The Exorcist: Believer (2023, dir. David Gordon Green)

by | Oct 7, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 111 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 6 October 2023

WHO’S IN THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER?

Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ellen Burstyn, Okwui Okpokwasili, Raphael Sbarge, Tracey Graves

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

David Gordon Green (director, writer), Peter Sattler (writer) Jason Blum, David Robinson and James G. Robinson (producers), David Wingo and Amman Abbasi (composers), Michael Simmonds (cinematographer), Timothy Alverson (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A pair of young girls (Jewett and Marcum) become possessed by a monstrous demon…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER?

The Exorcist, directed by the late William Friedkin and written by the even later William Peter Blatty in an adaptation of his own novel, truly was a phenomenon when it debuted 50 years ago, and still continues to haunt audiences today. It broke all kinds of box office records upon its release, became the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (winning two including for Blatty’s screenplay), and is remembered fondly for its creepy visuals, stellar make-up, compelling performances, and its heavy themes of faith and the struggle between good and evil.

For any director wishing to revisit that universe, it requires – among many other things – a formidable pair of balls, because who in their right mind would want to follow up something so universally beloved? That didn’t stop filmmakers like John Boorman (the director behind the much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic), Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader (both of whom spearheaded two very different versions of the same prequel), and even Blatty himself (who both wrote and directed The Exorcist III, the one that is oft regarded as the most underrated of the franchise) from trying, and largely failing, to recapture what Friedkin originally brought to the field.

So, why should it deter David Gordon Green who, after completing his divisive Halloween trilogy, now sets his sights on revitalising what is often considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, horror movies of all time?

If nothing else, like all those other filmmakers, you’ve got to admire the balls on Green. Not only is The Exorcist: Believer yet another futile attempt to jumpstart a series considered untouchable, but it is also meant to be the first part of a new trilogy, with the second film already dated for a 2025 release. That is a lot for Green to establish in one initial movie, but in the process he forgot one fundamental ingredient: actual quality.

In Green’s dreary, dull, and remarkably unimpressive film, we meet photographer Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) who, during a trip to Haiti with his heavily pregnant wife (Tracey Graves), ends up losing her in an earthquake. Thirteen years later, Victor and his tween daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) live a quiet but loving life together, but one day Angela and her schoolfriend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) suddenly go missing when they wander into the woods, and after being found three days later the girls begin displaying blatant signs of demonic possession, from sores all over their bodies to odd inhuman voices crawling out of their mouths.

Victor and Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) decide that the best move forward is a full-on exorcism, for which they recruit local nurse and former nun Paula (Ann Dowd), and former actor turned renowned exorcism expert Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), whose daughter Regan was of course the young possessed girl from the original film.

The problem with doing a new Exorcist movie – aside from all the other, more obvious problems – is that, in the five decades since the original first scared audiences, so many films have dipped their toes into the exorcism subgenre that nowadays, they all look and feel the same without much distinction between one another. The Exorcist: Believer falls directly into that category, with the cinematography being as drab and unpleasant as the likes of, say, last year’s Prey for the Devil, and a level of cheap jump-scares that immediately show signs that they didn’t have enough faith in the concept of young children being possessed by literal demons.

Nothing about the filmmaking here really stands out, because it either looks like every other exorcism movie that isn’t The Exorcist, or Green is trying way too hard to recapture the realist tone of direction that Friedkin brought to his original movie, which only makes you think even more of how that movie did it all so much better.

What’s more, Green and co-writer Peter Sattler seem way more occupied with acknowledging the existence of the original Exorcist than they are with having their movie be its own thing, which only further weakens its ability to comfortably stand alone. In every other scene, there is at least one cue that calls back to something from that movie, whether it’s the extended prologue set in a different country (only here it’s Haiti instead of Iraq), or certain repurposed lines of dialogue, or even uses of particular items like the crucifix that was central to one of the most disturbing scenes in the original (and just as in that one, something is definitely penetrated here, only it’s under much stupider circumstances).

Even the inclusion of original actor Ellen Burstyn is purely for show, as she’s largely reduced to providing unnecessary exposition, and is quickly discarded for the rest of the movie, as though her entire inclusion was pointless and just there to further draw in audiences that recognises the franchise name. It really does feel like a greatest hits collection of the Exorcist series, ultimately doing so little to set itself apart from the movie it’s based off of that it never becomes its own satisfying entity.

Mostly, though, The Exorcist: Believer is just deadly boring. The original film was also set at a slow pace, but it used its time wisely to develop its characters, establish the haunting atmosphere, and build up to some terrifying set-pieces, including that all-important final act. Here, since it is so unconcerned with making any of its characters interesting or even earning any of its scares, in addition to constantly reminding you of a far better movie that exists within this same universe, there’s nothing to really grab your attention, and so it becomes much more of a slog to sit through.

Occasionally, there’ll be something that will wake you back up, like a loud jump-scare stinger or an admittedly gutsy moment during its otherwise generic conclusion, but they’re far and few in between, and nowhere near enough to warrant its existence.

As a sequel to, again, one of the most beloved horror movies ever made, this is as low as one can go in terms of overall quality decline. At least something as bonkers as Exorcist II: The Heretic owns the fact that it’s bonkers, and that’s considered the worst of the lot – The Exorcist: Believer can’t even claim to be bonkers, and is instead just deathly dull. Pray for whatever comes next in this supposed trilogy.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Exorcist: Believer is a deathly dull attempt to continue the beloved horror classic, with constant callbacks to the far superior original and remarkably unimpressive filmmaking rendering it a forgettable slog, which ends up insulting the legacy left by director William Friedkin’s masterful supernatural film.

One out of five stars

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