The Exorcist: Believer
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green
Starring Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn
Classification 14A; 111 minutes
Opens in theatres Oct. 6
If the power of Christ compels you to watch a new Exorcist movie, then Godspeed and God bless. Because even though the latest horror-franchise resurrection from intellectual-property gravedigger David Gordon Green (Halloween) isn’t sullying a spotless brand, The Exorcist: Believer still reeks of sulphur-scented soullessness. The moviegoing body may be willing, but the cinematic flesh is weak.
Producer/horror mogul Jason Blum should be given some credit here: The prospect of hiring Gordon Green to make a new Exorcist film – a planned trilogy no less, with parts two and three due in short order – makes sense on paper. The talented filmmaker, who has bounced between well-regarded indie dramas (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and riotous Danny McBride comedies (Eastbound & Down, The Righteous Gemstones), discovered he had a killer instinct with his Halloween reboot from a few years back.
While the experiment petered out after Halloween Kills, 2018′s souped-up Halloween remains a fierce, brutal slasher. Why not hand the director the keys to the PCU (that’d be Pazuzu Cinematic Universe), pea-soup vomit and all?
The problem is that whereas Gordon Green treated John Carpenter’s original Halloween as gospel – a kind of Old Testament horror that could be reinterpreted for a new generation of gore-hound apostles – no such reverence can be found in Believer for William Friedkin’s original 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist.
Gordon Green and his collaborators (including McBride, who gets a story credit here) ignore the moral and religious tensions first explored by Exorcist novelist/screenwriter William Peter Blatty, and the general sense of existential dread that permeates the film. If Friedkin’s classic was an intense exploration into the darkest shadows of the world, Gordon Green’s horror is built for the cold light of day. Forget being scared: Believer offers little to think about, let alone cower in terror from.
This is all the more disappointing to report given that the first third of Believer offers the hopeful promise of sequel salvation. Like his Halloween reboot, Believer ignores all sequels and prequels to the original film, acting instead as a “direct” follow-up to the tale of two priests who attempt to flush the demon Pazuzu from the body of poor little 12-year-old Regan MacNeil.
And for a beat, it seems like Gordon Green gets it, as he spends half an hour emphasizing character and relationships over jump scares and easy music cues. (Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells doesn’t even show up until 45 minutes or so.)
In a semi-haunting prologue, Believer introduces Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a photographer who is vacationing in Haiti with his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves). A scene in which the expectant mother is blessed by locals carries an effectively unsettling air, especially given that a few minutes later Port-au-Prince is rocked by an earthquake that results in tragedy.
Flash forward 13 years, and Victor is an overprotective single father, raising the gently rebellious Angela (Lidya Jewett), who is starting to ask some questions about her mother. Questions that result in Angela enacting a woodland séance with classmate Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) that goes, well, you know.
For about 10 minutes after the girls go missing, Gordon Green exercises (but not exorcises) an impressive restraint, letting the parental fears of Victor do much of the horror-movie heavy lifting. There is nothing so scary, after all, then losing a child.
But then Angela and Katherine reappear with no memory of their disappearance, and new affections for gory self-mutilation and guttural utterances. For those keeping track, your tally is unfortunately right. Believer’s idea of improving on, or at least building upon, the original film is to literally double down: two possessed girls for the price of one!
Unsure of what exactly he’s facing with the two young hellions, Victor and his well-meaning neighbours (including Ann Dowd as a nurse who almost joined a convent in her youth) seek out the one person who has encountered such a thing and survived to tell the tale: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), mother of original demon survivor Regan (played then by Linda Blair).
This is Gordon Green taking a page directly from his own Halloween playbook, in which he brought “final girl” Jamie Lee Curtis back into service to fight that film’s boogeyman decades later. But without spoiling much about Believer, the director again bungles a seemingly easy mission – Chris is so misused here that it is exceedingly hard to imagine why (other than gobs of cash) Burstyn agreed to return at all.
Odom Jr., best known for his excellent work as the steely Aaron Burr in the original Broadway run of Hamilton, is similarly left with too little to do as Victor, at least once the exorcism itself starts. And while Dowd is reliable, she, too, disappears into the shrieks of the evening, her character drowned out by a wan possession posse rounded out by characterless randos intended to convey the concept of spiritual diversity if not the substance.
There simply is no equivalent to the gravitas that was brought by the original Exorcist tag team of Max von Sydow and Jason Miller. Who lives through the night and who dies is not an issue – there is no one to mourn here, even though plenty of people die.
What’s worse is the exorcism itself, which takes up about the final half-hour of the film and whose only shock is how tame an affair it ends up being. There are plenty of gucky bodily fluids, sure, but nothing so scary as to terrify a generation raised on Blum’s own Paranormal Activity/Insidious/Sinister flicks.
Whereas Friedkin’s film had audiences nervously oscillating between clutching their armrests and bolting for the bathroom to wretch, Believer will have moviegoers eyeing the exits for different, far less scandalous reasons.
Universal and sister streaming company Peacock reportedly shelled out US$400-million for the rights to make Believer and its two planned sequels – an ungodly sum given that the film ends on the biggest shoulder-shrug possible. The devil must be somewhere in the details.