While not unbelievable, it was big news when it was announced that Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions were part of a multi-hundred-million-dollar deal to get the distribution rights for new Exorcist films. One could say the idea of building a new trilogy was putting a massive cart before the horse. Still, after director David Gordon Green delivered big with his recent Halloween legacy trilogy, the studios clearly had enough faith in this endeavor. As a result, we now have The Exorcist: Believer, a film seemingly disconnected from the 1973 horror classic (directed by the late William Friedkin) until it isn’t. Mileage may vary on how much audiences enjoy the way the gap between this film and the other is bridged, but it’s less of a concern when so little of interest occurs in this staid continuation.
A prologue sets up some emotional stakes, as the results of a tragedy make it clear Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) will do all he can to keep his daughter safe. In the current timeline, Victor’s 13-year-old daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), respects her father and is a good student but wants to be able to do more with her friends. One day, after school, she heads into the woods with her best friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum). They disappear for three days with no memory of what happened. Of course, things only get worse as the girls’ behavior ramps up in dangerous and unsettling ways, leading to the most extreme course of action – seeking out those who know how to handle demonic possession.
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Looking at what works, it’s easy to see Green’s admiration for the original film. While I can’t say he was directly attempting to channel Friedkin’s style, much of the film’s first half seems rooted in keeping things grounded and unhurried. Odom effectively brings authenticity to his role as a concerned parent, even if there’s little else to his character. Of course, being next-door neighbors with Ann Dowd, surely, he must have known something spooky or otherwise would occur. Regardless, much like many of Green’s films, there’s enough work done to get a feel for this world via the characters.
As the film ramps up the terror when it comes to the girls’ darker personas, the film still angles for a level of professionalism. There are far more jump scares pushed onto the audience than before, and editing choices are made to ensure there’s no mistaking things for what they are. Still, it’s all in the name of building a credible threat in the form of a demon clinging to the souls of two young innocents. Then, the film decides to get more complicated by making the universe that much smaller when tying in a previous young girl named Regan and her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
Just by nature of being a terrific performer, the 90-year-old Oscar winner has no issue holding her own in this film. Still, one can’t help but see the tone of the film begin to unravel with her presence, let alone that idea that there’s really nothing ‘Believer’ has to offer. Sure, Burstyn is involved in one of the film’s most darkly humorous moments (depending on your attitude toward this movie), but she ends up serving little purpose beyond a respectable amount of fan service.
Here’s the main issue – The Exorcist is the definitive cinematic depiction of an exorcism. No film has come remotely close, and it’s near impossible not to measure any film focused on demonic possession against it, let alone movies literally existing within the same continuity. With multiple sequels and prequels, along with a television series, there have certainly been attempts to dig further into this lore and find something worthwhile (for the record, William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III delivers the goods). As the latest attempt, however, The Exorcist: Believer suffers in maybe the worst way it could for this franchise – it’s a bore.
Now, in saying that, I should note something about myself. The exorcism horror sub-genre does little for me as a horror fan. I can certainly recognize The Exorcist as a terrific film because of all that went into its construction and its effectiveness in presenting a supernatural thriller in such a cold and calculated way (fitting of Friedkin). However, these sorts of films don’t go very far when it comes to being able to spook me. I have no ties to Catholicism, and the work needed to solve this possession issue doesn’t vary much. As an overtly religious film, it could play to those who think deeply about their faith, but then there’s the matter of how gory they like these stories to be.
Applying this to Believer, I can recognize a clever enough staging of events regarding the film’s third-act exorcism, but I had already found the story uninvolving. While well-performed by those involved, the actual event never became all that rousing for me. Again, The Exorcist already exists, and even when considering this film on its own, I find it more dispiriting than ever to see what looks to be some form of ultimate evil being matched against a collection of individuals that seem far too uncoordinated to really pull something like this off compared to the likes of Max Von Sydow or even Russell Crowe and his moped.
Ultimately, what I thought worked for Halloween as a neat trick in convincing audiences they were getting something fresh by creating a new branch from the original did not pay off here. The Exorcist: Believer could be said to have the right spirit in mind to feel in line with this franchise, but it does very little to justify its existence. With a story that ends up unengaging, a lack of better utilization when it comes to the return of Burstyn’s character, and nothing that really taps into the scare factor of it all (aside from whatever surprise jumps + music stings this movie comes up with), it’s a depressing affair. I’d be happy to be impressed by a return to the world of The Exorcist, but as of now, I don’t have much faith in this reheated attempt, let alone getting a whole trinity of these modern sequels.