THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER is a Loving But Hollow Cover of a Classic

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Photos courtesy of Universal

In the world of horror, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist sits in rarefied air. It is not only an unimpeachable piece of genre filmmaking but an example of top end 70s filmmaking at its finest. It was nominated for Best Picture. It is continuously in argument for the greatest horror film ever made, often in a category unto itself.

Thus it makes sense that there have been several stop and start attempts to capitalize on the success of the original masterpiece, to spin it off into a venerated horror series. After all, that’s the whole business model of horror: endless sequels and remakes and reimaginings that extend the legacy of the original. In most cases the original remains the blueprint for a reason, but the distance between the best and worst isn’t such a significant gulf. But when the original in a venerated piece of cinema with appeal that pushes past just genre enthusiasts? Well, it seems increasingly foolhardy to attempt to extend the legacy.

And yet here we are again, with a new sequel, The Exorcist: Believer, this time from David Gordon Green, who most recently helmed the newest Halloween trilogy. And while those films have had divided reactions, it’s not hard to see why Green, a clear scholar of the horror genre, would make sense if you are going to start up the Exorcist machine again. Unfortunately, like all who have attempted to approach it before him, Green’s attempt to meet the grandeur of its predecessor falls well short of the goal.

This is not to say that Green is without ideas. He pulls out of the original source material a sense of parental dread and centers his entry on this conceit: the anxiety of your children growing distant, unknowable to you as they edge into adolescence, rendering you completely helpless to protect them. There are elements of this in the original, but Green puts it front and center in his interpretation. At least, he does until the final act, which muddles the metaphor and becomes much more text than subtext.

The parent in question is Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a widower and single father who is raising his teenage daughter Angela on his own after his wife died tragically in the Port-au-Prince earthquake. Victor holds onto his daughter with a tight rope, and clings to the memory of his wife. So when he agrees to let her go to her friend Katherine’s house to study, and both girls go missing, his worst fears come true.

What follows hits very familiar beats: Victor, along with Katherine’s family, engage in a three day search for the girls. Eventually they finally show up miles away with no memory of what happened while they were missing. But both girls seem changed, prone to sudden violent outbursts. Initially skeptical but eager to heal his daughter, Victor is eventually convinced that Angela and Katherine are both possessed by some evil spirit. He seeks out the only person he knows of who has had a similar experience: Ellen Bursytn’s Chris MacNeil, from the original Exorcist.

All of these events are played at a fairly patient pace, which can feel glacial at times. But Odom, and to a certain degree Katherine’s parents as played by Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles, carry the weight of the circumstance convincingly. Parents will recognize the panic and pain they are experiencing, and the sense of both relief and concern when the girls are found in their unsettling state. 
The issue with Green’s take on the material isn’t necessarily that it is slow; the original Exorcist can require patience at times as well.

The biggest issues are in the details and eventual execution. Green’s script, worked on with his usual collaborators, asks for an expansive cast, especially as the movie transitions into its final act where the actual exorcism commences. But other than Victor, and to a lesser extent Ann Dowd’s turn as a concerned nurse, most of the characters are loose sketches, none are given enough space to have a sense of interiority or an existence outside of their most basic plot functions. There is a significant attempt to make us care about the characters who are pulled together by circumstances, but we only get to know most of them on the most cursory level.

Perhaps more embarrassing, the film shifts in its final act to make a larger statement about religion. But the depictions of various religious ceremonies throughout are confused, blending aspects of various sects of Christianity into a general mish-mash. Katherine’s family is presented as members of a large, unnamed protestant church, but take communion in a style nearly identical to Catholic mass. A throwaway moment depicts charismatic Pentecostals, but never ties their beliefs into the narrative. Most hilariously, Ellen Burstyn’s central premise is that exorcism is not just a Christian phenomenon but appears in religions across the world, across time. But the exorcism presented in the film is rooted firmly, and solely, in Christ-centric doctrine, leading the well-intentioned egalitarianism to feel hollow.

“Hollow” in general is a good description for Believer, as it runs through the motions of Satanic panic nightmare, but never really adds anything to platter, but rather revisions on the genre. Perhaps that is an unfair expectation, but that is precisely the pedigree you are putting upon yourself when you try to make a film that is a direct sequel to The Exorcist. It is hard to see the benefit Green and company have to connect themselves to that legacy, other than the potential financial boom. And without getting into spoilers, but the film’s final act tidies up what few loose ends there are. The fact this is the first in a promised trilogy doesn’t suggest itself from the contents of the film itself.

The end result reminds of a cover band, perhaps one with more reverence for the source material than others. But the end result is always going to feel like an imitation, gesturing towards the source material with admiration. The details still shine through though, and the imitation is never going to have the verve of the original, no matter how many times you let people take a crack at it. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

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