The Exorcist: Believer is a Ploddingly Boring Piece of Hackery

Somehow David Gordon Green has become the go-to director who will take an existing horror franchise and create a direct sequel (or trinity of sequels) from a classic film. He did so with John Carpenter’s Halloween and now has done so with William Friedkin’s 1973 masterwork The Exorcist. Green’s method is to ignore all other iterations of the films and their sequels (although sometimes add easter eggs) and jump straight in marking his sequel as the contemporary version of the tale. For something like Halloween which has had so many sequels and reboots he’s not really treading on sacred ground. Carpenter himself jokes every time a Halloween film arrives he just puts out his hand to collect a cheque. With The Exorcist there is something a touch more precious. That is not to say that there weren’t several sequels and prequels, just that the original film starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller is deeply revered. Although William Peter Blatty, the author of the original book did not like Friedkin’s vision and indeed directed his own entry The Exorcist III, the 1973 film is a cultural touchstone that inspired horror films for fifty years and is still deemed “the scariest movie ever made”.

It is fifty years since The Exorcist and David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer does one thing no other Exorcist entry has been able to accomplish – heralded the return of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Indeed, fifty years have passed in the timeline of The Exorcist: Believer. The central characters are now Victor Fleming (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett) who he has raised as a single parent since the death of his heavily pregnant wife in the Haitian earthquake in Port-au-Prince in 2010. The film begins there with Victor taking photographs and Sorenne (Tracey Graves) receiving vodou blessings for her upcoming birth. Tragedy strikes and Victor is asked to choose who to save; Sorenne or his yet unborn daughter, Angela.

Some thirteen years later Angela and Victor are living in Georgia. Green takes his time developing the close relationship between father and daughter. They are playful, joyful, and bonded. There is only one small thing that divides them; Angela’s curiosity about her deceased mother who she only knows through Victor’s photographs and a small box of mementos including a scarf and shell bracelet. Angela’s curiosity will lead her to the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) where they conduct a ritual to help Angela speak to her mother. A ritual that unleashes a new and deadly demon who preys on young girls and pregnant women. The girls go missing for three days leading Katherine’s desperate parents Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) along with Victor on a frantic search for the young girls. Three days later they turn up with no memory of what has occurred, just oddly burned feet and a growing sense that something is not quite right with them.

The search galvanised the community including the pastor of Miranda and Tony’s Baptist church, Don Revans (Raphael Sbarge), Victor’s neighbour, Stuart (Danny McCarthy) who brings into Victor’s house Doctor Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili) a former oncologist who practices Gullah root magic, and local police officer Detective Konick (Celeste Olivia). Once found and examined at the hospital, Victor’s seemingly nosy neighbour, Ann (Ann Dowd) who is a nurse notices something unholy is happening and tries to alert the non-believer, Victor to possible demonic possession.

Ann confides to Victor that she was once a novitiate who became pregnant and had a termination which ended her association with the church. She hands him a book ‘A Mother’s Explanation’ by Chris MacNeil, now an expert in all forms of demonic dealings and Victor, without recourse to turn elsewhere, tracks the former actress down who tells him that the publication of her book has led to an estrangement from her daughter Regan who was once possessed by the demon Pazuzu. Chris, frail but determined, follows Victor to the hospital where Angela is in the grip of a new demon. Katherine, being cared for at home is fast devolving into a vessel for the same demon, shocking her religious community with her unholy behaviour and terrorising her parents and siblings in their house.

Seeking sanctioned exorcism from the Catholic church through a young priest, Father Maddox (E. J. Bonilla), Ann and Maddox are rebuffed as the Catholic Church is no longer willing to take on the legal risks associated with exorcism. Seemingly alone, Victor and Ann gather a group to take on the rite – including Pentecostal priest Father Phillips (Antoni Corone), Dr Beehibe, Stuart, Pastor Revans, and Katherine’s parents. According to the film’s logic a “community” can defeat the entity.

Of course, this is just all tosh. The Exorcist: Believer is a watered down and ploddingly boring film that relies on dragging Ellen Burstyn back in as the pull card and connective tissue to Friedkin’s masterpiece. While The Exorcist: Believer focuses on Victor’s loss of faith because of the death of Sorenne, and challenges Miranda and especially Tony’s religious convictions, the film misses what was essential in the 1973 version. As much as it was Chris and Regan’s story, the true story was about the exorcist himself, Damien Karras, and how his waning faith became the nexus for his redemption through self-sacrifice. In The Exorcist: Believer there is no actual exorcist, nor a completed exorcism (no doubt something that will feed into the sequels). David Gordon Green dangles keys in front of the audience with lines from the original – worry not, we do hear about Regan being a “cunting daughter” and “The power of Christ compels you” gets trotted out. Yet everything is watered down to be somewhat acceptable to a contemporary audience.

Ellen Burstyn’s work here is more like a sustained cameo with some gory bits. Leslie Odom Jr. is thankfully a good enough actor to be convincing as a father grappling with the unknowable and Lidya Jewett is a solid young talent. Ann Dowd who is always accomplished has one of the more complex roles dealing with her relationship to God which she believed she soured years ago. However, just handing her a bible and wishing her good luck to take the place of an actual exorcist is ludicrous plotting.

If David Gordon Green, producer Jason Blum, and the screenwriters Peter Sattler, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride want to “requel” The Exorcist they need to have something more in their collective pockets than a touch of creepy atmosphere, some standard “demon being tricky and menacing” stuff all wrapped in a profoundly non-transgressive and inert piece of hooey.

The Exorcist: Believer is essentially a piece of hackery designed to cash in on what David Gordon Green and Jason Blum themselves called “IP”. The people behind this know they are guaranteed an audience of horror faithfuls who are curious about a new version of a beloved film. For those who care about The Exorcist in any of its incarnations The Exorcist: Believer will perhaps hold some interest because of call backs to the original film, but that’s all they are. For newcomers it might be a scary time. What it will never be is a worthy successor to Friedkin’s work. Perhaps it is time people stopped trying to dip into people’s pockets based solely on their affection for a brilliant piece of cinema that changed the face of possession films as we know them.

Director: David Gordon Green

Cast: Leslie Odom Jr., Ellen Burstyn, Ann Dowd

Writers: Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green, (screen story by Scott Teems, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, based on characters by William Peter Blatty)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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