With moments of absolute absurdity, borderline bigotry and diabolical dialogue, on the surface Apparitions appears to be an abysmal supernatural drama wrought to hook in overgrown adults who can’t get enough of their kids’ Harry Potter books. But peer a little deeper and those risible flaws are nuggets of the blackest humour, the ostensible intolerance is good, old fashioned dramatic conflict that challenges the protagonists’ morals, and all the while the stoical Martin Shaw’s Father Jacob is smiling sardonically. It’s great.
What was good about it?
• Martin Shaw as Father Jacob, an exorcist in the Catholic Church, who is a magnet for demons infesting mortal souls in the same way as Louis Walsh’s face attracts a million metaphorical fists every Saturday evening.
• If Shaw played him with too much untethered arrogance or played the role for laughs, Apparitions would be a colossal failure, as it balances on the knife edge of sweeping the viewer along without subjecting them to a sententious exegesis of religious scripture and the eternal battle with Satan while not undermining its own theatre with a nudge and a wink to acknowledge how ridiculous the whole thing is.
• Shaw effortlessly instils in Father Jacob a fidelity to the Catholic Church without being an absolute genuflection to the word of God. He’s seen as a modern breed of priest as he explains to the doomed Vimal that his homosexuality isn’t an issue for him, and that he won’t oppose his accession to priesthood. However, he does underscore his liberal attitudes when he assures Vimal that his generous attitude is only because he hasn’t committed a sin – presumably sodomy.
• Were Jacob to adopt a contemporary perspective to stress what a hip and happening modern day priest he was, this would make him a cipher, a fantasy figure of libertarian values. By retaining some of the Catholic Church’s atrophied anachronisms, he has depth as his morals are now vulnerable to exploitation by future foes and he will face conflicts where his personal philosophy conflicts with that of the Vatican.
• Sister Anne (Michelle Joseph) fulfils the part of a more passive, sceptical Scully to Father Jacob’s Mulder. She frequently obstructed his attempts to rid Liam of the demon, but did so in a way to ground his more fanciful theories about demonic possession, and will no doubt be proved right from time to time in future episodes. Referring to Donna’s worry over her possessed father, a haughty Jacob said: “I think God can solve the problem.” “So long as you know the difference,” Sister Anne tartly shot back.
• The plot itself was pretty straightforward, and borrowed from various horror staples to chill the blood. On a few occasions, the possessed Liam would suddenly warp from incredulous father into a bile-spitting demon like The Exorcist, while Vimal was skinned alive in a gruesome homage to a similar scene in Hellraiser.
• Amid the gore there were some very funny jokes. As part of the demon’s quest to spread its malice about the world, it had coerced Liam into a campaign to mock and undermine Christianity, which included owning a DVD of Jerry Springer: The Opera. On the one hand this acted as straight-faced pre-emptive endorsement of the reactionary right’s opinion that this was the work of the Devil, and on the other it satirised those same morons that such a harmless piece of entertainment could ever be considered blasphemous.
• We also laughed at a prospective priest, a nun and a little girl playing the ultimate capitalist icon of Monopoly; the notion of a ‘Chief Exorcist’s Residence’; and the name of the sauna in which Vimal meets his end – The Hot Room sounded like the kind of amoral institution frothing zealots might devise on cautionary films to warn of the sinful pitfalls present on streetcorners of any modern Gomorrah.
What was bad about it?
• Although we really enjoyed its knowing silliness, there were a couple of times Apparitions really went beyond the pale. As Father Jacob tried to convince Liam to agree to his request for an exorcism he said: “If you want your daughter back all you have to do is listen to some prayers.” This absolute belief in the power of prayer reminded us of numerous Father Ted episodes, in particular Speed 3, in which an already distressed Dougal is bemused to see Ted and two other priests pull up alongside his booby-trapped milk float conducting an impromptu mass.
• Father Jacob visited a pub during a live football match to spy on Liam. During the game, as Roma take a 3-0 lead against Liam’s ‘Utd’, Liam spouts the embarrassingly trite insults at the Roma goalscorer of “I hope you die of cancer! I hope your children die of cancer!” Speaking these words is supposedly a demon who resides in Hell, and the most imaginative torture he could wish on someone he hates is the same feeble insults that slip from the lips of a thousand balls of fleshy vermin who are ever so proud that they’ve never read a book.
• The stilted imagery of the shattered mirror in which Liam can see two reflections of his divided self.