By Bill Hanna
I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be a fan of books, films, and TV shows about demonic possession mainly because I simply don’t buy the whole concept. Thus, while many still maintain that “The Exorcist” is one of the most frightening films ever made, I found it more amusing than anything else. Therefore, seeing the chocolate syrup go down the drain after Janet Leigh has been stabbed in “Psycho” was much more horrifying to me than watching Linda Blair vomit pea soup or her head do a 360.
All this being said, you can understand why I had no intention of watching “Constantine,” NBC’s new series based upon the “Hellblazer” comic book about a guy named John Constantine, whose business card reads, “Exorcist, Demonologist, and Master of the Dark Arts.” But because of the persistent urging of my oldest granddaughter, I changed my mind and decided to watch the pilot at least. Much to my amazement, I’m hooked. Or should I say I’m possessed?
When we first meet John Constantine (Matt Ryan), he’s a patient in the ominous Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged in England, where he’s about to undergo electroshock treatment. He checked himself into the asylum three months after he failed to save a 9-year-old girl named Astra (Bailey Tippen) from eternal damnation caused by a demon known as Nergal.
John is extremely bored by the proceedings at Ravenscar, but one day during a therapy session he spies a huge cockroach and follows it into a room where a young girl is attempting to paint something on a wall covered with the disgusting insects. She obviously is possessed, and John manages to drive her demon away. After he does so, he sees a message on the wall reading, “LIV DIE,” which refers to Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), a young woman living in Atlanta, Ga., where she is being stalked by a demon.
Liv is the daughter of John’s old friend, and John arrives in Atlanta just in time to save her life from a harrowing event (I won’t spoil it.), but she’s skeptical of him, and so he gives her his business card with instructions to call him if she ever needs him again. And of course she does.
As is the case with most series pilots, this one serves to introduce the major characters in addition to including some great action sequences. Joining John and Liv in the story are Manny (Harrold Perrineau), John’s guardian angel (complete with wings on demand) and Chas (Charles Halford), John’s indestructible chauffeur and his oldest and best friend.
The nucleus of the plot in the first episode involves John’s attempt to protect Liv from harm, and in the heart-pounding conclusion the first episode, she actually aids him in his mission by calling on a special gift she inherited from her father. But before the first show in the series ends, the appearance of a heretofore-unidentified figure provides a tantalizing tease for watching the next episode.
Now I’m not going to say that “Constantine” changed my mind about the whole possession thing, but I will admit that the show held my interest from beginning to end because of some dazzling special effects and a fine performance by Ryan. The show is filled with outstanding scenes, and the early one with the roaches at the asylum is one of the best. It will make your skin crawl, and the exorcism in that scene is particularly effective.
What I like best about the series is its main character. John isn’t a superhero in the truest sense of the word, but he’s certainly not afraid to go toe to toe with the forces of evil. And his brief introduction of himself says it all.
“I’m John Constantine. I’m the one who steps from the shadows all trench coat and arrogance. I’ll drive your demons away, kick ’em in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. I walk my path alone because let’s be honest. Who would be crazy enough to walk it with me?”
Ryan manages to imbue his character with just the right blend of toughness, sensitivity, cockiness, quirkiness, and wit. John is a most unusual guy, and in an online interview with SuperHeroHype Ryan explained why he wanted the part and offered some keen insight in what makes John so interesting.
“My best friend, one of my great friends, he’s such a comic book fan that he has his own comic book company now called Improper Books, and he writes his own comics. He’d been telling me about John Constantine for years, so I’d heard a little bit about it. Then he sat me down before I had the audition and was like, ‘This is what John is like.’ Gave me the whole lowdown on it. He actually gave me a comic before I did the audition, and I kind of scanned it, but I didn’t have much time before the audition, and I was doing a play, so I did as much as I could. Once I started to read those comics and hear the depth, when you look online and you see the synopsis of the character, you do as much research into a role as possible, and he really seemed like someone who was multi-faceted and three dimensional. Someone who’s tortured but has this amazing, cynical British ironic wit. That’s a really interesting thing to play, and also he’s a con man. He’s a quick-witted con man who will stick the middle finger up to the Devil as he’s making his way back up from hell. That shit’s cool. So yeah, I want to do that. And the fact that he’s dark and he walks around with all this guilt and the weight of the world on his shoulders as well. It’s got everything. It’s really fun and awesome to play for an actor.
“I think the great thing about this show, is that we get to see a lot of different sides of John. I think from the pilot, we can really now flesh out the character and get under his skin. There are so many different layers to him that now we can all start peeling back. For me as well, I’ve gotten to know him quite well since I got the role, but as we progress, you get to know the character even more and more. Things deepen even more and more, so I’m really looking forward to that process of getting to know him even more and deepening everything, and then seeing what storylines they throw out and what different parts of his personality we draw out from episode to episode.”
Now if a disbeliever like me was drawn into “Constantine,” I can’t help but think those who buy into the whole premise will love this show. The devil might even enjoy it, and because I like John so well, “Constantine” earns the final score of a surprisingly respectable eight.
In addition to everything else, the show is educational. For example, if you are lying in bed some night and a demon flies in through your window, simply sit up and say, “Ab insidiis diaboli. Libera nos, Domine.” No, I have no idea what it means. But when John said it, the demon he was confronting ran like a bat out of hell!