The Exorcist: Believer tries to capture the original's horror, but even Ellen Burstyn isn’t enough

Believer is ultimately more quaint and hopeful than blood-curdling and scream-inducing.

click to enlarge Instead of one possessed child, The Exorcist: Believer gives us two. - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Instead of one possessed child, The Exorcist: Believer gives us two.
The Exorcist: Believer
Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty. Opens Friday, Oct. 6.

Every time someone decides to drop a sequel to The Exorcist franchise, it’s always a direct sequel to recently departed director William Friedkin’s shocking original, the one that fucked up so many moviegoers’ days when it was released 50 years ago.

When William Peter Blatty, who wrote the book and the Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation, made the bold move to write and direct The Exorcist III (the first and last supernatural film to feature wordless cameos from Fabio and Patrick Ewing as angels) in 1990, he ignored everything that happened in John Boorman’s reviled 1977 follow-up The Exorcist II: The Heretic. In that film, Linda Blair returned as formerly possessed child Regan, who’s now a teenager with psychic powers. (This happened a year before Brian De Palma had Amy Irving playing the same damn character in The Fury.) A short-lived TV spinoff popped up on Fox a few years back and ignored the sequels altogether. Even the two versions of the Exorcist prequel (originally directed by Paul Schrader and heavily retooled by Renny Harlin) that crashed and burned in the aughts only wanted to be associated with the genuine article.

After saying they weren’t going to do another remake/reboot/re-whatever-the-fuck, Morgan Creek Entertainment (which has had sequel and remake rights to The Exorcist for decades) has now got The Exorcist: Believer rolling into theaters. And, of course, it’s a direct sequel to the original.

Not only did they bring in horror mogul Jason Blum to produce, but they also got professional horror-franchise revivers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride. The former indie-film director and his cringe comedy-loving pal churned out the recent Halloween trilogy, which also disregarded the oodles of sequels and reboots that came before and linked straight to John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher groundbreaker.

For this brand-new part two, Green and McBride (along with Peter Sattler and Halloween Kills co-writer Scott Teems) basically do a super-sized revamp. They give us not one, but two possessed lasses — Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia Marcum) — who head off to the woods to communicate with ghosts and somehow get their bodies taken over by dickhead demons. I assume Green and McBride saw the first season of The White Lotus and were inspired to do the literal equivalent of Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady’s bile-spewing mean girls.

We also have an increase in parents freaking the hell out. Hamilton alum Leslie Odom Jr. slaps a Wesley Pipes-ish scowl on his face to play Angela’s old man Victor, a skeptic of all things religious ever since his pregnant wife was fatally injured in an earthquake in Haiti and he had to get his Sophie’s Choice on to decide whether to save his wife or his unborn daughter.

Victor is the parent who springs into action once his very spiritual neighbors (including venerable character vet Ann Dowd as an ex-nun-turned-nurse) convince him that the devil is in these girls. He even gets backup from someone who wrote a book about her ordeal with a possessed child: Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil, in her first return to Exorcist-land since the 1973 original. After years of turning down sequels (she agreed to do the film only if the producers set up a scholarship program for young actors), Burstyn basically has a glorified cameo in this one. She’s mostly there to explain where the hell she’s been and what the hell needs to be done.

Interestingly enough, when Burstyn gets put on the sidelines for the rest of the movie (in a rather schlocky sequence that also has a few Easter eggs), that’s when Believer shifts from an Exorcist homage to just another souped-up Blumhouse production. In the first half, Green tries to recreate the mundane yet off-kilter rhythm that Friedkin brought to The Exorcist’s first hour, the rhythm that made audiences paranoid and creeped out even before the actual scary shit went down. Of course, there are also some jump-scares to keep you nice and antsy.

Unfortunately, all that gets dropped in the chaotic, CGI effects-enhanced second half. It’s also here where Believer shades organized religion, as Odom’s dedicated dad corrals his neighborhood crew (as well as a ritualistic healer and a Baptist pastor for good measure) for an evil spirit-purging kickback at his place, ready to cast out some dark souls in case a Catholic priest can’t be dispatched.

For a sequel that seeks to be just as worthy as one of the most unsettling films ever made, Believer is ultimately more quaint and hopeful than blood-curdling and scream-inducing. Green (who is scheduled to helm two more Exorcist sequels) is too much of a starry-eyed optimist, basically declaring good will always beat evil if we all come together, to get all dark-hearted and button-pushing as that inglorious bastard Friedkin, who went to his grave giving zero fucks.

The first Exorcist had people falling out in theater lobbies from all the crazy shit they witnessed. This Exorcist, like so many Exorcists before it, may make people fall out. But, in all likelihood, it’ll be because they got bored and dozed off.

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