The Exorcist: Believer

After 'Halloween', filmmaker David Gordon Green takes on 'The Exorcist' franchise 50 years after the iconic Oscar-nominated first movie, but with by-the-numbers results.
Sarah Ward
October 05, 2023

Overview

When they were making All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express and Your Highness together, plus Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones as well, did conversations between filmmaker David Gordon Green and actor Danny McBride go as follows? "Do you like all-time horror masterpieces?" one may've asked. "Is creating your own version of some of the genre-defining greats your ultimate dream?" the other could've responded. "What if we revived the best of the best from the 70s decades later?" might've been the enthusiastic next line. Then, as two of the driving forces behind 2018's Halloween and its follow-ups Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends kept chatting, "shall we keep their biggest stars, but in flicks that act as direct sequels to the OG films and ignore all of the past sequels, and also work as reboots sparking a new trilogy?" could've been the latest reply.

Thanks to the recent Halloween films, a natter like the above seems likely. Now that Green and McBride are also giving The Exorcist a spin, this kind of talk appears a certainty. So, writer/director Green was possessed with a new demonic screen story with McBride and Halloween Kills' Scott Teems, then penned a devil-made-me-do-it script with Camp X-Ray's Peter Sattler. The result is The Exorcist: Believer, a 50-years-later return to head-twisting dances with evil — this time with a prologue in Haiti rather than Iraq, the bulk of the action set in Georgia instead of Washington, DC's Georgetown, and two girls not one in need of faith's help to cast out malevolent fiends. Green and McBride's swap from Michael Myers to Pazuzu also already has its own trinity in the works, with first sequel The Exorcist: Deceiver due in 2025.

As it apes the original movie's structure, there's a touch of trickery in starting The Exorcist: Believer in Port-au-Prince: the city's 2010 earthquake is used to get the plot in motion, a move that lands queasily, clunkily and exploitatively. Perhaps Green and company thought that slipping into a real-life tragedy's skin then wreaking havoc was a fitting piece of mirroring; instead, that choice should've been exorcised. Photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) is holidaying with his heavily pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves, On Ten) when the earth rumbles, leading to him becoming a single father — but not before the baby is blessed in utero by a local healer. Cut to 13 years later, where teenager Angela (Lidya Jewett, Ivy + Bean) is introduced rifling through her mother's belongings, then convincing her grief-stricken dad to let her have an after-school date with her classmate Katherine (debutant Olivia O'Neill). She doesn't tell him that they'll be trying to contact Sorenne via a seance in the woods, though.

Christianity reaches The Exorcist: Believer via Katherine, plus her devout parents Miranda (Jennifer Nettles, The Righteous Gemstones) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz, Justified: City Primeval). Two bedevilled kids means more concerned adults, with the latter's nightmares beginning when Angela and Katherine don't return home from their forest frolic for three days. Once the girls re-emerge, they're withdrawn and erratic. The medical diagnosis is trauma; however, that doesn't explain the spooky happenings. Miranda and Tony contend that something unholy is afoot from the instant that the teens go missing, but Victor takes convincing. There's no lack of folks endeavouring to sway his thinking, as led by believing neighbour and nurse Ann (Ann Dowd, The Handmaid's Tale), who points him in the direction of someone who has been there, seen that and dealt with all the terrors of having a daughter taken over by Pazuzu: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, Law & Order: Organised Crime).

Shorter than its inspiration but feeling longer, The Exorcist: Believer largely operates in two modes post-preamble: slowly setting the scene, building up to the thrashing, voices and good-versus-evil battle that everyone knows is coming (the film is called The Exorcist, after all); and letting the expected play out. Both are overextended, which doesn't up what little suspense, scares or tension that the feature has — but does benefit the movie's actors and their performances. More time spent with Tony-winners Odom Jr (for Hamilton) and Butz (for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can) gives The Exorcist: Believer more emotional depth, as much needed. Jewett and O'Neill are visibly enjoying themselves in the picture's darkest turns. Oscar-winner Burstyn (for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) plays a smaller part, but her presence has weight to it. Alas, that's all that the film sadly wants of her, as it sets up one possible path, takes it away and then leans on easy nostalgia.

As 2018's Halloween did with that saga's 40th anniversary, The Exorcist: Believer has timed its arrival carefully; 2023 marks half a century since William Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel that started it all. Green again considers the source material sacred, and it is: earning the now-late but always-great Friedkin his second Best Director Oscar nomination two years after he won for The French Connection, The Exorcist is a horror titan. It made history as the first-ever horror film nominated for Best Picture, too. Not just its own sequels (1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic and 1990's The Exorcist III) and prequels (2004's Exorcist: The Beginning and 2005's Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) took its lead, but everything about demonic hauntings since 1973. Still, while The Exorcist: Believer is certainly better than the unrelated The Pope's Exorcist, also from 2023, it's as dispiritingly by the numbers as it can be in attempting to emptily copy Friedkin, resurrect lines, get notes of the same score echoing and keep to the franchise playbook.

When controversy surrounded the OG The Exorcist all those years back, the ideas and sights that helped cause it had meaning. A crisis of faith lingered throughout the film as heavy as dread, unease and alarm. When the Pazuzu-possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair, Landfill) stabbed violently downwards with a crucifix, the movie's musing on religion's love of the patriarchy and the latter's struggle with girls when they reach puberty were searing. The list goes on, as Green knows but can't match. The Exorcist: Believer amasses a multi-faith group to do the exorcising this time, deploying inclusivity to comment on the changing role that worship plays in modern American life, yet only weakly says the obvious. The patriarchy is addressed again, overtly in monologues, but mostly The Exorcist: Believer plays like its big church-set moment: wandering in to make a big bloody scene while just splashing around some standard shocks.

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