David Gordon Green
Leslie Odom Jr. - Victor Fielding
Ann Dowd - Ann
Jennifer Nettles - Miranda
Norbert Leo Butz - Tony
Lidya Jewett - Angela Fielding
Olivia Marcum - Katherine
Ellen Burstyn - Chris MacNeil
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Possession/Demons
Running Time - 111 Minutes
Since the death of his wife 12 years ago, Victor Fielding has raised their daughter, Angela on his own. But when Angela and her friend Katherine disappear in the woods, only to return three days later with no memory of what happened to them, it unleashes a chain of events that will force Victor to confront the nadir of evil and, in his terror and desperation, seek out the only person alive who has witnessed anything like it before: Chris MacNeil.
Fifty years ago, a William Peter Blatty bestselling novel called The Exorcist was adapted to movie screens by William Friedkin. THE EXORCIST scared the bejesus out of people, it made tons of money and it racked up a bunch of award nominations - making it one of the first horror films to do so. It has maintained its legacy as not only one of the best horror films to ever exist, but a masterpiece of cinema, period.
With every great success, there’s always a follow up. From good continuations to the original story [THE EXORCIST III, the FOX television show] to not-so-good ones [EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC and those two prequels I can barely remember], there has always been an attempt to revive this franchise without much success compared to its slasher counterparts. But that didn’t stop Jason Blum and Universal Studios from winning a bidding war and paying an enormous $400 million for the rights.
Seeing the success they had with reviving Michael Myers, Laurie Strode and the HALLOWEEN franchise with a trilogy that had varying degrees of acclaim, the producers felt that the new HALLOWEEN trilogy director, David Gordon Green, could do the same kind of magic with THE EXORCIST. Already announced as a new trilogy for the franchise, THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER was released for the Halloween season with not a whole lot of anticipation for it. After all, not many people clamored for a new EXORCIST. And after watching a couple of trailers and seeing that they dragged out one of the stars of the first film back, Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn, many started to feel less excited and more worried about the original getting tarnished with another subpar sequel. And unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, there’s not much to believe in when it comes to BELIEVER.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. I thought the first half of this movie was actually pretty solid. It obviously sets up the events of the second half of the film, but the first fifty minutes or so are the most compelling and interesting. It focuses on the main characters, mainly the Fielding family - consisting of a single dad who lost his pregnant wife in an earthquake while vacationing in Haiti, and his daughter who survived the impact of the earthquake but resulted in the loss of her mother. We get to see their dynamic and how much Victor, the father, cares for Angela despite being a bit overprotective. She wants to spend more time away from home with her friend Katherine, who is the daughter of very religious parents - the total opposite of Victor, who lost his faith when his wife passed. Angela and Katherine head into the woods to do some sort of seance to contact Angela’s mother, which only sets off an evil chain of events that the families will never recover from. The girls become more demonic as they’re possessed, the parents start blaming each other until they realize they have to work together to solve the issue, and bring in characters old and new to exorcize the demons out of these two teenagers.
The first half of the film plays out like a true crime, missing persons type of movie. While we know what happened to both Angela and Katherine, we don’t really know how and why. Why were these two girls targeted? Is Pazuzu the demon possessing these girls, or is it another malevolent being? Priests struggled with one person being possessed. What chance do they have with two at once? Especially when the two girls are in sync by the same demon? I was interested because this is a new twist on a familiar story. It allowed the characters to develop into people we can kind of connect with, while wondering how they were going to overcome this when the demon is only willing to let one of the girls to survive over the other, making the parents have to choose both their fates. There’s a good story here and I think if handled better, this could have been a top notch EXORCIST movie.
I also felt the performances were really good. In particular, I thought both Leslie Odom Jr. and Lidya Jewett as Victor and Angela Fielding were the best of the lot. Odom Jr. has always been a solid actor and he plays the confused and grieving husband and father well. He has a presence that works well here. Jewett is also very sweet as Angela, which is great because she’s the total opposite once she’s possessed. I also thought the other young actress, Olivia Marcum as Katherine, is also very good. I don’t think she had much of a presence when she was normal, but once she’s possessed, she’s a standout. She reminded me of Linda Blair’s performance in the first film in many ways, which I appreciated. I also thought Ann Dowd was a highlight as Ann, a nurse who was previously a nun-in-training with a sinful past. She’s probably the best supporting actor here, bringing some gravitas and bringing some needed emotion during the last part of the film.
I also thought the cinematography by Michael Simmonds was nice. It did remind me of the three previous HALLOWEEN films, but I thought the movie had some really nice shots. This is probably the best looking EXORCIST movie, even though I’m sure some will feel it looks a bit too polished. But I thought his handling of the visuals established many things well, especially the use of light and shadow at times.
Unfortunately, that is all of the positivity I have for THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER. The biggest sin this film has is that it’s pretty silly once Ellen Burstyn pops in as the returning Chris MacNeil - the mother of the first film’s victim Regan. Folks, here we have the perfect example of how not to use a returning Legacy Character to a franchise. Unlike a Laurie Strode, or the trio of Sydney, Dewey and Gale, or hell, even the return of Sally Hardesty to Netflix’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE reboot from last year, Chris MacNeil has no purpose in this film other than for audiences to remember the first movie. A wonderful actress, Burstyn is given some of the worst dialogue in the film. She also looks quite bored and annoyed to be in this movie, even though she received a big paycheck for returning. And what David Gordon Green and his co-writers did to Chris in BELIEVER really shocked me and upset me. It just felt so unnecessary and pointless, because nothing in this film would change much if this character wasn’t involved. It felt like a disservice to the character, the actress, the creators of the character and the fans who loved the first film and hold it in high regard. It’s nice seeing Burstyn and another returning character [who cameos at the end] again in their famous roles. And unless both characters have a substantial part in the next film or two, what’s the point of using an important character like this? It’s pretty insulting.
Then we have the obvious exorcism itself, which felt like a Cliff Notes version of what we saw in the first film. The only difference is that the demon isn’t as foul-mouthed, there are two girls instead of one and there’s a whole bunch of religious folks trying to exorcize the demon rather than just a priest or two. I saw many call this group the “Exorcist Avengers” and they actually feel like that. I thought having people from different faiths to battle one demon was a cool idea, since each faith has a different method or interpretation on possession and dealing with demonic presences. But the film never really goes too deep in differentiating the respective methods, so I was missing some of the conflict and drama of possibly one person feeling their faith was better suited over the other. I guess it was refreshing to see people of different religions coming together rather than arguing about whose God is better, so I shouldn’t complain too much about that.
What I can complain about is how rushed the whole exorcist process is in this film. It feels forced in because this is an EXORCIST movie, but unlike the first film, there’s no real tension or drama. Well, that’s not completely true. There is a moment where the demon reveals that only one girl can survive the exorcism, making the respective parents choose which one to save and which one to let go. This is a great plot twist that would have created a ton of drama and tension amongst the characters. Who will they choose? If they do choose, is the demon going to keep its promise? Is there any way to save both? Will the parents do something stupid to insure their respective child survives over the other? Possibilities were there. There’s also a hint of anti-abortion rhetoric if you want to dig deep into that, which I didn’t really notice until I thought about things after the fact. There are a lot of interesting subplots that could have really enhanced the last half of this movie.
Instead, choosing a child lasts about five minutes. There’s no drama or suspense. There’s a bit of a twist but it doesn’t have enough of an impact to make you feel anything. The secret that’s revealed for one of the main characters doesn’t really go anywhere, unless that’s being saved for the next film. It all felt like a missed opportunity because there isn’t enough time given for these plotlines to sink in for the audience. This is like having a quickie when you’re looking for foreplay. Sometimes you want more out of your horror movie, especially if it’s a sequel to one of the best horror films of all time.
I think David Gordon Green needs to step back from directing horror films for a while and maybe just remain as a screenwriter or producer. I don’t think his filmmaking is terrible or anything, but it never feels inspired in BELIEVER. If I didn’t know this was a continuation to THE EXORCIST, the look of the film makes you think you’re still in Haddonfield, making you wait for either Michael or Laurie to pop up. The film is never scary. There are a couple of jump scares, but none of them worked on me or the audience I was with. While Green is good with his setups and first halves of this movies, he tends to do way too much with his second halves and rushes through their conclusions. I also appreciated the nods to the first film, but they feel limp compared to what Friedkin did. I feel if you’re going to make an EXORCIST movie, go all out with it. As much as I think EXORCIST II is a worse film than this one, at least that film is memorable.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER pretty much met all of my low expectations, not doing much in adding to the legacy of an iconic horror film from fifty years ago. The film is kind of dull for the most part, as it's not scary nor does it have tension or suspense. The exorcism portion feels like a watered down version of what we’ve seen before [in this franchise and other exorcism movies] despite having more characters involved. There are subplots that pop up in the final half that could have elevated this movie, but are rushed through without leaving much of an impact or excitement for the next installment. David Gordon Green’s direction isn’t all that different from what he did with his HALLOWEEN trilogy, even if the cinematography is quite nice. And the use of Ellen Burstyn - the less said about it, the better.
That being said, the acting is quite good - in particular Leslie Odom Jr, the two possessed girls [Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum] and Ann Dowd as a nurse with a past. The first half, which plays out like a true crime/missing persons type of movie, is actually quite compelling as it builds character development and sets up for what’s to come. And as I mentioned, the look of the film is nice.
Other than that, THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER isn’t the best possession movie of 2023. Hell, it’s not even the best film with the word “Exorcist” in the title this year [hey Russell Crowe]. I don’t think this is the worst film in the franchise, but at least EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC had balls. Maybe David Gordon Green or whoever could add some for THE EXORCIST: DECEIVER in 2025. The power of Christ doesn’t compel me to be excited for whatever comes next. What a shame.
(4 out of 10)