Apparitions is a Fine Spiritual Thriller
By Kristin Battestella
What if Mother Teresa was possessed and died during an exorcism? So begins Apparitions, a 2008 6-part British tale chronicling a modern day exorcist caught between the bureaucracy of Rome and the demons running amok in London. Who knew?
Father Jacob (Martin Shaw) tries to help a young family in fear of demonic possession, despite Cardinal Bukovak’s (John Shrapnel) insistence that Father Jacob is over stepping the bounds of his archaic exorcism office. Sister Ruth (Siobhan Finneran) is placed as Father Jacob’s secretary to keep an eye on him, but she begins to question the strange goings on around their parish – and their mysterious patient Michael (Rick Warden), himself a victim of possession in Satan’s master plan to birth new and powerful evil on earth. Can Father Jacob unravel these demonic intentions and save the lives and souls of those around him, or will his own institution and the non-believers inside and out inadvertently allow evil to triumph?
Blasphemous suggestions, debates on canonization, and behind the scenes church happenings are immediately intriguing to start Episode 1 of Apparitions. However, series writer and director Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet, Doctor Who) and co-creator Nick Collins (Murder in Suburbia) also smartly endear the cast and plots with quickly relatable young girls with possessed dads and seemingly inspired Leprosy healings. There’s a pleasing attention to detail as well through battle of wits dialogue, historical dates, and specific examinations. Are the saints as active in earthly work as demons – even in prisons and with rapists seeking repentance? Perfumes versus foul scents, appearing and disappearing eerie figures, and more devilish implications create a paranormal but religious CSI design with no need to resort to nasty priesthood innuendo. The flaws of the church, however, are certainly acknowledged; exorcisms are recognized as medieval hokey, and the misbelieving even make some Hammer Horror jokes. Are such non-believers all possessed by evil? Of course not, but are all men of the cloth touched by grace? Nope. Apparitions confronts the whole lot of grey in between thanks to multiple storylines and layers of legion; the longer serial format gives room for deeper demonology dimensions, legal issues, social services, church hierarchy, government battles, and family debates by Episode 2. A film would have one monstrosity excised with the confrontation against evil resolved in several hours, but Apparitions offers a possession infrastructure to mirror the church’s chain of command. Who knew being a priest was such dangerous work? Apparitions remains self aware with quips – “Don’t make many enemies in your line of work?” “Only Satan.” – and provides fantastical but honest discussion on humanity being the battleground between good and evil where our flaws, temptations, and those to which we would or would not do harm are used against us. Casualties and sacrifices happen in this spiritual warfare, and Episode 3 raises the stakes as Apparitions uses its individual hours or multi part arcs to tie its larger plot together. It was probably tough to watch Apparitions from week to week thanks to the somewhat rolling cast and changing righteous or evil affiliations, but binging several episodes at a time keeps the soulful character dilemmas in focus.
Demonic pregnancies and abortions gone awry push the exorcism twists further in Episode 4, but these upsetting, controversial themes remain delicate and compelling. Where is the line between deformity or evil showing upon one’s person, disability, mental illness, and possession? Do we encounter demons daily but remain unaware as we argue the fine line between medical rights, patient privacy, and religious need? No one wants a priest interfering with healthcare, but interesting commentary on how medicine was once thought of as superstition helps plead the spiritual case. Demons, of course, thrive on perversion and seek to be born in emulation of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Even people who think they believe are shocked when they encounter the possessed on Apparitions. Episode 5 mixes Islam and supposed visions of the Blessed Mother with hopeful, miraculous moments, and this good standing tall balance keeps Apparitions from being too somber or serious. Can we recognize these good or ills among us? Do we invite the devil in while supposedly differing religions recognize our common evil enemy? Apparitions poses a lot of questions and can be lofty at times in hypothesizing whether humanity is inherently bad or good, and some secondary people or plots end up forgotten and unresolved by the Episode 6 finale. Several excellent supporting players don’t have any follow up time, and this one series could have perhaps been 8 or 10 hours instead of 6. Fortunately, great guest stars and core characters facing their own demons provide more thought provoking muster. Could you work for evil just once to save millions? The needs of the masses certainly outweigh the cost of one’s own life – or soul. The finale pieces together all the significant dates, anniversaries, and births to up Apparitions’ ante, testing its faithless by having them perform exorcisms and face their own catastrophes. Once you open the door to hell, can it be closed? Does God let evil in only to prove good’s triumph? For all its doom and gloom on evil and possession, Apparitions is a powerful spiritual show about the underlining good needed for the job, cloth or no cloth.
Apparitions producer and star Martin Shaw (Judge John Deed, Inspector George Gently, The Professionals) looks the mature, priestly part as Father Jacob and is certainly up to the credible, experienced, and soft spoken but kick ass task. His rapport with young Romy Irving (Public Enemies) overcomes her fear and ours as Father Jacob puts pressure on and pursues his investigation for the true cause – there’s no time to pussyfoot around when souls are at stake! Father Jacob firmly believes Satan is amidst our daily lives but must continually defend his exorcism office even to fellow church members who think he is relic of the past. Father Jacob embodies an interesting debate – he doesn’t want people to suffer to prove his point, but the possessed are the exact people he must excise. How much pain is saving the world going to take? You don’t need to believe to enjoy Apparitions thanks to Shaw’s everyman alone style and the doubts cast upon him by others. Why do so many immediately resist the opportunity for his help or take extremes to spit in his face? Is it easier for people to run from faith when they should fight evil or help good to happen? Father Jacob is an anchor for his office, yet Shaw also provides excellent internal conflict and silent reflection. His line of work always leads to death, but Father Jacob must continue to fight the good fight. A very strong script also helps Shaw take it to the next level – he always has a good comeback or the right thing to say to the possessed, the believer, or the church that is both for and against him. Father Jacob has to break the rules and does what he has to do, and Apparitions is a worthy ride because we want to see Father Jacob succeed against all this dang earthly red tape just as much as we root for his quest against supernatural evil.
Are these miracles on Apparitions done for good or ill? Guest priest Elyes Gabel (Game of Thrones) adds more conflict and temptation while addressing homosexual ideologies within the Catholic Church. Are the ones concerned with what is thought to be the unclean or questioning their faith and role in the church the ones closest to God that the demons seek to trick and enter in? David Gyasi (Interstellar) as prison chaplain Father Daniel wants to take action and is a resourceful ally for Father Jacob, but doubts what he witnesses during exorcisms. Wouldn’t you? Shaun Dooley (Red Riding) also represents a realistic father trying to handle divorce and parenting before possession becomes a factor. Why does he have to justify his family to the church, indeed? Rounding out the ensemble is Rick Warden (Band of Brothers) as the perfectly disturbing, demonic, and desperate Michael. His Holocaust parallels and waxing on why God allows evil to happen are sickly good television. The devil is, after all, a master wordsmith and persuasive little fellow who exploits our fears and weaknesses. Michael’s struggles with his possession are eerily correct in many aspects – cast out one demon on Apparitions, and another takes his place. Ultimately, Satan wants your soul, or better yet, the best soul he can find. The higher evil can climb, all the better. Thus is the battle on Apparitions.
Some of the female characters on Apparitions, however, are somewhat under written as either helpful, bitchy, or obstacles as needed and could have stayed around much, much longer. Sassy nun Michelle Joseph (Eastenders) feels under utilized as the good counterbalance to numerous cliché non-believing beotches, but detective Stephanie Street (20 Things to Do before You’re 30) does better as a strong sensible lady seeking answers to these crimes. Can justice be served legally and spiritually or does one office trump the other? Likewise, abortion clinic doctor Claudia Harrison (Murphy’s Law) is willing to consider Father Jacob’s theories whilst also seeing to her patients needs, and psychologist Claire Price (Rebus) seems objective but her atheist stance and evaluations for the church clash just a bit. Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur) also provides a very interesting debate on the devil as seduction, and it is such a loss that Apparitions didn’t continue for a second season. Just seeing Lunghi and Shaw go toe to toe in this ongoing good versus evil war would have been delightful enough! Thankfully, Siobhan Finneran (Downton Abbey) is a strict but fun Sister Ruth with worthy wit to match Shaw as Father Jacob. She starts out an unofficial spy for the suspicious, jerky but juicy, and career advancement seeking John Shrapnel (Gladiator) as Cardinal Bukovak, but Sister Ruth is wise enough to make up her own mind in whether she is for or against what’s happening. She certainly plays with that vow of obedience as needed! Again, this evil fighting priest and nun tag team antagonism would have been fun to see in a Series Two. Pity.
The look and feel of Apparitions is appropriately foreign and ecclesiastical, too, with plenty of priestly robes, aged buildings, and inspiring or brooding locales from London to Rome. Smart uses of Latin prayers and Italian dialogue also accent the drama, which doesn’t go for shocking full on horror in its solid 55-minute shows. Of course, there are disconcerting touches of gore, blood, and skin – and not as in nudity skin, either – and subtitles will be necessary for these soft-spoken accents and multiple languages during the tense moments of exorcism, violence, and surprises. Despite old world candles, chapels, and rituals, the medieval rite in the modern realm also makes amusing appearances. Oh, a second priest isn’t handy for an exorcism? Let’s just call him up and put on the speakerphone! Excellent intercutting, uses of light and dark photography, colored lighting, and zooms up the intensity, and music, prayers, and near chanting rhythms heighten simultaneous action. People do shout or talk over each other, but this works when the languages or prayers are being translated – or when taunting demons are causing mayhem while those unseeing speak on, unaware. Fiery fantastics and walking on water spectacles do have their moments in the final two episodes, but most of Apparitions relies on the cast in action or reaction before special effects. Sometimes the imagery of the possessed tapping on the church gates waiting to enter in is really all you need to send your demonic tale home.
Some audiences may be put off by the totally steeped in religion setting of Apparitions, and the variously heavy subject matter is obviously polarizing. This is however an intelligent presentation of a frightening implication, a word of warning on the dilemmas both internal and external akin to the classic “The Howling Man” episode of The Twilight Zone. Despite sensational topics and a dabble in the supernatural realm, Apparitions does not go for the scandalous or shocking but remains a mature analysis on body, mind, and soul – you won’t find everything wrapped in a pretty bow here like other exorcism films that declare all is well. The plots remain personal with small people amid the institutional framework solving mysteries and using clues in this tormenting game against evil – a game evil wants to play with you. Mainstream sophisticated viewers, casual horror fans, and even the non uber religious can enjoy the good versus evil drama of Apparitions.