Filmmakers have been trying to figure out how to follow in the cloven hoof-steps of 1973’s zeitgeist-exploding The Exorcist almost since it was released, and, despite some memorable attempts, no one’s ever succeeded. Often unfairly dismissed as a grosser-than-gross supernatural thriller steeped in religious symbology, William Friedkin’s film can be interpreted, alternately, as a metaphor for the terrors of puberty, an anti-science screed, or even a commentary on second-wave feminism, all of which is possible when you have a film being made by and for adults; it’s also worth noting how much the director’s famed misanthropy bled into the film, lending it a sort of cruelty that’s still bracing fifty years later. But by treating the subsequent films as either a rematch or a prelude to a battle between the forces of good and some offshoot of the demon Pazuzu, audiences fail to understand what was so primal and upsetting about the original; namely, the loss of control, erosion of hope, and pervasive sense of violation of the innocent that have proven far more unsettling than all the projectile vomit and levitation.
All of which is to say that David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer makes all the expected missteps as well as a few unexpected ones. Green, whose career trajectory from Malick-acolyte and indie darling to the director of stoner comedies is every bit as enigmatic as God’s will, comes to The Exorcist: Believer having previously directed a trilogy of financially successful albeit thematically muddled Halloween sequels that could have augured well for this film. Serving almost as anti-fan service, the Halloween reboot trilogy — particularly the latter two — frequently pushed both Laurie Strode and Michael Myers to the edges of the frame, focusing instead on the parochial townsfolk of Haddonfield who, over forty-odd years, had allowed their proximity to “the Shape” to destroy their faith in mankind. At times barely functioning as horror films, Green’s indifference towards tried-and-true genre beats allowed the filmmaker to follow his muse to a certain extent, smuggling digression and messy humanity into the much-anticipated sequels while presenting a version of smalltown America that felt like a funhouse mirror distortion of our divided country. They barely held together as films, but no one could credibly claim they played it safe.
No such luck with The Exorcist: Believer. A “legacy sequel” in the dreariest sense of the term, the film dutifully retraces the more memorable moments of its forebear while dragging the handful of surviving cast members from the original out of semi-retirement to lend it a patina of continuity. Opening with a prologue set during the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, the film introduces our hero, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), establishing how he lost his very pregnant wife as well as his faith in God before jumping forward to the present, with the action relocating to a suburb outside of Atlanta. Now a widower, Victor dotes on his thirteen-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) to the point of smothering the poor girl. After Angela cajoles Victor into letting her hang out after school with her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), the two girls surreptitiously head off into the woods, intending to hold a séance to commune with Angela’s late mother. When neither girl returns home, it triggers a manhunt that lasts until they’re discovered three days later, huddled in a stable, with no recollection of what happened to them or how they even got there.
From there, the film adheres to a familiar blueprint. Both young women begin to demonstrate alarming new tendencies, including distortions to their physical appearance, speaking in raspy disembodied voices, violently thrashing about, causing themselves and others harm, even evidencing messages that appear to be scratched from the inside of their bodies, begging for help. While Katherine’s evangelical parents (Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles) are slow to recognize the signs of possession, it’s nonbeliever Victor who seeks out a familiar face — Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, making no bones about her mercenary reasons for returning to one of her most iconic roles) — for guidance on how to save a child being tormented by a demon. Having refashioned herself as something of an expert on possessions over the last five decades — she claims the reason she was unable to participate in her daughter Regan’s exorcism was because of “the patriarchy,” which is the sort of thing that’s supposed to sound smart or prescient but means absolutely nothing — Chris briefly serves as the role of sage, guiding our characters through what to expect when they’re exorcizing. It’s not long before we’re getting taunts of loved ones “burning in hell,” heads twisted in inhuman rotations, crucifixes being inserted into orifices where they don’t belong, and gallons of stomach contents being regurgitated. In other words, very much the same old, same old.
One of the remarkable things about the ‘73 film is that none of the characters seemed to recognize that they were appearing in a horror movie. Everyone is caught up in their own little worlds of peccadilloes, revelry, and personal dramas before being dragged into the all-consuming gravitational pull of Regan’s possession. Who can forget Lee J. Cobb’s homicide detective and film buff Kinderman, interrupting his own investigation to bashfully request an autograph from movie star Chris? Or Jason Miller’s Father Karras, anguished by a crisis of faith and the loss of his elderly mother that finds him contemplating abandoning the clergy? The horror was often found in the way the profane rudely intruded on day-to-day life (e.g., Regan interrupting a party to play the role of harbinger of doom before urinating on the rug). By comparison, the characters in The Exorcist: Believer seem to have no inner lives; nobody says or does anything memorable or recognizably human that isn’t in the service of furthering the narrative. Everyone behaves as though they’re on standby, simply marking time until they’re required to participate in an exorcism. The nosey lady who lives next door, played by Ann Dowd? She’s not only a trauma nurse, but was on the path to becoming a nun as a young woman (both come in handy). Katherine’s folksy family pastor (Raphael Sbarge) is quickly pulled into the cause, and even Victor’s sparring partner from the gym (Danny McCarthy) has a voodoo priestess on speed dial. At times, The Exorcist: Believer feels like a multi-denominational The Avengers, where only through rallying half a dozen different faiths — Judaism and Islam get to sit this one out — will our heroes have a chance against the forces of evil. It’s a curiously hopeful note to strike, and it may be the closest the film comes to reflecting Green’s humanist sensibilities; still, it feels incongruous and even unearned in this setting.
But the most grievous sin committed by The Exorcist: Believer is how rank dull it all is. On the most basic of levels, the film fails to quicken the pulse or truly shock the viewer. There’s nothing particularly transgressive or gutting about the possession of the girls — the sexualization of tweens has become such a third rail in recent years that even demons know not to touch it — and as neither they nor their parents register as living, breathing creations, their torment is strictly academic. Further, Green’s filmmaking is entirely anonymous, skimping on sustained dread and malevolent atmosphere in favor of jump scares and startling flash frames; hurtling along from incident to incident with nary a moment to reflect or allow the enormity of the subject matter to permeate. If Friedkin treated the material like a war of attrition, breaking down the spirits of the combatants as much as the flesh of the afflicted, Green reconceives it as a sprint: racing through the exorcism itself as though the whole film were merely a prelude to its inevitable sequel (the film was announced as part of, wait for it… a horror trilogy). From stem to stern, it goes through the motions of what an Exorcist movie is supposed to look like in 2023, complete with manipulative callbacks to the original, inoffensive yet blandly forgettable performances, and cheap-looking aesthetics (here, the late cinematographer Owen Roizman and makeup extraordinaire Dick Smith are as dearly missed as Friedkin is). For all its intentions of honoring the legacy of the franchise, The Exorcist: Believer is just another subpar horror movie, cynically drifting off the affection for another, more beloved, film without ever justifying its own existence.
DIRECTOR: David Gordon Green; CAST: Leslie Odom Jr., Ellen Burstyn, Olivia O’Neill, Ann Dowd, Lidya Jewett; DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 1 min.