Producers: Jason Blum, David C. Robinson and James G. Robinson Director: David Gordon Green Screenplay: Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green Cast: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Tracey Graves, E.J. Bonilla, Okwui Okpokwasili, Raphael Sbarge, Danny McCarthy, Celeste Oliva and Ellen Burstyn Distributor: Universal
Hoping for lighting to strike twice, writer-director David Gordon Green, who resuscitated the “Halloween” franchise with his solid 2018 sequel-reboot (even its two terrible sequels did reasonably well at the boxoffice), turns his attention to another long-moribund horror series with “The Exorcist: Believer.” As with the previous trilogy, he and co-writer Peter Sattler largely ignore the slew of sequels and spin-offs that have appeared since William Friedkin’s classic 1973 original, but what they’ve devised as a reinvigoration (and the first of three proposed films) is a grotesque misfire, repulsive rather than frightening, that offers a double possession and an ecumenical exorcism that collapses into chaos by trying to cover all possible bases.
The film opens with a prologue set in Port au Prince, Haiti, in 2010. While photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is taking pictures, his pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) walks around the shops, where she accepts a blessing on her unborn child from a local priestess. Unfortunately she’s injured in the horrendous earthquake of January 12, and while Victor finds her, the doctors inform him that they can’t save both mother and child.
Thirteen years later, Victor and his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) are living in a small Georgia town. He’s very protective of her, so when she asks to spend the evening with her classmate Katherine (Olivia Marcum), he agrees only reluctantly. It turns out to be a mistake: the girls are lost after taking a walk in nearby woods, and remain missing for three days while Victor, Katherine’s parents Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), the authorities and a host of volunteers frantically search for them. When they’re finally found cowering in a barn, they can’t remember what’s happened to them and are much changed, not for the better. It seems that their attempt to appeal to the occult and contact the dead Sorenne somehow led them to hell, and they were possessed during the experience.
At least that’s the conclusion of Miranda, who together with Tony and their children attend the crowded fundamentalist church of Pastor Don Revans (Raphael Sbarge). She compares their three-day stay to the visit to Hell Christ supposedly made in the three days between his death and resurrection. (Of course, he wasn’t possessed.)
Thus far the film has maintained a fairly creepy, doom-laden air, with Brandon Tonner-Connolly’s atmospheric production design and the costumes of Lizz Wolf and Jenny Eagan set off by Michael Simmonds’ moodily desaturated cinematography and Tim Alverson’s nervous, jerky editing; the score by David Wingo and Amman Abbasi adds to the feeling of dread.
But with the return of the girls, the plot kicks in, and things go rapidly downhill. A few jump scares while they’re still in the hospital arouse the concerns of Ann (Ann Dowd), a nurse and neighbor of the Fieldings, whose eventually-revealed backstory as a Catholic who once thought of becoming a nun plays a key role in what follows. She’s instrumental in persuading Victor, an atheist, to look up someone who can provide advice about demonic possession—Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who suffered through her daughter Regan’s case in Friedkin’s film and then published several books on the subject, estranging her from Regan in the process. She agrees to help.
But meanwhile the girls get worse in both appearance (courtesy of makeup designer Christopher Nelson) and behavior: Angela’s violent outbursts land her back in the hospital, and Catherine horrifies her family’s congregation with an exhibition in church obviously intended to remind one of Regan’s appearance before her mother’s guests in the 1973 film, but while it’s on a much larger scale, it has much less impact. Chris confronts Katherine, but it turns out to be a very ill-conceived decision—not just for the character and actress, but for the screenwriters as well; the sequence is slovenly in both conception and execution. To make matters more cluttered, Ann approaches her pastor Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) to arrange an exorcism, and another of Fielding’s neighbors, Stuart (Danny McCarthy), takes it upon himself to invite some practitioners of native African spiritualism, led by one Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili) to purify the Fielding house.
The continuing deterioration of the girls’ condition leads to that double exorcism, in which they’re bound in chairs back to back at the Fielding home. About the only surprise in the long sequence, filled as it is with by-now clichéd effects like the girls’ strangulated voices and the expelling of black smoke and piles of rancid black fluid from their mouths, is that the place has a room large enough to accommodate all the players. Since the Catholic diocese has refused to get involved, once-Sister Ann takes the lead in reading the Roman ritual (a plea, no doubt, for gender diversity in the priesthood). But she’s accompanied by Victor, Miranda, Tony, Pastor Don, Stuart, Beehibe, and heaven knows who else. The message seems to be that it takes a village to do an exorcism, but the exhibition of religious unity-in-diversity only becomes a crowded chaos.
There is a moment in the course of the melee that’s rather amusing, when Father Maddox suddenly appears at the crucial moment, in defiance of his superiors’ orders, like the cavalry in an old western. Unhappily his intervention turns out to have a Custer-like result. (Of course, the priests in the original weren’t really all that successful with their traditional rituals, either.) A surprise twist referring back to the prologue in Haiti is intended to add a note of gravity to the decisions the parents of the girls are required to make; but it’s more tasteless than profound.
Adding to the dreariness of the whole affair are the instances when the script resorts to pompous speechifying about the war between good and evil. Burstyn and Dowd get the worst of it, both saddled with long monologues, the one fairly early on and the other toward the close, and even elsewhere the performances of the two fine actresses suffer from the moralizing. And while both Jewett and Marcum sell things as best they can, neither individually nor together do they register the impact the younger, more vulnerable Linda Blair made in the original. Odom brings intensity to Victor, but his conversion from skeptic to believer, which presumably is intended as the center of the story, carries little dramatic weight, nor does a closing cameo that feels more like simple fan service than anything else.
William Friedkin died recently, and so we must do without his reaction to how Green has chosen to treat an important part of his cinematic legacy. One imagines it would have been acerbic, and justifiably so. “Believer” is less homage than bastardization.