For 50 years, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has landed on every list of the best horror movies and, for that matter, turned up on countless compilations of the Greatest Movies of All Time. Since then, its numerous sequels, imitators, knock-offs, and wannabes have all proven one thing: the movie has a limited premise. The Exorcist: Believer, Blumhouse and David Gordon Green’s new sequel/revival, hits this wall too, though it tries with all its might to ascend beyond a simple rehash.
To his credit, Green, who revived the Halloween franchise with a paint-by-numbers/The Force Awakens-style rehash, goes to greater lengths here to tell an original story while still peppering in bits of nostalgia. The film's opening shot of two dogs fighting recalls a similar shot in the prologue of the original Exorcist, as does Believer’s prelude. Set against the backdrop of the actual 2010 Haitian earthquake, photographer Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) get caught amid the disaster, which forces Victor to choose to save Sorenne’s life or the life of their unborn child.
Thirteen years later, Victor & Sorenne’s daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) mourns the loss of the mother she never met. Like many an adolescent, she and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) have an interest in occult mysteries. The two girls hatch a plan to try and contact the spirit of Sorenne, and disappear into a nearby woods after school. Victor and Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), sense of unity comes under strain as the couple wants to pray for the girls’ safe return. Victor, an atheist, wants no part of their prayers.
Three days later, when the girls reappear, the parents’ relief turns to anxiety as Katherine and Angela begin exhibiting strange behavior. When Angela turns violent, Victor institutionalizes her. Ann (Ann Dowd), a neighborhood nurse, tells Victor that Angela also spoke of details she never shared with anyone about her past. Ann suspects demons have possessed the girls and refers Victor to former actress turned spiritual advisor Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
The Exorcist has become so ingrained in pop culture that viewers today overlook one of the film’s keys to success. Director William Freidkin paced the movie as a slow burn—audiences, much like the film’s characters, had to wonder if the “sick” little girl at the center of the film could maybe, possibly, actually be possessed by a demon. Today, audiences take for granted all the demon mayhem in any exorcism movie and expect it upfront.
With Exorcist: Believer, Green more or less acquiesces to that expectation. Though this approach does help the movie’s pacing, it also sacrifices the character development. For all their snarling and thrashing, Jewett and Marcum don’t have nearly as much screentime or complexity as Linda Blair’s Reagan had in the original film. Audiences will care more about Angela and Katherine as plot devices rather than people. They won’t feel the nauseating anxiety of watching a child they care about succumb to the torture of possession. Worse, as the movie progresses, the girls’ weird behavior comes off as less frightening than silly. At our screening, scenes designed to raise the tension and scare the audience generated snickers.
Then, in a twist fitting for a movie about spirituality, a miracle occurs: Burstyn graces the screen. Maybe it’s her age (she’s 90, after all), or maybe it’s her long and prestigious career as one of America’s greatest actors, but the credibility of The Exorcist: Believer changes with her arrival. The press has made much of her massive payday to return to her role, something she refused to do for five decades. Critics have written off her participation as a cynical money grab. But Burstyn never flinches in her commitment to her character. An actor of lesser talent or class could have given a phoned-in, zombified performance. Burstyn doesn’t and treats her role with all the gravity a story like this demands.
Return of a Heroine
Maybe because Burstyn sets such a towering example, all the actors here commit to their roles, and the second half of Believer plays much stronger than the first. In fact, for all its predictable horror splatter and special effects overload, the movie even manages a few genuine scares. Some late-in-the-game plot twists and revelations also suggest Green had something to say with this material, more so than making a beat-for-beat copy, as he did with Halloween. Green could never match Freidkin’s audacity, though he, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and writer Peter Sattler pepper in camera angles and plot details designed to evoke Freidkin’s style.
All of this probably makes The Exorcist: Believer sound better than it actually is. Despite some clever plot twists and revelations, the climax veers into Grand Guginol VFX overkill. Though the actors all commit, only Dowd’s Ann and Odom’s Victor get real depth. Several characters, including a priest played by E.J. Bonilla, ministers played by Raphael Sbarge and Danny McCarthy, and a faith healer played by Okwui Okpokwasili, get none at all. Green does allow Burstyn to get in on the action, though he burdens both her and Dowd with long exposition dumps. It testifies to the talents of both actresses that they manage to make them interesting. Heavy-handed cross-cutting to actors in demonic makeup, as opposed to Freidkin's semi-subliminal subtlety, weighs down the film's attempts at high art to the level of imitator dreck.
That also brings up another interesting creative choice, one that will likely earn the ire of some viewers. Fifty years ago, Christian fundamentalists—including the Rev. Billy Graham—accused The Exorcist of somehow harboring actual demons buried inside the celluloid. Because the movie also popularized the idea of possession, various denominations have also made a cottage industry out of exorcism and demonic expulsion. Those Exorcist profiteers will likely scoff at the way Believer muddies and combines faiths.
A Potpourri of Faiths the exorcist: believer
Unlike the explicit Catholicism of the rite performed in the original film, this new incarnation combines Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and even Afro-Caribbean folk magic in its exorcism scene. This update fits with more contemporary views on religion; for example, most Americans identify as “spiritual” rather than with a specific religious group. Detractors will attack The Exorcist: Believer for diluting the pro-Catholic, or more generally, pro-Christian “message” of the original movie. Contrary to that belief, William Freidkin, a devout atheist, never intended The Exorcist as a polemic of faith. Indeed, faith doesn’t drive the characters of the original movie; guilt does—guilt of being a workaholic mother, a priest’s guilt over parental estrangement and loss of religious faith, a child’s guilt over an absent father. The Exorcist: Believer continues that meditation, though in a much less challenging hey, aren’t all faiths great kind of way. Philosophical clashes aside, the religious hodgepodge here makes the climactic exorcism seem absurd.
Then again, all of The Exorcist: Believer shares that absurdity. Though nowhere near as bad as some reviews or early “test screening” buzz would suggest (don’t believe internet rumors, kids), it doesn’t succeed beyond a passable, entertianing-for-fans demon romp. Then again, how could it? What more can a filmmaker do with an exorcism movie beyond building up to a big special effects exorcism scene? Blumhouse has already announced two more sequels in this revival trilogy and though The Exorcist: Believer ends on a promising note, it seems like these movies would require another miracle for Green to transcend the limitations of the premise.
Is a mediocre, not quite godawful movie the best outcome Exorcist fans can put their faith in?
RATING: 6.5/10 SPECS
The Exorcist: Believer opens in cinemas October 6. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
David Reddish is the award-winning novelist behind The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus and the Sex, Drugs & Superheroes series. He's also a noted entertainment journalist, having written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, MovieWeb, ScreenRant, Queerty, and Playboy.