Can it replicate the success (hit and miss as it was) of Green’s ‘Halloween’ trilogy? On the evidence of this, not really.
What’s the story of ‘The Exorcist: Believer’?
But when Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum), disappear in the woods, only to return three days later with no memory of what happened to them, it unleashes a chain of events that will force Victor to confront the nadir of evil and, in his terror and desperation, seek out the only person alive who has witnessed anything like it before: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
Who else is in ‘The Exorcist: Believer’?
What works about ‘The Exorcist: Believer?
Clearly deciding that because his first ‘Halloween’ movie was a hit with audiences and critics (and ignoring the response to the other two), David Gordon Green returns to the horror beat by planning a sequel-skipping follow-up to another legendary horror title.
Unlike John Carpenter’s franchise, which had at its core Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, something that Green hitched his own wagon to, this time he’s only really using Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil (the mother of Linda Blair’s possessed Regan in the 1970s original) as window dressing.
Instead, the focus here is on two new families –– Odom Jr’s Victor and the parents of Katherine. And opening up the concept for a linked possession does offer a few decent ideas.
What also works –– at least until it really doesn’t –– is exploring other cultures’ ideas of exorcism, widening the world of ritual and belief beyond the Catholic church.
Odom Jr. adds another decent role to his cinematic resume, even if he is saddled with a very seen-it-before single dad role, all comedy bonding and then concern.
Green has also stacked his cast with some great performers in both the lead and supporting roles, the two youngsters who end up vessels for demonic creatures working with the special effects team to convince you that they’re suffering at the hands of some terrible entity.
The likes of Ann Dowd (in particular) and Raphael Sbarge do good work with their parts even when the writing lets them down. They’re given moments to shine and some shading in between the scares, and they really put the work in to sell these side characters. Ditto Norbert Leo Butz as Katherine’s concerned dad.
Finally, Green has the courage of his convictions with regards to the outcome, but we’ll say no more about that.
What are the problems with ‘The Exorcist: Believer’?
Possibly the biggest issue with the new movie is that, unlike William Friedkin’s, it exists in a world where we’ve had enough possession stories to fill at least one level of Hell. Even just earlier this year, we had Russell Crowe puttering around on a Vespa before doing battle with the forces of evil in ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’.
The existence of those other films is not a fault of this latest stab at ‘The Exorcist’ but the choice to make it –– and to attempt to follow what is still regarded as the best –– can entirely be laid at the feet of Green and his team.
So, this needed to be truly great to stand out. Unfortunately, it’s mostly middling. Despite the performances from most of the cast, it’s clear that Green and co. were mostly on a nostalgia trip, bringing back Burstyn for little more than a glorified cameo, reduced primarily to offering exposition.
This is also very much in the Blumhouse mold, the difference between this movie and Friedkin’s stark. Where the original is cold and calculated, this is all eager jump scares and frenetic pacing, images thrown at the screen in an attempt to keep us unnerved.
Yet the effect by the end is more enervating than unnerving, the bag of tricks becoming clear. Yes, it might seem unfair to compare this with one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but when you opt to shoot “a new chapter”, you already invited that.
What ‘The Exorcist’ does with a few lashings of pea-soup, a quick neck twist and some levitation, the new movie cannot challenge, even with a healthy respect for physical effects augmented by judicious use of digital trickery.
Likewise, the demonic figure at the center of the story is in no way as compelling as in the original, possibly because our attention is split between the two victims. And an obvious attempt to channel the personal connection of the first film (more than once) comes across as crass more than emotional.
And beyond the script letting the ensemble down in key moments, it starts to unravel as a whole, cliches creeping in to possess the movie long before the credits roll.
Is this likely to make your head spin with excitement? Unless you know almost nothing about the original, probably not. While Friedkin’s rightly lauded original might be considered slow by today’s audiences raised on a diet of endless jump moments and quicker editing, Green’s version will try the patience in other ways.
Proof, surely (even with Green’s confirmed plans that this should kick off another trilogy) that the co-writer/director might be better off going back to fully original work.
One to see only if the power of curiosity compels you.
‘The Exorcist: Believer’ receives 6 out of 10 stars.
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