By Brendan Graham
We've seen a big resurgence in reboots, reimaginings, and sequels of classic horror series lately and the results have definitely been mixed. On one hand, we've seen a fantastic reboot of Hellraiser and new sequels of Scream that not only pushed the envelope and added something new, but used nostalgia correctly to keep the existing fans happy and created new ones simultaneously. On the other hand, we've seen what happened with the reboot of Halloween where it started strong with Halloween (2018), started to fizzle out with Halloween Kills, and completely lost my interest with Halloween Ends. Director David Gordon Green doesn't seem to know how to end films that he starts and that is even more obvious with his attempt at an Exorcist movie. I had mixed feelings going into THE EXORCIST BELIEVER, and I was fooled into thinking that the movie wasn't going to be as bad as I originally thought it would be, but a disastrous second half made the movie crash and burn and instead of experiencing a new tale of fear, I experienced immense disappointment.
Years after losing his wife during a Haitian earthquake, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) are living a hectic, but quiet life in Georgia. Victor is overly protective of Angela and unable to openly talk about the death of his wife with Angela, which causes Angela to lie about where she was planning on going after school. Wanting to know more about her mother and wanting to speak with her spirit causes Angela and her classmate Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) to wander into the woods to perform a ritual to speak with the dead. When the girls don't return home for dinner, it prompts a frantic search with the police to bring them home safely. The girls are found at a farm thirty miles away with no knowledge of how they got there, or how long they've been gone. With their behavior getting more extreme and the parents desperate for answers, Victor will need to challenge his lack of faith in order to save the girls as time is running out.
What David Gordon Green does well is realizing the important elements of a series and making sure he hits those boxes. Dazzling cinematography? Check. Unnerving sound design? Check. Fantastic performances by those possessed? Big check. I went in with fairly low expectations, and the first half of the film genuinely surprised me with its tone and tension. In the mystery surrounding the disappearance, both Lidya Jewett and Olivia O'Neill put in amazing performances going from frightened teen girls to full-blown possessed monsters, and Leslie Odom, Jr is the most convincing adult in the entire film and feels genuine in his concern and desperation for answers. It was thoroughly entertaining, even though it felt incredibly rushed, and I was eagerly awaiting for the demonic activity to pick up because whatever they had planned may be better than my earlier expectations. Sadly, it was not.
When Chris MacNeill joins the film (Regan's mother from the original series, played by Ellen Burstyn) the movie loses all of its tension and intrigue, and the nostalgia begins to fail. It's not that Ellen Burstyn's performance is bad, far from it, her character is utilized poorly and she feels unnecessary to the story. We also see a story arc of gathering followers of different faiths to perform the exorcism which comes off as a silly religious 'Avengers Assemble' moment. The screenplay during the second half of the film is a mess, especially the dialogue among the adult characters (especially the priest, yikes). The movie is building up to the exorcism and all of the best bits are already seen in the trailers, and the devilish surprise they try to reveal is far too predictable. One can appreciate the attempts to tell a story about religion in modern times and how alike many aspects between them are (they all have exorcisms is mainly the point) but it feels forced and an afterthought.
Overall, THE EXORCIST BELIEVER is a big letdown that relies too much on existing nostalgia without adding anything new or meaningful to the series' mythos and takes the laziest path possible in the second half to get to the money shot (the exorcism) and it doesn't deliver the goods. Don't let the first half fool you, once again David Gordon Green doesn't know how to follow through with his ideas and vision and it just ends up being mostly a waste of time. There are supposedly two more films coming so I hope they take a good look at reactions to this one and make some adjustments going forward. What a wasted opportunity.
THE EXORCIST BELIEVER is now playing in theaters nationwide