Almost 50 years ago to the day, a movie was released that changed the horror film scene forever. The Exorcist changed what many thought of the horror genre bringing real-life situations, a broken family unit and the dramas and innocence of a pre-adolescent child front and centre making us feel not only sorrow and concern for the characters but a level of downright fear. Many have tried to emulate in the years since but very few have come close to the original in terms of sheer terror.
Releasing Thursday, October 5 is the next instalment of The Exorcist franchise, The Exorcist: Believer. Ticketed as a direct sequel to the original and helmed by horror alum David Gordon Green, I am salivating at the thought of once again feeling like that kid who dared sneak out to watch The Exorcist, only to discover true fear.
We open in Haiti 13 years ago with some iconic imagery. Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is vacationing with his heavily pregnant wife seeing the sights with camera in hand. That is until that fateful moment when disaster struck in the form of a massive earthquake which trapped Victor’s wife taking her life. Victor is left to raise their daughter Angela alone from here on.
Like any teen Angela (Lidya Jewett) is spending her days at school, hanging with friends and navigating through the world as best she can. Her mother is still a painful but strong memory for her. Angela’s friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) is in the same boat but was brought up in a religious household. Because of this the girls hatch a plan to travel into their local woods after school one day, hoping to perform an essential ritual to help Angela speak to her mother. When neither of the girls return home that night, the whole town panics with them not surfacing again for three days.
Once the girls are back with their respective families, we start to get a bit of a sense that something isn’t right. Strange things are happening in their presence, and the girls themselves are acting more and more aggressively, cuts appear on their bodies and they are having episodes of seizures.
It isn’t until Victor’s neighbour and nurse Paula (Ann Dowd) confronts Victor about something his daughter said to her in hospital that the thought of demonic possession is raised. Paula insists Victor read a book by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) outlining her experiences five decades ago with her daughter Regan. It is here the tempo changes and the movie tries to find what sort of direction it is heading.
From the opening moments of The Exorcist: Believer, you can tell that Green is a fan and has taken notes from director William Friedkin, who directed the original. The way certain scenes are shot and edited together help immensely to build tension, bringing you closer and closer to the edge of your seat. You know the jump scare is coming, but you have been lulled into this false sense of security that you’ll get through it unscathed, you don’t. One of the biggest pluses for me was everything happening in the background of scenes. From flashes to alternate imagery or something there that should not be, the subtle changes are all done to throw your psyche off and leave you open to what might be.
Green has done some fantastic work with characters like Michael Myers in the past, where he was able to get range out of a masked figure that wasn’t expected. Now he showcases the sheer talent of his cast by picking the perfect moments to highlight the darkness, worry and fear from each member.
Leslie Odom Jr’s subtle changes in facial expression and body language highlighted a fathers plight as he battles what he is seeing in front of him. Previously a religious man he has lost his faith after the death of his wife, it’s always just been him and his daughter since that day and he is hesitant to let anyone else in or believe in what might be.
The real stars here are our young possessees Olivia O’Neill and Lidya Jewett. I truly believe that kids in horror movies are an instant hit. The innocence that younger actors bring to the moments have always unnerved me with Olivia and Lidya making my heart race a little faster on more than one occasion. I can only imagine the stress working on a movie like this would place on a younger actor but it looks like the girls have been able to have fun with the role while playing off each other and at times being downright terrifying. There are moments where they switch from the innocence of youth to a literal demon that makes you move in your seat uncontrollably.
Unfortunately, for all the good The Exorcist: Believer does in the first two acts to build a very tense and foreboding atmosphere, it drops the ball in the final moments that left me straight out unhappy. There is nothing to say about how any other actors approached the final chapter that was in any way bad but there was too much story trying to be told. A shift away from the iconography of exorcism that we have seen in many other movies and what seemed to be a lack of interaction with the demon left the movie feeling a little hollow and rushed. If you didn’t know about the demon, who it was or its origins, there isn’t much explained.
Ellen Burstyn reprising her role as Chris MacNeil was an interesting choice but a welcomed inclusion that helps to tie into the original storyline. Her time on screen while only short was meaningful to the story and helped to fill in some of the blank space left from the lack of back story.
The Exorcist: Believe feels very much like the first movie in a new trilogy. There are blink-and-you-’ll-miss moments that look to be setting up a continuation of the story. While I enjoyed my time with it I cannot get past that final act leaving me asking too many questions and wanting things to have gone differently.
Its attempts at bringing Exorcism into the current age by combining the rights of a couple of religions was a valiant effort that fell short, though can be built upon.
The Exorcist: Believe is a good addition to the original, but if you’re expecting something in the same league it has missed the mark here.
The Exorcist; Believe is in cinemas now.