Movie: “The Exorcist: Believer”
Release Date: Oct. 6, 2023
Director: David Gordon Green
Runtime: 1 hour, 51 minutes
This new entry in the "Exorcist" franchise comes 50 years after the original. It's touted as a “direct sequel”, ignoring 3 previous follow-ups, much like director David Gordon Green’s "Halloween" reboot. Unfortunately, “The Exorcist: Believer” is a shallow retread of a classic that brings very little creativity to the table.
Things start out well enough, with an atmospheric opening sequence that's not the same, but clearly meant to evoke feelings of the original, as well as the setup of an intriguing mystery. However, the film begins to unravel when the plot begins to move too fast, and Green and his writing team seemingly forget team that the audience wants to care about the characters of the story.
The film centers around Victor Fielding, played by Leslie Odom Jr., whose daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) goes off into the forest after school with her friend Katherine (Olivia O'Neill), and both mysteriously disappear. Again, I was initially interested by this, but it’s resolved entirely too quickly, and we're launched into an underdeveloped main story knowing very little about Angela, and even less about Katherine.
The plot of “The Exorcist: Believer,” is driven by the plight of the two suburban girls, who are not themselves following their 3-day disappearance, and have no memory of it upon being found. It becomes gradually apparent they've become possessed by a demonic entity, and we subsequently follow efforts to expel the malevolent spirits. The progression of events rarely feels natural, and is instead driven by plot convenience and the cast of characters making laughably idiotic decisions.
While Odom is a fine actor, he is unable to salvage the cartoonish dialogue, and that feeling extends to the majority of the film’s cast. Jewett is good as Angela, one of the afflicted girls, and sells the possession with her established back story. O'Neill as Katherine does her best, shining in one sequence, but viewers know virtually nothing about the real Katherine or her family.
As a result of this, beyond intrinsic sympathy prompted by the dark events, when the film asks us to care about Katherine and her parents, it doesn't work. Said parents play religiously stereotypical roles that feel as if they were crafted in the mind of Richard Dawkins. Viewers are left feeling apathetic towards their problems and amused by their actions.
Similar things can be said about the film’s portrayal of Fielding’s atheism, which fits what I imagine an atheist scripted by an evangelist would be like in these situations. Fielding is not so subtly made to look as conceited and aloof as possible when the matter comes up. This trope eventually fades but only after events have escalated to a degree where even the writers realized his dialogue was getting ridiculous.
Ann Dowd’s character, a neighbor of the Fieldings creatively named Ann, is a delightful surprise in a cast possessed by mediocrity. Ann, who nearly became a nun in her younger years, is arguably the only supporting character in the film who evolves as the film progresses and merits a continuing interest from the audience.
Ellen Burstyn’s heavily advertised return as Chris MacNeil, the mother from the original picture, feels unnecessary at best and at worst comes across as a desperate attempt by the writers of an inferior sequel to ride the aged coattails of its predecessor.
Burstyn’s role is just an extended cameo that’s largely a vehicle for references, and I’m not entirely confident there’s enough of a 70s era die-hard "The Exorcist" fanbase remaining to be drawn in by empty fan service in 2023.
MacNeil’s actions in the film also tend to be entirely illogical. While the state of her life is acceptable enough, having apparently become a “world-renowned” expert on exorcism, it should be noted she insists to Fielding she can’t actually perform one, and astutely points out she was never actually in the room where the exorcism took place back in 1973. I can't say anymore.
Burstyn’s involvement is a microcosm of the film’s flaws, with her scenes serving only to open comparison to the original or give exposition that could’ve easily been given by a new character, and this movie would’ve been better for it. Conveying the information in a more creative way is beyond this film. For me, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), who is a thinly veiled homage to Jason Miller's Damien Karras in the original, would've been a good option. In the movie though, Maddox is thrown in seemingly at random and his role feels largely pointless, with the exception of a memorable moment in the climax, meant to be shocking, instead being unintentionally hilarious.
Perhaps the greatest sin “The Exorcist: Believer” commits is the fact that it just isn’t that scary. If it was, I may have been able to almost get over the bland plot and characterization that some more openly low-brow horror can pull off, but I was rarely legitimately frightened.
While the film is not without some disturbing imagery, it is often undercut by the dull and silly situations surrounding the plot. This isn't helped by obvious and lazy CGI effects that detract from Jewett's and O'Neill's performances rather than enhance them. Frankly, the only things that really made me jump out of my seat were a few obnoxious cuts to loud noises. The movie just never leans into the new opportunities of its premise, preferring an ironically safe new take on the groundbreaking, controversial original.
Despite being marked by flat characters and tired horror film cliches, the climatic and lengthy exorcism sequence somewhat redeems the final act. However, it was not enough to adequately counter the effect of a lack of tension from a series of underdone, ineffective twists, some of which certainly left me entertained, but not always for the right reasons. The emotional aspects of the sequence fall flat, because again, even 90 minutes in, the key players remain strangers to us. Therefore, you’ll be rather indifferent to their fates. This all contributes to a deeply unsatisfying, tepid resolution.
In a vacuum, “The Exorcist: Believer” has acceptable production values and a few unnerving scenes, but it doesn't justify dragging this franchise out of development abyss. It fails to reach a value warranting a trip to the theater but is decent as a streaming option. Evidently, the studio agrees, given two planned sequels may release day of on Peacock. Just don’t expect the film to haunt you very long after the credits roll.