As a basic film property, The Exorcist admittedly makes better sense for David Gordon Green than Halloween ever did. With its acute palette defined by shadings of naturalism and characters whose inner lives are in constant torment, William Friedkin’s original 1973 masterpiece sprang from a more ephemeral, existential place of dread than even the best of slasher franchises. Yes, John Carpenter made a masterpiece too, but by the time Green got there, Michael Myers was the dope who got smacked around by Busta Rhymes.
Of course The Exorcist has its own share of terrible sequels (plus an underrated entry helmed by the Oscar-winning William Peter Blatty). Yet those cash-grabs’ mediocrity was so glaring when compared to the classic that they were forgotten as quickly as they were released. And therein lies the opportunity, as well as the immense risk, in The Exorcist: Believer. Fifty years later, all that sticks in the mind is the first and still best film about demonic possession. To revisit what Friedkin and screenwriter Blatty achieved is to walk across hallowed cinematic ground. In other words, it makes a hell of a brand name to slap on a poster… but also why invite comparisons to that?!
Having seen The Exorcist: Believer, I’m not convinced Green or Jason Blum’s usually astute Blumhouse Productions ever found a good answer. Believer has clear reverence for Friedkin’s original movie, and in a few moments even touches on the sinister terror underwriting so much of that film’s horror: the visceral fear of a parent losing a child. However, any moments of divine inspiration are fleeting (and early). Ironically, the movie ultimately reveals the lie to its title, because here is a picture that lacks the conviction to believe in itself as anything better than a haunted house thrill ride—and one noticeably light on the thrills.
Audiences are invited to board the rickety contraption when single father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) encounters his worst fear. As a younger man, Victor lost his pregnant wife during an earthquake in Haiti. Afterward he raised their child, who survived the earthquake and her mother dying in labor, in a secular household. Perhaps that’s why young Angela (Lidya Jewett) decides to follow her school BFF Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) into the woods where they perform a seance to contact her dead mother. They never return.
Green infuses these early sequences of Vic and the parents of a friend he never knew his daughter to have, Katherine’s Born Again mother and father (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), with an ominous foreboding. Literal demons need not be introduced to make their nightmare skin-crawling. It doesn’t relent either when the girls are discovered three days later with burns on their feet and a shared traumatized disposition wherein they insist they have no memory of what happened or where they’ve been.
Then the old familiar games start up: flickering lights, disturbing dead-eyed stares, and even a trace of what might be green pea soup. It isn’t long until secular Victor and Katherine’s devout kin are turning to an expert for help… 90-year-old Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the stage and screen star who retired from acting decades ago to apparently write a self-help book on how to deal with children who are possessed.
The inclusion of our dear Chris—who really is a legend—is about as tactful as a crowbar jarring a door open. The narrative mess and clutter it leaves in its wake also proves a lot less worthwhile than Jamie Lee Curtis’ triumphant return to Green’s far more graceful 2018 Halloween redo. Indeed, the narrative contortions Believer does to rationalize Burstyn reprising a role she is clearly long over doing might make ol’ Pazuzu gasp, especially given the contrived explanation for the absence of Linda Blair’s Regan.
In the press, Burstyn has been shockingly blunt about why she did the movie, comparing it in an interview to a deal with the devil before deciding to use the money to finance a new acting scholarship at Pace University. Fortunately, her confession confirms some good came out of her doing this movie, but onscreen she appears just long enough to bring the story to a halt and force the audience to consider what is missing (besides Linda Blair) from the original film.
It’s a palpable sense of fear. Friedkin’s seminal Exorcist film, and the 1971 Blatty novel that its author adapted into the screenplay, are suffused with spiritual anxiety and genuine dread: the anxiety of losing your faith in God (as a priest, no less!); the anxiety of not being able to help your rapidly declining child; and the anxiety of living in a world where evil seems omnipresent, and not just in the form of demons. That comes later, and when it does with poor little Blair holding a blood smeared crucifix, it’s a visceral slap across the face.
The Exorcist: Believer is wholly lacking in that metaphysical dialogue. Whereas the original film almost seemed like a debate between the very Catholic Blatty and the Jewish-turned-agnostic Friedkin, Believer just plays the hits without the context. Little girls’ faces are pockmarked and scarred by unseen demonic hands, and their voices turn into the sinister husk of a middle-aged chainsmoker, but none of it is particularly frightening.
Even the climactic exorcism is strangely leaden. Never mind The Exorcist, this finale fails to capture even the tension of the better Conjuring flicks or this year’s actually unsettling new film about possession, Talk to Me. The Exorcist: Believer attempts to break new ground by depicting a more ecumenical salvation. Whereas Catholic priests were veritable superheroes in the ’73 film, they are just minor players in an arsenal of heroes which include Southern Baptists, Pentecostal preachers, and African root doctors. Reportedly, the spells they use in this showdown are based on the real rites of exorcism from a diverse selection of religions around the world. That’s undeniably a nice marketing line. In practice, however, the approach plays like a hokey horror movie version of the “Coexist” bumper sticker.
The Exorcist: Believer is an odd duck. It’s a film which flirts with nihilism and cynicism to such a degree it probably would’ve made Blatty wince, but it also has the maudlin instincts and innocuous feel-good messaging of a faith-based Hallmark Channel programmer. In the end, I’m not sure exactly what it wants to be, but I don’t believe it’s scary. In fact, I don’t believe it at all.
The Exorcist: Believer opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 6.