Friday, October 6, 2023


The reason why no sequel or spinoff of The Exorcist has managed to capture the deep, raw scares of the first is that William Friedkin’s original film of William Peter Blatty’s pulp religious fright novel is the only one that feels like it’s happening in something like the real world. Friedkin gives it the ominous undertones of religious epic—from its desert opening to the light-and-shadow gloom-and-doom of Catholic symbolism in priests cloaked in righteous doubt combating a puss-spewing demonic possession. Every film after it, despite being guided by such heavyweights as Deliverance’s John Boorman and First Reformed’s Paul Schrader and even Blatty himself, is about characters in an Exorcist movie. Moral tests and creepy-crawly imagery abound, but there’s always that guardrail sense that we’re seeing someone playing in a template. The best moments let the darkness crack through authentically—a real jangling jolt in the lives of tropes, when the likes of haunted priest Stellan Skarsgaard or Robert Mitchum or weary cop George C. Scott wield their immense melancholic charisma. But there’s also a lot of stomping around in the shadows waiting for the wiggly effects and loud clanging symbolism.

The latest attempt belongs to David Gordon Green, who was once a great maker of tender indie dramas and now balances raunchy comedy with studio horror. He was last seen making a trilogy of Halloween reboots that got somewhere interesting by the end. His The Exorcist: Believer is a basically proficient possession thriller. It has two 13-year-old girls go missing in the woods after school and, upon their return a few days later, they’re slowly revealed to be inhabited by evil spirits. Green does as well as anyone has with plumbing the basic concept for broad consideration of moral dilemmas, while transposing it for a modern world that’s somehow both more “spiritual,” broadly defined, and less religious, specifically. It means to move the ideas away from one particular denomination and more to a free-floating sense of good and evil. This gives the top-line talent—Leslie Odom, Jr and Jennifer Nettles as the father of one girl and the mother of the other, and Ann Dowd as a conflicted nurse with a troubled past — room to play with faith and doubt in the face of supernatural creepiness and jump scares. They sell the parental or faith-based pain with more investment than the formulaic plotting requires.

The fault, however, is that formula; it grinds the movie through the expected with little surprise other than a few predictable twists of the knife. (If you’ve seen one possession with croaking catchphrases and supernatural scarring, you’ve seen them all, apparently.) Worst is its pandering to the legacy sequel trend, bringing back the exceptional Ellen Burstyn, star of the original, to feature heavily in a handful of scenes that could be lifted out entirely and change the picture not at all. What a shame. Still, Green’s strong enough at marshaling the performances and mood, and the unsettled mystery of the early going is too potent to dissipate entirely. All that and some Tubular Bells had me just invested enough throughout, and willing to see if Green will come up with something more inventive and original next time. Although, I’m starting to suspect that, unlike the long running slasher franchises, The Exorcists might just spring from something too singular and serious and devilish to ever really sequalize like good, goofy genre heaven. Maybe we should cede that to Russell Crowe’s Pope’s Exorcist.

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