“Is David Gordon Green’s ‘Exorcist’ Reboot Possessed by Budget Constraints? Find Out Now!”

Exorcist’ Reboot Possessed by Budget Constraints

Director David Gordon Green’s “Exorcist” franchise gets an oddly vigilant reboot with its first installment, “The Exorcist: Believer.” And we’re doing it with a cautious eye on the budget.  Green recently completed his “Halloween” trilogy, which started off strong and made quite a bit of money.

The second installment stumbled a bit but still turned a profit. However, the final chapter, “Halloween Kills,” ended up as one of the most critically panned entries in recent commercial filmmaking.  Can Green chart a different course with this trilogy? “The Exorcist: Believer” is the work of a talented, capable, mid-budget success story.

There was a time when Green, whose career took a new trajectory with the popularity of 2008’s “Pineapple Express,” turned out small, distinct, unprofitable gems like “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” 

I remember David Gordon Green. I remember the unique promise and exploratory spirit of his earlier work.  If he can somehow figure out how to make his way back into the producer’s chair on the next two “Exorcist” films and take them more toward the territory of a profitable explosion that’s more about hitting marks and jumping scares than it is about exorcising demons (here are two or three genuinely excellent, for sure), who knows? Maybe we’ll get films that feel alive and breathing.  

The groundwork here, as presented by co-writers Green and Peter Sattler, is a solid start, and indeed, “The Exorcist: Believer” provides enough substance for an hour.  It establishes an intriguing premise in Haiti, placing photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) in a dire situation after a devastating earthquake, and subsequently on a lawless road with minimal digital impact, informing Doctor Victor that he may have a choice to save his critically injured pregnant wife, Sorene (Tracey Greaves), or their unborn daughter.

Sorene implores him with her dying breath, “Save her.” Thirteen years later, in a quaint Georgia town, Victor and daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett) lead cautious, organized, emotionally bound lives.

After an unfortunate incident following school, Angela and her church friend Catherine (Olivia O’Neil) venture into the woods, where they dabble in some self-affirming incantations, and for Angela, connect with her long-deceased mother.  

Three days later, her parents are shaken, their minds blank, found in a cornfield, with no recollection of where they were or what happened. Of course, the audience knows, as they’ve likely seen the poster for “The Exorcist: Believer”:  Linda Blair’s possessed face in a familiar return, this time with not one but two teenage girls.

Doubling down on the possession count, the film zigzags its way to its conclusion, showcasing various distressed and distraught adults facing off against the devil. “The Exorcist: Believer” brings in a Catholic priest, for nostalgia’s sake, but this time we’re working with an eclectic group of well-intentioned enthusiasts. (It’s like a bad day at a book club.)

Olivia Marcum and Lidya Jewett in “The Exorcist: Believer.” credit: © Universal Pictures/TNS/TNS

Among the adults, Victor’s melancholic neighbor, a nurse and one-time Catholic novice, Ain Dowd, is included, played by Ain Dowd; Catherine’s genuinely Baptist parents (Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles);  Victor’s Pentecostal friend Stuart (Danny McBride); and, on the periphery, somewhat anachronistically, cameo appearances by Ellen Burstyn as Linda Blair’s now estranged mother, who started all of this back in 1973.

Burstyn hadn’t worked in “The Exorcist” since William Friedkin’s 1973 hit film, and the way her return as Chris is shown in the story, you hope her payday was worth it.

She’s certainly welcome, but her treatment is as heartless as Jamie Lee Curtis’s role in “Halloween Kills.”  Some dedicated horror fans might find something to latch onto with “The Exorcist: Believer”; Green and his editor, Timothy Alverson, deliver some genuinely unsettling moments and simple beats of leaving children behind at school. 

“Suddenly, they establish a rhythm that cuts deep. The slow zoom technique of the 70s and the restless camera movement are much appreciated in Green, making it impossible to ever be sure whether what we are watching is a well-established shot, the beginning of a full scene, or fake. In some ways, this film feels as if it’s from a year or two before ‘The Exorcist.’

 The level of gore is probably not what many expect to find here because, ultimately, they found it at its core. Everyone has their own take on this material; I’m writing this as someone who believes the original Friedkin film was impactful, yes, and decidedly a clever lesson in how to secure an R rating for ex-level serious corruption.

(It helps keep a lot of Catholic advisors around your demonic-hold horror film.) For millions around the world, Friedkin’s film meant much more. Clearly, director Green wasn’t interested in trying to match the bizarre extremes we saw in 1973, and there’s no interest in doing so.

We expect to see those extreme limits with the next two in the trilogy. ‘The Exorcist: Deliver Us’ feels adequate, that’s underwhelming; it works for a while, and then it starts to falter around the midway point, and the climax of banishing spirits is really nothing.

 In the role of the main character, Odum, buried in the shadow of relentless pain, appears neutral while offering minimal reactions. A major supporting character, original female Dr. Beehive (Oquui Okaforwasili), joins the fight against evil when she’s needed the most, but the ghost-banishing scene concept and Gordon’s handling seem shaky.

 And if there’s one thing die-hard fans of demonic possession crave from ‘The Exorcist’ films, it’s expertise in screen time. In the immediate years before and after the original ’73 ‘Exorcist,’ a handful of hardcore, disturbing horror films “pushed the envelope” far ahead, but either because of their style or, in some cases, due to a genuine shortage, they miraculously elevated every risk.

Chicane “Night of the Living Dead,” 1968. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” 1974. “Suspiria,” 1977. That kind of thing is still like screen horror. For millions, Friedkin’s film is at the top of them all; it’s undoubtedly the benchmark for the pre-digital age.

 ‘The Exorcist: Deliver Us’ has its moments, but we’re half a century away from this thing. And the responsible film producer will have to show us something new; besides preserving memories of projectile vomiting and head-turning, there is much more to life and movie watching.”

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