Films about possession are a dime a dozen nowadays, and some have been moderately successful at the box office. So it doesn’t surprise me that director David Gordon Green and the Blumhouse production company would cash in on the name recognition of the most famous possession movie, “The Exorcist.” The late William Friedkin’s 1973 hit has already spawned two sequels, two prequels, and a TV series, all connected in some way to the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty.
“The Exorcist: Believer” is a requel — a cross between a sequel, a remake, and a reboot — and the first in a trilogy of new films. Far too much of this movie is a replay of scenes and plot elements that Friedkin’s film did better, and without CGI. The anticipated head-spinning and pea-soup vomit were far more effective with practical effects.
Though Green tries all types of terror tactics from sudden jump cuts to graphic gore, there isn’t a single scare in the entire 121-minute runtime. However, there are several scenes that are unintentionally hilarious, which made me enjoy this hot mess more than I should have.
To top it all off: Ellen Burstyn returns as Chris MacNeil, the role that got her an Oscar nomination for “The Exorcist.” That casting alone is enough to make you yell out “Boy (Captain) Howdy!” The 90-year old actor, who didn’t return for any prior installment, signed on after the studio agreed to fund a scholarship program for acting students at New York’s Pace University. So, some good will come out of this after all.
“We’ve met before,” MacNeil says vengefully when Pazuzu, the demon she battled in the first film, speaks to her through Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), the teenage girl currently possessed by the demon. She invokes Regan, MacNeil’s daughter who was played by Linda Blair in the first two “Exorcist” installments. Regan has been estranged since her mother wrote a book about the exorcism that drove Pazuzu out of her.
Green and co-writer Peter Sattler offer Pazuzu a two-for-one sale this time: Katherine’s friend, Angela (Lidya Jewett), is also possessed. This revolting development occurs when the duo sneak into the woods and attempt to contact Angela’s late mother, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), through some form of hypnotic ritual. They are found three days later, 30 miles away with no memory of what happened.
The first exchange between Pazuzu and MacNeil primes us for a confrontation akin to the one Green gave Jamie Lee Curtis in his reboot of the “Halloween” franchise. Unfortunately, Burstyn’s role here is just a glorified cameo, though it does provide a scene of fan service that will either delight or infuriate viewers.
Sorenne dies in the film’s prologue when she and her photographer husband, Victor (“Hamilton”'s Leslie Odom Jr.) are caught in an earthquake in Haiti. Just before she is crushed in the wreckage of a building, Sorenne is offered a spiritual blessing for her unborn child. When the doctors tell Victor that he must choose between saving his wife and child, his choice appears obvious.
Being widowed cost Victor his faith, making him a non-believer. On the flip side, Katherine’s parents Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) are deeply religious members of a church run by Baptist preacher Pastor Don (Raphael Sbarge). The parents have never met before, so they are immediately suspicious of one another.
They all realize they have something in common when Angela and Katherine start exhibiting such unholy behavior as freaking out in church, beating the stuffing out of their parents, and speaking in a voice that sounds like a cross between Wolfman Jack and Barry White run through a shorted-out synthesizer.
In the original film, the Jesuits were the heroes. This time, “The Exorcist: Believer” relies on a group representing various faiths to assist in the climactic exorcism. In addition to Pastor Don, there’s Pentecostal preacher Stuart (Danny McCarthy), healer Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), and priest Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla).
Rounding out that ensemble is Ann (Ann Dowd), an ex-nun who’s the first to realize that something is amiss when Pazuzu-as-Angela spills the tea about why Ann left the convent, a terrible secret only she would know. Of all the performances in “The Exorcist: Believer,” Dowd’s is the one that stays with you. Odom does his best with a somewhat static role, and O’Neill and Jewett are clearly having fun being bad.
Everyone else barely registers, which makes the very busy climactic sequence far less effective than the original’s memorable battle between good and evil.
The power of criticism compels me to tell you that “The Exorcist: Believer” is godawful, and an affront to those who consider the original film a masterpiece. But the Pazuzu in me — that is, the demon who loves undeniable trash — is in charge of this review, and he disagrees.
In other words, the devil made me give this film two stars.
THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER
Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Green and Peter Sattler. Starring Leslie Odom Jr., Ellen Burstyn, Ann Dowd, Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Raphael Sbarge, Danny McCarthy, Okwui Okpokwasili, E.J. Bonilla, Tracey Graves. 121 min. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. Rated R (gore, profanity — its display of power is much too vulgar)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.