What a terrible day for an exorcism...
Part of the joys of being a film critic is heading into a film and not knowing what to expect.
You know that some are going to be bad, but that’s fine. They don’t all have to be winners, and you know that sooner or later down the line, another will be waiting to sweep you off your feet, making you levitate like 12-year-old Regan did in The Exorcist.
I came to The Exorcist: Believer, a 50th-anniversary reboot / direct sequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, with an open mind. Granted, The Exorcist is one of my favourite films, a hallowed institution to be treated with the utmost respect. Yes, the sequels over the years have been hellish to sit through, but The Exorcist III is one of horror’s most underappreciated sequels, and the first season of Jeremy Slater’s TV show wasn’t half bad. And certainly, director David Gordon Green royally ballsed up the 2018-2022 Halloween legacy reboot alongside his returning compadres Danny McBride and Scott Teems - and their idea of making Believer the start of a trilogy sequel-reboot series much like their Halloween films reeks of a cynical and creatively barren tactic to keep the cash-hungry studios throwing projects their way. But who knows?
Surely you can’t foul up two beloved horror franchises... Right?
*If you could see my bloodshot eyes*
It all starts in 2010, with two dogs fighting - the first in a long line of vapid callbacks that show that all Gordon Green is good at is using nostalgia as an almighty crutch and praying that the rest will just turn out for the best. It doesn’t. All it does is reveal him as a hack who watched the original a couple of times, picked up some crayons to scribble some notes, and curl out a derivative possession movie that is completely indistinguishable from any of Blumhouse's stalest movies, and which clearly demonstrates he never understood what continues to make The Exorcist such a timeless classic.
But I digress. Back to the synopsis.
Photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with his pregnant partner Sorenne (Tracey Graves). An earthquake leads him to make an impossible choice: either save his wife or his unborn child. Fast forward 13 years, and his beloved teen daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) goes missing one day after school with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum). They head into the woods and engage in a ritual to make contact with the mother Angela never got to meet. Then no more. Three days later, the two girls reappear, much to the relief of their parents. However, they’ve brought back something with them, which appears to have possessed the pair.
That’s right, this version’s Pazuzu has taken a fistful of Berocca, as it’s not one possessed child this time, it’s two. Good for him.
Their state worsens over the days and Victor joins forces with Katherine’s God-fearing folks (Nobert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles), as well as his friend Stuart (Danny McCarthy) and nurse Ann (Ann Dowd), who points him in the direction of a certain Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn, from the original film), who knows about what’s happening to the girls and will help attempt to save them from the demon of the southwestern winds – and a familiar choice...
I won’t waste your time or mine in mincing words – The Exorcist: Believer not only fails to live up to its legacy but somehow manages to be one of the worst horror films of 2023 - a year which has not been kind to the genre.
This take isn’t because of my slavish devotion to the original, but simply because it’s hard to fathom how this script managed to make it past even the most basic quality control. The end result is borderline impressive, in the sense it takes a unique lack of talent to make one of the worst Exorcist films, matching the lows of 1977’s godawful (but audacious) Exorcist II: The Heretic, 2004’s Exorcist: The Beginning, and 2005's Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (the Paul Schrader retooling of the 2004 film). And even those films had more chills and thrills than the scare-parched Believer.
This tepid exhumation is so inept it manages to waste the national treasure that is Ellen Burstyn, revealing her to be simply a legacy character to trot out for no real reason other than to pad out some of the sensationalist tropes that have been cribbed from the original. The script even gets her character to betray herself, as she says in this legacy sequel that she believes she wasn’t allowed in the room where her daughter was being exorcised because of the patriarchy.
No, she was a mother who wasn’t an exorcist, who chose to put her faith in the priests aiming to save her daughter. Why rewrite a character’s arc so inexcusably?
Ah, yes, so that screenwriters Gordon Green and Peter Sattler can show that they’re down with the current mood and smugly tick the 'f*ck the patriarchy' box.
A round of applause to you both and your self-serious attempts to establish his film as the original’s successor. In conveniently brushing aside all sequels (much like they did with Halloween), they have only managed to create something so generic, it makes you want to dive out a window faster than Father Damien Karras.
However, because it’s trashcan, not trashcan’t, I should find some saving grace in this unholy regurgitation of a film...
Both Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum give it socks as the two possessed teens, and there is one other promising element to Believer: its patchwork take on religion.
In a clumsy way of trying to reflect 21st century America and wishing to comment on the divide between religious conservatives and the secular population, Gordon Green’s characters comment that all religions have rites for exorcism. The message he aims for is the importance of community being as important as a belief in a higher power – going back to the emphasis on community he cackhandedly inserted into Halloween Kills. It’s an interesting notion, but it is reduced to an empty escalation that sees the multifaith Avengers assembling around the two children in the climax, one of which now has an inverted cross etched into her face.
Gasp! That must mean she's really evil.
Oh, how subtle and well-versed this film is in horror.
William Friedkin was (famously) very critical of the Exorcist sequels, and he reportedly stated: “If there’s a spirit world, and I come back, I plan to possess David Gordon Green and make his life a living hell.”
Mr. Friedkin, you are missed, but stay where you are. This may not how one celebrates a golden anniversary, but you’ve earned the rest.
Gordon Green has made his own life a living hell. After his godawful Halloween trilogy (the third instalment I was kinder to than most), I feared that with every negative review, his life force increased. But thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Indeed, there are rumours circulating that considering the head-spinning $400 million Universal shelled out for the rights to the Exorcist name, the studio is not best pleased about the negative reception to the film. Even less so about its current box office numbers. You can bet that there will be some crisis meetings, and that Gordon Green will be booted off the next two films.
Admittedly, through Pazuzu’s guidance, they would acquire enough sense to scrap the whole sorry endeavour... But Universal is not about to give up on its whopping investment.
All we can hope for at this point is that the execrable The Exorcist: Believer finally stops Gordon Green going anywhere near further reboots and remakes of beloved horror properties. To misquote The Monkees, whose tune I was humming throughout the film out of sheer boredom: If that reality materialises, now I’m a believer.
The Exorcist: Believer is out now in cinemas.