‘The Exorcist: Believer’: The Devil Meets Diversity
Fifty years after the original was released to both stunned audiences and stunning profits, The Exorcist: Believer has come to a theater near you. Consider not that more than five sequels have been released since 1973. The producer, director and screenwriters of this reborn venture insist this sequel is only consequential to the first. Whatever might have happened to any other be-deviled child, priest or coven in interceding years is irrelevant; audiences have no need to know. Literally, we are jumping fifty years ahead from the exorcism of that once innocent girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), who turned more heads than her own.
While on his honeymoon in Haiti, photographer Victor Fielding’s (Leslie Odom, Jr.) pregnant wife is nearly killed in an earthquake. Amidst the chaos of the emergency triage center, Fielding must decide to save either the life of his new bride or his unborn child. Only one can survive. Flash forward 13 years later to the moody antics of Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett), a teenager wanting to know more about her long-deceased mother. Intending to conduct a seance, Angela and her best friend Hannah (Nora Murphy) traipse off into the woods after school. Three days later they are found huddled together in a barn. Seemingly, their only injuries are burn marks on the soles of their shoeless feet. But, of course, despite the joy of their parents, neighbors, and the community when found alive, the two girls are not wholly out of the woods. It becomes quite clear they are possessed by some evil spirit.
If the original The Exorcist posed the promise that just one person’s true faith can conquer all evil, The Exorcist: Believer pads that belief by suggesting only a true diversity of hope, faith, and charity can vanquish Satan. Angela is Black; her friend Hannah is white. Angela’s father has turned his back on religion, but Hannah’s parents are devout Baptists. A church-going pal of Victor just happens to know a witchdoctor. And a hospital nurse (also a neighbor) once happened to have served her parish as a nun “novitiate.” Oh, she also studied the rites of exorcism, too, once having read (why?) the remarkable story of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), mother of the once-possessed Regan. Of course, the film’s trailer has promised its audience that Ellen Burstyn returns to fight the devil again. Yes, she does. But, spoiler alert, mother MacNeil might have forgotten a few tricks.
Despite the improbable diversity of characters—Ann Dowd (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Mass”) as the nurse is a standout and Norbert Leo Butz, as Katherine’s father, (two-time Tony Award winner (“Catch Me If You Can,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) is plain engaging—horror fans will delight in the “anxiety of anticipation” so important to the pacing of this film genre. It’s done well, if not too much. Spooky figures appear fleetingly in the background. Lights flicker, violins screech; blood drips from nowhere while avenging specters, once escaped, reappear alarmingly elsewhere. There’s no relief; no sunlight streams across the dawn of a new day. And, if projectile vomiting, searing flesh, and neon-emitting contact lenses are meant to fulfill Exorcist fan expectations, these horrific effects hardly surpass those of the original.
All of which is to ask if, after fifty years—and more sequels than the original might have deserved—are we to think the devil hasn’t any new tricks? Even the original movie score, Michael Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” replays its once haunting theme. Hey, what happened to the power of diversity? Is there nothing more demonic under the moon? And, by the way, whatever happened to Linda Blair?
C. Prentiss Orr is a Pittsburgh-based writer who writes about theater and other topics for Entertainment Central.