The Exorcist: Believer is the epitome of the lazyquel

2 stars out of 5

In Hollywood, terms like sequel-boots, legacyquels and revivequels have become as ubiquitous as popcorn and cell phones at the movies. Studios take cherished intellectual properties and reduce them into soulless “money-grabbing lazyquels” seeking to capitalize on the echoes of their former glory. 

Within horror, one film resonates across decades: The Exorcist. The 1973 classic from the late William Friedkin is engraved deeply into cinematic history for its groundbreaking scares and unforgettable cinematic moments. It was a huge box-office smash and a rare awards contender within the horror genre.

Fast forward half a century, and The Exorcist is back (again). This time, we find ourselves under the eerie grip of director David Gordon Green and co-writer Peter Sattler, along with the collaborative efforts of Scott Teems and Danny McBride, who are credited with the “screen story by” role, meaning they played a pivotal part in shaping the overall concept and structure of the story. Together, they present The Exorcist: Believer as an ambitious endeavour to rekindle the fading cinematic magic of the franchise. However, despite its promising start, this ‘lazyvival’ ultimately stumbles, leaving the audience uncertain about its true purpose.

The film opens in Port-au-Prince, with Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his pregnant wife, tourists immersing themselves in the local culture. A sudden earthquake forces Victor into a heart-wrenching decision: save his injured wife or secure a future for Angela, their unborn child. Fast forward 13 years, we find 13-year-old Angela (Lidya Jewett) and her father, Victor, in what seems like a routine morning, showcasing their profound bond. Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) plan to do a ritual in the woods. They go missing for three days, only to return changed. Still dealing with his grief and estranged faith, Victor must grapple with his daughter’s probable possession. 

At this stage in the film, the movie shows promise. We feel the palpable bond between Angela and her father. School life, youthful rebellion and the enigmatic forest build anticipation. Aesthetically, the groundwork for a gripping narrative is backed by exceptional editing, sound design and homage-worthy jump scares.

However, despite this promising narrative setup, the film stumbles and goes downhill. Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Victor falls flat, lacking the depth needed to immerse us in his crisis of faith and his desperate attempts to save his child. Supporting characters, including Katherine and her parents and siblings, remain one-dimensional, leaving their potential unexplored. Ann Dowd’s character, a former nun turned nurse, constantly introduces unintentional humour, failing to elevate the film into something more than just another mediocre possession flick.

The crucial shortcomings of the film are its lack of clarity regarding its central point of view, themes and story progression, making it feel like a disjointed amalgamation of underdeveloped scenes, characters and ideas that never coalesce into a clear, cohesive narrative or thematic arc. The return of Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother from the original film, feels forced, mainly serving to reaffirm the presence of the same malevolent force. The film’s recurring motifs of motherhood fail to mirror Chris MacNeil and Regan’s original dynamic in relation to Victor’s struggles as a widowed father and his connection with his possessed daughter.

The concept of various religious disciplines uniting for an exorcism holds potential but remains messy and under-explored, relegated to a mere gimmick in the film’s third act. The majority of the film’s horror attempts fall flat. The slow-building tension of the first act is continually interrupted by repetitive jump scares, and the climactic exorcism scene resembles a poorly executed improv sketch or a low-budget Halloween haunted house scene. The absence of clear rules or an established mythology leaves the scares devoid of impact and coherence, resulting in confusion rather than genuine fright.

The Exorcist: Believer fails to engage viewers in its central crisis of faith, offering vague gestures instead of a thorough exploration. The supposed cliffhanger/cameo ending feels lacklustre, as the characters remain largely unchanged, leaving unanswered questions and a sense of missed opportunity. While an exorcism film need not solely rely on religious elements, it should deliver compelling storytelling. Slapping the name The Exorcist on an aimless script and forcing all the visual tropes of its original film doesn’t suffice. More like a straight-to-Tubi production, the movie should have just been called The Exorcism, since there’s no clear exorcist figure for audiences to connect with, only a generic exorcism. ■

The Exorcist: Believer (directed by David Gordon Green)

The Exorcist: Believer opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 6.

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