Gemma Creagh is possessed with disappointment at The Exorcist: Believer.
The original Exorcist left an indelible mark on our indigenous film scene, and sparked controversy among local pearl clutchers and clergy in the process. When this cinematic sensation finally crept into Irish cinemas in the seventies, it brought along its own particular twist – a conspicuous absence of 41 seconds of footage. As The Exorcist wasn’t approved for VHS release here, it was only with the 1998 re-release that punters could finally officially catch the full version, not that it had stopped many up to that point. The Irish connection didn’t stop there either. Present Wicklow resident, John Boorman took the helm as director for Exorcist II: The Heretic. An odd choice of talent, this cursed sequel drew ire from critics and audiences alike.
Any comparison to this genre-forging classic wasn’t going to fare well and it’s no surprise The Exorcist: Believer follows suit given Director David Gordon Green’s track record with franchises. Yet taken as a standalone film, this rather cheesy offering delivers camp, fun slumber party scares, elevated with top notch production and sound design. It’s an easy watch, when underneath all the jump scares and visious gore, lies nothing too taxing plot wise and a surprisingly wholesome, Christian-friendly message that’s an R-rated nod to the optimistic Conjuring franchise. Easy to digest horror is ideal when the real world is scary enough.
The film opens on a prologue set thirteen years in the past, when a nauseatingly affectionate married couple enjoy their travels, but are caught in a devastating building collapse. In the aftermath, Victor Fielding ( Leslie Odom Jr.) must make the impossible decision to save either the life of his wife or their unborn child.
We flash forward to modern day US suburbia, where the widowed Victor is now a fiercely protective father to a teenage daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett). They enjoy a relaxed friendship and banter that shows that neither Gordon Green nor his co-writer Peter Sattler has ever truly known an adolescent female at any point in their lives. Victor’s worst fears are realised when Angela doesn’t come home from school. Local police lead a frantic search to find Angela and her friend, Katherine (Olivia Marcum). During the investigation Victor finds himself at odds with Katherine’s devoutly Christian family. It’s only after three long days that the pair of girls return home, claiming to have no memory and with stange markings on their feet and body. As a malevolent force starts to take hold of them both, three very different flavours of Christians and the agnostic Victor join forces with the original film’s mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
The range of these two young stars is simply outstanding and Olivia Marcum and Lidya Jewett serve heart and warm chemistry, on top of lashings of dark intensity and violent physicality. Perhaps The Exorcist: Believer the musical was on the drawing board at one time, which might explain how the cast are made up of so many talented musicians and singers; there’s Odom Jr. who made his name as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Katherine’s mother is played by Jennifer Nettles a Massive Country Star in the States. Plus both Norbert Leo Bitz and Ellen Burstyn are Tony Winners.
The film poses a number of questions in terms of faith, choice, and the impact of trauma, but doesn’t delve too deeply into any of them. In fact the plot hops from concept to concept, from character to character, and refers to the source material in a way that feels hokey and rather cynical on the part of the writers. It’s a shame but not unexpected. In this instance the power of Christ just wasn’t compelling enough and the real saving, one imagines, will not be anyone’s soul, but rather of the next two films of this apparent trilogy.
The Exorcist: Believer is in cinemas from 6th October 2023.