The Exorcist: Believer

The Exorcist: Believer

2023, R, 111 min. Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Leslie Odom Jr., Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Ann Dowd, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Nettles.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 6, 2023

David Gordon Green is definitely more than just a safe pair of hands to handle a well-known IP: The writer and director of Joe and Prince Avalanche is a filmmaker with ideas, and in his new era as a horror director he has shown an urge to explore the wildest reaches of the conceit behind the franchise he has been gifted. However, The Exorcist: Believer is proof that not all ideas are good.

Take his revisionist Halloween trilogy, in which he echoed the ups and downs of the first three movies of The Exorcist saga: a thrilling and well-regarded first film, followed by a thematically ambitious sequel that left audiences befuddled and annoyed, and a third part that stands as a wildly divisive experiment that has slowly developed a loyal fan base. That said, it's hard to imagine that the lumpy Halloween Ends will ever garner the belated acclaim of The Exorcist III.

Now he turns to another iconic horror franchise with The Exorcist: Believer. It's the first of his planned trilogy, and the sixth film in the franchise after the baffling dueling prequels of Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. However, unlike his Halloween films, which took until part three to get weird, here Green makes a bizarre choice from the start. While it's a narrative sequel to William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's genre-defining 1973 masterpiece, it is a thematic heir to the widely reviled The Exorcist II: The Heretic. Connected brains and global exorcism traditions are back, as two suburban schoolgirls – Angela (Jewett) and her friend Katherine (O’Neill) – disappear for three days and turn up with blistered feet and no excuse for why they skipped so much school. Everyone quickly jumps straight to the presumption that it's clearly a case of dual demonic possession: everyone, that is, except Angela's father, Victor (an absurdly laid-back Odom Jr.), who has his struggles set out to become the titular believer.

Green and co-writer Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray) clearly understand what Friedkin, Blatty, and Exorcist II director John Boorman were aiming for, and how it was all executed. But instead of using that as inspiration, it becomes thinly veiled and inferior imitation. When it's successful, there's no innovation (the stomach-churning makeup effects just serve as a reminder that Dick Smith's work on the original is still unmatched). Yet mostly it just feels derivative. Friedkin's deeply intellectual and coolly menacing approach to religious horror becomes glib ruminations, often delivered through seminary freshman-level monologues that even Ann Dowd can't save. Most of the horror comes from jump scares undercut by gags that feel like postproduction punch-up dialogue: Worse, no character seems to have a real emotional response (one basically shrugs off having their eyes stabbed out). Even Boorman's heavy-handed approach to exorcism beyond papal writ is reduced to an unwittingly hilarious scene with an ex-nun, a Baptist, and a spiritualist all rambling over each other.

Theologically muddled, narratively simplistic, and somehow pulling off a bigger waste of a legacy character than the near-blasphemous return of Sally Hardesty for 2022's ill-fated Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist: Believer proves that double the possessions does not mean double the fun.

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The Exorcist: Believer, David Gordon Green, Leslie Odom Jr., Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Ann Dowd, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Nettles

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