The Exorcist: Believer review – Ellen Burstyn returns for schlocky sequel

<span>Photograph: Anne Marie Fox/AP</span>
Photograph: Anne Marie Fox/AP

The ebullient acclaim levelled at one-time indie prince David Gordon Green’s Halloween reboot can, for me, a firm naysayer, be only explained by the overwhelmingly sorry state of the franchise before that point, a vague amount of something better than a big heap of nothing. It was a dumb, disjointed and tonally awkward misfire, reheating similar beats from 1998’s far superior Halloween H20 and kicked off a junky yet laughably pretentious new trilogy, which only offered brief moments of interest during its staggeringly violent second chapter.

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But its major commercial success elevated Green as some sort of new safe hands horror auteur, one who can be trusted with resurrecting other iconic franchises, a grand and bizarrely undeserved new career swerve. The scouring of old properties to relaunch in the wake of other legacy sequel successes led greedy execs to inevitably land on The Exorcist, bullishly hoping to break a curse that led to two sequels, two prequels and one TV show, all almost universally loathed, and attached Green as its commander, in charge of not just one movie but three.

His major ace is the return of the original protagonist Ellen Burstyn, who had wisely steered clear of any sequels, but was lured back by a “whole bunch of money” and the promise of a scholarship program for acting students. It’s a sound rationale given both the $400m Universal paid for the trilogy and what Burstyn, as one of our finest older actors, deserves. But it’s also indicative of the overall emptiness of the endeavour, from an Oscar-winning William Friedkin classic to a soulless cash grab originally intended for a dual platform release on Peacock. Taken as just that, it’s serviceable – a silly, gloopy Halloween shocker that offers just about enough goofy entertainment for an undemanding fright night crowd. But it might be close to impossible for those with deep reverence for the original, of which there are a great many, to take it as such, Green’s messy script, co-written with Peter Sattler, also boldly insisting itself as a worthy successor.

This time, it’s Hamilton and Glass Onion’s Leslie Odom Jr (on soulful, sturdy form) as a concerned single parent whose daughter goes missing with a friend in the nearby woods. They return three days later, their mysterious absence unexplained, and both showing signs of some sort of trauma, misdiagnosed as a mental problem but soon revealed to be something far more sinister. It leads to the return of Burstyn, whose experience with a possessed daughter has both scarred and educated her.

It’s a clunky route into the original, given how Burstyn was merely a witness to an exorcism rather than the one behind it, and clunkier still when Green finds a wild, unintentionally funny way to render her character meaningless for most of the film. With Burstyn taking a backseat, a motley crew (including a well-cast Ann Dowd giving it her all) is crudely assembled to save the girls and fight the devil, of varying religions and backgrounds. It’s all poorly explained and justified but the film does have a somewhat interesting anti-Catholicism stance and, as Burstyn states, is also vaguely against the patriarchy that upholds it. We’re talking half-thoughts here rather than anything fully realised but it adds some texture to the chaotic finale. The slow, admirably restrained buildup might prove a slog for a bloodthirsty Halloween crowd but the all-guns-blazing double exorcism should drag ’em back in thanks to two astonishingly committed young performers in Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill and a cavalcade of inventive, if ultimately unscary, imagery. We could have done without a clumsy CGI flourish but Green does find some distinctive flashes among the mess.

Like with his Halloween reinvention, the film is trapped between the serious and the silly, a thinly etched tale of a father dealing with grief and faith jarring next to scenes of a demonic child screaming the C-word while spitting slime. It’s better when it leans into the latter, a schlocky night out at the movies made with more competence than most recent horrors but one that is unlikely to make a believer out of diehard fans.

  • The Exorcist: Believer is out in cinemas on 6 October