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I think it is time to admit to ourselves that in the realm of exorcism horror, if not wider avenues, the late great William Friedkin’s The Exorcist will never be bettered. It laid the very foundations not only for its later flourishing sub-genre of terror but for much of cinema in general, it changed everything, and 50 years on, its power still lingers. You simply could not make a film like this now, with the same shock, world-ensnaring fear and thematic power.
So, keeping that in mind, as well as the fact that, barring author-turned-director William Peter Blatty’s underrated Exorcist III and the sadly short lived and surprising TV series, The Exorcist franchise has not reached any considerable heights (quite the opposite) since the 1973 original. Maybe we should go into David Gordon Green’s legacy sequel The Exorcist: Believer with the right expectations.
Believer is not a match to the original and was never going to be, barring some rare miracle, that being said, and much as I expected, The Exorcist: Believer is wholly (or should that be holy?) undeserving of its severe critical mauling. Imperfect? Certainly. But also the greatest entry in this series in over 30 years. As this is the first in a planned trilogy of films.
The story sees photographer Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) share a close bond with his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), after she was born against all odds 13 years prior, in a series of events that cost his wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) her life. So, when Angela heads home From school one day via the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), and the two girls never get home, the community and respective parents are shook by fear, as a search is underway. Luckily, both girls are found safe but far from sound, as something is very wrong with them, something evil has begun taking over, forcing the non-believing Victor to seek out help in a woman who has experience in this field, author Chris MacNeil (original star and screen legend Ellen Burstyn).
Reminiscent in many respects of the aforementioned TV series, this legacy sequel takes its time and puts in real effort to craft a story of universal faith, community strength and the unifying power that is belief and hope. It cannot be the same as the original, it never could be, few films can be anymore, especially on this hesitant studio scale but it is admirably slow-burning and not (despite what many say) over reliant on nostalgia (despite a few nods), with a rather nasty final twist to boot.
The third act takes a few missteps, with the actual exorcism itself leaning into familiar Over the top effects and expected bangs and bumps. Though the final frame is absolutely perfect and comes as a welcome sight to fans, with a real emotional element paying off for those invested over these years. Meanwhile David Wingo and Amman Abbasi‘s score is just incredible, the riffs on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells were to be expected but they do something wonderful with it, these composers do atmospheric and mesmerising work to make special moments that bit more meaningful and there is a good practical-driven nature to the film overall visually (despite one shaky CG flamboyance).
The acting is also rather brilliant, especially by Odom Jr. as the desperate father forced to confront what he knows and believes, and even delve into dark areas of the past, while young Jewett an O’Neil offer up breakout performances as the innocent kids afflicted by demonic power, albeit the devil has slightly less of a potty mouth and boundary-pushing acts of blasphemy this time. Still, there are moments. Then there is a returning Burstyn, who effortlessly slips back into her Oscar nominated role of Chris MacNeil and immediately captivates the screen when she arrives, seeing her back is a treat.
The Exorcist: Believer knocks seven shades of pea soup out of any of the other sequels/prequels this series has ever attempted (barring Exorcist III, with which I’d say this is maybe on par with). I was a believer going in and my faith – against overwhelming damnation – paid off. A great cinema experience, if you are willing to take that leap. Hell, whatever anyone can say, it’s not The Heretic!
Naturally the shadow of the original is cast heavy and thick but Believer is a worthwhile entry into the lore and I am intrigued as to where the trilogy will go from here, even more so now.