The sequels — or, in two cases, prequels — to “The Exorcist” have all been unqualified turkeys. There is now a movement at hand to declare that John Boorman’s crackpot insect-swarm fantasia “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) was some sort of misunderstood masterpiece, but that’s an act of revisionism every bit as loony tunes as “Heaven’s Gate” revisionism.
That said, the “Exorcist” genre has never left the culture. It has spawned successful pieces of claptrap, like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005), whose opening-weekend gross of $30 million in the dead zone of early September was more shocking than anything in the film. Fifty years ago, the very essence of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was its obscenely eruptive, pea-soup-in-the-face, borderline-demonic-child-porn shock value. The film marked nothing less than the birth of extreme culture, and we’ve never looked back. It also influenced the rise of the Evangelical movement, since if Satan was now in our face, it meant that God was too. But what do you do for an encore to a film that made people feel as if the movie itself was channeling the devil?
The standard “Exorcist” retread delivers the trappings — girl with mottled skin and purple scarred lips writhing in her nightgown, disembodied Beelzebub voice, the whole dark-side-of-ecclesiastical-kitsch head trip — in a way that now feels nearly as ritualized as an exorcism. And when you watch David Gordon Green’s “The Exorcist: Believer,” a craftsmanly yet cautious franchise reboot/sequel that’s been calculated to exploit every nuance of our retro ’70s horror nostalgia, you may wonder: How shocking and scary, how awesome in its ickiness, how horrifying can a movie really be when its entire purpose is to deliver, on cue, every trope that decades of demonic-possession movies have geared us to expect? The devil may take many forms, but perhaps we can all agree that he should never be a rerun.
When David Gordon Green, a once-interesting filmmaker with roots in the indie world, took command of the big, official “No, this time we really mean it! It’s going to be good!” “Halloween” relaunch, he brought a certain cachet to the project. His 2018 “Halloween” was a clever and catchy neo-1978 time machine. But Green’s sequels were just about as meh as the original “Halloween” sequels — they were meat-grinder cash grabs — and “The Exorcist: Believer” feels like a movie by that same (reduced) filmmaker. Sure, you can say that it’s “trying for something.” The opening half hour, in which the trauma of missing children is dramatized with a vividness that bleeds, slowly, into the supernatural, exerts a certain pull. But the movie never quite summons what I would call dread. This is Dread Lite.
The central characters are Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a widowed father, and the overly ironically named Angela (Lidya Jewett), who came into the world when her pregnant mother was perilously injured in an earthquake in Haiti. Victor had to choose whether to save his wife’s life or his unborn daughter’s. Angela is now a middle-school student who lives in relative harmony with her lovingly overprotective dad; it’s a big deal for him to let her go over to a friend’s house after school to do homework. But on this particular day he has said yes, and Angela proceeds to wander through the woods with Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), who is steeped in the candle-burning rituals of her Christian family.
The two go missing for three days, a cataclysm that causes ripples of fear and discord in the community. But the distress only grows when they reappear. Angela somehow thinks that she’s been gone for only a few hours; she has also developed a bit of an attitude. Then she wets the bed. Then the words “Help Me” appear carved into her thigh. Can you say “Your mother sucks c—s in hell?”
Actually, the movie can’t say it, or anything close to it, because we’re living in a far more conservative time than 1973. “The Exorcist” was a movie that went too far, and that was part of its sick disturbing transgressive power. “The Exorcist: Believer” is a kind of contradiction — an “Exorcist” movie that wants to repackage the original’s anarchic dark spirit, but in a way that signifies the pushing of boundaries more than it actually pushes them. When Katherine acts up during a church service, it’s mildly queasy-funny, but then she walks down the church aisle, with her distressed hair and frothing devil-doll psychosis, screaming “The body and the blood!” About all we can think is: Couldn’t they have come up with a better line that that?
As a result of their disappearance, Angela and Katherine have each been possessed by a demon. They’re a matching set of tween girl ghouls. We know the symptoms: the pale skin, the silver-gray cat’s eyes, the flesh marked with cuts that look like crosses, the sarcastic teasing thoughts they start to mouth in the devil’s voice. But, of course, just because we know what’s going on doesn’t mean that the characters in the movie do. They’ve got to play catch-up, and to learn, once again, that there are some things in this world that Science Cannot Explain.
The religion-vs.-science debate part of “The Exorcist: Believer” is the definition of musty. And though the film presents itself as a “new” take on “The Exorcist,” it spends a lot of time bending over backwards to reference the old take, most glaringly by featuring the 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn reprising the role of Chris MacNeil. It seems that after Regan’s exorcism, Chris wrote a book and went around the world, lecturing audiences about what she saw, even as Regan herself disappeared. Chris hasn’t heard from her since.
Burstyn, a great actress, has presence to spare. She’s the one in the movie who truly does seem possessed — by the profundity of what she has seen. I was grateful for her saturnine grace until one of the devil girls attacks her, in a Herschell Gordon Lewis moment that Green should have axed right out of the script. Why bring back Ellen Burstyn only to martyr her force? Ann Dowd is on hand, as Victor and Angela’s Karen of a next-door neighbor, who once came close to being a nun, which will equip her to step into the Father Merrin role — to the extent that anyone in the movie steps into it, which is not very much. This movie lacks a Merrin figure the way a fat-free muffin lacks zest.
The exorcism — spoiler alert: there is one! — takes place in an empty living room, with two chairs nailed down and to each other, back-to-back, so that the girls can sit in them and spew their devil madness. Katherine looks like the possessed Regan redux, while Angela resembles a Chucky doll with more spite. Except that there’s a weird underlying Kumbaya quality to the whole thing. The Catholic Church, represented by the disappointingly wimpy Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), has opted out, stating that it favors treating the girls with psychiatric methods. (Hello? Is this the Vatican talking?) And a theme of “community” is introduced — the idea that what can save these girls isn’t just an exorcist but the spirit of everyone working together. (Hello? Is this the Joe Biden administration talking?) A new “Exorcist” movie shouldn’t be a slavish imitation of the original “Exorcist,” but it should conjure a certain danger; that’s what “The Exorcist” was all about. “The Exorcist: Believer,” in its superficially competent and poshly mounted way, feels about as dangerous as a crucifix dipped in a bottle of designer water.