If there ever was a time when we took exorcists seriously on the big screen or the little, it has long past. Clichés as cumbersome as Marley’s chains seem to have weighed down the exorcist horror genre, and consigned it to everlasting internment in shitflick hell. But even though the clanking of those clichés can be heard all the way through ITV’s latest foray into the genre, Midwinter of the Spirit, if this series were put in any metaphysical realm it would be limbo – because while watching it you’re really just waiting for the next thing to start.
The thing which makes Midwinter of the Spirit dull, really skull-numbingly dull, is that it has no idea whether it should be embracing these clichés, or mocking them. Much of the time it tries to hold them at an ironic distance, as if its creators thought a few sarcastic remarks about sacraments would do for the exorcist genre what Skyfall’s gadget jokes did for James Bond. But we don’t need to take Bond’s gadgets seriously in order to enjoy a Bond film – they are simply begging to be ridiculed. But in order for us to find an exorcism on screen scary, we must be convinced to take its attendant mythology seriously. We must believe, for the duration of the B movie or TV episode, that the poor patient in their sickbed really is possessed, and that muttering a few words while grabbing their ankles really will cure them.
Unsure what to do, Midwinter of the Spirit sends up this hocus pocus in one scene, then begs us to take it seriously in the next. It tries to have its cake, and transubstantiate it.
I got the sense while watching Midwinter of the Spirit that its chronic self-consciousness stems from something more than a desire not to seem hackneyed. I don’t imagine I’m the only viewer of films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, through whose head flash thoughts like ‘What if this poor girl just has epilepsy? What if this priest is accidentally just screwing with her head?’ The traditional exorcism scene, with its straps and its screeches, its cuts and its cries of no more, is by its nature very nearly an exploitation scene; it’s only stopped from being one by the metaphysical claims it asks us to accept. What most exorcism films do not address is the possibility of the possessed person not actually being possessed; this is enough to make you uncomfortable even if the words ‘based on a true story’ do not fade in just before the credits roll.
Perhaps Midwinter of the Spirit self-deprecates because it wants to say to us ‘this may seem ridiculous, but it’s true!’; maybe it wants to suggest that its characters have already done all the worrying and doubting of exorcism that needs to be done, so that we, like them, can now accept it as just another public service which needs to be performed, like plumbing or creating traffic jams. But so far this has not been the effect. With only one more episode to go, Midwinter of the Spirit remains at crossed purposes.