The Exorcist: Believer (2023)
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriters: Peter Satler, David Gordon Green
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ellen Burstyn
“If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?”
So is spoken in the prologue to Henry James’ gothic ghost novel “The Turn of the Screw”, and one wonders if this line was all that went through the heads of the Blumhouse executives when they snagged the rights to the Exorcist franchise. Let’s do two kids being possessed, that’s sure to be scarier! Twice as scary! To be sure, it is the only aspect of Blumhouse’s first Exorcist film, The Exorcist: Believer (2023), that is of any interest or inventiveness. Although, as we’ve seen from the quote, even the idea of two children has already been done.
It’s an exorcism story you’ve heard before. A child of a single parent goes missing, turns up several days later possessed, doctors can’t help, so we need an exorcism to save them. The plot attempts to play upon the missing parent. All this is here, except it’s times two, with two children possessed. Also, Ellen Burstyn, who played Chris MacNeil in William Friedkin’s 1973 original film, appears fifty years later surely as a requirement to be able to call it a sequel to The Exorcist. Rights issues, nothing more.
Early in the film, young Angela (played by Lidya Jewett) sits in class watching a tape of someone reciting “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. For some reason, their English teacher is just sitting there watching the video as well, instead of just reading it out, which seems a ridiculous thing to bring up but shows the stupidity of the film even in the small details. The famous line from the poem is of course “nevermore”, and this seems to reflect where any kind of originality went – inventiveness will be seen, nevermore. The plot is so contrived, so un-daring, so bland and bog-standard even by the standards of Blumhouse, who are known for pumping out formula for a good 60% of their output, that it beggars belief. A film is never obliged to try and capture the essence of its franchise’s original release, especially one that comes half a century after the first, but at least try to get close to either the spirituality or the daring of the flagship of demonic possession films.
The pacing in The Exorcist: Believer is wrong from the outset, spending a good chunk of time to get our children possessed, but then having to go straight into ‘they’re now evil’ mode. There follows several cliched creepy kid moments, all of which are cheap, dull, and derivative, because they didn’t have the time to build it up gradually (letting atmosphere pervade and a sense of true evil sink in,) so they have to give it the old wham bam treatment and hope this counts as chilling. Note to filmmakers: it doesn’t.
And then, before you can blink, we’ve brought in the exorcists, such as they are, and off we go for a stunningly uninteresting final battle, with actors trying what they can with awful dialogue and attempts at character development brought in far too late and ham-fisted. David Gordon Green’s en pointe direction for Halloween (2018), which faded fast through the two sequels in that trilogy, hasn’t recovered in time for his next franchise to dig his claws into. Instead, he and Peter Satler have decided to go for an expository montage sequence on the power of people fighting evil, much like the opposite of the Halloween Kills ending montage. It’s still sappy and lodges in the throat like a piece of unchewed meat.
But we saw Ellen Burstyn in the trailer! Surely she can, at the very least, salvage something? She’s an Oscar winner for crying out loud. She got nominated for the original film, after all. She can surely save the day?
One would think this, were it not for her appearance occurring over the course of only three scenes before being brutally sidelined for the rest of the film. She’s there to contribute a grand total of jack to the plot. It would not be surprising to find that the original script had been a spec script floating around the Blumhouse offices, which was retrofitted to include some element of the Exorcist franchise for marketing reasons – change another priest to Chris MacNeil and there we go, now it’s officially an Exorcist script! It certainly makes no sense at all to include her. Despite 2022’s Netflix instalment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise being one of the worst horror movies of recent years, even that dumpster-fire of a film gave Leatherface’s original adversary, Sally Hardesty, more to do, and more influence on the run of the story, than Believer allows Chris MacNeil to do.
Coming out of the cinema, the idea pervades that Blumhouse, Morgan’s Creek, and the other creative minds behind the film, didn’t understand the point of The Exorcist (1973), or even the novel (1971). It was actually about Father Karras and his struggle to find where he stood in the world in relation to his faith. The story built slowly, gruesome moments slowly coming together, building that dread, the detective mystery putting together the clues, always pushing Karras to confront his literal demons. The Exorcist: Believer is missing all of that style and sense and craft.
The third film in the franchise, Legion, had a final exorcism scene added at the studio’s insistence, much to Peter Blatty’s dismay. The previous two prequel films were a production mess, the director of one being fired after multiple cuts, with a second director being brought in to, essentially, remake the film – both versions were released. The original, slower, more brooding film of the two, is by far the superior vision. We’ve seen throughout the franchise’s history; if you ignore the thematics, the grim atmosphere, the inherent darkness in the story, and instead go for ‘Hollywood horror’ stylings, you will trip and fall.
Believer is exactly that. It is the cookie-cutter, ordinary possession film, empty of any soul, with the name of The Exorcist brought in to try and salvage some kind of reputation. The only terrifying thing to come out of this piece is the news that a second film, The Exorcist: Deceiver, which is slated for 2025. May the Lord God be with us in our time of trial.