No two boogeymen are alike. And yet, director David Gordon Green seemingly assumed he could simply copy and paste his 2018 Halloween sequel onto a new horror franchise and achieve exactly the same results. The Exorcist: Believer is front-loaded with the same generational trauma, as a father’s guilt is inherited by his daughter, unluckily manifesting not through anxiety or depression, but full-blown demonic possession.
The “it’s actually about trauma” approach worked for exactly one Halloween movie, all because it latched onto the idea that Michael Myers is scary because he’s unknowable – is he mortal? Or pure ghoul? Is there a point at which evil robs a person of their humanity? A natural space had been left open for Green’s story of survivor’s guilt and the hollowing effects of a lifetime of PTSD.
But Satan himself (or the demon Pazuzu, to get technical) doesn’t carry quite that same mystique. We know his deal – he’s evil incarnate. Any film trying to slyly intimate that the devil might actually be a metaphor is standing in the middle of an inferno and saying, “Guys, I think I smell smoke.” In purely cinematic terms, it’s made The Exorcist: Believer a bit of a bore – unnecessarily self-serious and parched from a lack of scares.
Victor (Leslie Odom Jr) and his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), are holidaying in Haiti when an earthquake strikes. She dies, but the child is saved, and we flash forward to meet that daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), just as she’s about to skip into the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) and accidentally summon Pazuzu. Clearly, he’s feeling a little greedier than usual, since both girls start wandering about the place with the chapped lips, dry throat, and cracked skin of someone who’s just taken a three-hour nap on a tanning bed.
The film lives deep in the shadows of the late William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, and there’s a vague desire within Believer to establish itself as both its literal and spiritual successor (conveniently ignoring, as the director did with Halloween, all four sequels and the television series). Green emulates several of Friedkin’s stylistic choices – the early, unhurried pace that collides into mania; demonic eyes lit by a single, horizontal strip of light; and, of course, the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”. Ellen Burstyn returns (briefly) as Chris MacNeil, mother of previous possessee Regan (Linda Blair), who’s since written a tell-all book about what it’s like to be an “expert on exorcists but not an exorcist”.
It’s a show of fealty so respectfully demure that all it can really achieve is a toned-down, more limply palatable iteration of Friedkin’s work: the projectiled pea soup is gone, the verbal abuse has been whittled down to a single “c***ing”, and any and all acts committed with crucifixes barely register a shock. Instead, Green and Peter Sattler’s script offers a strained focus on the collective power of organised religion, with Angela and Katherine being dealt with by an entire Avengers super-squad of multi-denominational practitioners. The Handmaid’s Tale’s Anne Dowd makes several impassioned speeches in a way only Anne Dowd can do. But nowhere in The Exorcist: Believer can you find the true horror of Friedkin’s original film: abject, absolute evil and the powerlessness we feel in the wake of its corruption.
Dir: David Gordon Green. Starring: Leslie Odom Jr, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ellen Burstyn. 15, 111 minutes.
‘The Exorcist: Believer’ is in cinemas from 6 October
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