By Michael O’Sullivan
As "The Exorcist: Believer" builds toward its expected climax, a showdown between two possessed teenage girls and a tag team of amateur and self-anointed demon specialists comes to a boil.
Assembling on one side, there’s the unsanctioned Catholic priest; an oncologist turned voodoo practitioner; an evangelical minister; a nurse who once was on her way to becoming a nun; and, briefly, the mother of the possessed girl Regan in the 1973 film to which this is a sequel.
At one point, the father of one of the possessed children (Leslie Odom Jr) leaves the room to go speak to the priest (EJ Bonilla), who is sitting behind the wheel of his car praying, hesitant to join the impending fray inside because his superiors have not realised what will be plain to any viewer who has managed to get this far: Things are about to get real.
“The battle is in there,” Odum’s Victor Fielding says, in an understatement. Fire, smoke, vomit, blood, skin eruptions, telekinesis, levitation, a red-hot metal crucifix and a tirade of profane utterances follow – shouted with a gravelly voice reminiscent of Mercedes McCambridge, who famously is said to have eaten raw eggs, chain-smoked and swallowed whiskey to dub the voice of the demon, Pazuzu, in the original film.
Victor, a non-believer among the faithful in this story built around the theme of choice, is not wrong to use a military metaphor.
Still, there are times when the central confrontation of this dutifully unsettling, yet not groundbreaking, instalment of the horror franchise feels more like a sporting event than a war.
There’s a sense of playfulness that lightens the proceedings without ever taking the air out of its self-seriousness.
Film-maker David Gordon Green, who tried to revitalise the “Halloween” movie franchise with three unnecessary sequels, clearly has affection for the original film, as does Danny McBride, a producer and co-writer of the film’s story.
This is evident from the film’s score (by Amman Abbasi and David Wingo), which quotes the “Tubular Bells” theme of the 1973 film in a way that manages to be respectful, fun and creepy all at once.
It’s also apparent from the casting of Ellen Burstyn, who reprises her "Exorcist" role as Chris MacNeil in a way that feels like little more than stunt casting/fan service. (It’s not the only throwback cameo.)
And when one of the possessed girls gurgles “The power of Christ compels you” sarcastically, the catchphrase from the first film elicited an appreciative murmur from a preview audience, whose devotional air at times evoked the reverence of churchgoers.
The basic set-up is also familiar: Victor’s daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) disappears after school with classmate Katherine (Olivia Marcum), and the two turn up three days later in a barn, with no memory of where they've been.
Angela, whose mother dies in the film’s prologue – a prologue that sets up "Believer’s" theme of a "Sophie’s Choice"-like dilemma, which runs throughout the plot – has gone off into the woods with Katherine, the child of devout Christians, to conduct a kind of séance in which Angela hopes to reconnect with her dead mother.
Bad idea. And if you’ve seen more than one horror movie, you don’t need me to tell you that. The girls are soon barking out horrible things and deteriorating into foul-mouthed, foul-smelling husks of their former selves, badly in need of ChapStick and Vaseline Intensive Care lotion.
What follows is somewhat satisfying yet also feels like lip service to a (rightfully) beloved horror classic, which introduced a slew of imitators. The Exorcist" was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two (for best adapted screenplay and sound, a rarity for a horror film).
Green knows what he’s doing, and the film will probably appeal to hard-core horror fans who also appreciate a side dish of something nutritious to chew on – not just one but two Solomonic decisions that must be made in the course of events – with their main entrée of bloody red meat.
But seeing what has happened to the Halloween franchise in Green’s hands augurs a dispiriting future. There are plans in store for "The Exorcist: Deceiver", a 2025 sequel, and the ending of this one, with one big surprise, hints that the identity of the demon – Green has said in interviews that it’s not Pazuzu – will be critical in determining the direction of the rebooted series.
Who is the demon? I don’t know, and we will have to wait to find out. That’s perfectly fine. But I also can’t bring myself to care, after a movie that ultimately falls short of giving us a reason to.
If "The Exorcist: Believer" is all about devotion to spiritual (or at least cinematic) faith, its failure to live up to the power of the first film, which made zealots of even the most cynical moviegoers, borders on sacrilege.
∎ "The Exorcist: Believer" is showing at cinemas nationwide.