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.
For true believers of the Roman Catholic kind, William Friedkin’s (To Love and Die In L.A., Sorcerer, The French Connection) 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestseller, The Exorcist, was more than just a well-made, terrifying (to some) supernatural thriller. It represented the cinematic manifestation and expression of the millennia-old struggle between good and evil, literally, metaphorically, and of course, metaphysically. For those true believers, The Exorcist doubled as a spiritual guide for the faithful, a how-to manual on how to identify, confront, and overcome evil in the form of demonic possession. The stakes (our souls) couldn’t be higher. The devil and his demonic minions could be anywhere.
For non-religious, diehard horror fans, The Exorcist represented something else entirely: the purest form, the genre-defining template, and Ur-text for the demonic possession thriller. Every possession thriller since has – one way or another – referenced The Exorcist in form, function, and theme. That alone makes every successive entry in what was originally planned as a one-and-done novel and adaptation, a difficult proposition, repeatedly forced to pay homage or fan service to the original film, reminding viewers on the other side of the screen of the superior 1973 film.
The loosely connected series has been most successful, however, when it’s turned from the original template, specifically the second, Blatty-directed sequel, The Exorcist III (based on Blatty’s novel, Legion), shifting the focus from demon-hunting Catholic priests to the semi-agnostic cop character and a demon-possessed serial killer. The Exorcist III memorably featured one of the most effective jump scares ever put on screen. Even there, as an ongoing series, The Exorcist felt like it had reached a natural, conclusive end.
Where studio-owned IP is concerned, though, nothing ever truly ends. Not even one box-office failure after another or a short-lived TV series already memory-holed convinced studio executives to give the series a rest, temporarily or permanently. That, in turn, leads us directly to The Exorcist: The Believer, the first in a planned trilogy co-written and directed by David Gordon Green, the onetime indie auteur (Prince Avalanche, All The Real Girls, George Washington) turned horror filmmaker (the recent Halloween trilogy/reboot).
Despite presumably best efforts from everyone involved, including a top-to-bottom cast led by Leslie Odom, Jr. as an agnostic trying to save his daughter from demonic possession, who deliver grounded, persuasive performances, a handful of effective scares, and a retooled theme, The Exorcist: Believer never escapes its origins as the product of misplaced faith by studio executives hoping to leverage nostalgia for the original into another low-cost, high-return trilogy.
Opening in Haiti hours before a fatal earthquake strikes the island nation, The Exorcist: Believer centers on Odom’s character, Victor Fielding, a photographer vacationing with his pregnant wife in Haiti. Post-earthquake, Fielding finds himself forced to make a life-or-death decision (his wife or his unborn child) before fast-forwarding to the present where Fielding, a single, overprotective father to a strong-willed, independent-minded thirteen-year-old, Angela (Lidya Jewett). While slightly fraught with tension and conflict, Victor and Angela’s relationship qualifies as relatively strong, nurturing, and loving.
That all changes when Angelia and a middle-school friend, Katherine (Olivia Marcum), disappear after school one day. They’ve ventured into a nearby forest to perform a rite of some kind that will allow Angela to speak to her long-gone mother. Instead, they conjure up something far more dangerous, a demon who possesses both girls. When they’re found three days later, they can’t recall what happened or where they’ve been throughout that time. For Fielding and Katherine’s parents, the girls’ safe, sound, and mostly unharmed return matters more than anything else.
Their relief doesn’t last long as Angela and Katherine begin to exhibit the classic signs of demonic possession, acting out wildly one moment, going catatonic the next before falling into individual and collective fits filled with bodily contortions and obscenities. So far, so painfully familiar except that doubling the number of possessed girls also means doubling the number of exorcisms. A lifelong agnostic, Fielding initially resists the idea of demonic possession (Katherine’s religious conservative parents come to a different conclusion).
Once Fielding crosses over into believer status, OG Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), joins the fray. Now a famous author but estranged from Regan (Linda Blair) for reasons related to Chris’s post-exorcism lifestyle choices, she functions primarily as nostalgia bait and exposition device before unceremoniously exiting the remainder of the film. Chris’s treatment undoubtedly crosses into disappointment, especially as everything that follows her exit slips into rote “time for an exorcism” territory. Families, friends, and various supporting players, including a recalcitrant priest, join the fight for the girls’ souls.
Despite its reliance on the tropes and conventions of the sub-genre, The Exorcist: Believer adds a trace of originality by introducing non-Catholic traditions into the mix, first by introducing a variant strain of Christianity (Baptists) led by a true-believing minister, Don Revans (Raphael Sbarge), later by adding non-Christian religious traditions into the narrative mix, specifically an oncologist turned faith healer, Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), who stops by to offer a different, African-related perspective on demonic possession and exorcism. Much incense is burned, invocations whispered, and water blessed. Eventually, however, The Exorcist: Believer reverts to formula, pitting Christianity against the demon(s) for the souls of the two girls.
With far too many painfully predictable story, action, and thematic beats on hand, The Exorcist: Believer too often feels like a pale imitation of the original, short on character depth and more importantly, surprises of any kind. When the scares come, they come along with the usual yelling and thrashing about by the possessed. There’s minimal conflict or drama, slightly more stakes-wise. Ultimately, it feels like everyone involved is just going through the exorcism-related motions. If you’ve seen, heard, or experienced one exorcism, you’ve seen, heard, and experienced them all.
The Exorcist: Believer opens on Friday, October 6th.