With the lucrative success of the Halloween sequel trilogy – if that makes any sense – Universal Pictures and Blumhouse have put a lot of stock in reviving legacy horror franchises. Case in point: The Exorcist: Believer, a quasi-sequel to the late William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Director David Gordon Green and producer Jason Blum step back into the genre and utilize that same formula to turn what is arguably one of the scariest films of all time into something fresh and new. “The Exorcist: Believer” attempts to bridge that generational gap by bringing in some of the old school, like Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), and introducing some modern concepts and some CGI to create something that would hopefully connect with audiences of all ages.
“The Exorcist: Believer” opens with Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a photographer enjoying some vacation time with his very pregnant wife (Tracey Graves). However, when an earthquake hits the small island, Victor’s wife is seriously injured, and he is forced to make a difficult choice: save his wife or unborn daughter. We don’t hear his answer, but the flash forward makes it clear that the doctors saved his daughter, now named Angela (Lidya Jewett). The two have a loving relationship as they start the day bantering about the benefits of going vegan. But she also wants to know more about the mother she never knew and starts going through what Victor had hidden away. However, he is a bit overprotective since he is hesitant to let Angela spend time with her friend Kathrine (Olivia Marcum). While Victor’s wife’s dying words are to protect Angela, he realizes that his daughter is growing up and gives her permission to hang out with Kathyrn.
After school, Angela and Kathryn perform a seance so that Angela can connect with her mother spiritually. Although it’s clear that these two are inexperienced and have gotten the idea from a YouTube video because nothing could prepare them for what’s coming next. Later on, Victor comes home but notices that his daughter isn’t there. Concerned, he calls Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) to know if his daughter is with her. She is not. But Katherine isn’t where she is supposed to be either. As such, the police are called out to conduct a massive search. But minutes become hours, and hours become days. Green does a great job drawing out any parent’s fears when their child goes missing. He plays upon them by showing their frustrations about the unknowing. Soon, they start to blame each other. Later, the film shows religious institutions asking their parishioners to pray for their safe return. Of course, the film can’t draw this out too long. There’s an exorcism to perform. It’s right there in the title.
So minutes become hours, hours become days, and Angela and Kathrine are soon found safe. They don’t know how they got lost or how many days have passed since. However, something’s different about them. Something scary, and it is about the time when they start to display strange and violent behaviors. And since modern medicine and psychology can’t figure out what is happening, Victor has to rely on the one thing he lost: faith.
So, with the help of his nurse neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd), Victor travels across the coast to find Chris McNeil, hoping that her experience confronting the devil could bring his daughter back. McNeil reflects on that past and how publicizing it hurt her relationship with her daughter, Reagan. Ultimately, she decides to go with Victor. So now it is up to them, Ann, Katerine’s parents, the town pastor (Raphael Sbarge), Victor’s friend Stuart (Danny McCarthy), ritualistic healer Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), and a local priest (E.J. Bonilla) to exercise the demon out of the children.
“The Exorcist: Believer” works better as a missing-person thriller than a horror movie. The film preys upon the desperation of parents who would do anything to bring their child home safe and sound. The local police conducting massive search gives us a sense of how big the small town is. Meanwhile, Victor and Katherine’s parents post missing child posters all over town, and we can sometimes see them glaring at each other. Churches pray for their safe return. Newsreels capture the sense of helplessness, and interviews hone in on how tragic it is. At some point, we start to see the parents blame each other for the predicament as a means to find solace or a quick answer.
And when the girls are found, there is jubilation. They may have a few bumps and bruises, but they are safe. But this is an Exorcism movie, so the movie needs to find a way to move into that aspect organically. The film could be more transparent on what happened in those three days that Angela and Katherine went missing. However, since their return, Green and Peter Sattler’s script eases us into the fact that the kids aren’t the same as before. They start to display strange and abnormal behavior that can only be associated with something supernatural. And it isn’t quick about it either. The nice thing about the transition is that it is a slow burn and works to earn that fear that the kids possess by including a few jump scares, an excellent physical performance from the kids, practical effects, and terrific makeup work.
“The Exorcist: Believer” becomes a bore as soon as it veers into the actual exorcism itself. Because the film is working so hard to convince us that it is a part of the Exorcism mythology by inserting Chris McNeil into the story and utilizing various sound techniques and practical effects, it forgets that it has its own story to tell. Odom Jr. does a fine job playing a father desperate to get his daughter back and acts as the audience’s guide through the story. However, the film needs to invest more time to develop these characters into people we should care about. Quick flash-in-the-pan moments are meant to establish some of the character dynamics and expose some of their vulnerabilities. However, they are too far between each other and are more shoehorned in to reveal some backstory to said characters, but ultimately, it doesn’t impact the story. Even the return of Burstyn’s character, meant to bridge the 50-year gap between the two films, has minimal payoff.
Green had the right idea by modernizing a legacy horror franchise by adding the fears of headline-grabbing news like missing children. Nothing is more scary to anyone, especially parents, than the thought of not having the person they were supposed to protect by their side. Not even all the jarring camera cuts, jump scares, and terrifying performances of demonically possessed children.