A half century ago, the great William Friedkin directed “The Exorcist,” blowing box-office records and audiences’ minds. Now David Gordon Green, not content with mining the “Halloween” franchise for a trilogy of uneven follow-ups, has returned to visit the same fate on one of the highest-grossing films of the 1970s. Kicking off with “The Exorcist: Believer,” this latest recycling project will continue with “The Exorcist: Deceiver,” planned for 2025. No word yet on the third.
If your main gripe with the original was its preoccupation with a single victim and the dogma of just one religious denomination, then this overpopulated sequel has you covered. Clearly believing that more is more, Green and Peter Sattler’s screenplay (which ignores the intervening franchise entries) gives us double the possessed, more than triple the faiths and a passel of enthusiastic exorcists. Keep them straight if you can.
The setup is swiftly efficient. Thirteen years after losing his pregnant wife in a Haitian earthquake, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), are settled in Georgia. Aside from tolerating a grumpy neighbor (Ann Dowd) and her complaints about Victor’s trash can management, the two seem happy enough. Then Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) head into the woods for some spiritual hanky-panky, returning three days later with blank memories and disturbing behaviors. Bring on the holy water!
Measured against the often mediocre standards of today’s glut of reboots and reimaginings, “Believer” is slickly professional, its young performers more than up to the task. It’s also disappointingly, if unsurprisingly, cautious, gesturing only wanly toward the original’s potent weave of puberty, religion and corporeal abuse. While no one is asking for lazy reruns of the infamous masturbation scene or that corkscrewing noggin (though both are hinted at here), there are plenty of ways for a filmmaker to till such fertile thematic soil. Instead, Green contents himself with inconsequential tinkering, like switching the gender of the first film’s evil entity. Shame on you if you assumed all demons were male.
Injecting a welcome dash of this-is-how-it’s-done acting, Dowd (whose character will reveal hidden spiritual depths) and Ellen Burstyn (reprising her role as Chris MacNeil, the original victim’s now-estranged mother), allow the film to take an occasional breath. Burstyn’s inclusion, though, is narratively clumsy, a weak attempt to punch up familial pain that the new film fatally dilutes. Confining her to a hospital bed for much of the movie — as Green did with Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween Kills” (2021) — only underscores the film’s paucity of fresh ideas.
As for Green, his fondness for cinematic threesomes makes me nostalgic for his first three features, all made before he was 30 and one of which, “All the Real Girls,” won a 2003 Sundance Special Jury Prize for “emotional truth.” These dreamy, small-town reflections on love and survival, set among the crumbling textile mills and deserted railroad tracks of the rural South, revealed an uncommon talent for identifying the drama of decline. That patience and sensitivity has now been sacrificed to the cannibalism of recycled ideas; and while I don’t begrudge him his success, I do miss the filmmaker he used to be.
The Exorcist: Believer
Rated R for blasphemous behavior and detachable toenails. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.