‘Outcast’- TV’s New Possession Obsession

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While Cinemax’s “Outcast” marks the latest take on possession, it’s hardly the first, nor does it look to be the last, with FOX’s TV adaptation of the granddaddy of all modern day possession flicks, “The Exorcist,” coming our way in the fall, along with the sophomore season of the TV adaptation of the much-beloved cult series, Starz’ “Ash vs. The Evil Dead,” based on Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, which will reportedly dovetail with the more recent remake soon.

Before that, we’ve seen possession tales crop up on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Charmed,” “The Secret Circle” and even “Dr. Who” on multiple occasions, as well as this year’s short-lived “Damien,” an adaptation of “The Omen.” Interestingly, the very first TV movie-of-the-week, NBC’s “Fear No Evil” was a possession tale, released way back in 1969, years before “The Exorcist.”

But the most well-known possession tales are, of course, on the silver screen. Of course, everyone knows “The Exorcist,” which spawned two sequels and two prequels over the years, but predating that was the lesser-known “The Possession of Joel Delaney,” released in 1972.

Lest you point out that the novel “The Exorcist” was released in 1971, the book it was based on also predates that, having come out in 1970, so though not as well known, it did get there first all around. Whatever the case, the underrated flick, starring Shirley MacLaine, is well-worth a look, especially if you’ve seen “The Exorcist” one too many times.

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After those two films, the floodgates opened worldwide, with possession flicks becoming all the rage, well into the 80’s. They also came in all sorts of varieties, from Blaxploitation (1974’s “Abby”), to Italian gore-fests (“The Eerie Midnight Horror Show,” “Beyond the Door,” both 1974) to teen movies (1988’s “Night of the Demons”), to the inevitable TV-movie (1977’s “The Possessed,” with Harrison Ford!)

There was even one case where a non-exorcism movie, the legendary Mario Bava’s surreal “Lisa and the Devil,” from 1973, was re-edited without the director’s approval and newly-shot possession-themed scenes were inserted into the proceedings, just to capitalize on the post-“Exorcist” craze, resulting in the understandably haphazard “House of Exorcism,” from 1975.

Eventually, the trend, like all such fads, fell out of favor, with the subgenre devolving into parody, such as 1990’s silly-but-fun “Repossessed,” in which original star Linda Blair poked fun at her breakthrough role in “The Exorcist,” with a little help from satire specialist Leslie Nielsen.

But like all good trends, it finally came back around, thanks in no small part to the excellent “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” from 2005, which had the novel idea of combining a possession theme with a courtroom drama, making for what amounted to “Law & Order: Special Demon Unit,” and propelling then-unknown Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter,” “Limitless”) into an overnight sensation.

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Since then, we’ve seen a variety of flicks about demonic possession, from the decent (the found-footage style “The Last Exorcism,” from 2010, which spawned a lesser sequel) to the reprehensible (the ending-less crowd-dis-pleaser “The Devil Inside” from 2012) to the genuinely disquieting (2014’s “Deliver Us From Evil” and “The Taking of Deborah Logan”).

One thing remains clear, though- the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite new-fangled effects, eye-popping visuals and an oft-deadly serious approach, the essential core storyline remains the same: someone is possessed by a demon or the like, then someone else is brought in to expel that demon. More often than not, they succeed, but not always.

Religion likewise remains a strong influence, making these films quite popular among the religious set, despite the violence and strong language typically associated with the subgenre. After all, what’s a better endorsement for God conquering all than having Him expel demons from someone, thus eliminating those sorts of things from one’s system?

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The underlying message being: those who have found God have no need for violence, bad behavior and cursing in their lives. It’s the perfect advertising for the ultimate brand, if you think about it. It’s a wonder the Catholic church still bristles at the idea of having an “official” Exorcism Division on hand to deal with such things in reality, though, admittedly, it’s not the easiest thing to prove.

That said, you can’t keep a good brand down, so it’s no surprise that the subgenre is making yet another comeback of sorts with the likes of “Outcast” and “The Exorcism” reboot, in these troubled times. I can think of a few politicians that could use a good exorcism, actually- can you perform an exorcism on an entire political party?

What sets “Outcast” apart from the pack is the idea that their form of demons are getting organized, going from town-to-town like unholy door-to-door salesmen possessing people where they go. They also know how to lay low, play things a bit more subtly when necessary, making it hard to determine whether someone is actually possessed in the first place.

What’s more, these demons- or whatever you want to call them- are seemingly impervious to traditional exorcisms, often emerging relatively unscathed from the process, at least until a new approach comes along, in the form of main protagonist, Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit, best-known for “Almost Famous”).

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Barnes, the “outcast” of the title, as the demons call him, has decidedly un-traditional ways, often taking to pounding the devil out of people- even, in the attention-grabbing premiere, when it comes to a little boy. Yes, it’s hard to watch sometimes, but it’s effective, and the boy does emerge demon-free at the end of things, so there’s that.

Interestingly, though, his subsequent efforts have been less successful, leading one to wonder if different folks don’t require different strokes after all. It remains to be seen whether things will improve for out intrepid anti-hero, but it’s made for fascinating viewing thus far, that’s for sure.

So, strap yourself in, get some holy water on deck and brush up on your Lord’s Prayer, because the devil is back in business, folks. Not that he ever went anywhere, really- he’s just been waiting for the right time to spring out at you…

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Check out “Outcast” on Cinemax on Fridays at 10pm, and be sure to take a look at my reviews of each episode the morning after…if you dare!