In the long history of horror films since the dawn of cinema, it would be hard to imagine any of them quite having the particular impact of 1973’s The Exorcist, which became the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar along with nine other nominations including Best Actress for Ellen Burstyn. It eventually won two Academy Awards: for William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on his 1971 novel, and for the bone-chilling sound work. When I saw it as a young kid in its original incarnation at the National Theatre in Westwood (now no longer existing), there were lines like you have never seen wrapping completely around the block. Warner Bros even put a nurse on duty in the lobby for those who passed out — no mere gimmick because it actually happened.
Nothing I have seen since in the genre has matched that one for me, but it wasn’t for Hollywood not trying. There are countless imitations, even a couple of failed direct sequels including the dreadful 1977 follow-up, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and the forgettable Exorcist III: Legion in 1990. There have been TV series attempts, an origin angle with Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004, and countless others using the come-on Exorcist in their title. Earlier this year we even had The Pope’s Exorcist, based on the Vatican’s longtime real-life demon slayer, which thanks to a dedicated performance by Russell Crowe worked quite well on its own terms.
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Now we have a kind of official reboot of the OG with The Exorcist: Believer, which has found life via a direct link to the William Friedkin masterpiece half a century ago. It is the first one since 1973 to feature Ellen Burstyn, who played the mother of Linda Blair’s possessed Regan; she has not returned to the role of Chris MacNeill since that Oscar-nominated turn. Additionally, Morgan Creek’s David Robinson and James G. Robinson had obtained rights to Blatty’s book a couple of decades ago and thought now was the time to strike, hoping nostalgia for one generation and advanced horror effects for another will meet in the middle and produce a hit. Their ammunition was the successful reboot of the Halloween film series in the form of a trilogy that starred Jamie Lee Curtis proving you can’t beat the real deal. That success from Jason Blum and his Blumhouse and Universal led to this collaboration, a teaming with the Halloween director David Gordon Green, and the promise of an Exorcist trilogy if all goes according to plan.
This one starts off with a tragic earthquake in Haiti that takes the life of photographer Victor Fielding’s (Leslie Odom Jr) pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves). Cut to 13 years later and Fielding is attempting to do his best as a single dad to their daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) until trouble strikes. Angela and best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) take a trip into the woods and go missing. The panicked Fielding meets up with Katherine’s very white and backward parents Miranda (country music star Jennifer Nettles) and husband Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), butting heads with a tinge of racism here, leaving no stone unturned to find their daughters. Three days pass when finally the girls are discovered huddled in a distant barn but have no recollection of how they got there or how long they have been missing.
Soon both start exhibiting weird behavior with Angela freaking dad out at home, and Katherine going full Linda Blair during a Sunday Christian church service where her family has taken her. With the help of neighbor Ann (the great Ann Dowd) Fielding sets out to take matters into his own hands and help Angela and Katherine. Ann is also a nurse who has an encounter with Angela in the hospital when she is hauled in there, but reveals her own secret past and offers some sound advice to Fielding, giving him a book she first read in college. This connection leads to none other than Chris MacNeill (Burstyn), who has spent the past 50 years as an author and lecturer trying to help others in similar situations to the one she faced, and she instantly recognizes what is going on, a double obsession, the handy work this time by a different demon, the Mesopotamian terror, Lamashtu. Unlike the original however, this new story focuses not just on the catholic church’s history of handling Exorcisms, but that of several different faiths including the conservative bible thumping pastor played by Raphael Sbarge. In fact the eager beaver young Catholic priest (E.J. Bonilla) is a bit out of his league (no match for Max Von Sydow to be sure). We will see this exorcism may take a village.
No one is gonna forget the Friedkin film, but Green has deftly merged elements from that, the DNA of Burstyn for starters, and drives an entertaining sequel 50 years apart (Burstyn sets a record with most time between movies for the same character). Preceded by the notes of Mike Oldfield’s haunting “Tubular Bells” it is the mid-film introduction to 90 year old Burstyn in a supporting role though that really makes you sit at attention for her all too brief screen time which includes a reunion with the devil. Her presence lifts the proceedings considerably. Also we learn Chris’ career chronicling her own experience angered daughter Regan to a degree that they are estranged. Odom Jr. effectively takes on the lead here and does nicely, as do the two girls who really go through the ringer with no small help from makeup designer Christopher Nelson. Both are excellent.
There is no question the producers want to keep this all going, and the devil is in the details so it is no spoiler to suggest that the ending here should shift seamlessly into another chapter.
Title: The Exorcist: Believer
Release date: October 6, 2023
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriters: David Gordon Green, Peter Sattler
Cast: Leslie Odom, Jr., Ellen Burstyn, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Olivia O’ Neill, Lidya Jewett, Rapael Sbarge
Running time: 1 hr 52 min
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