‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Delivers Us the Expected

Kevin Taft reviews The Exorcist: Believer, which lacks much of anything new for this series or the horror genre, yet still mildly entertains.
User Rating: 5

Let’s get this out of the way. 1973’s The Exorcist, based on the bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by the late acclaimed filmmaker William Friedkin, is still one of the best horror movies ever made – if not one of the best movies ever made. The sense of dread that Friedkin created made you look at a simple child’s bedroom door with terror. Between the Award-winning performances, the music, the cinematography, and the thoughtful direction, it is the blueprint for effective horror films to come.

Since then, there have been many who have tried to copy its success. Not only that, The Exorcist created an entire sub-genre of horror films with the possession theme. There have been hundreds of stories about girls, boys, adults, and even animals getting possessed, all culminating in some sort of exorcism where the possessed victim thrashes around in night clothes and hurls obscenities at whatever inexperienced religious leader stands before them, trying to get the demon/ghost out.

So, when Blumhouse announced that their horror wunderkind writer/director David Gordon Green would be helming a trilogy of sequels to The Exorcist (after his trilogy of Halloween sequels), starting with The Exorcist: Believer, horror fans were excited yet skeptical. His take on the Halloween films was sporadically entertaining but failed to instill that good ole’ Michael Myers fear that the original did. While he might have some interesting ideas, he’s not much of a horror director and is ineffective at creating dread or suspense.

See Also: ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ Review: Plays Like John Hughes’ ‘The Exorcist’

So, this fan was dubious when Green was tasked to follow the pinnacle of horror, where the prime reason it worked was the build-up of terror Friedkin created.

Green’s take on The Exorcist feels like an easy sell in the pitch room. “The first movie had one possessed girl. Why don’t we have two?!”  But the question should have been, “Well, then what?” The Exorcist was about much more than possession, which is what Blumhouse seems to have forgotten.

Green’s story pretty much follows the original film. We open in a foreign country (with a throwback to the fighting dogs), this time in Haiti, where photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his pregnant wife are visiting. Why, at eight months pregnant, is she traveling is beyond me. Anyway, tragedy strikes, and we cut to 13 years later. Mom has died, and Victor is raising his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) alone. (Get it? Her name is ANGELa!)

The two have a cute relationship where she chides him for eating meat, and they even have an adorable chase through the house – much like the original film. It’s almost like Green is just doing a direct reboot.

Anyway, Angela and her bestie, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), decide to go into the woods after school (of course they do) and find a strange hole in the ground that they immediately jump into to perform a ritual to communicate with Angela’s dead mother. We cut away from their play date only to find that hours later, the two girls have not returned home.

They are eventually found in a barn, thinking they have only been gone for a few hours. Little do they realize it’s been three days. Both girls are checked out, and the doctors come up empty. They’re both healthy except, you know, for the fact that they are both acting a little weird.

As one expects from a possession movie, we watch as the girls slowly become stranger, and their appearance becomes more and more gruesome. No one can figure out why any of this is happening, except, of course, Victor’s “Karen” neighbor (Ann Dowd), who happens to not only be a nurse at the hospital Angela is admitted to but an ex-nun-to-be!

And she’s seen this before.

She knows.

The girl is possessed.

To convince Victor that she isn’t talking a load of whack-a-doo, she hands him a book by former actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who went through a possession story of her own, that of her daughter Regan (originally played by Linda Blair.) Victor goes to see Chris and convinces her to return with him so she can see the two girls for herself. When she does, she agrees: those two are possessed by evil. And that’s when Victor becomes a… wait for it… “believer.”

Chaos ensues. The girls act creepy. Victor and Katherine’s parents seek an exorcism. The church denies them. Yadda yadda, they must take matters into their own hands.

To be fair, this rather short film (under two hours) goes by quickly and is fitfully entertaining in that “let’s see what this director does with the genre” way. The acting is pretty good, and Green tones down his style to something akin to his debut film, All the Real Girls. But it’s the story that is a bit of a slog.

There’s just nothing here we haven’t seen in a hundred other possession films. And because this has been done so many times before, we’re just waiting for the characters to catch up. Green offers nothing new except how the exorcism is played out, which is a bit expected.

What was effective in the original film was how shocking it was to audiences of the day. Regan’s torment by the demon was horrifying, especially when her actions were jaw-droppingly vulgar. We all remember her head spinning around, her “wtf” actions with a crucifix, her green puke, her potty mouth, and her levitation.

Here, there’s nothing even close to that. Sure, one of the girls spits up some black bile (seen it), there’s a moment with a neck that calls back to the original, and there’s a levitation. But nothing is shocking or fresh about what happens with the girls. Despite the R rating, it all feels a bit PG-13.

As entertained as I mostly was, questions kept popping up like, why were the girls possessed in the first place? What did the demon want? Which demon was it? And why bring Chris MacNeil back and not do much with her?

More importantly, the original film had a theme about losing faith and asked questions about that faith. The exorcism and Regan’s possession was the catalyst for Father Karras to find his faith again. The Exorcist: Believer has no larger themes or questions. There’s a bit about grief and guilt, but look at all the horror films in the past year, and you’ll find them all revolving around grief. In essence, the writers could have tried harder here to give us something a bit more profound. We need it because if we’re going to watch yet another possession film that mirrors every other possession film of the last 50 years, we need something more to grab onto.

As for Green, despite a strong dramatic start to his career, he has made a name for himself with stoner comedies, but he still doesn’t grasp how to create suspense. The film’s first half is edited poorly, cutting off potentially creepy moments to move on to the next scene. Even the marketing for the film just threw everything at us without crafting any curiosity or wonder. The first poster shows the possessed girls right away. The trailer shows everything we’ll see, so there are no surprises. This is how Green directs. Sure, he pulls back a bit at first, but this is a film that needed to not only breathe but let us catch our breath. It also needed originality.

The pluses here are, oddly, Jennifer Nettles as Katherine’s mother. Mostly because she is a country singer and I’ve never seen her act before. She was effective. The girls are also very good at portraying not only the sweet, innocent girls they are but also the disturbing, possessed creatures they become.

The original was a masterpiece and has become a classic. The short-lived TV series that aired on FOX actually did a more interesting sequel in its first season than this official legacy sequel does here.

The Exorcist: Believer feels like a well-produced money grab that will satiate horror fans’ need for some spooky stuff but won’t stay with them once the lights come back on. With two more potentially in the pipeline, I’m still not a believer.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER OPENS IN THEATERS AND IMAX ON OCTOBER 6, 2023.

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Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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