No one expects at this point for a new sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist to be as good or as memorably chilling as the original.
One can only hope any revival isn’t as what-the-hell-happened horrendous as John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, and brings fresh insight and foreboding atmosphere to the continuing tale of demonic possession introduced in William Peter Blatty’s novel.
The Exorcist: Believer (★★☆☆☆), from Halloween/Kills/Ends trilogy director David Gordon Green, at least clears the Heretic bar. And, for a good stretch, the film is steeped in ominous suspense, driven by the impressive performances of Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill, as the film’s dual possession victims, 13-year-old schoolmates Angela and Katherine.
Then, the movie speeds into its final curve and spins out, devolving into a choppy, unconvincing mess. Green, working from a script by Peter Sattler and Halloween trilogy collaborator Danny McBride, has the good sense to start in the manner of the original, as if we’re not in a horror movie, patiently building a world of characters who would never expect to incur the wrath of evil spirits.
Angela’s mom and dad, Sorenne (Tracey Graves) and Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), do, however, encounter horrors wrought by Mother Nature, as they happen to be vacationing in Port-au-Prince when Haiti is hit by the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Sorenne doesn’t survive the disaster — realized in a harrowing, tightly edited sequence of panic and destruction — but her baby, already named Angela, lives.
Thirteen years later, Victor’s raising sweet daughter Angela in quiet, leafy Percy, Georgia, where their biggest worry seems to be bringing the trash cans in from the curb before their pesky neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) can complain. Depicting a small town that seems not too far off from Halloween’s Haddonfield, the film carefully paints a picture of innocence soon to be sullied.
One afternoon, Angela and best friend Katherine head off into the woods behind school to find a secret spot to hold a seance. Angela wants to contact her mother’s spirit. What happens next is what we might expect since this is an Exorcist movie.
The girls go missing, resulting in tense, frightened parent performances from Odom, Jr. and Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz, as Katherine’s devoutly Christian parents Miranda and Tony. A few days later, the girls turn up again, with no memory of what happened, although they soon show signs they may have brought something back with them.
From here, the film starts to rush into the horrors we’ve been anticipating, but produces few genuine scares. (Kudos to the prop snake and sound editors responsible for the movie’s best jump scare.)
Victor, skeptical about the existence of God, let alone the Devil, has to be convinced something supernatural might be behind the weird turn in his daughter’s disposition. That’s even as Jewett’s glowering gung-ho performance, and some inspired makeup and sound effects, might already have the audience convinced.
But, outside of an effectively creepy scene of Angela lurking near her dad as he brushes his teeth before bed, Victor doesn’t actually witness the worst signs of possession. He sees a few alarming incidents, while Miranda and Tony have their suspicions of something unholy going on with Katherine, and neighbor Ann, who happens to be a nurse in the hospital where the girls wind up, is present for a startling exchange with the demon that possesses Angela.
Rather than honing its focus on one gripping storyline, or, say, one little girl’s second-floor bedroom, the story is dispersed, with action all over town, as a makeshift God Squad converges to fight the final battle.
Protestants Miranda and Tony bring in their Pastor (Raphael Sbarge), while Catholic Ann tries to recruit Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla). She also points Victor towards an expert on demonic possession, Chris MacNeil, whom we’ll all remember as the frazzled mom in The Exorcist, played by Ellen Burstyn.
Burstyn’s return to the franchise after 50 years of not appearing in sequels is a draw unto itself, so gladly, she’s not wasted in a mere cameo. Rather, she’s wasted dispensing exposition, often in scenes apparently shot independently of her castmates. In one scene with Odom, she delivers a lifetime of gravitas as Chris catches us up on the years since her nightmare in Georgetown. Any update pertaining to her daughter Regan, of course, is worthy of interest.
But, basically, Chris is on hand as a gimmick for the box office, and to explain to Victor what he and the Superfriends of God need to do to save their girls, “in the name of all holy beings,” as Chris exclaims.
The movie’s only real thematic insight is that it’s going to take more than Catholics and the power of Christ to compel these demons. It’s gonna take a multi-denominational team. Victor and company even consult a doctor-turned-roots woman (Okwui Okpokwasili) who performs ancient Afro-Caribbean rites.
The parents, the pastor, the priest, the shaman, and Nurse Ann, who was almost a nun, all walk into a room with their parts to play in the uninvolving tag-team exorcism climax, full of demon-voiced callbacks to the original film. It’s loud, crowded, violent, and not a bit scary.
But at least it makes better sense than Exorcist II.
The Exorcist: Believer is rated R, and is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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