There may be no holier ground in horror than “The Exorcist.” As endlessly as William Friedkin’s 1973 film has been ripped off and resurrected, its power remains unalloyed, its place in movie history consecrated.
Why is it that, after we’ve seen seen so many heads twist around, “The Exorcist” can still turn heads? Much, surely, is owed to its patient, restrained approach, icy atmospheres and and evocative, uncluttered imagery — all conjured in the dawning dread of post-1960s America.
But the possession of young Regan MacNeil still haunts, I think, for its absolute belief in good and evil. It’s a supernatural movie that treats the supernatural as straightforwardly natural. The devil is as real and present as all those concrete steps.
There were flop sequels that followed and plenty of spinoffs that failed to grip. But now, just two months after the death of Friedkin and a few months shy of the original’s 50th anniversary, comes a sequel from director David Gordon Green.
Hollywood’s propensity for reaching back to old classics may be, by now, enough to inspire the kind of projectile vomiting Friedkin made famous. “The Exorcist: Believer” was produced by Blumhouse with the intent of launching a new series of films, but it feels guided largely by affection and respect for Friedkin’s original rather than more cynical motivations.
The film’s main additions are that, this time, there are two possessed girls (double the fun?) and the Catholic Church is no longer the sole or even the primary demon battler. This is a multidenominational “Exorcist,” yet also a less profoundly spiritual one.
Green, one of today’s most protean filmmakers, has been at this before. He rebooted the “Halloween” films in a trilogy that started off promisingly with an update to the slasher suburban nightmare before devolving in subsequent films.
It’s easier to recycle “Halloween” than it is “The Exorcist.” Yet the first thing you notice about “Believer” is its sure-handedness. Green, working from a script he wrote with Peter Sattler from a story by Green, Danny McBride and Scott Teems, moves nimbly in setting the atmosphere, refraining from the kinds of flashy camera movement or schlocky scares often found in horror films. There’s craftsmanship in how “Believer” is stitched together — at least at first.
Thirteen years after the death of his pregnant wife in an earthquake in Haiti, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) lives with his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett). They are close and Victor is a little overprotective. When Angela and a friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) walk through the woods after school and start performing a seance by candlelight, it’s not hard to guess where this might be going.
But “The Exorcist: Believer” initially gets its hooks into you thanks to the agility of the filmmaking, the levelheaded presence of Odom Jr. and a fine performance by newcomer Jewett. The girls go missing for several days and, when they return, no longer seem themselves. As things begin to get ugly, the film’s attention shifts to the parents — this is more a movie about parenting than it is about faith — including the blurrily characterized parents of Katherine (Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles), whose bond with their daughter may be less than Victor’s with Angela.
If “The Exorcist” seemed to summon demons, the best “The Exorcist: Believer” can do is to conjure tropes. Fingers claw. Heads turn. Bodies levitate. Once the film gets both possessed girls tied down in chairs, back to back, with a cobbled-together team of spiritual defenders around them, “Believer” bogs down in a prolonged torture chamber of horror cliches.
Green, who has long had a keen eye for casting, populates the film with some fine actors. Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-nominated for “The Exorcist,” returns as Chris MacNeil, though it may be the film’s biggest mistake to so quickly and gruesomely dispatch its most potent performer. Ann Dowd, as a nurse who lives next door, also adds to the film’s dramatic heft.
But “The Exorcist: Believer” never manages anything like the deep terror of the original, and the film’s climactic scenes pass by with a lifeless predictability. Been there, exhumed that. It may be that to get near the dark danger of “The Exorcist” you have to climb your own steps and fight your own demons.
“The Exorcist: Believer,” a Universal Pictures release is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for or some violent content, disturbing images, language and sexual references. Running time: 111 minutes. Two stars out of four.