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The Exorcist: Believer is not as bad as you’d expect, but still not very good

David Gordon Green plants his flag in another horror franchise with the same messy results.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the work being covered here wouldn’t exist.

If you like loud noise jump scares, you’re going to love The Exorcist: Believer

They’re in abundance here. Doors slam, hands smack windows hard enough to crack them, dogs bark from out of nowhere. It’s as if director David Gordon Green didn’t trust that his movie was scary enough on its own merits, so he needed to make sure his audience was already on edge from literally within the first minute. It’s the horror equivalent of plying the audience with alcohol before a comedy show.

And he was right, The Exorcist: Believer isn’t very scary. You simply cannot mess with perfection, and “perfection” here is William Friedkin’s ability to create underlying unease that eventually becomes full-blown terror, without a bunch of “Boo! Gotcha!” shenanigans. Because the original was the blueprint, you can only imitate without duplicating. The Exorcist works because no one had ever seen anything like it before. Its legion (no pun intended) of sequels and prequels and rip-offs and homages can’t have the same impact: the audience anticipates everything that’s going to happen, and the only question is how it’s going to be done (and it’s never done as good as the original).

That being said, as opposed to his ever-diminishing returns take on the Halloween franchise, Green isn’t setting out to right the perceived wrongs of earlier movies in the franchise (so far, at least). The thread connecting the original to it is clear and straight, even if it lacks the thematic punch. In short, it coulda been worse.

Thirteen years after the death of his pregnant wife in the Haiti earthquake of 2010, photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is raising his adolescent daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) as a single father. This marks at least the third time this year, after The Boogeyman and Talk to Me, that a dead mother has factored into the plot of a horror movie, and I am begging filmmakers to give it a rest for a little while. ANYWAY, after Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) wander off into the woods to hold a makeshift seance, the girls disappear, and aren’t found until three days later, miles from home, unable to remember anything that’s happened to them, and believing they’ve only been gone for a few hours.

The Exorcist: Believer
The Exorcist: Believer (Universal)

They’re not even home a full day before it becomes apparent that whatever happened  to Angela and Katherine in the woods, it wasn’t anything good, and it changed them. Angela attacks her father, and Katherine has a hysterical breakdown while at church. Their bodies contort and their skin tears and bruises, as if outside forces are brutalizing them (they also develop receding hairlines, for some reason). Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) believe something otherworldly is going on, but Victor, the righteous non-believer, thinks it’s a psychiatric issue and immediately makes plans to hospitalize Angela. It’s not until a concerned neighbor (Ann Dowd) convinces him to speak with Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), now a retired expert on the rites of exorcism, that he begins to think otherwise.

You may have, as I did, met with trepidation the sight of Ellen Burstyn, now 90 years old, in the trailer for The Exorcist: Believer. I am relieved to say that she brings a quiet dignity to her limited time on screen, before Chris is quickly dispatched to the sidelines for the remainder of the film. She’s there mostly to add an air of legitimacy to the whole thing, and to offer a refresher course to the audience as to what an exorcism is, but she does it with grace.

The one unique spin Green (along with co-screenwriter Peter Sattler) puts on the story is suggesting that since every religion has its own form of exorcism, the ritual doesn’t have to be the sole proprietorship of the Catholic Church. Indeed, by the time things go down, the girls’ parents have enlisted a priest, a Baptist minister, a Haitian spiritualist, a Pentecostal preacher, and a former student nun to help save their souls. All they’re missing is a rabbi, a Ghostbuster, and Penn Jillette yelling that it’s all bullshit, just to cover all the bases. It’s rather silly, but emphasizes what seems to be the primary point of the film: when we’re facing darkness, we’re stronger when we have people on our side, even if we don’t share their beliefs.

That poignant message also unfortunately connects to one of the most pressing issues in the movie, and one that factors into all of Green’s horror movies: there are simply too many characters, and too little for them to do except stand around and look scared (save Leslie Odom, Jr., who makes the curious choice to act as though he’s pissed off about the whole thing). The plot is in such a hurry to get things going that we only get one (1) scene establishing Victor and Angela’s relationship, and no scene even establishing Katherine as a character (other than “Angela’s friend”), let alone her relationship with her family. Other than one family is religious, and the other isn’t, we know almost nothing about these people, and it considerably mutes the impact of their experience.  

If you like loud noise jump scares, you’re going to love The Exorcist: Believer

There’s also very little time spent developing the growing sense that something sinister is happening, doing away almost entirely with the dread that makes the original film leave such an indelible impression. In The Exorcist, it’s nearly 45 minutes in before Chris is aware that her daughter is more than just “sick.” Here, everything just seems to happen in an instant: the girls go missing, the girls are found, the girls immediately become unholy, cackling monsters, all in what feels like a matter of days. Believer is supposedly the first of a trilogy, but doesn’t offer much additional story to be told, not even ending on a cliffhanger.

That being said, there is one good shock scene in the third act, but it loses some of its impact when you realize it’s intended to be an audience-nudging nod to the original. On the other hand, a moment at the very end of the film is absolutely intended to be shameless fan service, but is surprisingly touching. Undoubtedly both those scenes will be met with the usual measured response by the horror community. 

The Exorcist: Believer is a solid C movie. It’s respectful to the source, but, like very nearly every other movie in the Exorcist franchise (save Exorcist III, which is practically its own standalone film), it’s superfluous and unable to measure up to it, despite its best efforts. If the planned trilogy follows the trajectory of the Halloween legacyquels, however, it’s also going to end up looking a lot better when the whole thing is done.

The Exorcist: Believer opens in theaters October 6th.

The Exorcist: Believer Trailer:

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