‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review — Follow-up to Trailblazing Horror Film Falls Short

The film “tries to do is bring a very Catholic story into a non-denominational world,” writes reviewer William Bibbiani

The Exorcist Believer
Universal

You might think it would be difficult, after fifty years, to introduce something new to a motion picture series as long and as storied as “The Exorcist.” Ever since William Friedkin’s trailblazing original horror drama — as frightening as it was insightful about the fragile relevance of religion in an increasingly secular world — filmmakers as varied as John Boorman, William Peter Blatty, Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader have been stretching the concept of demonic possession as far as it they could take it. Their films have been, not always at the same time, fiercely intelligent, deeply strange, hypnotically inept, genuinely terrifying, profoundly embarrassing, and/or uncomfortably insightful.

David Gordon Green’s “The Exorcist: Believer” has now entered the conversation, and to its credit — sort of — it does have one thing we’ve never seen in these movies before: mediocrity, and lots of it. The new film is competently dramatized and occasionally quite startling, but it runs away screaming at the slightest hint of depth, and the only faith it seems interested in is Blumhouse’s unwavering belief in the value of exploiting franchise IP.

Leslie Odom Jr. (“Glass Onion”) stars as Victor Fielding, a single father whose daughter was born under tragic, weirdly epic circumstances. But he’s a loving dad, and his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett, “Nightbooks”) is a bright, funny and sensitive young girl. The worst thing she’s guilty of is pulling the old telephone gag; you know, the one where everyone tells their parents they’re sleeping at each other’s houses, so they can all sneak off and commune with Satan. Typical kid stuff.

To be fair, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) only accidentally commune with Satan, after a bungled attempt to talk to Angela’s mom in the afterlife. They go missing in the woods for three days, during which Victor balances his time being terribly worried about his daughter, and terribly annoyed that everyone wants to make his tragedy about their religion. Prayers and blessings are offered, and always rejected.

It’s been argued that the scariest part of Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” isn’t the supernatural part, it’s the part where Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) doesn’t know what’s wrong with her daughter/ She waits in agonizing dread as doctors subject her child to one painful treatment after another, and we feel that anxiety along with her. Along similar lines, “The Exorcist: Believer” is scariest when it is, all too briefly, a story about parents who don’t know where their kids are. A nightmare that anyone can appreciate, quickly derailed by the film’s impatience to get back to familiar supernatural hijinks.

When Angela and Katherine finally return three days later, their feet scratched but otherwise apparently unharmed, Victor feels a great swell of relief. But quickly… very quickly… so quickly it undermines the tension and horror… Angela and Katherine start acting like they’re demonically possessed, so Victor’s neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd, “Mass”) hands him a book about demonic possessions. A book which just happens to have been written by Chris MacNeil.

It is at about this point that the familiar strains of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” fade into the soundtrack, as if to tell the audience don’t worry, you don’t have to deal with anything new anymore. “The Exorcist: Believer” returns Chris MacNeil to the franchise after a 50 year absence, and it turns out that she wrote a book and did some speaking tours, and now knows quite a bit about possessions, so she’s ready to take a more active role in fighting the forces of darkness.

David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” trilogy reveled in returning Jamie Lee Curtis front-and-center to the franchise, but he doesn’t quite do the same thing with Ellen Burstyn. Whether that’s an interesting narrative choice, a half-assed attempt to capitalize on the enduring legacy of the original “Exorcist,” or merely a disappointment may be up for some debate, but the “half-assed” argument is by far the most convincing.

At its most ambitious, what “The Exorcist: Believer” tries to do is bring a very Catholic story into a non-denominational world. MacNeil argues that the concept of exorcising evil spirits is so universal throughout the world’s religions that it’s practically secular, and by the end of the film all the people in Victor’s life — regardless of their faith or background — unite, instead of letting Catholic priests do all the work.

It’s a powerful idea presented without any power whatsoever. A scene of various faiths coming together for the greater good takes the form of everyone incoherently shouting over each other, as if the goal was to befuddle Satan, not expel him. And despite the title, Victor’s journey from skepticism to belief is entirely reliant on the needs of the plot, and never truly convincing. 

One late development suggests that, just when the movie was getting laughable, David Gordon Green and co-writer Peter Sattler (working from a story by Green, Danny McBride and Scott Teems) have a disturbing conclusion in store for us. This too is quickly scuttled, in way that further detracts from Victor’s story and leaves this whole sequel feeling oddly pointless.

Pointless, that is, except to give audiences a reminder that “The Exorcist” is a thing they like, in exchange for their money. The appearance of a good “Exorcist” movie, under the demonic influence of a superficial cash-in. 

“The Exorcist: Believer” may scare in fits and starts — thanks to effective editing by Timothy Alverson (“Halloween Ends”) and excellent performances by Jewett and Marcum, in particular — but it’s not ambitious enough to be interesting, nor is it powerful enough to get under the skin. It evades serious discussions of faith and uses the underlying depth of the series as a basis for little more than fan service and generic plot.

There is a scene in “The Exorcist” where the soul of Regan MacNeil writes “Help me” in her own flesh, begging someone to save her from an exploitative entity. I suspect if you look closely enough at Green’s film you can see the soul of “The Exorcist” crying out the same way.

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