It begins with brawling dogs, then progresses through jarring car horns and boxing training to weaponised crucifixes, c-bombs, and a familiar tune. From micro sound-mix details to infamous ‘best horror moments’ echoes, this sequel to William Friedkin’s 50-year-old original clearly believes in the power of studied homages.
What’s less clear is why the power of Christ couldn’t coerce the ingredients of director David Gordon Green’s second franchise revival bid (after Halloween) into compelling shape. Failing to transcend the variably cursed history of Exorcist sequels, Believer opens promisingly but ends in an unholy mess.
Grief is the story’s spur, as Leslie Odom Jr.’s Victor loses his pregnant wife to an earthquake in Haiti. Their baby survives and, 13 years on in suburban Georgia, teenager Angela (Lidya Jewett) wants to hang out with bestie Katherine (Olivia Marcum) after school. Single dad Victor agrees but when the girls disappear in the woods, their parents are rattled. And they become more rattled still when the kids return three days later, harbouring gravel-voiced demonic cargo.
The twin-possession angle is a bold idea but it plants the seeds for Believer’s unravelling. With two families to navigate, the plotting splinters - unlike the 1973 original, with its focus on Regan and Chris MacNeil’s bond. Here, just when the scares intensify, a switch to family #2 stymies momentum.
In fairness, Green delivers some decent frights. Those 20-a-day demon voices can still stir chills. The little devils are also good at materialising when least expected, using blind corners in houses and hospitals to ‘gotcha!’ effect.
It is several other, random-seeming manifestations that become Green’s problem. Ann Dowd is typically classy as a nurse with convenient demon-wrangling previous experience, but her character has no room to grow. A priest pitches in, but he’s plot-fodder for a homage-y twist. And in a welcome but weakly handled cameo, Ellen Burstyn’s Chris returns, ready to kick demon ass but is swiftly sidelined.
Once the exorcism starts, Believer falls apart fatally, not least due to the silliness of seeing have-a-go amateurs attempt the job. The possessed girls issue taunting, vulgar displays of power, while ham-fisted homilies about healing attempt to honor Friedkin’s more developed reflections on faith.
Like the Glasgow kiss one demon administers, however, the execution is crude next to Friedkin’s icy shivers of theological doubt and dread. And it would take more than Believer’s last, under-earned lunge for fans’ affections to redeem its loose litany of regurgitative nods to an imposing original.
The Exorcist: Believer is in US and UK cinemas on October 6.