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‘Exorcist’ vs. ‘Saw’: Go with the bummer – Play It Again, Tim

The Exorcist: Believer
Written by Tim Miller

Demonic possession is such a bummer.

I was reminded of this while taking in a horror double-feature the other night. With Halloween coming up, it seemed like the thing to do.

First up was “The Exorcist: Believer” (R, 111 minutes, in theaters). Since the original version of “The Exorcist,” for my money the scariest movie ever made, came out in 1973, it has spawned several sequels and various ripoffs involving possessed children and adults who bend their bodies like Gumbys, rotate their heads and/or projectile puke. And let’s not forget the demonic voices: a raspy growl that’s even scarier than I sound like when I have my annual case of bronchitis.

This latest “Exorcist,” directed by David Gordon Green (who made the recent batch of “Halloween” movies), has a special cred because it marks the return of original star Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn, now 90, earned a best-actress Oscar nomination for her work as Chris MacNeil, mother of the possessed Reagan (not Ronald; a young girl played by Linda Blair).

Now Burstyn is back, in a supporting role, as Chris, who is drawn into a new case in which two adolescent girls are taken over by the devil.

The Exorcist: Believer

Kids being kids: Lidya Jewett, left, and Olivia O’Neill in a scene from “The Exorcist: Believer.” (Universal Pictures)

The girls, Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), leave school one day and secretly head out into the woods. There they dabble in the occult, trying to reconnect with Angela’s dead mom. They go missing for three days, and when they’re found they appear scared, dazed and confused. When questioned, both think they’ve only been missing for about three hours.

Then, when they are returned to their parents – Angela with dad Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Katherine with dad Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) and mom Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) – things get really intense.

Hello, Satan.

The occasional jump scares – “A snake!” – and the usual demonic high jinks ensue. But, along with the frights, the script – written by Green, Peter Sattler and Scott Teems – deals with themes related to faith, religion, the supernatural and the importance of community. Evil exists, the film says, and we might not always be able to control its consequences. But we don’t have to give up. We can try to do our best to battle it, and we can battle it together, as a team. We can have each other’s back.

That the filmmakers attempt to make “Believer” more than just a scarefest is admirable (the original “Exorcist” was much, much more than a horror movie). Burstyn’s presence does boost the proceedings (though I’m not crazy about how her character is used … and abused). Odom and Butz are, as usual, very good. There’s also a nice surprise at the end that is the highlight of the film.

Despite all of these virtues, the film seems like too much of a rehash of things we’ve seen before. And, despite the obvious effort involved, it still, ultimately, is a bummer. **½ (out of four)

Don’t see ‘Saw’

I’ll watch pretty much any movie – because it’s my job and because it’s my compulsion.

But, quite a few years ago, I decided to stop seeing “Saw” movies. After I’d seen about six of them (I can’t remember the exact number, and Google searches haven’t been much help), I stopped reviewing them.

Why? Because the “Saw” movies were all essentially the same, and my reviews of them were all essentially the same. If they were all good movies, that might have been different. But they all seemed like torture porn, and, though I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish, I no longer wanted to waste my – or the readers’ – time. I wrote to readers that if I got any information that would suggest there might be something worthwhile in any new “Saw” movie, I’d rethink this stance.

No new information was forthcoming.

Saw X

Things could be better: Life takes a turn for the ugly for Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa) in “Saw X.” (Lionsgate)

But after several years and several “Saw” movies, I decided to give them another chance with “Saw X” (R, 118 minutes, in theaters). Why? I don’t know. Maybe I liked the “X,” or the fact that the series had hit double figures. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I had time to kill. (Actually, I know I had time to kill; I was done with my school work week and there were no baseball playoffs on TV that night to watch instead.)

So, I saw “Saw.” “Saw 10,” to be exact.

And it’s essentially more of the same.

Sure, there’s a somewhat different story. This time, John Kramer/aka serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has cancer and seeks an experimental cure in Mexico. But, soon after, he’s back in the familiar territory of torturing a group of deserving people in extremely gruesome ways. (He claims he’s set up situations in which they torture themselves, but this is just as much baloney as some of the comically hypocritical heartwarming moments involving Mr. Jigsaw with people he actually cares about. It’s like watching Hitler pet a dog.)

And that’s the gist of it. We watch people get mutilated, one at a time. Yes, there are some “twists,” but most moviegoers will probably see them coming a mile away. I know I did.

Bell, with his sinister whisper, actually is terrific in the role. And series regular Shawnee Smith is good. The torture devices are, um, imaginative.

But for what purpose? To be scary? Yes, “Saw X” is a little scary. But it’s mostly just sadistic and repulsive (Human intestines used as rope? Fun!). It’s dehumanizing.

“The Exorcist: Believer” might be a bummer, but “Saw X” is foul. *

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller, Movie Critic

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Tomatometer-approved critic. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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