Written by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin The Exorcist instantly became a smash hit when released in 1973. In the years since there have been numerous sequels and innumerable imitators of what many consider the scariest film ever made.
Now with The Exorcist: Believer, director David Gordon Green and Blumhouse Productions are hoping that they can pull off what they achieved with Halloween (2018). In creating a direct sequel which wipes the slate clean and thrills audiences once more.
To understand the success of The Exorcist you only have to look at any film based around demonic possession made since. Half a century later and filmmakers are still inspired by, or downright copy, Friedkin and Blatty‘s vision. The film is engaging, shocking and downright scary to this very day. Living up to that legacy is a herculean task and unfortunately, it is one that this reboot struggles in.
I wasn’t as impressed by Halloween (2018) as others were, although I did find it to be a perfectly enjoyable slasher flick. The problem here is that the original Exorcist film is a far tougher act to follow than the original Halloween (1978). The subtle creepiness and growing dread accompanied by subliminal imagery is lacking here. Replaced with much more standard jump scares and loud noises.
American photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is vacationing in Haiti with his heavily pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves). As Victor is catching the sights his wife returns to their hotel to rest. Disaster then strikes as Haiti is hit by a devastating earthquake leaving many, including Sorenne gravely injured. In the aftermath Victor is faced with the impossible task of choosing between saving Sorenne or their unborn child.
13 years later back home in Georgia, USA, Victor resides with his happy and healthy daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett). With friendly neighbours in a picturesque suburb, he is living the American dream, albeit without his wife. Angela wishes to know more about her mother and kids will be kids. She and classmate Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) set off into the woods to perform a harmless séance to talk to the other side. The two then seemingly disappear without a trace.
Despite searches, flyers, and news stories, the two girls remain missing. This is until they show up 3 days later miles from town. With no idea of where the ‘hell’ they have been, their parents are just happy to have them back. Life goes on as normal until both girls begin to act peculiar. As his daughter’s behaviour becomes more and more volatile, Victor is at a loss for a solution. In desperation, he seeks out someone who saw this exact horror 50 years ago, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Bernstyn).
The Exorcist: Believer is a very standard exorcism movie. Victor‘s motivation of being someone who lost his faith due to personal tragedy, the children being possessed and behaving in increasingly vulgar ways, the film’s large ensemble cast of characters, none of which are given much focus beyond Victor and Angela, and all of it feels very derivative when it could have been more.
At times The Exorcist: Believer hints at new ideas or even threatens to subvert our expectations of the exorcism genre and there is an early attempt by the filmmakers to not simply recreate the original film’s formula. I found this movie’s focus on differing religious views to performing exorcisms highly interesting, such as the Haitian rituals or African American versions of Christianity modified through syncretism.
We’ve seen the same Catholic Church approach so many times that shaking that up could have really helped the film’s climactic exorcism scenes stand out. Sadly, the film falls into the same tired tropes and clichés its predecessor created and have been repeated ever since including flashing lights, spinning heads, vomiting, and swearing, this time accompanied by CGI which pales in comparison to the practical effects of the early 70s.
The highlights however are the performances of The Exorcist: Believer’s two young starlets, Jewett and O’Neill, both genuinely creepy as the film’s demonically possessed BFF’s. Although the weak script doesn’t help much as O’Neill is given very little to establish a character before we see a shift to pure evil. It is impressive though that the actress making her screen debut and despite the disappointments of the film, she remains a standout. Unfortunately, Oscar winner Burnstyn feels completely wasted reprising her role from the first film.
The Exorcist: Believer has all the thrills and scares you would expect from a modern horror thriller flick. Its contents are enough to keep audiences entertained for its 2-hour run but it was always going to be a tall order creating a satisfying direct sequel to horror classic, The Exorcist. In not setting itself apart from the crowd, sadly The Exorcist: Believer falls short of its high potential.