“What do you think evil is?”
The Exorcist as a film series has always been something of an anomaly. It’s produced five movies that (with perhaps the obvious exception of the last two) bear such distinct tones and styles, that it’s hard to believe that they share the same ancestry. Everyone knows the storied history of the series, its supposed curses, the shaky validity of the third movie as an actual Exorcist movie, and the notorious production chaos that led to two installments being released in the mid-00s. All of this has resulted in a series that never had any other choice but to emerge as one of the most transformative in all of movie history. Hoping to add to the legacy is The Exorcist: Believer, Blumhouse and director David Gordon Green’s new direct sequel to the original, which is a lousy slog of a film that tries in vain to add its unique spin on what remains the most famous tale of demonic possession the movies have ever seen.
Leslie Odom Jr. leads The Exorcist: Believer as Victor, a widower whose wife died tragically thirteen years earlier, leaving him to raise their daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) on his own. One day after school, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) wander into the woods nearby only to disappear, causing a city-wide search. Three days later, the two girls are found and quickly begin acting in strange ways, eventually leading everyone to believe they’re been possessed by dark forces. Not knowing where to turn, a skeptical Victor takes the advice of neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) and tracks down former actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who shares her own experience with demonic possession.
There’s very little in life quite as laborious as watching a movie, any movie, grasp for straws throughout the majority of its runtime. The Exorcist: Believer does this, really from its opening scene. After shamefully revisiting a real-life tragedy and using it as the movie’s setup, Green and Company quickly realize that they’ve got nowhere new or worthwhile to go. For most of the time, the film relies on jump scares of the cheesiest and most obvious kind, a true sign of trouble for any horror movie. Ordinary household sounds that have been amped up and characters jumping before the scare is even finished seem to be what The Exorcist: Believer finds scary. Most of the jumps are used as a sealant for the film’s patchy script, with huge sections feeling like they were lifted from the Blumhouse discard pile. If the filmmakers don’t offer anything fresh, they do an even more abysmal job with the past. The insertion of Chris McNeil into the story doesn’t just feel forced, it’s almost underhanded with obvious hopes that the character’s return will help disguise the fact that the movie is so clearly biding its time. By the time the thrill-free final act takes place, all patience has been exhausted and even the movie’s hat trick, though admittedly somewhat bold, feels like a conclusion we wish would happen much faster than it does.
The irony of it all is that the kinds of themes that are at play here do seem like natural fits for an Exorcist movie. There are genuine attempts made to comment on guilt when it comes to our children, the duty that feels necessary because of the past, and the way all of it impacts the love shared between parent and child. The depths of atonement which some people find themselves living with as a result of grave choices made are seen in both Victor and Ann with each character being graciously given their own moments to explore them. There’s also a very sloppy take on religion that was meant to touch on the universality of faith and belief in the purest of forms but is mishandled so much those scenes almost feel like bad improv from the group of stranded actors instead of thoughtful insight. These are valid themes, all of them. And in a better Exorcist movie, it’s easy to see them flourishing. Yet the fact that some of the more genuine elements only get partially drowned out by the bargain basement scares and Green’s empty attempts at atmosphere is the only real miracle here.
There are no real people in The Exorcist: Believer. There are barely even characters in The Exorcist: Believer. Most of the cast play their roles for the clichés that they are until the script dictates that they become an altogether different cliché. Odom makes for a capable lead, but his sometimes soulful performance is hampered by the shoddy script. The same is said for Dowd, who in the process of giving it her all proves to be another textbook case of a skilled actress that deserves better. Even the great Burstyn, who has the most established character out of everyone, seems stuck as she returns to one of the most memorable roles of her storied career. The actress naturally gives a committed performance, but the movie has done little-to-no work on Chris, and Burstyn’s legendary talent can only do so much.
During The Exorcist: Believer I kept on thinking about other far better Blumhouse titles I wish I were watching, like the little-seen The Town that Dreaded Sundown and especially 2018’s Halloween, also directed by Green. Even only five years after the latter film’s release, it’s still hard to describe just how much of an influence Green’s revolutionary interpretation was. So why was that same magic absent from his take on The Exorcist? The answer is probably in both his and Blumhouse’s overall underestimation of the property. Unlike the original Halloween, 1973’s Exorcist is not a beloved movie, but rather an iconic film that, although greatly respected, just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of sprawling lore and fandom that made Green’s previous present-day Halloween entries so popular. But with a sequel underway, Green’s faith in another successful reimagined trilogy seems steadfast. Personally, I have my doubts.