Review: 'The Exorcist: Believer' requires blind faith, because the thrills aren't onscreen

Once again, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride have taken it upon themselves to futz with a 1970s horror classic at the behest of horror über-producer Jason Blum. So far their track record ranges from “pretty good” (2018’s “Halloween”) to “should’ve never seen the light of day” (2021’s “Halloween Kills”), to “huh?” (last year’s “Halloween Ends”), so expectations should be riding low for their take on William Friedkin‘s 1973 classic “The Exorcist,” now updated with a “lega-sequel” titled “The Exorcist: Believer.” Keep those expectations planted firmly in the gutter because after this encounter, you’ll likely be left thinking, “Can‘t Pazuzu just give it a rest?”

“The Exorcist: Believer” is an exhausting affair, an unrelenting film that attempts to cover up its lack of shock and suspense with a kind of cinematic bludgeoning: a battering delivered via smash cuts, jump scares, overlapping sound design and chaotic camerawork. Yet despite all this stylistic violence, the demonic histrionics — there’s not one but two possessed tweens this time — grows tiresome almost immediately.

Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Victor, a single dad who lost his pregnant wife in a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. His daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), survived, and now, at age 13, her desire to connect with her dead mother results in the thinning of the veil that allows a demon to penetrate her psyche, along with that of her friend Catherine (Olivia O’Neill). Whether it’s Pazuzu or Captain Howdy or whomever, this particular evil entity knows about original host Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair in the first film). The girls scratch her name into the walls with their bloodied fingernails and hurl invective at her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), whom Victor has sought out for her counsel on this matter.

With co-writers Peter Sattler and Scott Teems (Sattler and Green penned the script; Teems, Green and McBride are responsible for the story), Green and McBride’s approach to “The Exorcist” is similar to that on “Halloween.” While the original films are character studies first and foremost — closed systems that allow for a depth of exploration — Green and his team are more interested in the spread of horror, how horror touches many within a community, and how groups of people can rely on each other to fight back.

That approach results in a film that is wide but shallow. This is not a deep character piece but rather a group project, one in which we barely know the other members of the team. Victor’s neighbor, Ann (Ann Dowd), a nurse and former novitiate, enlists a priest, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), to perform an exorcism on the girls. We barely get to know the guy; he’s just sort of there until he isn’t.

There are other players who prove more useful and more fascinating, like the African priestess Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), who brings her root magic to bear on the demonic presence. It’s nice to see an “Exorcist” movie liberated from the constraints of Catholicism, and with two possessed girls this time, they’re going to need Jesus, Jah and whoever else can be spared for the job. Green wants to spread a message that’s less about faith in a patriarchal Judeo-Christian God and more about the people who come together to save their kids by any means necessary. As Chris explains to Victor, exorcism is about the people first and foremost.

Noted. That comes through loud and clear, but it’s just a shame that we don’t particularly care about any of these people. Odom‘s Victor is the character we care the most about, because we know him and his history best, and his skepticism in the face of such horror becomes a fascinating obstacle. What can he believe in enough to save his daughter? But everyone else feels like archetypal set dressing scattered about like narrative devices, not actual people. Catherine and her parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are particularly ill-served by the script.

The girls thrash and wail, the demon growls unspeakable things, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard and seen before. It’s a whole lot of noise without anything particularly original to say — a film that lacks all the elegance and sophistication of the original text.

Back in 2020, the late, great William Friedkin tweeted, “There’s not enough money or motivation in the world” to get him to return to “The Exorcist” — the key word here being “motivation.” What’s the motivation for “The Exorcist: Believer”? Clearly it’s money, but this noisy effort isn’t even worth your attention.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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