Any love you had for David Gordon Green’s attempts to reanimate John Carpenter’s game-changing Halloween franchise will probably more or less correspond to your feelings about The Exorcist: Believer, the director’s bid to do the same for William Friedkin’s canonical demonic possession chiller. For those of us former Catholic school kids with vivid recall of being scared witless in our younger years by that 1973 classic, the new film is as deceptive a trickster as the Satanic visitor that takes up residence this time in not just one innocent girl but two.
In theory that should mean double the scare factor, and for most of the first hour all bodes well — or ill, if you dread what’s coming — as Green shows his respect for the original by disregarding its various sequels, prequels and the mostly forgettable 2016 Fox TV series. Universal has stressed that this is a direct sequel, not to be confused with a reboot.
The Exorcist: Believer
The Bottom Line Hella disappointing.
Working with co-writer Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray) from a story he developed with Halloween collaborators Scott Teems and Danny McBride, Green follows the Friedkin model by patiently developing the story and characters.
Twitchy editing and occasional flashes of hellish imagery aside, the set-up is comparatively restrained for contemporary horror and seems more intent on creating an unsettling atmosphere than hitting us with a full onslaught of demonic mayhem. But once it shifts gears to provide that jolt, this first entry in a planned trilogy descends into numbing familiarity and recycled effects from the standard Blumhouse toolbox. And unlike Green’s Halloween trilogy, which served up diminishing returns with each new installment, Believer condenses that downward trajectory into the first chapter.
The phenomenally successful 1973 Friedkin film remains among the most influential horror ever made for various reasons, not least because it legitimized the genre as serious drama and dialed up the intensity by grounding the supernatural elements in religious belief and the social anxieties that followed the tumult of the late ‘60s protest movement.
Arguably the biggest blunder Green makes is diluting the imprint of Catholicism on the story. Instead of making the cleansing of impure spirits the exclusive domain of a shadowy arm of the Church that answers to the Vatican, the movie throws in Pentecostal holy rollers, spiritual healing methods and folk medicine rooted in African culture and — God save us — the power of group solidarity.
Details of that last element are delivered in a laborious info dump by poor Ellen Burstyn, returning for the first time to the role of Chris MacNeill, which landed her a 1974 best actress Oscar nomination. Chris has given up acting and spent a decade after the events of the original film becoming an expert educator on demonic possession. She published a bestseller called “A Mother’s Explanation,” which caused the estrangement of her daughter Regan, whose young soul was The Exorcist’s battleground.
But the fate reserved for Chris this time around — when she confronts one of the possessed teenagers with a reckless assurance that makes it clear she should have known better — is a gnarly bit of nastiness that would seem more at home in Saw– or Hostel-type torture porn. One wonders if the always classy Burstyn will end up wishing she had kept her distance and her dignity.
She’s not the only one given big speechy mouthfuls to chew on, however, as Ann Dowd also gets a groaner at the end about the nature of good and evil in the modern world.
Playing a nurse named Ann who lives next door to distraught widowed father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), Dowd is given a clunky backstory as a one-time novitiate nun, who abandoned plans to join the convent after breaking her commitment. The thing about backstories is that Satan knows all of them, which prompts Ann to assume exorcism duties as her God-given vocation and gives Dowd some juicy fire-and-brimstone arias to play.
A prologue set during photographer Victor’s honeymoon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, opens with the startling image of dogs savagely fighting on the beach before tracking his wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) as she gets coaxed in the city marketplace into a ritualistic blessing for the protection of the baby she’s carrying. But when Sorenne sustains near-fatal injuries in an earthquake, Victor is forced to make an impossible choice between saving the mother or the child. That choice, later revealed to be not as it appears, is schematically echoed during the feverish heights of the exorcism.
The story picks up 13 years later, with Victor and Angela living in happy harmony in small-town Georgia. But when Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) wander into the woods and attempt to summon the spirit of Angela’s late mother, of course they summon something far less wholesome.
Chronicling the three days that the girls are missing works well to sustain tension during the buildup, fueled by the escalating fears of Victor and of Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz).
Friction among them is sparked by their conflicting beliefs — Victor is an atheist and Katherine’s parents are devout Pentecostals, making Angela’s father initially dismissive when Miranda says she thinks their daughter’s ghoulish physical appearance and violent behavior point to demonic possession. But inevitably, the parallel transformation in Angela, along with some prodding from his neighbor, gets Victor on board the exorcism train.
As much as Jewett and O’Neill do a solid job showing the alarming progression from their dazed return — discovered in the barn of a farm 30 miles from where they were last spotted, with no memory of the preceding three days — a couple of key factors make their possession less effective than that of Linda Blair’s Regan in the original.
A 12-year-old girl in the early ‘70s, at least in movies, generally tended to be far more vulnerable than two 13-year-olds in the 21st century. Regan still had one foot planted firmly in childhood, while Angela and Katherine are very much on the path to adulthood.
What made the physical torment of Regan so nerve-wracking was the vast chasm between the sweet, chipmunk-cheeked kid and the snarling demon with the sickly face and stringy hair that she became, spewing obscenities with the blood-curdling growl of Mercedes McCambridge. (That nice young clergyman’s mother does what in Hell?) There’s no less distance separating Angela and Katherine from their demonic makeovers, but the ubiquity of young women propelled by inner demons onscreen in the decades since The Exorcist — particularly in J-horror — makes them less disturbing the more monstrous they become.
The same goes for the bag of tricks that was once terrifying, including levitation, violent convulsions and creative barfing, this time swapping pea-soup for black sludge and curls of smoke. Every new freakout moment gradually just starts to feel like more for the sake of more, rather than showing us imaginative new ideas. The gruesome makeup and effects work is impressive enough, but it all feels a bit too routine to be genuinely distressing, and even at their worst, the Satanic Angela and Katherine are just not all that frightening, largely because we’ve seen countless versions of them in more inventive narratives before.
For that matter, the film also fails to provide credible grounding for their friendship. I found myself wondering what the child of white Bible bashers, who’s head of her church’s youth group, would have in common with the cool Black girl whose dad is an atheist — beyond the representational requirements of a modern franchise extension.
The exorcism itself also falls short as a climactic set-piece. In place of a petrified single mother whose child has become a ghastly aberration, and the two well-drawn priests locked in her icy bedroom to expel the demon from its unwitting host, there’s a crowd on hand this time around, with only one or two of them getting much in the way of character development.
In addition to the ever-reliable Dowd, the chief asset here is Odom, who brings unfailing integrity to his performance even where the script doesn’t earn it. Also in the room, where Angela and Katherine are strapped into back-to-back chairs bolted to the floor, are Miranda and Tony, respectively fretful and anguished; their Pentecostal pastor (Raphael Sbarge); that ritualistic healer (Okwui Okpokwasili); a Catholic priest in defiance of the skeptical diocese seniors (E.J. Bonilla); and another neighbor of Victor’s (Danny McCarthy), who has no notable usefulness as a character and yet is somehow always around.
That dramatically diffuse aspect of too many folks standing around with not enough to do weighs down what should be the movie’s most pulse-pounding sequence, contributing to a sense of deflation as the outcome unfolds and its aftermath is glimpsed — complete with a surprise cameo by a major figure from Exorcist lore and the standard hint of trouble brewing for the next installment.
DP Michael Simmonds, who shot Green’s Halloween trilogy, gives Believer a moody look, with lots of brooding night scenes and an unhealthy pallor that takes hold as the situation gets hairier. Editor Tim Alverson keeps the action churning and goes admirably light on jump scares. And the music by David Wingo and Amman Abbasi turns up the tension, even if there’s nothing here to rival the needling effectiveness of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” which makes a welcome return in key moments, albeit in a remix that nixes the bells.
That watered-down version of an inspired horror theme is symptomatic of a movie that starts out full of promise but fumbles the material as the stakes get higher. It’s no surprise that Believer is less terrifying than its venerable progenitor. That it’s considerably less daring than a movie made half a century ago compounds the disappointment.