In many ways, The Exorcist was a revolutionary movie when it was released 50 years ago. While there was a whole host of horror movies that were released before it, none of those movies really could match what The Exorcist accomplished. It was a bold film that took a lot of risks and terrified audiences not only with the brutal depiction of demonic possession but through the dripping tension and artistic vision that William Friedkin had for the film. While it may seem like a bit of a stretch that audiences would pass out or faint upon its first screening, you have to understand that this was the first time a horror film as disturbing as this one was released. It was a singular film, which is probably why any attempts to turn it into a franchise failed. Enter The Exorcist: Believer, a film that hasn’t learned the lessons that every other Exorcist film already learned.
Coming to us from David Gordon Green, the same mind behind the Halloween reboot, I can’t say I had very high expectations for the film. His Halloween trilogy was divisive, to say the least (especially by the end), and those films arguably followed a very safe and traditional approach for a slasher movie. Granted, that was probably necessary if you want to assure audiences that what they love about the franchise is still present, but I can’t say they were all that special. Sadly, The Exorcist: Believer falls into very similar pitfalls that Green’s Halloween movies did. It’s a very safe movie that doesn’t want to rock the boat and is afraid to ever push the envelope in any meaningful way.
The Exorcist: Believer
Director: David Gordon Green
Release Date: October 6, 2023 (Theatrical)
In a small town in Georgia, Leslie Odom Jr. plays a single father named Victor trying to raise his daughter Angela, played by Lidya Jewett. Angela wants to try and learn more about her deceased mother alongside her friend, Katherine (Olivia Marcum), by trying to reach out into the afterlife. Because messing with the spirit world is always a bad idea, this causes a demon to possess both girls and slowly corrupt them, lashing out at their families and loved ones. Desperate to try to find some help, Leslie Odom Jr. searches for Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in order to get her assistance in saving his daughter from the demon possessing her, and you know exactly how this movie is going to go based on that description.
Throughout the first half of The Exorcist: Believer, what impressed me the most about the film was just how conventional it was. Nothing the film was doing was surprising in the slightest and at times comes across like a cheap replication of the first movie without understanding why the decisions Friedkin made in the first movie worked so well. Both films try to explore the heartbreak of seeing a family member become corrupted by something unspeakable, but in this film, we only have two short scenes between Angela and her father to establish their relationship. So when we see the anguish on his face as he watches his daughter slowly turn into a mutilated monster, none of it lands because we don’t know how these two really feel about each other. The same is doubly true for Katherine, whose family doesn’t get any development other than their establishment as good Christians. The film barrels through developing its characters in order to get to the good bits, but even then those moments underwhelm more than succeed.
This is because David Gordon Green tries to repeat the same tricks he tried on Halloween to lesser effect. There’s a forced attempt to establish and bridge continuity between this installment and the first movie, including a laughable effort to try and make the demon possessing the girls the same demon as the original film, Pazuzu. You have returning characters from earlier films but because those characters have absolutely no stakes in this film’s plot, they feel like glorified cameos with no substance to them whatsoever. I’m grateful at least that these cameos don’t amount to much, since I’d rather have Chris MacNeil appear only for a few scenes than forcibly insert herself into Leslie Odom Jr.’s plot, but they still find a way to undermine her character’s legacy despite her lack of importance.
To his credit, Leslie Odom Jr. does a decent enough job at carrying the film. He’s a helicopter parent, but you can understand why he’s protective of his daughter and does care deeply about her. There’s a weariness to the character as he discusses with others the crisis in faith that he’s had since the death of his wife. He’s able to capture both a sense of helplessness as he tries to figure out what is happening to his little girl and a burning determination to save her at all costs. Again, if the film decided to slow down and give him and Angela time to establish actual substance in their relationship, it would have done a lot to help us root for Angela and him to get a happy ending.
Most of the film lacks substance though and you just need to look at the supporting cast for proof of that. They feel perfunctory at best. By the time the film ended, I barely knew the names of any of these characters because they only appear for a handful of scenes before they assemble for the climax. Many of them have similar roles during said climax, which usually involves everyone talking over each other and contributing nothing, with Leslie Odom Jr.’s character being distinct from the rest as the only person amongst the cast who doesn’t believe in the supernatural and keeping quiet. During the actual exorcism, when a priest shows up to assist, the film tries to depict this as a big game changer but all I was left with was wondering who this guy even was. What doesn’t help is that not even a minute later, his character does absolutely nothing to help the situation and I just ended up laughing at his impact on the exorcism.
I don’t necessarily have an issue with the film not being scary since the first film’s terror came primarily from the oppressive tone, but when the first scare in the film is a jump scare, that sets a bad first impression. Again, its predictability robs it of being scary because I’m not going to be scared when one of the girls starts to creepily walk around the house, or when they start to speak in dark and depraved voices. It’s been 50 years since The Exorcist came out and the tricks that The Exorcist: Believer tries to pull feel like they came from that exact same era. It ignores almost every evolution in horror over the past 50 years and just expects what worked in 1973 will work in 2023. What the film does have is underwhelming CGI that rips you right out of the experience and makes the film seem cheap despite having a relatively large budget for a horror movie.
It all just comes across like a sloppy mess. The movie doesn’t take any time to put any real meaning behind its actions or events. What’s meant to be a shocking reveal towards the end of the film instead feels limp and doesn’t really do much to alter anything we’ve known about the characters. The Exorcist: Believer just kind of ends without any real fanfare and tries to shuffle towards the credits as quickly as possible, almost as if it’s ashamed at how poorly the film tried to recapture the same atmosphere as the original film.
And yes, I’m not as charitable towards this movie if only because of the legacy of the first film. While I do try to let each film I look at stand on its own, it’s almost impossible to not look at how the original film became as revered as it is now and not acknowledge all of the mistakes that The Exorcist: Believer makes. You can make another Exorcist movie and it is possible to pay respect to the series, like how the TV show did, but you can’t just wholesale rip out plot beats, characters, and sequences from the first film and not expect anyone to compare and contrast the two.
Make no mistake, every comparison that can be made between the two films will always be in favor of the original film not just because that film is good, but because The Exorcist: Believer is bad. It does nothing original and is too afraid to try anything risky. The movie is actively trying to limit itself and what it’s capable of and the attempt to force this film to be the start of a new trilogy of Exorcist films is woefully misguided at best. It has no identity of its own other than to be a poorly produced copycat of the first film that doesn’t understand why The Exorcist received the praise it did. Do yourself a favor and go watch the original movie. Don’t even bother with this one.