"The Exorcist: Believer" Attempts a Haunting Resurrection with Ellen Burstyn's Return


Half a century since its groundbreaking predecessor terrified audiences and defined a genre, "The Exorcist: Believer" endeavors to recapture that magic, fueled by the return of 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn to her iconic role. The film leans heavily on nostalgia, adding depth to an otherwise slow-burning narrative that sustains an eerie atmosphere before stumbling through a somewhat convoluted climax.

In 1973, the original "The Exorcist" shocked audiences with its tale of demonic possession, forever altering the way many viewed pea soup. Several sequels, a prequel, numerous TV specials, and countless imitations followed, solidifying the status of this title as an icon in horror cinema. Clearly, when a property carries this level of cultural weight, keeping the malevolent spirit at bay is no easy task.

This seems to be the mission with "Believer," a production from the horror powerhouse Blumhouse and directed by David Gordon Green, known for helming the recent "Halloween" trilogy. However, extending this franchise presents a formidable challenge. "The Exorcist" derived its terror from a subtle sense of foreboding, particularly around the staircase leading to the possessed girl's room, in contrast to the jump-scares and explicit gore now commonplace in the genre.

"Believer" attempts to marry these slightly divergent impulses, placing the film in a middle ground in terms of contemporary horror expectations while paying homage to its origins. The same goes for Burstyn's extended appearance, as the desperate father, Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), reluctantly seeks out Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), who, as it turns out, authored a book chronicling her harrowing experience.

Victor is raising his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett) alone, having lost her mother at birth. They share a seemingly contented life, but this doesn't prevent Angela from venturing into the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia O'Neill), engaging in a ritual to connect with her late mother.

The girls vanish for a time, and relief washes over everyone when they return. However, their behavior takes a distressing turn.

The film excels during this segment, as Katherine's parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) turn to their church for guidance, while Victor grapples with unsolicited advice from his concerned neighbor (Ann Dowd from "The Handmaid's Tale"). Jewett and O'Neill also deliver commendable performances, offering glimpses of evil that are even more unsettling than the average teenager.

To be frank, if the movie had stayed in this vein, it would have been more impactful, even if it meant alienating hardcore horror fans. The concluding stretch, however, attempts to transition into more conventional horror territory and loses itself in the theatrics, underscoring the adage "Less is more."

Despite the Burstyn boost, subtle nods like incorporating the spine-tingling original score "Tubular Bells," and the uneasy first half, "The Exorcist: Believer" still emerges as a moderately worthy successor. However, the plan to expand this into another trilogy a la "Halloween" raises doubts about whether there's enough substance to sustain it further.

Ultimately, the most reassuring aspect of "The Exorcist" was the possibility of Regan and her mother moving on with their lives after the quiet aftermath of their ordeal. While "Believer" ultimately hinges on the concept of faith, the only thing potentially worse than having too little of it is having an excess.

"The Exorcist: Believer" premieres on October 6 in US theaters and is rated R.