The Exorcist: Believer – even Satan seems asleep on the job in this desperate sequel

Lidya Jewett, left, and Olivia O'Neill in a scene from The Exorcist: Believer
Lidya Jewett, left, and Olivia O'Neill in a scene from The Exorcist: Believer - Universal Pictures

Ever hear the joke about the two possessed girls, their parents, the nurse next door, a local pastor, a witch doctor, some random Hispanic priest, and a few other bystanders all stuffed into one room trying to perform an exorcism? Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a punchline. It’s The Exorcist: Believer. Any hope that this sixth film in the franchise is going to hold a candle – even to the very worst ones that preceded it – is snuffed out a long way before.

The director is David Gordon Green, he of the recent Halloween reboots, and a man who has now had more botched chances to prove his mettle as a horror auteur than anyone deserves. Nothing in Green’s arsenal here – all the belching and make-up and CGI he can fling at the assignment – summons a fraction of the impact William Friedkin managed 50 years ago. The new film is poorly cast, with stick-figure supporting players all taking their turn to sound important before being shoved aside.

And it’s not even slightly scary. Two teens, played by Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, abscond together into the woods for three days, and return disoriented and scratched up by generic forces of evil. Leslie Odom, Jr, a charismatic actor who deserved a far better screenplay, plays Jewett’s father, who lost his wife in childbirth when a Haitian earthquake (well-staged, for what it’s worth) forced him to choose between her survival and the baby’s. Agnostic ever since, he doesn’t stand a chance of getting the demon out of his daughter unless he re-embraces God.

Sparks of acrimony between Odom’s Victor and the parents of the other abductee (Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz) are something a shrewder script might have stoked and intensified. Instead we’re just auditioning for the showdown from half an hour in, and the film plays out like an incredibly tedious season of America’s Got Exorcists. Poor Ellen Burstyn is roped in to tell her tale for 10 minutes, but admits she wasn’t even in the room for Friedkin’s climax. Unlike all the absolute chaff this time. The priest (EJ Bonilla) is a waste of space. Ann Dowd tries her best to lend ballast as a rather nosy nurse.

It’s truly embarrassing how little imagination is flexed all round: limp stabs at awe-inspiring set pieces, such as the white girl having a fit in church, are just thrown over to the composers to beef up. Green’s film, with dollars in its eyes, is intent on bolstering everyone’s faith using clear evidence of Satan’s handiwork. And yet Satan, too, seems asleep on the job, sending in amateur vassals who haven’t even learned the basics – filthy swearing, insults that land, and so forth. This pair, if they even are a pair, need detention at demon school: with good and evil equally flunking out, their battle’s as boring as hell.

15 cert, 111 min. In cinemas from Friday October 6