Thursday, October 05, 2023

The Exorcist: Believer

Everyone should know by now Satan never sleeps. That means you can always have one more demonic horror sequel. In this case, we are talking about a franchise built by one of the greatest horror films of all-time and a criminally under-appreciated third installment. The rest are not so fondly remembered (especially #2), so Halloween 2018 rebooter David Gordon Green largely disregards them in the Blumhouse-produced The Exorcist: Believer, which opens tomorrow nationwide.

Thirteen years ago, Victor Fielding and his mega-pregnant wife Sorenne were vacationing in Haiti when the 2010 Sean Penn earthquake hit. She was killed, but doctors managed to save their unborn daughter, Angela. Of course, Fielding still has lingering pain and trauma you-know-who is sure to exploit when he gets a chance.

As a young teen, Angela is increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of the mother she never knew. So much so, she and her friend Katherine try to raise her spirit through a ritual in the forest, which is an exceptionally bad idea. Three days later, Fielding and Katherine’s Evangelical parents finally find them, but they are different. At first, everyone assumes they are just in shock, but their behavior grows nasty, violent, and just plain evil.

Fielding is not a believer, but his neighbor, a former nun, certainly is. When she gives him Chris MacNeill’s book about her daughter Reagan’s demonic possession, Fielding is so struck by the similarities, he seeks out her advice.

You have to wonder what William Peter Blatty (who wrote the original
Exorcist novel and screenplay) would think of the way Believer depicts the Catholic Church. Rather insultingly for fans, Blatty’s name never appears in the opening credits, but this film would not exist without him. However, he might begrudgingly admit there is some veracity to its feckless depiction of the Catholic Church, in the Francis era. How can a Church that makes deals with the CCP find the faith to fight demons from Hell? At least, Ann the former nun will try, along with several other clergy, including Katherine’s Evangelical pastor. Ironically, he is portrayed in largely sympathetic terms, as Victor’s neighbor, Stuart, a Pentecostal lay leader, is as well.

Green and co-screenwriters Peter Sattler, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride make a point to emphasize faith, rather than
the faith, but evil is still rotten and corrupting to the core. Frankly the “village” trying to conduct the exorcism needs a Father Karras and a Father Merrin—and they would be the first ones to admit it.

The heralding return of Ellen Burstyn as MacNeil is real a coup for Green. Even though she only has fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time, her presence has authority and the apostolic connection to the 1973 film lends
Believer massive additional credibility. Despite the limited time, Burstyn is quite poignant and her post-Pazuzu life is well-written and believable.

However, Ann Dowd is definitely the heart and soul of the film portraying the novitiate-turned nurse. The way she expresses the film’s themes of faith and grace might have redeemed it for the late, great Blatty. Raphael Sbarge and Danny McCarthy are also surprisingly compelling as the Pastor and Holy rolling Stuart. Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill both live up to Linda Blair’s standard as the possessed girl. Although Leslie Odom’s Fielding has some nice scenes opposite Burstyn and during the Haitian prologue, his bickering with Katherine parents and his tiger-daddying of Angela always feel forced and cliched.

For a lot of fans,
Believer will be better than expected, because we always fear the worst whenever someone who isn’t Blatty starts tinkering with the Exorcist franchise. Green definitely executes some creepy scenes. The fact he also finds some grace (admittedly not a lot, but some) is a considerable bonus. Arguably, it is the Exorcist for our current times, but maybe not in the way it thinks. Recommended for regular horror audiences, because it works more often than not, The Exorcist: Believer opens tomorrow (10/6) in New York, including at the LOOK Dine-In W57.