It’s only been two months since William Friedkin passed away, but I fully expect him to rise from the grave and give David Gordon Green a beating for The Exorcist: Believer. This legacy sequel delivers every cliché we’ve come to expect, and it does so in the dumbest manner imaginable. If the people who made the movie have even seen the 1973 classic, they’ve taken all the wrong lessons from it. As for Green, it’s astounding that he could go from making classy arthouse fare like George Washington and Snow Angels to the disappointing recent Halloween trilogy and this.
The big idea here is that there are two tween girls possessed by the devil. Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) go wandering in the woods after school, then reemerge three days later with no memory of what happened. Katherine’s religious mother Miranda (country singer Jennifer Nettles) believes they’ve been possessed by the devil, especially after her beloved little girl goes bonkers in church when the pastor mentions the body and blood of Christ. Angela’s widowed father Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is an atheist, so he’s not convinced. Initially, at least.
The first hour of The Exorcist: Believer is excessively dull. It takes a long time for the full possession angle of the plot to kick in. That 60-minute mark is when Ellen Burstyn stages her entrance, reprising the role of Chris MacNeil. Surprisingly, the film gets even worse at this point. Chris could have added depth to the story. Instead, she’s quickly sidelined, rendering her nothing more than a plot point. Why the character wouldn’t be utilized more is a mystery for the ages.
There has never been a good sequel or prequel to The Exorcist. That’s because none of them understand what makes the original so terrifying. Writer William Peter Blatty spent years pondering the philosophical questions at the heart of his tale, which is not about demonic possession so much as it is about confronting the reality of evil and recognizing faith is necessary to prevent ourselves from becoming vulnerable to it. All the other Exorcist movies (except perhaps Exorcist III) think it was about the spinning heads, demon eyes, and projectile vomiting. Those elements make the requisite appearance here, surrounded by inane, hilariously self-serious dialogue. Hearing Max von Sydow and Jason Miller repeatedly yell “The power of Christ compels you!” is far more intense than listening to Ann Dowd (as the nurse who lives next door to Victor) giving a rambling speech denouncing the devil.
That’s another failing. Everyone associates Burstyn and Linda Blair with The Exorcist, yet the central character was actually the priest, Father Karras. The Exorcist: Believer makes Victor the central figure. A worried parent seeing his child inhabited by a demon is too easy a note to hit. Karras was the vehicle for Blatty’s themes to come through. Potency was achieved from wondering if he could surmount his own inner demons to help Regan. That vital degree of separation forces us to perceive the instigating event from a unique perspective.
Is it fair to judge The Exorcist: Believer against the original? Yes, since it bends over backwards to tie itself in to Friedkin’s masterpiece. David Gordon Green works from a clumsy screenplay, delivers leaden direction, and has no clue how to mine the inherently terrifying thought of possession. Believer is the first part of a planned trilogy. Right there you have the problem in a nutshell. The emphasis isn’t on genuinely scaring viewers, it’s on hitting the correct notes to garner box office success. Ironically, that will be the project’s downfall.
Note: I highly recommend Nat Segaloff’s book The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear that provides valuable insight on all iterations of the franchise.
out of four
The Exorcist: Believer is rated R for some violent content, disturbing images, language, and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.