Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ lacks the power to compel

click to enlarge Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ lacks the power to compel
Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett), left, and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) in“The Exorcist: Believer,” directed by David Gordon Green. (UniversalPictures/Submitted)

“The Exorcist” is the latest iconic horror franchise to receive the legacy sequel treatment. But despite an inkling of hope that it could be a return to form for the series, the new “The Exorcist: Believer” is little more than another overblown horror sequel that fails to step out of the shadow of its groundbreaking originator.

Like the 2018-22 “Halloween” reboot/sequel trilogy before it, “The Exorcist: Believer” was directed and co-written by David Gordon Green. Ignoring previous sequels, it instead opts to tell a new story while still existing within the same universe as the original.

Set 13 years after his wife was killed in an earthquake in Haiti, photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a single father living in Atlanta. But when his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) play hooky after school and run off into the woods, it results in a three-day police search for the girls, who when found have no memory of what happened or how long they had been missing.

Things are mostly smooth sailing up to this point. Although it doesn’t evoke the same feeling of dread, the opening scene in Haiti feels modern while still having some awareness of William Friedkin’s 1973 original “The Exorcist,” which was adapted by writer William Peter Blatty from his own 1971 novel. Odom Jr. has a warmth that makes his relationship with Jewett’s character easy to get invested in, and while those in supporting roles don’t generate the same level of interest, the father-daughter bond is a solid enough foundation for the first act.

But as the characters’ lives are upended when it’s revealed the girls have brought something home with them, so too is the emotional core. As it dives into the supernatural, it attempts to up the stakes from the first film with two possessions — and, resultantly, devolves into a series of modern horror tropes and jump scares with a flashier exterior.

Much has been made about “The Exorcist: Believer” being the first film in the franchise in 50 years to feature Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, mother to Regan, who was possessed in the 1973 film. Reintroduced as an author who has dedicated her life to researching demonic possession and exorcisms, she is brought back to offer a voice of expertise given her experiences. Burstyn’s talents are wasted, however, as she does her best with the material given but pans out to little more than a glorified cameo.

“The Exorcist: Believer” lacks the atmosphere and depth of storytelling that made the first one so compelling, and when it does stick to its roots it’s by way of direct callbacks that have already been done better.

“The Exorcist: Believer” is now playing in theaters.

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