David Gordon Green’s Halloween – which ditched about a dozen different film spin-offs and positioned itself as a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s film, even throwing away material added by Carpenter in his Halloween II – was a bold, mostly effective back-to-basics franchise reboot, cannily built around the return of Jamie Lee Curtis (never mind that she’d returned before) and giving the now-veteran star an interesting take on her signature role. The two follow-ups frittered away the goodwill, to the extent that even Rob Zombie’s duo of Halloweens didn’t seem to be a low watermark for the series any more. The approach of DGG’s Halloween was so easily encapsulated that it’s been followed by reboots to Candyman, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hellraiser – it’s a surprise Blumhouse didn’t just call this The Exorcist and let future film-indexers distinguish it from William Friedkin’s 1973 ground-breaker. Again, we can shelve a bunch of sequels – one of which was shelved itself and replaced by a pod movie – and spin-offs from various hands … and it’s a frisson when Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) returns unsteadily to the territory, though given that the character was based in the first place on Shirley MacLaine – who’s herself become associated with alternative spirituality – Chris’ celebrity in the Exorcist universe has faded, reducing her to a relic who once wrote a book about her family experience which has alienated her once-possessed daughter Regan. Considering how many Conjuring, Amityville and Anneliese Michel movies there are in our reality, surely the MacNeil case – which involved the death of an A-list movie director and the supernatural equivalent of Lana Turner’s daughter killing her gangster lover – would have inspired a raft of TV movies, films, debunkings and James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Patrick Wilson is Father Karras series of Exorcising movies? Even the pics of young Regan we see are from Linda Blair’s Sarah T Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic movie rather than the original Exorcist.
Burstyn doesn’t get the showcase Curtis did, but maybe she didn’t want it – the original film didn’t give her the dramatic opportunities of, say, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or Requiem for a Dream, or even The King of Marvin Gardens or Resurrection. Being ‘her off The Exorcist’ might have done Burstyn – an ordained minister, incidentally — few favours, especially since she sustained a permanent back injury on the film. And she barely gets more to do here than Kevin McCarthy in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Sharon Gless had a better showcase as Chris in the underrated two-season Exorcist TV series which gave her a great entrance (‘Hello, Rags’) and cast Geena Davis as grown-up Regan. A paradox is that this would be a stronger picture if it dropped the sequel-to-The-Exorcist angle, but would then get lumped in with every other ‘the Power of Christ compels you’ quickie … and we’ve already had Prey for the Devil, The Pope’s Exorcist and The Nun II this year, not to mention the genuinely innovative and frightening Argentine demonic possession picture When Evil Lurks (or the consistently disturbing/interesting TV series Evil). In the kind of escalation you’d expect from a Part Two, the twist here is that two little girls in a suburban community disappear for three days in the woods and come back possessed – which prompts a whole gang of clerical and secular interested parties from faiths ranging from Catholicism to voodoo to stage a kind of gang exorcism deploying everything from Catholic ritual to inspirational parental love speeches in an attempt to get the demon to quit. In a Haiti-set prologue, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr) is given a tough choice as his pregnant wife is pinned under earthquake debris – save either the mother or the child? Late in the day, this issue is revisited when the demon (singular) asks the assembled exorcists and parents to pick which little girl should live. Given that DGG has shown a fractious and riven community – neighbour Ann (Ann Dowd), who pushes most for exorcism, is introduced nagging Victor about left-out dustbins – this ought to make for a more bitter argument, but the dramatics are muffed and muffled.
It may be down to my prejudices and cinematic convention, but when you cast Raphael Sbarge as a charismatic Protestant pastor I kind of expect him to turn out to be a bad guy – but Sbarge plays the role as if he were in a Christian-backed movie, which for all I know this is. The Catholic church, repped by a weedy priest (E.J. Bonilla) who stays outside the house praying in the car while the ritual is going on (‘fight’s in there,’ says Victor), take a few more knocks than in the usual exorcism movie – in the end, voodoo priestess/oncologist Dr Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili) has a firmer grasp on whatever is going on the the case. Olivia O’Neill and Lidya Jewett do a lot of Linda Blair’s old act, in tandem – but the bad language, vomiting and sticking-crucifixes-where-they-shouldn’t-go is reduced to 15 certificate levels which mute any attempt to match the original’s shock value. This has a few Conjuring-style jump scares and Odom Jr struggles to give a real, felt performance amid a jostle of supporting players. The Exorcist itself exists in several different cuts, testifying to its makers’ dissatisfaction with it – and all the sequels have been compromised, cut about, reworked and replaced on their path to being included in a box set. So it’s no surprise that this hasn’t turned out any better.
But still, Hollywood, yes, why not reboot Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen next. What’s the worst that could happen?