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“The Exorcist: Believer” demonstrates a healthy dose of reverence for the original without being afraid to rewrite the sacred text.

The Exorcist: Believer

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Let me clear the elephant in the room. Yes, I’ve seen the Rotten Tomatoes score (23% at the time of this writing). Yes, I’ve seen the dogpile of critical skewering, lambasting the film for being messy, uninspired, and unscary.

But I’m here to offer an alternate perspective.

If you’re hoping this 50-year-later legacy sequel will come close to rekindling the magic of one of the greatest horror films of all time, banish that thought. Unquestionably, the 1973 film directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, adapting his own 1971 novel of the same name, is an untouchable masterpiece.

Just like every single halfway-decent shark movie post-1975 is compared to the brilliance of Jaws, every demon possession/exorcism film after The Exorcist is compared, impossibly, to the gold standard.

Not only was The Exorcist flawlessly executed and genuinely horrifyingly terrifying, but it had the benefit of being truly and utterly surprising. At the time of its release, audiences had never seen anything like Friedkin’s ferocious dance with the devil. It notoriously left viewers shaken, even scarred by the lurid and unforgettable images on the big screen.

Fifty years later, the subgenre is so saturated that it feels like we’ve seen everything under the sun.

We’re no longer shocked by a sweet young girl turned sadistic purveyor of filth, obscenity, and moral corruption. We no longer gasp at the kind of brutal, effects-heavy exorcism scenes that permeate much of the genre.

While any attempt to ape the original will inevitably suffer in comparison, we still yearn for the nostalgic reminder of what we loved so much about The Exorcist. We hope to see the magic recreated but not strictly imitated.

And that’s a hell of a tall order.

If you’re open to watching this as a standalone film connected to but not bound by the baggage of its perfect predecessor, you may find much to love about Believer.

Opting for a sequel that takes place in the same universe rather than a remake was a wise choice. While it may not offer the shocks and legitimate scares of the original, I found it to be genuinely unnerving and foreboding from the jump.

The setup is effective, beginning with an emotional introduction to the film’s lead actor, Leslie Odom Jr.

The compelling Odom Jr. plays the widowed father, Victor, who loses his very pregnant wife in a catastrophic earthquake. After making an unthinkable choice, he’s now doing his best to single-handedly raise his thirteen-year-old daughter, Angela (a captivating Lidya Jewett).

Having never met her mother, Angela has a strong incentive to make contact with the spirit world, jumping at the chance to conduct a séance in the woods with her very religious best friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill).

Naturally, things do not go according to plan. The two girls disappear for three days, only to turn up in a barn miles away from home in a dreadful physical state. Concerns about the girls’ physical well-being soon give way to questions about their mental state as their behavior moves from strange to downright deranged.

As it becomes abundantly clear that what’s wrong with the girls is outside the expertise of medical professionals, skeptical non-believer Victor starts seeking help from whoever and wherever he can get it.

That help comes from a variety of unexpected sources, including his nosy neighbor, Ann, who happens to be a nurse at the hospital where Angela is being treated. She’s also harboring a secret past that included plans to become a nun before an unexpected pregnancy forced her out of the convent.

Ann is played by the remarkable Ann Dowd, who, let’s face it, is virtually incapable of not commanding every inch of the screen every minute she’s on it.

In a fun twist, Ann first suggests Victor reach out, not to an exorcist but rather to an expert in exorcisms — a best-selling author with real, firsthand experience.

I’ve seen ample criticism that the addition of The Exorcist’s Chris MacNeil, played once again by the dazzling Ellen Burstyn, is an unnecessary bit of pandering fan service.

Is MacNeil a critical character in the film’s plot development? Arguably, not really.

However, was it an absolute thrill for a rabid fan of the original like myself to see Burstyn once again take up the mantle of the beleaguered mom to the world’s most famous sacrificial lamb? Hell, yes.

I personally found her to be much more than a glorified cameo. I felt she brought some emotional gravitas and a compelling connection to the original without it feeling forced or trite. I loved her short but satisfying arc, which provided one of the film’s most exalted payoffs.

With Chris on board, the next step is to secure a man of the cloth to help exorcise the demons.

But in another twist, the Catholic church is too worried about a PR disaster to step in, and the priest they were counting on backs out at the last minute. Fortunately, however, Victor has brought reinforcements, representing a diversity of cultural and theological viewpoints.

This includes Ann, Victor’s spiritual friend Stuart (Danny McCarthy), and Stuart’s friend, the riveting African priestess Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili).

They are joined by Katherine’s devout parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles in a standout role; she’s complex and conveys maternal agony with gut-wrenching authenticity), and the argumentative Tony (Norbert Leo Butz).

Accompanying them is their pastor (Raphael Sbarge), who has experienced Katherine’s horrifying possession up close and personal — during a truly disturbing church service highly touted in the film’s trailers.

Eventually, the priest also has a change of heart and joins the climactic battle, but the Devil makes short work of him in one of Believer’s more satisfying bits of gruesomeness.

After a methodical, restrained buildup, the expected finale is every bit as intense, chaotic, and deliciously sinister as you’re hoping for.

It does require some patience to get there, and not every horror fan will be willing to indulge in the slow descent into hell.

It’s hard to argue, however, that the third act isn’t wildly fun and infinitely watchable, thanks to the spellbinding performances of its young actors, heaps of chilling imagery, impressive visual and makeup effects, and some powerful psychological horror with high emotional stakes.

A father’s agonizing choice at the birth of his daughter comes full circle in the most merciless of ways, and the ending delivers a power-packed punch of staggeri