Stream It Or Skip It?

The Exorcist: Believer (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) is the sixth film in the Exorcist franchise, and hopefully the first watchable one since the 1973 original scared the devil right into and out of us. (Note: Some of us will vouch for a couple of those sequels, because counterintuitive reevaluations of lousy movies are big these days; in this case, y’all shouldn’t work so hard to make junk look less like junk.) As he did with the recent Halloween films, director David Gordon Green takes the helm for a new trilogy functioning as direct sequels to the original, with Believer going so far as to bring Ellen Burstyn back to reprise her role. It did OK at the box office (it turned a profit with $108 million worldwide) even though critical and audience responses weren’t so kind. Maybe the next one, The Exorcist: Deceiver, due in 2025, will succeed in tapping into the original’s subcutaneous dread; as for the third, it doesn’t have a title yet, but may I suggest The Exorcist: Golden Retriever? The Exorcist: Execrable Beaver? How about The Exorcist: Disco Fever (tell me you wouldn’t be intrigued by THAT)? As long as it isn’t The Exorcist: Underachiever, which is pretty much my assessment of this one.

The Gist: Great Pazuzu’s ghost, we’re in PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI. Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) immerse themselves in the culture, and it’s a perfect utopia – but then the earthquake hits! She’s trapped in the rubble and by the time she’s pulled out and sees a doctor, Victor has an ungodly choice to make: Save his wife or save the baby. Saving both isn’t possible. A dozen or so years later, we’re in PERCY, GEORGIA, where Victor lives with the result of his decision, specifically, his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett). They go about the daily bustle of getting some breakfast down and getting out the door and getting to the drop-off line at school. “Be home by dinner” is his response to her request to hang with a friend after school, and then she comes home and they have some chicken and watch a little TV and go to bed without Samael or Vassago or one of their compatriots taking over either of their bodies. The end!

No! In truth, Angela and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) trod through a forbidden wood where they performed an incantation, hoping to summon the spirit of Angela’s mother. And in the true spirit of f—ing around and finding out, they disappear for three days and are found 30 miles away, totally shoeless and possessed by demons, although the latter is an icky truth yet to fully make itself known. As you’d expect, Victor and Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), were freaking out and are now unsettled by their daughters’ inability to account for three days’ lost time. Are they OK? No ma’am, they are not. If they were, this movie would not be coming out in October.

Everyone tries to get on with things as normal, but whatever’s inside the girls ain’t having it. Angela rips out her toenails and attacks her dad and screams and curses and has a serious conniption – serious enough for her to be hospitalized. Meanwhile, Tony and Miranda schlep Katherine to church like they always do, and there she sits in the pew, looking pallid and sweaty and Satanic as hell, like she wants to rip Christ down from the cross and fricassee him. Victor’s neighbor, Ann (Ann Dowd), who’s a nurse and a former almost-nun, says she thinks she knows what’s going on, and hands him a book by Chris MacNeil herself (Burstyn), who wrote the terrifying story of how her daughter did unnatural handsprings down the steps and projectile-puked all over the house (one assumes the appendix includes tips and tricks for removing stains from carpets). Hey, remember all that? How could we forget! Victor tracks down Chris, who agrees to help, although he isn’t sure about any of this, since he’s a god-is-dead-and-no-one-cares-if-there-is-a-hell-I’ll-see-you-there skeptic, but if becoming the thing in the title of the movie is what he has to do to save his daughter, so be it.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER
Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Just off the top of my head: Evil Dead Rise, Prey for the Devil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil on Trial, The Pope’s Exorcist and all kinds of stuff that should be influenced by this franchise, instead of sidling up next to it (or even surpassing it).

Performance Worth Watching: Few among the cast seem certain whether they should take any of this seriously or not, but Odom at least digs deep and finds some relatable parental concern among the 70/30 gruesome/cheeky tonal mishmash. 

Memorable Dialogue: This exchange…

Ann: You don’t believe in god?

Victor: I don’t believe in the question.

…is followed by: 

“YOU. DON’T. BELIEEEEEEEEEVVVVVVEEEE!” – Azazel (or whatever demon is sprawled on the couch inside poor Angela’s soul, I didn’t catch his name)

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: No spoilers, but Burstyn’s treatment by this screenplay is as shabby as it is hilarious – an all-timer like her undoubtedly deserves better, but hey, at least her fate elicited guffaws in the face of the rest of the film, which inspires shrugs and a feeling of déjà vu. Even though Pazuzu gets two this time around, and Jewett and O’Neill firmly embrace their roles as seizure-ridden pea-soup spewers with an affinity for the naughtiest of naughty words, the result is too much like the myriad ripoffs of William Friedkin’s classic. The Exorcist is now 50 years old, and luring Burstyn back (who reportedly would only commit with the promise of a sizable payday) isn’t enough to render this retread fresh.

And that’s a shame, because you can sense the effort behind it. Green, despite his current status as a mediumweight resurrector of burnt-out horror franchises, is still a hell of a director, and here establishes atmosphere and suspense with significant skill and style. But the tension that fuels awkward exchanges among characters of differing faiths in the first act doesn’t carry over to the inevitable third-act double-barrel exorcism sequence, which brings together a hoodoo healer and representatives of three different Christian denominations to bellow their versions of out-damn-spot-out prayers in the faces of stringy-haired, mucus-hocking, yellow-eyed, sweaty-nightie-wearing girls. Always with the stringy hair and the nighties and the gurgle-gurgle from their bowels and throats, these exorcisms. Is there any other way to depict demonic possession? Maybe something quieter? A little psychological torture instead of the usual freaky levitating and hissing expulsions of the c-word? Something a little more fresh and original? OK. Just don’t bother to call me for the next Exorcist until you do. 

Our Call: Sorry. I don’t belieeeeeevvvvveeee. SKIP IT.  

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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