Horror Television lives on with “The Exorcist” TV series and “American Horror Story: Cult”…

 

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Contrary to popular belief (to anyone who reads this blog, anyway) I’m not only all about science fiction; I also have a long personal history with (and fondness of) the horror genre.

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I still have a wee bit of trauma from seeing “The Exorcist” at a deeply inappropriate 7 years old.   Soon I was an 8 year old obsessed with the Universal monster movies of the 1930s/‘40s (loved the old Aurora model kits!).

As a teenager I loved zombie movies such as the (sadly, recently) late George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (and its sequels) on television.  And I still vividly remember seeing “Re-Animator” at a mall multiplex in October of 1985, at the age of 18.   The review of “Re-Animator” on TV’s “Siskel & Ebert” adamantly avoided in-depth clips from the movie, since they were deemed too graphic; so I just knew I had to see it.   It did NOT disappoint.

There were also very fond memories of horror series on television that informed so much of my (admittedly warped) childhood.   TV staples like “The Twilight Zone” (more Aesopian allegory than horror; it’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows to this day), “The Outer Limits” (some of those monsters and creatures still lurk in my subconscious today), “Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery” (one of the scariest shows I’ve ever seen; the original theme by Gil Melle still raises the hairs on the back of my neck) and, of course, the antecedent of “The X-Files”, 1974’s “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”

^ Tom Wright’s paintings for “The Night Gallery” were painted in oils and nightmare juice…

During the ‘80s, the horror pickings on the ol’ cathode ray tube slimmed a bit.  There were syndicated shows like “Tales From the Darkside” “Monsters” and “Friday the 13th: The Series” (which had zero connection to the same-name slasher flicks), but nothing quite as satisfying in execution or storytelling as the horror staples I grew up with (I know, I know; every middle-aged fart says something like that, right?  Well, these are my musings, so there…).

“Friday the 13th: The Series”; an interesting little anthology horror series about a haunted antique shop’s owners who are eager to retrieve sold haunted curios…

There were some occasional gems during those days, but largely unremarkable.  Watchable yes, but not especially memorable (to me, at least; individual results may vary).

Then the 1990s gave birth to “The X-Files” (1993-2002), which I was turned onto by a friend at work.  I caught one episode of the early first season on a dull Friday evening in 1993 and I was hooked.   I started watching religiously.   And my simmering crush on Gillian Anderson at the time had absolutely nothing to do with it, I swear (hehe).   XF reminded me very much of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and it seemed that was intentional; as series’ creator Chris Carter’s show was in fact, directly inspired by Darren McGavin’s intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak (McGavin even appeared in an episode later on).

^ The 1998 X-Files movie, “Fight the Future” was the last hurrah for the series, as far as I was concerned; it was mainly downhill after that…

Well, after about 5 or 6 seasons and a decent 1998 spinoff feature film, I lost interest.   Even my Gillian Anderson crush had faded since I met my future wife around 1997.  I enjoyed the 1998 movie, but the rest of the series had become a lingering chore to sit through, especially after Duchovny left.   So I quit regularly watching “X-Files” around that time; coming back for the 2002 series’ finale (I was kinda lost at that point), the 2008 movie sequel “I Want To Believe” (a complete waste of time) and the recent 6 episode revival season (2016), which was decidedly mixed.

I’m not sure if I’ll be back for any future incarnations.   We’ll see…

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^ 1990’s “The Exorcist III”; an under-appreciated horror gem…

Once I got married, I slowed down on my horror intake as my wife isn’t really much of a horror fan.  She does make exceptions.   She very much enjoys occasional Halloween-season watchings of “The Exorcist” and its deeply under-appreciated sequel “Exorcist III” (1990), but horror just isn’t her thing for the most part.   So I find myself often ‘sneaking’ in horror films on Netflix or, once in a blue moon, I’ll catch one in the cinema with a horror-fan friend, or go solo (my least attractive option).   But the horror genre itself is just something I no longer watch as frequently; largely for the logistical reason of a shared TV set in our living room.

The New Wave of Horror TV.

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But there are two new horror shows that I find myself taking the time to watch (usually during exercise on my stationary bike, when my daily ritual of arthritic combat makes me a captive audience); “The Exorcist TV Series” on Fox, and “American Horror Story: Cult” on FX.

I’m opening with my cut-and-pasted thoughts (in bold text) on the first season of “The Exorcist TV Series” from an older blog entry I did on The Exorcist movies and series:

(At Comic Con 2016) the pilot (of “The Exorcist” TV series) screened, and I was curious and interested.   I appreciated the dialogue-driven scenes, which reminded me of Blatty’s original.  More substantive than I initially expected.   I could see this series’ pilot existing in the same universe as the first and third movies.

Davis plays Chicago mother Angela Rance, who is worried that her withdrawn daughter Kat (who is home from college after a car accident) might be possessed.  Why Angela leaps to that conclusion is revealed later on during the course of the show.  Angela solicits help from a conflicted priest, Father Tomas, played by Alfonso Herrera.  Unlike Karras, Tomas is conflicted by his feelings for a married woman, not guilt over a dead mother.    Later at the Rance’s home, Tomas receives cryptic directions from Davis’ brain-damaged husband Henry (a sympathetic Alan Ruck).   Henry’s brain damage seems to echo Blatty’s previous neurological interests as seen in Exorcist I and III.

Henry’s cryptic directions help Tomas to seek out a disgraced exorcist, Father Marcus (played with piss and vinegar by “Rogue One” costar Ben Daniels).   Marcus is a dark-horse version of the original’s Father Merrin.   A take-no-prisoners exorcist who is much more confrontational and antiauthoritarian; a rebel.   So far, so good.

**** MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD ****

The major twist of the pilot is that it is the other daughter, Casey, who is actually possessed; not the sullen Kat.   This is revealed in a creepy scene with Tomas in the Rance house’s attic (also echoing Ellen Burstyn’s attic scene in the first movie).   Tomas believes something is amiss, but isn’t sure how to proceed.   We then hear Mike Oldfield’s iconic “Tubular Bells” playing before the end credits, as Casey looks out a window to Tomas below.   For a 40 odd minute pilot, this was promising, if not mind-blowing.   I was intrigued.

Then the series aired.  It seemed a bit humdrum for awhile, but I stayed with it.  Around mid-season, a major bomb drops; it turns out this series isn’t some unrelated event that mirrors the original.   “The Exorcist” TV series is a direct sequel to William Peter Blatty’s original.    “Angela Rance” is in fact, a 50-something Regan MacNeil.  And the demon that possessed her is now infecting her daughter Casey.   There are some truly gruesome scenes as Casey’s possession becomes more acute.   

The demon is eventually driven from Casey in an exorcism that rivals the 1973 original at times.   Even the character of Chris MacNeil returns as well (now played by ex-“Cagney & Lacey” star Sharon Gless).

After the exorcism is where the series starts to go downhill a bit, as the demon leaves Casey to ‘repossess’ the adult Angela/Regan.  The possessed Angela struts around the house and torments her family like a PG-13 version of “Bewitched.”   Also disappointing was the church ‘conspiracy’ subplot that, to be honest, the show could do without.   With Angela turned ‘evil’, the “Exorcist” TV series began to feel a bit camp.   And camp was the very thing that Blatty’s original so smartly avoided.   Angela is eventually freed from the demon, after an impromptu exorcism from Tomas & Marcus.   In the end, Tomas and Marcus go onto new challenges and the Rance family is at peace… for now.

Now, we’ve seen the first two episodes of The Exorcist TV Series second season: “Janus” and “Safe as Houses”:

S2 of “The Exorcist” is off and running.  Freed from the shackles of tying-in to Blatty’s original novel/movie/characters, the show is now free to follow Tomas and Marcus as they roam the world performing exorcisms as needed; rushing in where the Catholic church fears to tread (or won’t tread; due to the still-lingering conspiracy within…).

^ While the show itself may be freed from the shackles of the Exorcist movies, Marcus and Tomas are not

“Janus” picks up with the dynamic duo performing an on-the-run exorcism in the back of a pickup truck with a kidnapped possessed housewife, her deputy husband and family in close pursuit.   The priests and the demonically-challenged woman, named Cindy, dead in a barn where they are captured.

^ Lady Gaga isn’t feeling well today…

Cindy is taken to a local hospital, and it is there in “Safe as Houses” that (forgive the painful pun) all hell breaks loose.   The hospital rampage of the demon-possessed Cindy is some really scary shit.

A parallel storyline introduced in “Janus” sees (“Harold & Kumar”/“Star Trek” veteran) John Cho as Andy Kim, a kindly widower who has several troubled foster kids living in his home.  The kids consist of a little girl (“Grace”) who needs homeschooling as she is too afraid to go to school.  A young autistic boy (“David”) who is prone to overreaction, a blind teenaged boy (“Caleb”) who is beginning to act up due to his biological father’s rejection, a teenaged goth girl (“Verity”) who is the cynical voice of the group and an older teenaged boy (“Shelby”) who is deeply religious.    The Washington state island where they live has a legend of an “island witch” and of course, the house is surrounded by spooky woods.   Things are complicated by a visit from Child Protective Services in the form of an ex-flame of Andy’s, who stays at the house for a few days to monitor the kids’ progress.  Disturbed kids and a large, relatively isolated home in the woods seem a perfect match for this show, and I’m very curious as to where this season will go.

It’s early yet, but I’m enjoying the new characters at least as much as I enjoyed the Rance family in S1.

 

Another series I’ve gotten into only recently is “American Horror Story” on FX (in its seventh season, no less):

A couple friends of mine as well as my own sister had urged me to watch “American Horror Story” for years.  I’d attended some of the show’s makeup panels at the IMATS convention in Pasadena.   And while I’d not seen the first six seasons (or, as my friends call them, the good seasons), I finally got onboard with this modern, serialized anthology with the current 7th season subtitled as “Cult.”

Why did I jump aboard for the series this year?  I have to admit, I was intrigued by rumors of the 2016 US Presidential election angle being worked into the story (an election result I’m still personally struggling with, to be honest; much like the lead character, if not to her extreme).

So, I thought watching the series might be cathartic.  It’s not.  In fact, it’s disturbing as hell.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

^ Sarah Paulson is Ally in “American Horror Story: Cult” 

“Cult” follows a Michigan married lesbian couple Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Allison Pill) who, along with their young son, are seemingly being stalked and terrorized by a charismatic cult leader named Kai Anderson (X-Men’s Evan Peters), who feels ‘liberated’ by the election of Donald Trump to prey on people’s deepest fears and to advance his own personal power. This story also represents the deepest fears of progressives (and arguably much of Hollywood) who feel increasingly threatened by the rollbacks in civil rights, as well as the sudden brashness of once-closeted bigots who simmered silently under the Obama administration.

As a news junkie, it was the politics that drew me in, I’ll admit.

At first, “Cult” was maddeningly enigmatic, and to be honest, downright unappealing (even as entertainment).   Maybe the psychic wounds of 2016 were too fresh for me to see with enough distance just yet,  but I was almost ready to quit the show a few episodes back.  But dammit, Sarah Paulson is such an amazing actress that I stayed with it.   I also loved her turn as Marcia Clarke in “American Crime Story: The People versus O.J. Simpson.”

^ Billie Lourd is the CREEPIEST babysitter ever…

The cult apparently have grand designs to screw over their Michigan town in an attempt to make the locals fearful ‘sheep’ who’ll welcome Kai’s ‘leadership’ (much as Trump played on America’s fears/prejudices, and crassly exploited them).   The conspiracy extends all the way to Ally’s babysitter (an adult Wednesday Addams-sort well-played by Billie Lourd) and even her own wife Ivy (!).  Kai’s sway over his cult seems to increase in strength episode by episode, with his calling for them to perform more chilling acts of murder, like a latter-day Charles Manson.   Ally in fact, makes that direct comparison of Kai to Manson in the latest episode (“Midwestern Assassin”).

^ Ally’s duplicitous spouse, Ivy (Allison Pill)

Kai arranges the “suicide” of his local electoral competition (played by former ‘80s Brat Packer Mare Winningham), and he also arranges for one of his cult (an obnoxious, deeply insecure woman named “Meadow”) to flee and run to Ally for safety, only to betray Ally later on.  At a political rally the next day, Meadow begins shooting into the crowd and (deliberately) wounds Kai, making him an instant martyr.

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^ Meadow goes on a shooting rampage at a rally…

Ally wrestles Meadow’s weapon from her, and succeeds in getting the weapon but only after Meadow blows her own brains out.   Ally is now left holding Meadow’s gun when the police arrive, and is arrested for the mass shooting (which was edited for broadcast, in light of the recent Las Vegas tragedy).   That’s the story so far.   I’m pretty sure Ally’s arrest and Kai’s ticket-to-martyrdom aren’t the end.

So, is this  ‘good’ or ‘bad’ television?  It’s not so easy to quantify.   It’s certainly quality television (exceptionally well-acted and handsomely produced), but it’s also deeply disturbing television.  Less funhouse spooky, and more pit-of-your-stomach unsettling.

“AHS: Cult” is one truly twisted mind-f–k of a show.   It’s easily more disturbing than most horror films I’ve seen, and at least as graphic (at times, perhaps more so).

The horror comes less from the political-paranoia story, and more from the details.   The images of cultists disguised as hideous clowns terrorizing townsfolk, very reminiscent of the Droog gang in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), or the bloody carnage, the nightmares of Ally’s phobias made real (such as bleeding porous lotus plants, etc).   The deeply graphic murders and dismemberments are no picnic, either.

^ An evil cultist clown who is very reminiscent of ‘Droog’ Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” 

Finally, there is the horror of encroachment; of others imposing their wills upon us to the point of feeling trapped.   Progressive Ally feels increasingly endangered by post-Trump neocon aggression (carefully engineered by Kai’s cult).   As the ’safe space’ of her home is increasingly violated, she turns to borrowing a neighbor’s gun for protection as well as getting security bars placed on her home.   She is becoming the very thing she loathes; a reactionary.  That perhaps, is the deepest horror of all; our fears turning us into the very things that we can’t imagine ourselves becoming.

For this reason?  I find “American Horror Story: Cult” perhaps the most terrifying series on the air right now.   Someday, I might have to plumb my Netflix account for those lauded earlier seasons, but for now, Season 7 is nightmare fuel enough, thank you…

While I don’t quite see myself rewatching “American Horror Story: Cult” someday  (as I currently do with my DVDs of “The Twilight Zone” “Outer Limits” “Night Gallery” or “Kolchak”), I must admit that it is deeply effective in its mission statement.

 

 

 

 

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