cinematography, but does anyone really think that the modern take will give us the pacing and patience to have a scene as iconic and beautifully creepy as the one where the Creature mirrors the swimming Julie Adams?
For more modern audiences, consider the difference between Carpenter’s Halloween and Rob Zombie’s. The original Michael Myers’ backstory was that he was a child who killed his sister because he was evil, and nothing that anyone could do would change that. He killed because he was evil, he hunted his surviving sister because he was evil, and when he disappears at the end of the film, it’s because you can’t destroy Evil.
Zombie took a different route for his remake, and tried to give Michael more depth as a character by giving him the background of being an abused child. While there is an argument to be made for showing the effects of abuse and its generational impact, and while I applaud Zombie for making a version of the story and character his own way and not slavishly aping the original film, rooting Michael in the real world horrors of child abuse strips away the Boogeyman aspects of his original incarnation pretty much completely. It also the robbed the remake of something the original Halloween had that its legion of imitators – and its sequels for that matter – lacked more and more: tension.
I’m as much a fan of the red stuff as a lot of horror fans, but when you look at some of the modern classics of the genre – Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist – you can’t help notice that there isn’t actually that much real violence. What there is, is tension. Huge amounts of time pass where no one is dying, but the audiences were riveted, because the filmmakers knew that building tension, building the anticipation of violence, was as important as the actual act in creating something scary. The over-prevalence of the jump-scare in the lesser lights of modern horror films miss the fact that making the audience jump works best when you have them so tense that something as simple as Jonesy the Cat popping up in Alien can make an audience scream.
Consider the building tension of Let the Right One In, The Babadook, It Follows, 28 Days Later or Session 9. This is not to say that there aren’t pleasures to be found in Saw, Slither, REC or a horde of other fast and gory films, but this whole thing began with the news that The Exorcist was getting a television adaptation, so…
It doesn’t have to be awful. We’re seeing a surge of great horror television right now, with Penny Dreadful, Ash vs. The Evil Dead, iZombie, Black Mirror, and about half of the various seasons of American Horror Story, The Walking Dead leading the pack of high-end horror, but there are two excellent series that could – and should – point the way to what should be done if one absolutely must remake The Exorcist as a television series: Bates Motel and Hannibal.
Hannibal, sad to say, is gone from our TV screens, but for three seasons Mads Mikkelsen made a pretty convincing case that he was better at inhabiting the the cannibalistic skin of Hannibal Lecter than Sir Anthony Hopkins… no mean feat, that, considering that outside the fans of Thomas Harris’ books, the performance that everyone knows is Hopkins’ from Silence of the Lambs. But while there seemed to be a sense of diminishing returns with the film series – and, let’s be honest, with the books as well – series creator Bryan Fuller and his team managed to provide depth and actual tension to characters and scenes we had seen before, and in many cases, make those scenes more tense and actually scary than the originals.
Bates Motel has a somewhat different task to fulfill, and a harder one. It is a larger challenge to play in the Hitchcock sandbox, and that has been more quicksand than anything else for a lot of filmmakers. We’d all like to scrub Gus Van Sant’s remake from our memories, and the previous TV movie to share the Bates Motel title was forgettable at best. Even the sequels, made with the best of intentions and Anthony Perkins’ involvement, couldn’t capture those initial twists of story and shocking imagery. And yet the A&E TV series gets it right, by staying away from trying to capture the shock that audiences had on the first viewing of the 1960 original, and giving us a reason to both fear Norman and his mother, and yet sympathize with their accelerating doom.
The original Psycho was terrifying for the audiences of the time – and widely regarded now as the first slasher film – because it wasn’t like any horror film that had come before it. It didn’t have to be gory or fast-paced, it just had to build and twist and grab the audience. We’ve seen those classic scenes remade and parodied and referenced a thousand times since then, and for Bates Motel to walk in those footsteps would be pointless. Hannibal could have been a carbon copy of the format of Silence of the Lambs and given us just the Useful Monster of that film; instead it gives us a villain that only the audience knows is the villain, and a “hero” so broken as to be a monster himself. Both shows use the original films as the starting point and the reference for the worlds they play in, but then they focus on what makes the characters in those world interesting.
And that’s what FOX’s The Exorcist simply must do. It’s not going to have the real “possession” of Roland Doe still in living memory to hit audiences the same way, or the shock value of a young child spewing obscenities to stun audiences with. We’ve seen those again and again, and more shocking things since. Projectile vomiting is more a joke thing now than a scary one, and I doubt there is a special effects team out there that could make a head-spinning scene be anything other than giggle-inducing. If we’re going to have Father Merrin, Father Damien Karras, Chris and Regan MacNeil, we’re going to have to have time spent with them to make us care about the characters and not be waiting for Max von Sydow and Linda Blair to turn up in cameos.
Of course it doesn’t help that others have tried and failed miserably to do that very thing. The Exorcist II: The Heretic is widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time. The Exorcist III is a flawed but vastly superior sequel than its predecessor and – full disclosure – a personal favorite of mine. (I’m going to have to write the definitive defense of that film one of these days…) What III got right was using the secondary characters to carry the story forward in an organic manner… and then there’s that hospital hallway scene with the bone-cutters.
Oh yes. And there were the Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin versions of Exorcist IV: The Prequel.
Which were terrible in both their own ways.
OK, look. Schrader made a better terrible-prequel-to-the-original-film, but it was a marginal “better”. In my opinion, it wasn’t that it was a bad film about priests and possession, because it wasn’t… just a film that wasn’t actually a prequel to The Exorcist. And bash Renny Harlin all you want for Driven, Mindhunters, Cutthroat Island and The Legend of Hercules – because they are @#$%ing terrible – but I will cut you if you go after Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight, while still feeling sympathy for his having to dance to a studio song on Exorcist: The Beginning… and hating it with something of a passion.
And one must also bear in mind that William Peter Blatty – you know, the guy who wrote the book and the screenplay – was going to direct a new miniseries version of the story.
Which didn’t happen.
There was talk of remaking the film last year.
Also didn’t happen.
Here’s my point. I don’t want a The Exorcist TV series. I think it’s a terrible idea. I think that unless they have a Bryan Fuller or Carlton Cuse; a Mads Mikkelsen, Vera Farmiga, Freddy Highmore or Hugh Dancy; a Max Thieriot or Gillian @#$%ing Anderson… they are terminally screwed. I think that unless they get a truly amazing production team together for this, they are in mortal danger of driving the brilliant film than influenced two generations of writers and filmmakers even more into the ground than the studios that own the property already have. But if we must – and we don’t – but if we must…
Consider the time the original film came out of: Why was The Exorcist scary in 1973? What, culturally, was going on that made the original film strike a nerve? What context did it have?
Who are you telling the story about: Regan MacNeil is the reason for the events of the film, but she isn’t the star of the film… her mother and Fathers Merrin and Karras are. Consider whose story you are telling here.
What is your Ending: The power of The Exorcist is Damien Karras sacrificing himself to save a child and the world. Where is your TV series going? What story are you trying to tell?
What is it that is NEW that you are bringing to this story: Seriously. If you aren’t bringing something new to this, something that opens up this story in an interesting way… then stop. Go do something else. Anything else. Hannibal, Bates Motel, any remake worth watching does something new with the story. It can be as simple as going back to the source material and being actually faithful, like Carpenter going back to “Who Goes There?” for his version of The Thing, or playing with the same themes but changing the tone of the new version – action in place of slow suspense – like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead.
We’ve seen The Exorcist… show us a new take on it. If you must.