The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

OCTOBER 6, 2023


Obviously there’s no way to know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that if David Gordon Green hadn’t made a trilogy of Halloween films, and if The Exorcist had maybe a few ripoffs but no direct sequels or fifty continued years of would-be successors, The Exorcist: Believer could come out frame for frame the exact same movie it is now and yet be met with much stronger reviews. Apart from a misguided attempt to strengthen its ties to the original film by giving Ellen Burstyn an extended cameo (her first appearance as Chris MacNeill since the original, so take that, Jamie Lee Curtis!), there’s nothing particularly bad about the film – in fact for the first hour it’s quite good, and it has a solid climax! But it’s got those two huge hurdles to clear, and people just like to hate things, so it has sub-Saw sequel ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. And also the sky is blue.

Of course, if you LIKED Green’s (Not “Gordon Green’s”, I keep seeing this in articles and it baffles me. Do these writers (or AI Bots) not know what a middle name is? Do you also say “Lee Curtis” or “L. Jackson”?) Halloween films, and I did, his signing on to this project wasn’t really an issue. But even I can admit there would be something kind of fascinating about the guy who was only mainly known for All The Real Girls and George Washington making a horror debut with an Exorcist sequel, much like the intrigue he was offered in 2017 when they announced he would be making a new Halloween (of course, having Curtis AND John Carpenter on board didn’t hurt his rep), whereas now he’s forever tied into the genre. Honestly, he’s an ideal choice to make an Exorcist sequel, just as Friedkin himself was, post-French Connection, not exactly the most obvious candidate for what would be dubbed the scariest movie ever made. But Green making four films in a row (five if he does the already dated Believer followup) kinda cements his place as a “horror guy”, a moniker that would seem baffling even five years ago. But alas, many did not care much for his Halloween movies (even a lot of folks who liked his first didn’t care for the two sequels), and so residual hatred of Corey Cunningham and “Evil Dies Tonight” makes him a target, so even if he was making a sequel to an Uwe Boll film folks would have their pitchforks and “How DARE he?” chants at the ready. An Exorcist sequel? Forget it.

(It didn’t help that Friedkin passed away not too long ago, making this an ill-timed release on top of it as he was not exactly supportive of the project.)

But even Friedkin (or William Peter Blatty, who made the mostly good Exorcist III) would have to contend with five decades’ worth of sequels, ripoffs, and exorcism-free possession movies that are inescapable to even a casual horror fan. The likes of Evil Dead, Devil, and even Paranormal Activity all exist under the umbrella that Friedkin and Blatty provided back in 1973, even though none of them have a priest shouting things about Christ’s power. So it doesn’t matter who is calling “action” on the set – there’s simply not much uncharted territory for these things anymore, and Pazuzu’s shadow is hard to escape even in an original movie (I bet I mention Exorcist in every single possession movie I’ve reviewed here). Doing a sequel just makes it that much harder for a filmmaker to create something folks can see as worthy of the crown (I suspect Exorcist III’s relatively good reputation is because Blatty was involved and thus got a pass. It’s not exactly a masterpiece either).

All that said, if you can leave all those things out of your mind (or even better, be unaware of them at all), you’ll be treated to what is a mostly solid movie about a man named Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr) who is raising his daughter alone after his wife died in an earthquake while pregnant (the doctors could only save one). So he’s very protective of her, and just to scare borderline helicopter parents like me, on the ONE DAY he lets his daughter hang out with a friend after school instead of coming straight home, she and the friend go missing. They’re found three days later, relatively unharmed but also not remembering where they were (and also thinking it’s only been a few hours as opposed to as many days). Before long both girls start acting weird, and after tests show nothing, a kindly nurse (Ann Dowd) makes a suggestion to Victor that it could be demonic possession, and gives him a book by a parent whose child was possessed. Guess who that is?

Alas, since Victor stopped believing in God when his wife died, he naturally thinks it’s all nonsense, but we know eventually he’ll start to open up to the idea. So he goes to see Chris MacNeill, and she agrees to help him. Unfortunately (spoiler here) she is seriously injured on the first encounter, more or less written out of the movie after that until the final scene, so anyone hoping she’d go full Merrin during the obligatory climactic exorcism will be disappointed. In fact I can’t imagine anyone will be particularly thrilled at how Burstyn is used here; the role is brief (as with Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049, they ought to have treated it as a surprise cameo instead of marketing them as a major supporting character) and it seems unnecessarily cruel to watch her get attacked the way she does. The film was working just fine as a standalone, and I truly wish Dowd’s gift of her book would have been enough of a connection to this world without stopping the movie cold for “legacyquel” stuff*. It’s a damaging misstep, to be sure, but not enough to ruin the movie for me. Instead I just went from “Wait, why are people hating this?” to “Oh, that’s why.”

But the last act got me back! There's a surprise reveal involving Victor that kind of floored me and recontextualized a lot of the film, and the intriguing idea that the demon agrees to only kill one child and spare the other, but leaves it up to the parents to decide ("It's Sophie's Choice meets King Solomon!" is probably something you don't hear in pitch meetings a lot). Also, instead of the usual “priest vs possessed” showdown, Chris suggests that there is no definitive exorcism ritual and that every religion has their own ideas, all of which are valid. So we get a handful of priests from several dominations – Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, and some kind of witchcraft/earth-based one (not quite voodoo, but they use roots and dirt and stuff like that) – all working together side by side to save the girls, along with their parents (as if you recall, and if not she reminds you anyway – Chris never witnessed the exorcism herself, but Victor and the other girl’s parents are right there with the priests). It’s a weirdly optimistic movie in that regard; we’ve all been living in an “us vs them” hell since a certain NY businessman announced his candidacy for President, and it seems like every day there’s something new to divide people. Even right now, as the movie hits theaters, I’m seeing “both sides” about an attack in the Middle East in which babies were beheaded. You’d think some things would be immune to a debate (such as, for example, BABIES BEING BEHEADED), but alas, that’s not the case anymore, and I don’t see it ever getting better in my lifetime. So to see a bunch of folks coming together despite their differences is good for the soul, in my opinion.

Unfortunately I do have to remember that I arrived late to this franchise (I was 19 when I saw the original and didn’t see any of the sequels until my late 20s), so I don’t come into these things with as much baggage. The Exorcist didn’t change my life, it didn’t give me nightmares, it didn’t make me a horror fan – it’s just one of many films in the genre I really enjoy despite not having any significant impact on my life or worldview. But that’s not the case for a lot of folks, so it’s only natural that they see these sequels (and the knockoffs, many of which I’ve also enjoyed more than many of my peers) as a massive letdown. They’re chasing a high that nothing can ever replicate, and any sort of memory that the new film might trigger of the untouchable Exorcist just makes the former feel that much lesser. It’s like eating a decent burger when the first meat you ever had was a prime sirloin – you’re only going to react to what it ISN’T instead of what it is.

And I’ll be honest – no, the film isn’t all that scary. There’s a terrific jump scare early on (it involves a scarf) that ranks up there with E3’s much lauded nurse moment for such things, and since a foul-mouthed child isn’t going to shock anyone anymore, Green wisely has one possessed kid carry out a pretty revolting act of violence that is somewhat shocking in its viciousness. But I feel Green actually remembered that the original film is more of a drama than a horror movie for large chunks of its runtime, and also one with lots of characters, to the extent that it’s more of an ensemble. And it’s those elements that Green and his writers are evoking with their film, instead of going for outright horror (an approach only Renny Harlin even kind of approached with his entry, which is no one’s favorite anyway), so it wasn’t really an issue for me. I was engaged with the story and the characters, so I didn’t really care that no one’s head was spinning. As with Chris, the weaker elements of the movie are the ones that remind me I’m watching Exorcist 6; when it’s a movie about a broken man trying to save the only thing he has left in the world, I was hooked in.

That said, I don’t know if I need to see a direct followup to it (it’s currently dated for April of 2025, though I don’t know what will happen now that this one has such negative reviews and only so-so box office – and that’s BEFORE Hurricane Swift takes over the multiplexes and scares everyone else away); the final scene has a nice moment but nothing that demands a “what next?”, and that’s coming from someone who mostly liked the movie. But I had a good time at my AMC that afternoon; the movie gave me a solid scare, which is one more than most movies offer, likable characters, some solid blasphemy (if you track what Dowd’s would-be nun character is saying, having an abortion and leaving the church set her on the path to save a child’s life, so… hahahaha! Eat it, right wingers!), an excellent performance by Odom, Jr., and a moment that legit made me tear up, so I’m not sure what else I could ask for. Green’s direction apes Friedkin’s at times; there’s some hard edits, big moments happening in a matter of fact manner, and relatively sparse use of music (even “Tubular Bells” is underplayed), all of which make it clear he (like me) probably prefers the original cut of the film vs the Spider-Walk/demon face-addled 2000 recut version. No, it’s nowhere as good as the original, but I wasn’t demanding it to be, nor did I go in with my review already written like, for example, a major horror site personality who has been trashing the movie since the day it was announced. Having an open mind is rewarding, I think! The movie's fine! It’s not even the worst Exorcist sequel with one of the actors!

What say you?

* It also would allow the TV show – in my opinion the best of the followups – to remain canon, since Chris writing a book at some point doesn’t conflict with that show’s version of events as far as I can recall. But the character died there, so her showing up in the present day here effectively wipes Fathers Marcus and Tomas out of continuity. Otherwise, unlike Green’s Halloweens, there’s nothing here that rewrites any of the other sequels’ events – they’re just not mentioned.


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