The opening third, which sets all of the narrative pieces in place, is the slowest and subtlest part of the movie. But it’s also the most satisfying because of the confident way it uses silence, misdirection, and negative space to make the audience wonder if evil is already present in the story or if we’re just being paranoid. Green has clearly studied William Friedkin’s original as if it were a holy (or unholy?) text and reproduces some of the master’s techniques for setting viewers on edge: for instance, adding a disruptive sound (such as a car horn) when the movie cuts from one scene to another, or cutting away to unnerving, oddly framed closeups (flashes of demonic faces and bloody wounds, shots of jackhammers, and so on) when characters are having important conversations. The film becomes less compelling as it goes along, however, ultimately succumbing to the horror movie equivalent of the problem that often afflicts superhero movies packed with lots of heroes and villains. The story’s energy gets dispersed, and the movie gradually loses touch with the source of its initial power, the privilege of focusing on the main characters: a widowed father named Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett).
We meet Victor in the film’s prologue, set in Haiti, where Victor and his very pregnant wife, both photographers, are vacationing. An earthquake collapses the building they’re staying in and crushes her, though not before she accepts the locals’ blessing to protect the baby. Doctors tell Victor they can save his wife or unborn daughter, but not both. We know how that turned out. The script elides exactly how it came about and how it affected Victor, saving it all for future revelations and gradually expanding flashbacks.
Thirteen years later, father and daughter live in Atlanta, Georgia, where Victor has a thriving photographic portrait studio. The now-13-year-old Angela asks permission from her understandably super-protective father to have her first-ever after-school studying visit with a classmate: her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), whose parents (Jennifer Nettles and Danny McCarthy) are Catholic. Unfortunately, this is no ordinary study break: the girls spent a couple of furtive hours in the woods near the school, communicating with a spirit at the bottom of some kind of abandoned shaft, and emerge, um, different.